Princeton University Religious Life

Success

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
September 23, 2012
Psalm 1 and Mark 9:30-37

“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” is a popular poem by Robert Fulghum - “Share everything.  Play fair.  Don’t hit people,” it reads.  “Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody…Live a balanced life.  Learn some and think some,” it continues.  This isn’t biblical literature of course, but if it did have a biblical counterpart it might well be our passage from the Gospel of Mark.  In it, Jesus stops the bickering of his ambitious disciples by placing a small child in the middle of them, then he holds the little guy and tells the men to be just like him, and he tells them that he, Jesus, is entirely identified with little children.  Any disciple who welcomes, loves, serves a small child is doing the same thing to him and even to God.  

Here’s where any similarity to the “Kindergarten” poem ends - the poem is wise and sweet; Jesus’ comment is wise and shocking.  The disciples heard him loud and clear - if you want success, if you want to be a leader, you need to embrace your naiveté, serve other people hand and foot, live your life in complete solidarity with the lowest-ranking people everywhere, and with the oppressed.  Children, in the time of Jesus, while loved endlessly by their parents, were known to be the most powerless members of society, and Jesus means that, too, in making them an example for his disciples.  We could argue effectively, I think, for the powerlessness and victimhood of children today - trafficked, forced into armies and militias, made to work, and at punishing, dangerous jobs, overrepresented in this country and around the world on the rolls of the hungry, homeless, exploited, vulnerable.  These are the people whom Jesus tells his disciples to identify with - the dominated, the oppressed, the exploited, the powerless.  

That is leadership?  That is success?  It is according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It’s not about how well placed any person is; it’s about what that person does wherever he or she is for the dominated, the oppressed, the exploited.  This past week I looked up quotes on “success” on the Internet and got a blunt reminder of how different is our culture’s view on the subject.  Each quote was a mantra about how to distinguish oneself from the pack, to be higher and more important than others: don’t settle for the ordinary!  Find solutions!  Live out your dream!  Don’t be fettered by attention to others!  Think big!  Be entrepreneurial!  Most of these mantras aren’t negative in and of themselves, but the context was completely one of self-promotion.  Jesus says that success is marked by other-promotion.  He says that Christian leadership isn’t from the front - if possible - but from the center, or from the back.

I hope that people are coming to your mind who have exercised leadership from those locations – the center or the back.  One that occurs to me is Bob Moses, a civil rights leader whose work was crucial to, amongst other projects, the enrolling of so many Black Americans to vote in Mississippi in the early 1960s.  Moses was a visiting scholar at Princeton last spring, and was a guest in a class that I taught.  Voter registration workers got killed, and I think that Moses is incredibly lucky to have survived some very close calls.  In spite of the constant threat of lethal violence Bob Moses continued, mostly from behind the scenes, to train people in nonviolent resistance, potential voter persuasion, and empowerment, empowerment, and more empowerment.  He was an engine, a catalyst, a driver, and if you don’t know his name it’s because he didn’t need the spotlight.  He was - and is - happy for others to receive recognition for work that truly is a shared effort.  True to form, when I asked Mr. Moses to tell our class about his leadership ethic, he spoke of the teachings, the wisdom, the example of others.  I think that if Bob Moses had lived 2,000 years ago Jesus would have held him up as an example to the disciples.  We would be reading in this text from Mark, “Why can’t you be more like Bob Moses?”  I think he’d say, “We’ve been walking for a couple of hours now, you guys up ahead, and all you were doing was bickering about which of you is greatest?  Holding out your shining moments to the others as proof that you’re better than they are?  Bragging about all your fabulous qualities, successes, and future potential?  Get over yourselves, take yourself out of your work, and share the Good News for its own sake, not yours!”

To their credit, the disciples are not bad guys; they’re just very human.  They’re ambitious (nothing wrong with that depending on your goal).  They are driven; they are task-oriented; they are organized; they are productive, faithful and good.  Their parents must be very pleased!  They’re just like us - we work very hard to be intelligent, good, faithful, and successful.  We try to do everything right and to be good enough at it all.  The question for the disciples in Jesus’s time and our own is, “why?”  Why do all those things and be all those things?  Is it to be better than others, or to make good, just, even holy, things happen for others?  Jesus decided that all of us disciples need a new model: servanthood.  Servant.  That’s not what they or we wanted.  I don’t want to wait on other people, clean up after them, make their orders come true.  I would rather like to have servants - people to make life easier for me while I get important work done, all of it a sign that I am an important person myself.  Jesus says that the greatest person is the one who’s last, at the end of the line, serving everyone else.  How many people through the centuries have effectively said, “No thanks.”

Let’s not do that.  Let us be people who say back to Jesus’ invitation, “Yes please.  Please help me learn how to be that kind of person.  Help me to learn how to be a servant leader.”  That’s not an oxymoron!  Servanthood isn’t an invitation to be meek but to be bold.  Servants are proactive in their seeking out of ways to lift up, to empower, to set right.  Setting things right, as Bob Moses knows, can be dangerous work.  In any situation, some people like things the way they are, and they’ll do anything to keep it that way.  Servanthood requires a lot of courage.  Servanthood requires a lot of faith.  I do think faith is the key when one’s servanthood truly does leave them out of the spotlight, unrewarded with the praise or money for critical work done.  It takes faith to keep believing that Jesus said simply, “Feed my sheep,” not “Be known as the best at feeding my sheep.”  It takes faith to persist in servant leadership when people are lauded as “successful” for getting a lot of attention, or who may be well regarded as leaders in any field even while they are mean, underhanded, cruel.  It takes faith to persist in servant-leadership. 

As we begin a new academic year at Princeton, with all of its promise, I hope that the students among us can remember well Jesus’s teaching on servant-leadership.  This institution does a magnificent job, in my opinion, in forming its graduates to lead beautifully in any profession under the sun, and to cultivate those talents here.  Yet I hear from any number of students, especially in the fall, of their discomfort at their peers’ overwhelming desire to identify how they each will distinguish themselves at Princeton, how they can break ahead of the pack, and gain some notice in a field of such capable people.  Jesus’s ethic of servant leadership would say this: Distinguish yourself in being of service to others, in showing compassion, in your solidarity with those who suffer in any way at Princeton, and with the dominated and oppressed everywhere.  Praise God for the talents you have, and use them to God’s glory, not your own.  Never seek to elevate yourself through the discipline you love, but use your gifts to empower others and to make the world a slightly better place.  Don’t let it be about who you are, but what good can come of your efforts, what service to humanity you can render through it.

And to those of us past our student years, all of our honorable professions provide glorious opportunities for servant leadership - opportunities to empower those around us, to rejoice in the successes of others, to lose ourselves in our good work and to perform it for the sake of those who will be uplifted by it.  Servanthood and leadership are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, to the Christian they are the same thing.  A challenge for all servant leaders in the secular world of work is that some colleagues may not want to follow where you will lead - not if it means an erasure of ego and a commitment to the powerless.  But we do it anyway.  We are Christ’s disciples in every moment and every setting.  Christ puts a child in our midst: beautiful, vulnerable, depending on us to be fed, honored, to survive.  Jesus tells disciples of every age to do what we do not for ourselves but for that little kid.  Jesus says, “If you forget me as you are walking and boasting your way along your journey, then try to remember her.  She represents me, and the one who sent me.”

Let me conclude with a quote by John Ruskin; it speaks beautifully to Jesus’s teaching on true success:

“I believe that the first great test of a [person] is [their] humility.  I don’t mean by humility, doubt of [their] power.  But really great [people] have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them.  And they see something divine in every other [person] and are endlessly, foolishly merciful.”

Amen.

 

Bibliography:

Sharon Ringe, “Mark 9:30-37,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.  4, ed.  David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor

Amy Oden, “Mark 9:30-37,” www.workingpreacher.com, 9/23/12

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