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You recognise of course that in a church procession the most senior member of the clergy present is the last to arrive. For example, at Monday’s High Sheriff’s service, Bishop Richard was the last to come up the aisle and at his own consecration service in St Paul’s cathedral, Archbishop Rowan Williams was the last. This refers directly to the well known phrase that we heard in our Gospel reading: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Jesus came as God, as the most powerful, capable of “flinging stars into space” but he came to serve. From the first moments of his ministry he threw himself into teaching, healing and feeding with especial compassion for the weak, the vulnerable, among them women, the poor, the lepers, the possessed, the dying, and in our reading today children. Yet Jesus was a leader, undoubtedly a leader of men and women and of course of the disciples. Jesus was a servant leader which is a paradox all of us need to explore.
I shall ever be grateful to Martin Darby, a colleague based in South Carolina. I was visiting him on business and we were due to have a breakfast meeting (a particularly unpleasant American practice). Anyway I was at the table ahead of him, pondering a stack of pancakes, crispy bacon and maple syrup when he arrived. I started to speak of matters in hand when he said “Never mind about that, let’s talk of important things” and that was when he introduced me to the work of Bishop Bennet J Simms, of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. He had written a book about “Servanthood” exploring the ideas of servant leadership based on the life of Jesus, drawing on examples from all over the world and to be applied to all walks of life.
The world’s most admired leaders: Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela have had this quality; the certain knowledge that they were to serve those they led, to love and to guide them toughly and tenderly. These people did not sit and argue with others about who was the greatest, as did the disciples in our Gospel, nor did they imagine themselves as perfect; Ghandi in particular always regretted his failures as a father to his son. No, they focussed on grace and truth and serving the people.
This is difficult to sustain in our status conscious society; to be a leader, unfazed or tempted by the trappings of office. The media would have you be an iron man or an iron lady, to be always right, to never change your mind, to never admit that you might be wrong and always to lead from the front. Sometimes, those being led want these things too. My friend John for example became the managing director of an important company in Glasgow. After six months the leader of the trade union came to see him to make a complaint, nothing unusual about that he thought, except that the complaint was that John was only driving a Ford.
“You have to have a Jag,” said the man from the shop floor. “All our other managing directors have driven a Jag, people won’t respect you else.”
No Jesus’ world is very different to this one, all around us are examples of leaders who have not embraced this paradox, who wage war on their own people, who abuse their employees and exploit their colleagues, who want to be sitting at the table rather than serving at it and who want to be at the head of all processions.
But in St Margaret’s we are blessed with people who quietly and steadily lead our activities and our committees, who keep our church flourishing in many different unsung ways; people who have understood this paradox and who have the quality of gently serving others. It is good to reflect on this to remember it and to say thank you. So to you all, from me, from the congregation and from those you serve, thank you.