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Sermon: Servant Leadership & Melchizedek

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on October 18, 2015.

21st Sunday after Pentecost: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

       Before seminary and ordination, I spent well over twenty-five years as a happy layperson in the church, trying on different roles and ministries as my parish had available.  I served on vestry or as a warden, worked on the Altar Guild or served as Christmas and Easter president, sang in the choir or served at the Altar, made pastoral calls or Eucharistic visits.  There was great learning all along the way.  I now realize that that laboratory of ministry helped prepared me for different roles of service, where I could try things on and work stuff out.  Sometimes it was good; at other times, it could have gone better.

One particularly challenging role was being a mentor to younger members of the parish.  Whether it was Sunday School, youth group, or special events like church lock-ins, weekend retreats, or pilgrimages, the expectation of what we were trying to accomplish frequently challenged what the 'yutes' wanted to do.  "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."  It was Service Project night, but they really wanted to play Lazar Tag.  We expected them to plan a mission trip, but they wanted to organize a ski trip.  We wanted them in bed by 11:30 p.m. while on pilgrimage, but they were curious about the party down the hall at the hostel.  (Even those of us who are not parents get refined in the fire) This crucible is where I truly learned what it means to be a servant and a slave to many.

Today, Mark’s Gospel opens on the way to Jerusalem, with disciples obsessing over who’s Number One, asking Jesus to grant them seats of honor in heaven.  This prompts our Lord to say something about God’s take on matters of importance and power.  Here Jesus makes it plain that the reversal of values in God’s community is a direct challenge to the values of the dominant culture, where wielding power over others is what makes you great.  Yet Jesus responds by announcing that he and his followers will “rule” through self-giving service.

Repeatedly in Mark, and especially in The Fourth Gospel according to John on the day of his death, Jesus is described as a servant who wills that all his followers will join him in a life of service.  Perhaps not always, but certainly in our culture, being a servant is not always seen as an attractive role.  We really don’t like that term servant, and we are repelled by the word slave,but we use it instead of terms like "the help."

Those sons of Zebedee, James and John, look for places of honor while Jesus is calling them into servanthood.  They do not understand what he is asking.  In the 1970s, Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the modern Servant leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, introduced this concept to the business world.  Much of what he said was surprisingly similar to what Jesus says about Christian leadership.  "The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or  to acquire material possessions ...” (Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness [Paulist Press, 1977], p. 27).  Starbucks is an example of a business that, at least on paper, puts this concept into practice as explained in It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks [by Howard Behar and Janet Goldstein (Penguin, 2007)].  These examples show that Jesus’ teachings can have real-life applications and are not just ideals.

Servant leaders are also depicted in popular culture, including ... and you may have think about some of these ... Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Batman, and Supergirl.  Each exemplifies leadership for the sake of others.  Think about some contemporary examples of real life servant leaders in the world; certainly include Pope Francis in that.  We have plenty of servant leaders in this parish, too many to innumerate (for fear I'll miss someone). 

As commendable as business or secular servant leadership models are, there's something different at stake when we consider Christian servant leadership.  This type of leaderships earns no success or profit, but rather, leads us to the foot of the cross at Calvary.  Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, discussing servant leadership said, “Always the great leader will show how he is or she is a leader for the sake of those led by suffering.”  The shining example of the Episcopal Church's servant leader model is the Young Adult Service Corps (YASC), which reveals a yearning for meaning and purpose beyond the ambitions of power expressed to our Lord by James and John. (Kate Snow of our congregation works for YASC in Costa Rica, and is my newest friend on Facebook)

Moving now to today's epistle from Hebrews, Jesus is presented through imagery from scripture and from Jewish worship practices as the great high priest who was obedient to God’s saving plan.  Through his suffering and death he has become the source of eternal salvation.

This reading is one ordinarily selected for The Ordination of a Bishop [BCP 515] in our Church.  In it, we hear, "You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek."  So I wonder how many of you are familiar with that name.  If you're not, don't fret.  But if you are, good on you!  Because Melchizedek is mentioned only three times in the Old Testament: first as “priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:17,18) and in Psalm 110:4 “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

Melchizedek first appears bringing bread and wine to welcome then-Abram (not yet Abraham) back from his victory over the four kings who had captured his nephew, Lot.  Abram, in return, gives Melchizedek (this dignitary of pre-Israelite Canaan) a tenth of the bounty he has won in battle.  In the Book of Psalms, Melchizedek is named as the representative priest in whose succession the Davidic king is ordained.

As a side note, we have started our Stewardship campaign for annual giving to the mission and ministry of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill.  So I must point that the tenth of the bounty given back by Abram is not a tithe.  Rather, it is a free will offering.  Abram was never taught or instructed by God to give a tenth of his harvest; the law of tithing came later.  But as we observe this law now, I encourage each of us to prayerfully consider our giving to the church as thanks for God's many blessings.

Now in the New Testament, Melchizedek is mentioned multiple times, all in this same Letter to the Hebrews; he represents the "sacral" (relating to sacred rites or symbols) King whose royal holiness transcends all human orders, which is a foreshadowing the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Melchizedek was not only King of the city of Salem, but he was also priest to the Most High God.

In Hebrew, Melek means "king," zedek is "righteousness," and Salem means "peace."  So we might project forward that the “Righteous King of Peace” as an allusion to Jesus Christ; an intermediary between a holy God and a sinful people – the ‘go-between’ who represented each to the other.

The Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers maintain that Aaron, the older brother of Moses, received from God a monopoly over the priesthood for himself and his male descendants.  The family of Aaron had the exclusive right and responsibility to make offerings on the Altar to the God of Israel.  Effectively with Aaron, king and priest were separated.

But now in Jesus Christ, the two entities, both King and Priest, are again united in the one Person of the Son who is Prophet, Priest and King.  The advent of the Messiah is God’s initiative, not man’s.

In Jesus Christ, we have a great high priest who fulfills all the statutory requirements, and far more, because he has no need to atone for his own sins.  Jesus is the perfect high priest appointed by God as mediator for all time.  And Jesus is ALSO the original servant leader - talk about wearing a lot of hats!

So for twenty-five plus years, I was being molded and formed as a layperson to become a new and different servant leader in the world and for the Church.  And now as a priest, as one of your priests, ordained forever according to the order of Melchizedek, I have been called to new work as a servant leader, focusing on the mission, and ministry of this parish and the wider Church.

I still serve with a vestry and the wardens of this parish.  I work with the Altar Guild and our Vestry Worship Steward.  I sing praises to God along with our choirs and I now preside and celebrate at God's Altar here at Immanuel.  I still make pastoral calls and Eucharistic visits, being able to fully minister the pastoral offices in our Book of Common Prayer.  And Yes, I still hang out with kids, whenever I can.  There is great learning in all of this all along the Way.  This new laboratory of ministry, preaching, teaching, and caring is still preparing me for different roles of service, for God is not anymore done with me than God is finished with you.  I continue to try things on and work stuff out.  Sometimes it is good; at other times, it could always be better.

Meister Eckhart said, "No one ever gave so much of himself away that he did not have more to give."

Jesus Christ, our great high priest and Lord and Savior of us all said, "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Amen.