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Servant Leadership

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Think about a time when you gave advice to a leader. This might be a leader in your workplace, your boss; this could be a church leader; this could be a leader in the school or school district where your children attend school? A question for our students: have you ever given advice to a teacher?

Think about times when you’ve served in leadership roles. What’s the best advice someone gave you?

The best piece of advice that I was given years ago was the simple reminder to a pastor that it’s not your church! When pastors get together, they might glibly say things like, “Well, in my church, this is how we . . . “ Stop right there! It’s not your church. You are privileged to serve this church as pastor, but it’s not your church.

In our scripture reading for today King Rehoboam receives advice from two different sets of advisors. A colleague of mine calls this first set of advisors “his father’s country club friends.” These first advisors advise Rehoboam to serve the people. My colleague calls this second set of advisors “Rehoboam’s frat brothers.” The frat brothers offer the crude advice that Rehoboam should say “my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” Unfortunately, Rehoboam follows the crude advice given by the frat brothers.

Jeroboam, who had been Solomon’s chief builder before he rebelled against Solomon, also sought advice. Since Rehoboam had promised to treat the people harshly, Jeroboam decided to lead a separate kingdom. Jeroboam wanted to be sure that his people wouldn’t return to Jerusalem (Rehoboam’s capital) to worship in the Temple, so Jeroboam was advised to build two golden calves that the people could worship, and Jeroboam followed that advice. He seems to have forgotten that the last time the people made a golden calf things didn’t turn out that well.

Neither Rehoboam nor Jeroboam asked God for advice. Neither one of them prayed. Solomon, at the beginning of his reign, had prayed to God seeking wisdom. Even though Solomon got distracted in his later years, he began his reign by seeking counsel from God.

Even so, Rehoboam could have followed the advice of his father’s friends. Think about how remarkable their advice was. They could have said “do exactly as we did and you will do well.” But instead they offered advice that they themselves had never been able to follow. They had learned from their mistakes, and they advised Rehoboam to be a servant leader who served the people. It is a true blessing to learn from someone else’s mistakes instead of having to make them ourselves.

(To me, that’s a real gift of this story. I realized that in almost 23 years of ordained ministry, this is the first time I’ve ever preached on Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Someone might ask, well, haven’t you gone through the Narrative Lectionary before? And the answer is yes, but in my last round through the Narrative Lectionary at the church I served in New York there was a special Stewardship Testimony Sunday when Rehoboam and Jeroboam came up in the lectionary. And what’s more is that I asked the Stewardship committee to schedule the special Sunday on that date so I could avoid preaching on Rehoboam and Jeroboam! Now, I realize I missed out on a story that can inspire us to pursue the best kind of leadership.)

The story of Rehoboam and Jeroboam is a story that underscores the need for creative leadership, for the kind of leadership that sets egos aside in order to serve the needs of the people.

In the Israel – Hamas war, there is a need for creative leadership that can get past the usual polarizations and find a way to bring terrorists to justice without inflicting civilian casualties. A tall order, certainly! But I believe that is what is needed.

And I’m convinced that we need creative leadership in our country, on our school boards, in our towns, and in our churches.

I believe we yearn for creative leadership. For the Christian this means looking to Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Think of how many leaders would have thought that below them. Nonetheless, Jesus told the disciples that the greatest among you is the one who serves.

Churches often ask themselves, what can we do to grow the church, to increase the budget? And those aren’t bad questions. After all, more resources means more opportunities for doing different kinds of ministries. But these are not the most important questions.

The most important question is how can we serve the people around us, in our communities and around the world? How can we serve the needs of the people? This is not the same as simply giving the people what they want, because if we simply give the people what they want, then we have truly become a consumerist church that exists to fulfill the desires of the consumers.

An important task of creative, servant leadership is discerning how to serve the people’s needs without simply catering to their wants. I don’t have any easy answers here. This is something we need to wrestle with and discern together. Even with all the things and issues that clamor for our attention, our focus needs to be on how can we best serve the people. How can we love our neighbors the way that Jesus loves us?

So, with all of this in mind. What kind of leadership advice would you give yourself?

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.


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