Master Class

October 21, 2018

Series: October 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Mark 10:35-45

35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." 36And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" 37And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." 38But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 39They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."

41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Master Class

        I will defend academia at just about every turn.  There is almost always something to be gained by careful study.  Even with topics are seemingly far out there, I believe there is an intrinsic value in simply pushing the envelope.  So, I remain steadfast while others roll their at college classes devoted to pop culture.  San Francisco Theological Seminary did just that in a whole series on Beyoncé.  Sometimes through these figures and phenomena we can uncover important lessons about race, class, and culture in our society. 

          That said, even I may have reached my limit when researching some of the most ridiculous titles you can find in today’s college course catalogs.  I say “titles,” because I hope in some cases the quippy title is pointing something a little more serious.  I hope because, for example I found:

  • “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. I might want to skid less.
  • Closer to home, “The Amazing World of Bubbles” at Cal-Tech, something about physics…and soap I presume.
  • There’s “How to Watch Television,” at Montclair State. My how things have declined.  When I went to school nobody had to teach us that.
  • Even our Ivy League schools are not immune. Princeton has taken teaching the essentials to a whole new level with the class “Getting Dressed.”  Apparently, it’s been wildly successful, for I’ve not seen reports of rampant nudity since or pants on backwards since.

I once had a professor who said when he was a student at Berkeley he had a class that was literally about nothing.  Forgive me.  That’s redundant; I suppose I could have just said he took a class at Berkeley.  Sorry, it’s just I went to the heated rival of Berkeley…Iowa, equal in every way except academics.  What my professor meant was there was no officially stated topic for the class.  There was no syllabus.  When the first class began, they all just sat there in the lecture hall, waiting for something supposedly to arise organically.  Berkeley. 

To cap them all off, or actually to name the course that started this whole search was something being offered at Gonzaga University.  It’s more ridiculous than all the others, and on top of that, it’s not only a course but an entire degree program…At Gonzaga you can now earn a Master’s in…Servant Leadership.  At Gonzaga, leadership is taught through the primary skills of: 

Listening     Conceptualization

Empathy     Foresight

Healing       Stewardship

Awareness  Commitment to the Growth of People

Persuasion Building Community[1]


          Now, I’ll be.  Those sound an awful lot like the skills Jesus taught and embodied.  Gonzaga may have remained true to its Christian heritage after all.  Listen to these skills again with Jesus in mind:

Listening     Conceptualization

Empathy     Foresight

Healing       Stewardship

Awareness  Commitment to the Growth of People

Persuasion Building Community


That particular list is derived from the work of Robert Greenleaf, who while working in and studying organizational management grew increasingly skeptical of the effectiveness of the sort of authoritarian leadership that dominated the landscape.  As a result, Greenleaf founded the Center for Applied Ethics where he developed and advocated what he termed “Servant Leadership,” though of course we see the model had already at work long ago in the person of Jesus.

One day James and John, some of the named early followers of Jesus came to Jesus to say they wanted to ask him something.  By the way, I sat with our confirmation students last week and asked what question they would ask Jesus.  I’ll keep their questions private, but I’ll tell you that they did better than James and John.  James and John say to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mk. 10:37).  Over halfway through the gospel story and these supposed members of Jesus’ inner circle still think it’s about power and glory.  I suppose their inability to “get it” should be of some comfort to us in our own struggles. 

If I were Jesus, I think I might have been too flabbergasted to respond, or maybe too despondent.  There are few worse feelings for a teacher than when her or his students take as gospel truth the opposite of the intended message.  Jesus does answer.  He simply says to them, “You do know what you are asking” (10:38).  It reminds me of what God says to Job in today’s first reading: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4).  There is so much you do not know. 

It is hard to think as Jesus thinks, know what God does, when you still see as the world sees.  In this passage, Jesus reminds James and John that in their world what it means to be a ruler is to “lord it over.”  That’s not the type of rule Jesus is looking for, and so Jesus asks us to be born again into a new way of thinking about everything, leadership included, nothing short of dying to the old ways that we might be raised with him to the new and with him into a new.  In the kingdom of God, leaders do not lord it over people; they’re servants:  “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mk. 10:43).   Our dear James and John, like so many of us, appear to have been brought up surrounded by the wrong curriculum. 

By the grace of God, from time to time a divine lesson plan falls from heaven and someone picks it up and studies it, takes it to heart.  We might call these folks prophets.  We might simply call them visiting professors who teach us a course in servant leadership.  Last week I told you about a crossing guard at Georgetown University who became one because his father had died crossing a street and he wanted to give his life over to protecting pedestrians.  I wonder what servant leaders you could name.  What makes a servant leader powerful is precisely their choice to use their power, to divest of it or direct it to benefiting others not primarily themselves or their own people. 

At the camp where I spent many a summer, there was a sign at the entrance that said, “future local and world leaders at work and play.”  Indeed, one of the greatest parts of working there was that getting to encounter young people who you just knew would grow up to do greater things than you could ever imagine. 

          One of these bright, likeable, full of potential young persons at my camp was a boy named Tripp Zanetis, real name.  It’s been a lot of years, so I had lost track of where Tripp ended up until last year when there was a story about him in the news.  Tripp had gone off to college at NYU and was a student there when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.  For 14 hours he volunteered with the fire department that day.  After graduating cum laude with a B.A. in politics he joined the New York Fire Department, where he was later promoted all the way to fire marshal.  In 2008, he joined the Air National Guard as a helicopter pilot to fly search and rescue.  When I first wrote this, I spelled it “helpicopter,” but it sort of fits.  In 2014, while still on active duty and on leave from the fire department, he enrolled at Stanford Law School where, among other things, he worked with the international refugee assistance project, was co-president of a veteran’s organization, and facilitated Stanford Law’s inaugural LGBTQ advocacy conference winning a national LGBT Bar Association student leadership award. 

See what I mean about greater than I could ever imagine?  Talk about servant leadership.  The only thing missing from Tripp’s resume from Jesus’ words about being a servant leader was the whole “giving his life…for many.” That final addition to his resume came in March of this year when the 37-year-old’s search and rescue “helpicopter” was shot down near the Iraq-Syria border.[2] 

Jesus’ curriculum is no joke.  To be fair to Tripp I need to say that though I met him at a Christian camp, he had discarded his Christian faith some time ago.  I don’t know why.  It could have been widespread discrimination against gays & lesbians in some manifestations of the church.  It might have been some other way in which the church felt hypocritical or out of touch.  Perhaps he just didn’t believe in it.  While he may not have preferred to use the Christian language system, from where I stand Tripp was very much committed to the kind of life that Jesus tried to teach his disciples to lead, disciples which is simply the word for students.

With that, I wonder what Christ’s course catalog for his students would look like:

  • Rather than “The Sociology of Myley Cyrus” perhaps “The Sociology of King Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, Pharaoh or Caesar: What Empire Does and Most Certainly Does Not have to do with God’s Will.”
  • Rather than “The Amazing World of Bubbles,” perhaps “The Amazing World of Troubles: How Faith is about Learning to Live with Integrity and Hope in the Midst of Tragedy and Evil.”
  • Rather than “How to Watch Television,” “How to Get off the Couch and Get Involved in a World Where We Can Make a Difference without Having to be a Star.”
  • Rather than “How to Get Dressed,” how about “How to Address the Needs of the Most Overlooked by Trusting Their Instincts and Listening to Their Voice about what They Need.”   
  • Finally, rather than a course about “Nothing,” how about a course in what love actually looks like lived out (in the gritty edges of real life), which you could title, I suppose, “Everything,” for as Dorothy Day reminds us, “Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up.”

Now, those would be some master classes taught by the master.  Amen.