Address given on 26 September 2021
Readings: James 5: 13 – 20 & Mark 9: 38 – 50
One day a florist decided that he needed a haircut, and headed off went to the barber’s nearby.
After the cut, the barber said to the man, ‘I’m not taking any money from you. This week, my first customer of the day gets a free cut. Nothing to pay’
And the florist left the shop looking tidy
and feeling very pleased.
When the barber went to open his shop the next morning, there was a ‘thank you’ card
and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.
Soon, in came the baker ready for a haircut,
and when he tried to pay his bill, the barber again replied, ‘I won’t take your money. This week, my first customer of the day gets a free cut. Nothing to pay’.’
The baker was also a happy man, as left the shop.
The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a ‘thank you’ card
and a dozen doughnuts waiting for him at his door.
A little later, the local Member of Parliament came in for a haircut, and when he went to pay his bill, the barber again replied, ‘I cannot accept your money.
‘This week, my first customer of the day gets a free cut. Nothing to pay’.’ The Member of Parliament was very happy and left the shop with a smile on his face.
And the next morning, when the barber went to open up, – there were a dozen Members of Parliament all fighting to get to the front of the queue.
I have to admit that that story I neither true, not original – I just stumbled across it among one of my old school friends’ musings online, and wondered what it says about our general attitude towards MPs and others in leadership roles today, or positions of power today.
Certainly anyone in public life tends be seen as fair game for the “celebrity treatment” in the press – who can build up and then destroy an individual’s reputation almost in the blink of an eye, and without much fear of redress.
For a society which used to be marked by deference to those in authority, a good deal has changed in the past half century – whether for good or ill you can decide!
In today’s gospel, it’s Jesus’ leadership style that comes under the spotlight.
That opening phrase – “after leaving the mountain” – refers to the transfiguration: some of his closest disciples have just witnessed Jesus transformed in dazzling light, by the power of God. They know without doubt, now,
that he is something out of the ordinary –
and presumably expect him to begin to assert his strength and authority. But what he actually does is start talking about his own impending death.
The disciples just don’t get it –
why is he talking like this, just at the moment when everything seems to be going his way?
And, interestingly, they were “afraid to ask him”.
Was Jesus in fact something of a tyrant –
a temperamental, fiery leader whom you just didn’t ask?
Or were they afraid of upsetting him; or perhaps of just looking stupid, yet again?
And whatever the reason for their reticence in approaching him, it’s also intriguing that Jesus didn’t want anyone else to know that he was there in Galilee.
He wants to teach his disciples without distraction –
the important stuff has to be done away from the glare of publicity: private briefings, and subcommittees are apparently nothing new!
And, perhaps prompted by talk of Jesus’ death,
the disciples then begin arguing over which of them is the greatest – rather like children squabbling over who should be the leader for their next game. And, when Jesus catches them at it, they’re rightly embarrassed.
Maybe those who’d been with him on the mountain, at his transfiguration, felt somehow “chosen”;
perhaps those who’d been closest to him as he performed some of the more dramatic healings felt that they could bathe in his reflected glory;
but Jesus simply reframes the terms of reference:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all
and servant of all”.
Just as his own power will be revealed by offering up his life, so true greatness is seen not in those who cling to power in order to enrich themselves, but those who use what power and influence they have to give life to whoever they can help.
Jesus makes his point by indicating a small child – in those days certainly not regarded as having much status: even the gospel writer refers to the child as “it”, not he or she!
And Jesus, the great teacher, equates himself with this child: “whoever welcomes one such child .. welcomes me”.
If you want to achieve greatness, he seems to say,
pay attention to the those who have no power –
who can’t repay you for any kindness shown.
And if that doesn’t seem to make sense,
well let’s just think a little closer to our own experience.
Most of us who were around in the 1980s and 90s, will probably remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and the things she said and did, more clearly than most of the MPS of the time. Gratitude, and the legacy of lives touched by kindness, apparently last longer than short term power and status.
James also makes a passing reference to leadership, when he urges the faithful to call on the elders of the church
“to pray for and anoint the sick”.
Not a risk assessment or a PCC meeting is sight, notice!
A reminder, perhaps, that our leaders are not meant to be managers – but primarily men and women of prayer and devotion – and if the church structures that we’ve created work against that, then they need to change.
For all of us, James underlines the need to pray,
not just when we are in need of help, but in all things – celebrations included.
Because in doing so we allow our minds to be focussed on what really is important in our lives, and other people’s lives;
we open our minds to notice things we may have overlooked;
and we root all our experiences in the goodness of God.
I’m not sure whether, like Elijah, we’re ever going to gain power to make it rain or not rain –
although the ability to engineer rain by night and sunshine by day is certainly appealing!
What we can hope to learn through prayer
is that true strength comes through knowing
and confessing our own weakness.
It’s in owning that weakness and dependency on God, that we open ourselves to receive power from him.
Perhaps not power to do everything we think we want to do, but power to do what is in our best interests,
and for the building up of those around us.
Perhaps then we ought to pray more often for our leaders:
to pray for leaders who are not self-reliant –
to pray for leaders who are not afraid to make mistakes with the best of intentions and to be honest about them – to pray for leaders who are willing to identify themselves with the most vulnerable in society;
and to pray for leaders who recognise
that bigger and better plans than their own,
are always unfolding in God’s good time.
And perhaps we could ask that those same attributes might be formed in us.