“Servants Know First” is the title of the first sermon I delivered this year. (See VIDEO of it below.) The Gospel reading is from John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana where Jesus performs his first miracle: turning the water into wine. I start by talking about the relationships between the readings set out in the Common Lectionary used by so many churches, and on the importance of weddings and wedding imagery in the Bible, but then focus on servanthood. The servants at the wedding—not the wedding host, bride and groom, or any other special guests—were the very first to know that Jesus had performed a miracle.
Most of the time when servanthood comes up, I turn quickly to one of the most important books I ever used in my teaching career. It’s a small booklet, actually, just 37 pages long: Robert Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader. It started the whole field of Servant Leadership Studies. Greenleaf begins by talking about how he got the idea while reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, which I suppose he could have. But being a Quaker and knowing the Bible well, my students and I have almost always come to the conclusion that he begins with Hesse mainly to avoid getting Biblical on us right away. The servant as leader is one of the major themes of Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew 20 and Mark 9, for example, Jesus says that if you want to be great, if you want to lead, you must be a servant first. In John 13: 12-15 is the famous scene where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. He’s their Rabbi, yes, he says, but if they don’t understand servanthood first—even the abject task of washing someone’s feet—then they don’t really understand who he is and what he’s come to do.
Servants must do many things, but one of the most critical is to listen, so it’s no accident that very early in The Servant as Leader Greenleaf talks about the importance and the hard discipline of truly listening. It’s not just so we can really hear someone else in depth. Deep listening, he says, empowers others. And this, I conclude, is one of our great hopes in God. Because God delights in us, God listens to us, and this empowers us. The Psalm prescribed by the Lectionary for this Sunday, the Second Sunday After Epiphany, is one of my favorites: Psalm 36. But that the Creator is a deep listener puts me in mind of another great Psalm passage—from Psalm 8: “O God our Ruler, how exalted is your Name in all the world! Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens…When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is humankind that you should be mindful of them? The child of humankind that you should seek them out?”*
Everyone who preaches puts themselves in danger of being hypocritical because it’s often hard to live up to what you espouse. Me, I’m not a great listener, let alone a deep listener, but it’s one of the major things I strive for. It could be that someday I’ll get to be acceptable.
* This version is from The Inclusive Language Psalter.