“Servant Leadership” by Marjory Bankson


Gospel Reading: Luke 19: 28-40

…Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”



When I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Palm Sunday meant that the children were handed these odd scratchy palm fronds from a desert climate somewhere south of us, and we were allowed to wave them about to recall Jesus’ “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” I was reminded of that by Brenda’s word for the children today. But when the children left as we sang “Jesus loves me,” I remembered something else from those early days.


I have a friend that I grew up with who lives here now. Some years ago, she called me and asked if I would come over. When I got there, she told me that she’d just received a possible diagnosis of MS…multiple sclerosis. She was devastated. I had no idea what to do, so we just held hands and cried. She’s a Buddhist now, and I respected that. Then she said, “Would you sing ‘Jesus loves me’?” And so I did. Then we cried some more.


When I was growing up, nobody suggested that Palm Sunday might be about a planned nonviolent demonstration — a piece of street theater designed to confront the reigning power structure. But let’s look at the text from Luke:


* Did you notice how premeditated Jesus was about planning his entry into Jerusalem? That he sent two of his disciples into a village with previously arranged code-words needed for the owner to release the colt he would ride?


* Do you think Jesus knew there would be a garrison of Roman soldiers entering the city on the opposite side, directed there to “keep the peace” during Passover? Do you think he cared?


* Was Jesus staying with Mary, Martha and Lazarus near Bethany while the two disciples went to get the colt? Did the raising of Lazarus give them new courage?


* Were the other disciples remembering the words of Zehariah, that the Messiah would come “humble and riding on a donkey.” (Zec 9:9f). In that prophecy, the promised Messiah would restore Judah and Israel — which surely meant release from the tyranny of Rome and the Temple oligarchs.


If the Roman soldiers, armored and massive on their powerful horses, conveyed the military might of the Empire, then Jesus must have looked puny and powerless indeed — except that Luke and the other Gospel writers all record how joyful the crowds around Jesus were. He clearly meant hope for the people who thronged around him!


There were teachers of the Law, Pharisees, who knew the danger ahead. They warned Jesus to keep his followers quiet, but he seemed to ignore the danger ahead: “ “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”


It sounds like a planned confrontation to me.



Last Monday, I was reminded of Jesus’ nonviolent march into Jerusalem when I picked up the Washington Post and saw the picture of Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis, flanked by other determined Congressmen, marching through a phalanx of hecklers to vote on the healthcare bill.


Did you notice the look on John Lewis’ face? It was watchful. Determined. He’d seen hatred like that before, in Little Rock and Montgomery and Nashville, during the Civil Rights Era.


Did  you read the column by Courtland Milloy, who described the grace and restraint exhibited by Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) after someone spit in his face? Or James Clyburn (D-SC), the majority whip, who recognized a familiar sound in the racial epithets being hurled at them. “This is not about healthcare,” he said.


I felt scared for them, and deeply grateful for their courage. I noticed that Nancy Pelosi was the only woman in the picture, and I felt for her vulnerability as well as the power of her position as  Speaker of the House. I was glad for those stalwart black men who marched with her.


That, too, was a planned confrontation.  Another civil rights march.


It was no accident that members of the congressional black caucus were among the strongest supporters of the healthcare bill and were willing to make that long march in public. They were prepared by the hatred they’d faced before.


Violence and nonviolence

Reading the newspaper through the lens of scripture this week got me to thinking about violence and nonviolence… and the formation of servant leaders. Although we live in a land where the rule of law is usually enough, we all know how quickly violence can erupt. We watch it happen every day on television, in the news.


Violence in any form is used to impose uniformity; to eliminate differences. The threat of death is its ultimate weapon and Jesus knew that. So did Martin Luther King Jr. and the other martyrs of the civil right movement in this country. So did John Lewis and James Clyburn and Emmanuel Cleaver..


Nonviolence makes space for the dignity and integrity of each person. But we live in a culture of super stars and cult heroes who do not stand for respect and diversity. Too often (and I don’t need to offer examples here), they see themselves as being above the law and immune from rules of common decency.


Nonviolence is inherently democratic, because each person is valued and respected. That was the good news Jesus embodied for the crowds that surrounded him with palms. Through him, they learned that their lives mattered to God. Jesus had indeed restored sight to the blind, fed those who were hungry and released those who were captives of the violent system. He did indeed fulfill the prophet’s teachings — that their lives would be redeemed and restored..

As we enter Jerusalem with Jesus, the events of Holy Week expose the power of violence AND nonviolence alike. If we are to be followers of Jesus, Seekers must be a place of strengthening our courage and practicing nonviolence.


Forming Servant Leaders

As I pondered the events of this past week, I was reminded of an essay by Parker Palmer titled, “The Politics of the Brokenhearted,” in Mark Nepo’s book, “Deepening the American Dream.” His essay reminded me that majority rule can be a form of violence, because it leaves a disgruntled minority in its wake. That’s one of the reasons why we try to make decisions by consensus among the Stewards here at Seekers. And why we have a Servant Leadership Team (that’s Kate, Brenda and Peter each working part-time) rather than a single leader.


Our pattern of distributed leadership can be confusing to people who want to know who’s in charge, but the pattern of mission group responsibility for various parts of our life together means that every member of those groups, whether they are Stewards or not, takes responsibility for some piece of our common life. The mission groups are consciously about the work of spiritual formation — developing servant leaders.


Parker Palmer writes about the personal disciplines that it takes to stay open-hearted as a nonviolent leader. In his self-deprecating way, Palmer says that his own discipline is mostly falling down and getting up again, and I would say that’s not a bad place to start. But he goes on to describe three things that I think are basic to mission group life here at Seekers.


First, he says, “when my heart breaks, I must be willing to penetrate the illusions about myself that are causing me this pain.” That’s not as easy as it sounds, but a mission group is a perfect place to learn. I’ve noticed that when I get mad or critical of someone else, I’m usually in pain over something that I’m not even aware of. Let me give you a personal example.


This week, the Faith At Work office in Falls Church closed for good. On Thursday, Peter and I met with a few others in the empty space for a final liturgy of release. I brought symbols of the women’s ministry and the magazine, my creative focus for 20 years. But after it was over, I still noticed poison darts flying out of the mouth. Then, on Saturday, I led a Lenten Quiet Day for another church, and I listened for the place where Jesus was saying to me: “Watch with me. Stay awake here, now.”  The words that came were plain and clear: “Get over it. This is not about you. Death is part of my way. And it’s not the end of the story. Now get on with your life.” I thought Jesus could have been a little nicer, but the meaning was clear. I must be willing to penetrate the illusions about myself that are causing me pain.


The second thing that Palmer says about staying open-hearted is “ I must abandon my clever ways of avoiding pain and grieve.” He recommends letting our tears flow as the natural release that children know instinctively, but that adults may have to relearn in a safe place with others who do not try to fix the situation. And I remembered that the verses immediately after those that we read about Jesus entering Jerusalem record the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept — for his beloved city and the suffering he could foresee. When tears arise in a mission group meeting, I know we’re on sacred ground. We must abandon our clever ways of avoiding pain and grieve.


Third, Palmer asks us to make space in and around ourselves for something new to emerge. That takes attention and intention. Instead of filling the space with quick answers and facile judgments, we need to wait and listen for the “still small voice of God.” Instead of imagining that we have the right answers for other people’s pain, he cautions that the best response to suffering can only come from the one who suffers. It’s what happened for me when I sat with my friend and she finally asked me to sing “Jesus loves me.”


Making space for something new to emerge takes many different forms.

1) I thought of all the places where Seekers work, either paid or as volunteers. We may not be pictured on the front page of the Post, but we put ourselves in places where our presence matters. Recently Brenda sent out an email query, asking each of us to name the places where we volunteer our time. Please do fill it out, whether you give yourself weekly, monthly or just once a year. We need to uphold each other in those places of witness, those places where we stand for nonviolence.


2) The “Eyes to see, ears to hear” mission group purposely invites us to explore the political edge of our common life. They have sponsored “sacred conversations” with the Covenant Community, an African-American women’s group that meets here on Sunday afternoons. And now they are sponsoring a film series on the third Friday of each month…to help us open our eyes and ears together.


3) You probably know that our policy for domestic and international giving from Seekers is based on personal involvement. We let our external giving flow to the places where we are called to give our time and energy. It’s a way of raising our own awareness — of each other, as well as the world around us. As part of this mode of spiritual formation for servant leaders, the School of Christian Living will be offering a three-session class on money as a spiritual practice in May, after the current classes are finished. We hope that many of you will plan to come. It’s another way to “make space for new things to emerge.”


Servant leaders are made, not born. We need to commit ourselves to this journey with Jesus, beginning with the good news that our lives matter to God. We are loved, cherished and needed.


In his essay, Parker Palmer invites all of us to practice these “habits of the heart” in small groupings like Seekers so we can bring our awareness and courage into the public arena. I believe that inner work is at the heart of Seekers.


As we enter into Jerusalem with Jesus on this Palm Sunday, let us remember the good news that he brought to his followers — that our lives matter to God and to the world around us. We each hold a piece of God’s realm of nonviolence is our hands and in our hearts.


May this be a place where we practice compassion and courage for those times when we, too, confront the many forms of violence at large in the world.          Amen.

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