Servant Leadership: What do you do when you discover you’re the most powerful person in the room?

What do you do when you discover you are the most powerful person in the room?

It may seem an odd question to ask on a Sunday morning, but hearing this lesson about the Sons of Zebedee, this question comes to mind for me. The question is attached to a story I will tell you in a moment. What do you do when you discover you’re the most powerful person in the room?

Out of everyone in the Bible, I think John and James are my kinda guys. In another chapter of Mark’s Gospel we learn that Jesus gave them the nickname “The sons of thunder.” That’s a really cool nickname. That’s the kind of nickname you get tattooed on your bicep: “sons of thunder.” You get the sense these two were what we might call extroverts. They talked first and thought second. John and James, they stumble into all sorts of discussions with Jesus, like bulls in a China shop.

Perhaps no discussion is quite as awkwardly entered as this one: “Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask.” Not that’s a bit bold. I think it helps to remember that these guys were probably teenagers. Rob Bell, a former pastor who now helps Oprah run her spirituality department, explained that these sons of Zebedee were probably young rejects from rabbinical school. In the days of Jesus, it was the dream of many parents that their sons would become learned rabbis. Fathers often took their teenage sons around to several teachers, the way today parents take their kids to visit colleges. In Matthew’s Gospel, just before Jesus calls Zebedee’s boys, they’d given up. They’re back with their dad, getting the nets ready for fishing.

But Jesus calls them, and IMMEDIATELY, they leave their father and follow him. Listen to what Rob Bell writes:

Where’s the part about Zebedee…standing on the dock waving his fist as his boys leave him stranded with a struggling family business? There is no such part. It was an honor to have your sons leave to follow a Rabbi.

So these ambitious boys found themselves in Jesus’ group of students. They are studying at the feet of a rabbi, and they’re teenagers, which may explain their brazen request “Do whatever we ask.” It may also explain their immediate reply when Jesus asks: “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” They respond instantly. “Yes!” they exclaim. Jesus tells them, you don’t know what you’re asking.

John Calvin  wrote that this story contains a “bright mirror of human vanity” because “it shows that proper and holy zeal is often accompanied by ambition, or some other vice of the flesh, so that they who follow Christ have a different object in view from what they ought to have.” How often do we “have a different object in view?” I’m not much of a Calvinist, but I sure think he has a great description here for “sin:” to have a different object in view. All the old sins we know, they can be described this way. All the old sins, greed (whether greed with our money or our time), lust (whether lust for power or that more basic kind), ambition (like the Thunder boys), this idea of “hav[ing] another object in view” helps describe how we often miss the boat with Jesus.

In the case of James and John, they miss the boat with their simple ambition. Jesus has in view this idea of the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God. Jesus was always preaching about the Reign of God, he’s preaching about the coming Kingdom where the poor shall be fed, the excluded included, the sick made healthy, the partial made whole. Jesus is pretty focused, really, he has one particular idea in view. “Seek first the Kingdom of God” he often says. James and John are seeking the Kingdom of James and John. They’ve probably been imagining what that Kingdom could look like. Those walks on the road with Jesus were long, you could let your imagination run wild.

You don’t get it, Jesus thinks. So he leads them in an exercise, like a master teacher: “You know how it is with the Gentiles.” Their leaders treat them like dirt. (I’m paraphrasing here.) Jesus is raising their ire. Like any other good Jews in Israel, the Zebedee boys were not fans of Roman rule. “Their leaders lord it over them. Their great ones are tyrants.” James and John are nodding: Yes, yes, that’s those Romans. Then, Jesus shows restraint. He doesn’t say, “and, guys, that’s what you’re asking from me.” He doesn’t rub their nose in it.

Jesus says simply: “it is not so among you.” He describes the reality that he’s hoping to see from them, as if they’re already there. He goes on “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Here’s the rabbi doing his teaching. Jesus wasn’t the Harvard, or Yale, or even the Washington University of the Hebrew World. He was teaching a totally different way of operating, the way of servant leadership.

This way of servant leadership, the way of Jesus, sees differently. Where the world sees hiearchy, Jesus’ way sees equality. That vision makes Jesus’ way so radical. Servant leadership is liberating, it frees us from playing the games of one-up-manship. In the eyes of Jesus, it doesn’t matter if you’re the boss or the worker. With Kingdom vision, you don’t see rich and poor. With Kingdom vision you don’t see strong and weak. With kingdom vision you don’t see exalted and lowly. With kingdom vision we each see the value in one another.

India is a very traditionally stratified society. The caste system tells you where you are on the pyramid, and Christianity is the most popular among the lowest classes. Theologians tell us it is because Christ says to the Dalit, the untouchables: you are just as valueable as a leader. That’s the radical vision of servant leadership. It means that those who society refuses to value, they are lifted up. And servant leadership teaches those of us who would think we are mighty, we’re no better than the people among whom we serve.

I’ll tell you, this way of servant leadership it’s a way that I am still learning. I think I like the Zebedee boys because I identify with them. I can be a bit ambitious. Some of you who know me well have a knowing smile. I do, I struggle sometimes with ambition. So the “sons of thunder,” I know their card.

When I was fresh out of seminary, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I landed a job at St. John’s Lafayette Square, a BIG Episcopal Church, right by the White House. I won’t lie, I grooved on the idea that so many Washington figures came to church there. The president came to our church, that was a big deal. But at the time I was probably more proud of how big we were as a church. I mean, we were a big church, a couple thousand members 500-600 people on an average Sunday, 1600 on Easter, it was a big place. I thought I had made it.

One of the learning moments that I will always associate “servant leadership” happened to me at St. John’s. On the morning of almost every inauguration, the President and his family and friends (only the 400 or so closest family and friends) come to St. John’s for a prayer service before they make their way up to the Capitol for the ceremony. This happens every four years with just a few exceptions: The Kennedy’s went to the Catholic Cathedral, and for one inauguration the Clintons went to a historic black church, but except for those exceptions, the president comes to St. John’s. My last year at St. John’s, I got to help out with one of these services.

The whole block around the church was on lock down for the inauguration, and we had to wake up in the early morning to walk through the freezing January streets to get down to St. John’s. When we finally made it up to our offices, and the other Assistant Rector and I were helping a gaggle of religious officials invited by the administration to find their programs and put on their outfits. And in walks this gawky pastor from Georgia. He’s walking around, trying to be nice to everybody. He’s trying to chat with secret servant agents who look really unhappy, stern-faced even, that this guy is trying to talk with them. He looks a little lost. So I’m nice to him, and I help him find his seat, but I’m thinking: man, “who is THIS guy? It’s a good thing that I, the assistant rector of this BIG fancy Washington church am here to help this lost bumpkin.”

It turned out his name was Andy Stanley, and he was our preacher. After the service got under way, he made his way to the pulpit, and he asked the question I used to begin my sermon this morning. He looked out over the crowd, a congregation that included the President, the Vice-President, most of the President’s cabinet, even Oprah was there. He asked them: “What do you do when you discover you are the most powerful person in the room?” You could hear a pin drop.

I could tell, a lot of them were trying to decide who the most powerful person in the room was. I knew the answer was, “not Mike Angell.” Andy Stanley went on to preach a beautiful sermon about servant leadership, and the kind of humility it takes to decide not to lord leadership over those you lead, to get down from your high horse and serve. He took for his text the story from John’s Gospel of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. For followers of Jesus, Andy Stanley said, when you discover you are the most powerful person in the room, you figure out how to serve those who are less powerful.

After the service, I Googled Andy Stanley, that guy I thought was a bit of a bumpkin. Turns out he leads the largest church in Atlanta. 44,000 people come to his congregation on a Sunday on one of six campuses. I thought I worked at a big church. I had misunderestimated Andy Stanley (to use a term from another president). He wasn’t a simple guy from Georgia. He was a humble guy, and a talented preacher. In a room full of puffed up Washingtonians, in a room full of powerful powerful people, Andy Stanley found a way to ask a question about the nature of power, a question I suspect he has worked through himself. That morning, more from how he interacted with others, than by the words he preached, I saw a pastor who had something to teach me about servant leadership.

In the Midrash, the teachings of the rabbis on scripture, there is a blessing that goes like this: “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.” Rabbis were animated preachers. They would pound the pavement as they paced around and taught. Except there wasn’t any pavement, so they’d be kicking up quite a cloud of dust as they preached. “Be[ing] covered in the dust of your rabbi” meant that you were listening closely, following closely. What a great image for followers of Jesus, we who are invited to humility. Humility’s latin root means “of the earth.” We’re invited to be dusty, covered with the same kind of teaching.

What do you do when you discover you’re the most powerful person in the room? Do you get excited about it? Do you dream great dreams about the kind of committee you can build, or the kind of office culture you could inspire? Do you dream of the great church you will lead? (I do) Do you let your imagination run? Or do you look around for someone to serve? Do you find someone less powerful, and figure out how to serve them?

What do you do when you discover you’re the most powerful person in the room? A good question for those who want to be covered in the dust of the servant leader. Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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