Sermon, Fourth Sunday of Easter
Immanuel Lutheran Chicago
May 8, 2022
The Breasted One Bids You, Come
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). When Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks, it can be surprising who’s listening. In 1958, a man named Robert K. Greenleaf, a researcher in management, development, and education at AT&T, read a little book by Herman Hesse called, Journey to the East.
It’s a story about a small group of men on a mythical journey. They hire an unassuming man named, Leo, to be their servant. He does menial chores and quietly sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All is well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned.
After many years, the story’s narrator discovers Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored their journey. He is astonished that Leo, whom he had known only as the servant, was the head of the Order, its guiding spirit. He realized, Leo, their servant, had been their indispensable leader.
Greenleaf pondered this story for 11 years. Until, in 1970, he published his first essay, entitled, The Servant as Leader. Later, the essay was expanded into a book, which is perhaps one of the most influential management texts of recent years. Servant leadership is an approach to leadership development, coined and defined by Robert Greenleaf and advanced by several authors such as Stephen Covey, Peter Block, Peter Senge, Max De Pree, Margaret Wheatley, Ken Blanchard, and others.
Servant-leadership differs from other leadership approaches by avoiding the common top-down hierarchical style, and instead emphasizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. At heart, the individual is a servant first, making the conscious decision to lead; their drive is to lead because they want to serve better, not because they desire increased power. The key objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement (Wikipedia: Servant Leadership).
Servant leadership is a powerful and insightful concept. But of course, you and I recognize that its roots stretch beyond the paper Greenleaf published in 1970. Jesus our Good Shepherd taught, “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt. 19:30). True leadership, following the example of Jesus, begins with servanthood. Images of Jesus the Shepherd can be found everywhere among early Christian communities. The beauty and complexity of this deceptively simple spiritual metaphor was full of compelling possibilities offering assurance, comfort, and hope to the earliest followers of Jesus who also lived in fraught and dangerous times.
Jesus offers a way of “eternal life” that puts us out of the reach of deathliness. While the world spends its frightened energy trying to stay young and be healthy, while the world is propelled by fearfulness that evokes violence and produces policies of aggression and militarism, the little lambs of Jesus lives en Christo. Christ is our sheepfold, a living sanctuary of hope and grace. The only absolute law among the sheep is the law of love—including love of our enemies. When the law forbids what is needed for actual human well-being, it is to be ignored. The law is made for people, not people for the law. The law is worthless without love (1 Cor. 13)
According to 3rd century theologian Tertullian, whatever else ancient people thought about followers of Christ’s Way, they were astonished and used to say, “Look, see how much they love one another.” The counter-cultural egalitarian and inclusive Christian community of the early church was breathtaking—but that’s what Easter looks like when it is led by our servant leader, Jesus the Good Shepherd.
The first church embraced and affirmed the servant leadership of many women. One of them, named Tabitha, is explicitly identified as a disciple in our reading from the Book of Acts. She is the only woman in scripture called a disciple. Elsewhere, another woman, Junia, is called an apostle. Many other women were leaders, financiers, and pillars of their communities. Yet sadly, it wasn’t long before the voice of Jesus our Shepherd became muted and covered over by the patriarchy of the dominant culture.
I’ll give you one example. In 382 C.E. St. Jerome translated the bible into Latin. This bible, the Latin Vulgate, became the standard bible of the Western world. It is excellent in many respects. The problem comes in Jerome’s choice for two proper names of God that frequently occur in the Hebrew bible—Yahweh, and Shaddai. Jerome chose the now familiar words ‘Lord,’ and ‘the Almighty,’ although Yahweh is evocative of the human breath, and Shaddai can mean ‘the many breasted one.’ How might history have been different if instead of a severe ruler and almighty king God’s name was ‘breath’ and ‘motherly comfort’?
Here at Immanuel, we embrace and celebrate another great servant leader of faith like Tabitha and Junia. Her image is enshrined in stained glass there beneath the balcony. Hers is the only likeness throughout our church done in full color. Emmy Carlsson Evald was the daughter of Immanuel’s first pastor and wife of the second. More important, she was a suffragist and social activist. Susan B. Anthony, Catharine Waugh McCulloch, and Jane Addams were among her close friends.
Emmy’s life and remarkable achievements are the subject of a two-page spread in April’s Living Lutheran Magazine. (Now, there’s also a book called Power, Passion, and Faith which I’m preparing for discussion at the Forum next month, on June 12th.) Though Emmy lived during a time when women were subservient to men, she championed the rights and ideas of women in the church and in the world.
Emmy established the Women’s Missionary Society through which she supervised the construction of 74 buildings around the world, including five homes for women and children. She visited mission stations in India, China and Palestine. “From motherhood to suffragist work, Emmy saw every action as extending God’s love into the world…She was a woman of strong faith, and she considered herself in her master’s service.” (Sharon Wyman, Power, Passion, and Faith)
Jesus our shepherd has called us to be servant leaders. Jesus our shepherd has gathered us into his sheepfold to dwell in safety and in confidence no matter where we go and no matter what difficulties we face. He leads me beside still waters and through the valley of the shadow of death. See! He sends us out like lambs into the midst of wolves (Luke 10:3). Yet, we shall fear no evil. He says, ‘Listen to me and watch because my life and God’s life are mirror images and your life bears the same reflection.’ Follow me, so that you may live within the embrace of God’s love, and you, in turn, you may share that same love with one another.