Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

Mark 10:35-45

Jesus must have cringed whenever he heard someone say, “Teacher.” There was always a bad question on the way, especially when Jesus had just talked about his impending death and resurrection. That idea just seems to bring out something lousy in the disciples. James and John want to be great, the second and third in command when Jesus rises in glory, and Jesus tells them how to do it. First, they have to go through his trial – to “drink the cup” of suffering and rejection we remember in the Lord’s Supper, and to “be baptized” into the death he faces, just as we think of Baptism as death and rebirth – and only then can they share in his resurrection.

Second, they must be servants and slaves of all, just as Jesus gave up his status to come among us as a servant. There’s a profound theology in this, the kind of idea you could build a great church tradition around, and that’s exactly what we did. Jesus’ statement gets at something we (and many others) have made part of our church structure. He gets at what real leadership means in a sinful world where humans take power over each other and use it for their own purposes. The leadership God wants is different. It’s based on service to each other, because that’s how Christ came into the world. It’s how the sinful world is remade.

It’s a little troublesome to talk about sin. That’s a part of our heritage that many people dislike, that maybe we’ve been too focused on human sinfulness. But Jesus was talking about sin. He identifies it in how people in authority set themselves above others, so they can control other people. He sees this tendency at work in the disciples, just as it has been at work in all of us, and he rejects that selfish model of leadership. He offers a new way to be great. He turns leadership on its head, inviting us to give up our desires for power and status, to become servants.

We built this idea into our way of being the church, in a way that Jesus might have been proud of. We call on our leaders to serve first. Our church system doesn’t trust leaders with too much authority, and we put as many people in charge as we can. First Presbyterian Church in Virginia, one of our predecessor congregations, had 29 committees in 1917! This reminds me of the other version of our light-bulb joke: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?

300. 12 to sit on the Board which appoints the Nominating and Personnel Committee. 5 will sit on the Nominating and Personnel Committee, which appoints the Property Committee. 8 will sit on the Property Committee, which appoints the Light Bulb changing committee. 4 to sit on the Light Bulb Changing Committee, which chooses who will screw in the Light Bulb–those 4 then give their own opinion of “screwing in methods” while the one actually does the installation. After completion it takes 100 individuals to complain about the method of installation and another 177 to debate the ecological impact of using the light bulb at all. (thanks to North Decatur Presbyterian Church)

Our system is designed to keep any one of us from doing too much, to remind us that we depend on each other. We can lead only as we serve. It was important to John Calvin, John Knox, and John Witherspoon to resist letting clergy (like me) make all the rules. It’s important to most of us to affirm and value people’s insights, ideas, and needs. We know that to lead a group is to serve its members.

Our church structure is a particular Scottish/Calvinist approach to undermining the authority of “the one in charge,” but here – especially today on Heritage Sunday – there are many traditions represented (most with unique Iron Range surnames), and most of them include their own ways of keeping big-shots in line. There’s something about living together, in a place where 50 degrees in October feels balmy, that reminds us that we depend on each other. Because we depend on each other, we find great value in having our leaders know they depend on us too.

This is the same kind of value we find in our relationship with the rest of the world. We know we depend on it all, human and non-human. Nature itself keeps the human species’ authority in line – we’re “in charge” of ecosystems and resources, but we depend on them. We must learn from them how best to live, and this awareness helps us lead rather than exploiting the world until it gives out on us. This respect for and interest in the natural world is a deep, quiet current in our heritage. God made the natural world too, and it’s best to learn about it. Calvin and Knox were radicals about universal education, and we have only rarely had trouble with science. More recently, this congregation has read nature especially well. Many of us find God as clearly in nature as in scripture, as if they are two pages of the same book.

That’s the truth, that we study nature because God is there, not because we want to avoid using nature poorly only to have it give out on us. The second part true too, just as it’s true that leaders who forget to serve will get their comeuppance from their followers. But the real point is that we know the world because God is in it. We serve the people we lead because service brings us closer to God in the flesh. Jesus came to us as a servant, so our highest way of being is at the bottom of the ladder with Christ. The greatest among us serve.

Like every church, we have to learn this time and again. We don’t always trust the path of service to lead to greatness, but we always find that it does. From the beginning, we’ve taught, we’ve opened our arms to those outside our community, and we’ve made room for the least among us at Christ’s table. We’ve lived by the simple story that God came from greatness to be among us, and so our greatness is with God. Our greatness is with God who lives as a servant, who invites us to serve each other, supported by God’s love in the church.