Saturday, October 20, 2018

Servant Leaders Needed

Proper 24B: Mark 10:35-45

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10: 42-44)

After James and John asked to sit on either side of Jesus when Jesus is seated in glory, the other disciples were upset with James and John for trying to assure their own status. Knowing the disciples were quarreling about who would be the greatest among them, Jesus explained that leadership among his followers differed from the leadership model they saw around them in the secular world, the world of the Gentiles. In a world dominated by the Roman Empire, rulers were tyrants who lorded it over others. This is reversed in Jesus’s vision of the beloved community of his followers: the greatest among them, the leaders, are there to serve the others, not to be served. A leader in God’s kingdom is primarily concerned with the welfare of others.

This is a timely Gospel text here in the United States. We are seeing in our nation today what happens when the well-being of the many is sacrificed to the pursuit of wealth and status for the few. We are seeing the middle class shrink while the wealthiest among us make decisions for their own benefit with little regard for the rest of us. Many of those in power don’t even pretend to care about the well-being of others, appealing to ideas more in line with Ayn Rand than with Jesus of Nazareth.

When leaders look only to their own short-term interest instead of the long-term interests of the majority, environmental degradation is one of the results. With regard to climate change, for example, the stakes are high. The World Resources Institute has produced a chart showing the difference half a degree of warming makes in a variety of areas that impact our quality of life and our economic well-being. I recommend taking a look at this, as it gives an accessible summary to help us better understand why climate change is such an urgent issue and why governments need to prioritize large-scale action to mitigate climate change.

In the United States, money from the fossil fuel lobby has heavily influenced those holding elective office, discouraging them from taking effective action against global warming. Officials have looked at their own short-term gain instead of the welfare of their nation. Instead of being servants of those who have elected them, they have effectively lorded it over us by lining their own pockets. To me, it’s especially offensive that many of those who fail to act as servant leaders self-identify as Christians, often emphatically so. Jesus is clear that supporting tyrants and pursuing our own status while ignoring the needs of those we should be serving is not compatible with Christian discipleship. This week's Gospel lesson is clear about the way for Christians to exercise leadership, and the science tells us we can't continue with business as usual. Our lives and the stability of everything that supports us and other living things are at stake.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

IPCC report: Seeing our neighbors and following Jesus

This past week the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on global climate change. While not surprising for people who have paid attention to previous reports from the IPCC, this report brought with it a much more dire look at our future that has made more people pay attention to the report and understand the urgent need for big changes in the ways we produce and use energy. The prognosis is grim even if we do our best, but our future with dramatic and large-scale changes that mitigate the amount of global warming is a much better future than what we face if we continue with business as usual. According to the report, we have about ten years to turn things around.

This week we also watched Hurricane Michael rapidly grow in intensity over abnormally warm water and bring terrible destruction to the Florida panhandle before continuing into the Carolinas and Virginia with more destructive winds and heavy rains. In case we lacked the imagination to understand the sorts of consequences we face if we fail to mitigate global warming, we had an immediate example with Hurricane Michael. 

In the Church, our Gospel lesson today was the story of the rich man asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10: 17-31) This man had scrupulously observed the religious law. He had done everything just right to ensure both spiritual and financial well-being. However, he evidently sensed that something was missing, and so he sought out Jesus and humbly asked him if there was something else he needed to do. Jesus told him he lacked one thing. Jesus told this man who was so focused on his own welfare that he needed to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus. Instead of being preoccupied with his own welfare and comfort, he needed to see and serve his neighbors and then follow Jesus. 

In preaching at Church of the Resurrection in Omaha today, I mentioned the IPCC report and talked about the extraordinary times we are living in, suggesting that this story from Mark’s Gospel can help us figure out what to do in the 21st century just as it spoke to the people of Jesus’s time. The contrast between the culture in which we live and the kingdom of God is at least as glaring for us as it was for the people in Jesus’s time. 

The point isn’t that all of us need to sell everything we have, but that we need to put our focus elsewhere. Jesus calls us to look up and out from our own lives so we can see our neighbors and the needs of others, and Jesus calls us to follow him. In today’s world, seeing our neighbors near and far will make it readily apparent that we can’t go on living the way we are living, that we all will have to support changes in business as usual in order for more of us to make it through this century with enough of the basics like food, water, shelter, and basic infrastructure to live good lives.  

We don’t know where Jesus will lead us in the years to come as our culture either changes and adapts or falls apart, but we do know that there are many, many people in the Church who are studying Scripture and listening in prayer and speaking with our wisest teachers and trying to figure out together what it looks like to follow Jesus in these challenging times.

We live in a consumer culture that isn’t working well for us either spiritually or materially. The planet simply cannot sustain the drive to economic growth dependent on us buying more and more stuff, and our souls suffer as well until we ground our priorities in Jesus’s teachings rather than the teachings of our consumer culture. The culture tells us that money can buy happiness — or at least numbness to the pain — while Jesus tells us that the happiness of material success is nothing compared to the joy of following him and giving to others.

While I know some other preachers today talked about the IPCC report and the climate crisis, I also suspect that it went unmentioned in more pulpits. If we are following Jesus and focused on our neighbors near and far, we have to pay attention to these global changes and the effects they are having and will continue to have on people. 

Mark writes that when Jesus told the rich man what he needed to do, the man went away grieving “for he had many possessions”. As a parishioner pointed out today, we don’t know if he went away sad and then kept living as he had lived, or if he went away sad about the big change in his life he was about to make.

If we look away from the climate crisis and fail to advocate for the systemic changes needed to create a more livable world for all of us, we will be like the rich man in the parable if he chose his old way of life over eternal life. If, though, we acknowledge how hard the task ahead is but then go ahead and work at doing it, we will assure our own joy in following Jesus starting now and help assure a greater chance at a sustainable life for all living things on our planet in the future.

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Click here to contribute to Episcopal Relief and Development’s Hurricane Relief Fund.

Click here to read the IPCC’s panel Summary for Policy Makers of last week’s report about the impacts of global warming above 1.5 degrees C.