For the graceful handle I found in a field attached to nothing pray it is universally applicable
For our tracks which disappear the moment we leave them
For the face peering through the cafe window as we sip our soup
For cheerful American classrooms sparkling with crisp colored alphabets happy cat posters the cage of the guinea pig the dog with division flying out of his tail and the classrooms of our cousins on the other side of the earth how solemn they are how gray or green or plain how there is nothing dangling nothing striped or polka-dotted or cheery no self-portraits or visions of cupids and in these rooms the students raise their hands and learn the stories of the world
For library books in alphabetical order and family businesses that failed and the house with the boarded windows and the gap in the middle of a sentence and the envelope we keep mailing ourselves
For every hopeful morning given and given and every future rough edge and every afternoon turning over in its sleep
Published in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005.
When the economy cratered in 2008, the St. Louis-based manufacturing and consulting company Barry-Wehmiller took a big financial hit. For CEO Bob Chapman it was clear that employee cuts were inevitable, but instead of sending out pink slips, Chapman made a surprising announcement. He implemented alternating furloughs of four-weeks unpaid leave for all. Chapman told his workers, “We must all suffer a little instead of letting people go.” Chapman participated in the rolling furloughs, foregoing wages alongside his employees until the crisis was averted.
When Cheryl Bachelder became CEO of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in 2007, the fast-food franchise was struggling. Popeye’s, which had started 45 years before as a grab-and-go fried chicken joint in the suburbs of New Orleans, had dwindling franchises and falling revenues. Instead of cutting the bottom line, Bachelder implemented a new leadership model. Bacheleder cast the vision for what Popeye’s could do: serve excellent chicken to families on the go for a reasonable price in more locations. Then she set out to help her workers succeed with better pay, benefits, and training. Bachelder transformed Popeye’s from just another fast-food mill to a business culture where everybody won.
In March 2020 as the world ground to a halt amid the exploding COVID-19 pandemic, the airline industry was in big trouble. Governments issued lock-down orders, travel plans were cancelled, and we all sheltered in place. The CEO of Delta Airlines Ed Bastian took drastic steps. Bastian led his company through the crisis by announcing that he would take a 100% pay cut, going without his $900,000 salary for the next six months.
Bob Chapman, Cheryl Bachelder, and Ed Bastian are advocates of servant leadership, a model for business management first theorized by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. Greenleaf cast the vision for management that shares power and puts the needs of workers first, so that they can reach their greatest potential. According to Greenleaf, servant leadership creates businesses where employees are growing as people. They feel healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous. Those workers are also more likely to become servant leaders themselves. Beyond the walls of the corporation, these companies make a difference for good, benefitting the least privileged and most at-risk people of the community. Greenleaf dreamed of a world where servant leaders would create businesses that showed the way for others to follow while making a helping, healing difference for communities.
Our gospel lesson reminds us that, long before Robert Greenleaf cast his vision, Jesus was a servant leader. He hoped that his disciples would follow him on that path. Jesus’s words, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” were spoken as he neared the end of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for that final Passover. Just before today’s reading begins, Jesus had warned his friends. For the third time, he told them that he would soon be betrayed, arrested, condemned, and executed.
Even though they had heard this message three times, the disciples didn’t understand. James and John had figured out that glory would not await them in the holy city, so they hatched a new plan. They would convince Jesus to honor them in the Kingdom to come with places of greatest honor at his left and right. The fact that the other disciples got so angry at the Sons of Zebedee tells us that they probably had their own visions of grandeur. How dare James and John assert their right to be elevated above the rest of them!
In stark contrast to those visions of glory, Jesus called his friends to be servants and slaves. A servant, diakonos, waited on others, whether serving food or completing helpful tasks. A slave, doulos, simply did whatever he or she was told, acting at the direction of their master. This was not what the disciples wanted to hear.
Jesus’s model of servant leadership was an extraordinary departure from business-as-usual in the Ancient Near East. Think about it. Caesar was a self-proclaimed God. Petty rulers like King Herod lived in luxury at the expense of the people whom they were appointed to rule. In stark contrast to Caesar and Herod, Jesus was the prime example of servant leadership. Jesus allowed his core value of agape, self-giving love, to guide him. That love called him to a life of service—helping, healing, caring, speaking truth to power, and ultimately giving his life for the salvation of us all. Long before Robert Greenleaf tried to sell the business world on servant leadership, Jesus was blazing the trail and hoping that his followers would go and do likewise.
Back in 1970 when Greenleaf published his first essay on his new model of leadership, he had plenty of critics. Those naysayers insisted that leaders would only be respected if they were firmly authoritative—that often translated to white men with graduate degrees from prestigious schools and years of experience at the helm of Fortune 500 companies. Greenleaf’s critics also said that if you make your workers your priority, then they will walk over you. They would indulge themselves with those opportunities, perks, and benefits, but they wouldn’t put their shoulder to the wheel. The skeptics proclaimed that companies who embraced this radical theory of leader-as-servant would never make money.
Yet time has told a different story. When Bob Chapman became CEO of Barry-Wehmiller in 1975 at the age of thirty, the ninety-year-old company had $20 million in revenue. Their technology was outdated. Their financial position was weak. Today Barry-Wehmiller has survived that 2008 recession and continued to grow. They now have 12,000 employees and a net worth of $3 billion. Beyond that impressive bottom line, the company sees its unique measure of success as the way they touch the lives of others. In addition to his work as CEO, Bob Chapman and his wife operate a foundation which teaches the principles of servant leadership for free to communities in need.
At Popeye’s, Cheryl Bachelder found that when she began to focus on changing the company’s culture to a servant-based model, things began to change for the better. As franchise owners and employees benefitted, the chain began to grow. Sales increased by 45%. Stock price climbed from $13-a-share to $61-a-share. Better yet, when surveyed, franchise owners, employees, and customers all said that they were happier. In 2017 when Tim Horton’s acquired Popeye’s, that grab-and-go chicken joint had grown to 2,600 locations worth $1.8 billion.
Although COVID-19 remains an ongoing concern, thanks to the delta-variant, things are looking up at Delta Airlines. Unlike their competitors, Delta has weathered the COVID crisis without resorting to furloughs. In an interview last month, CEO Ed Bastian said that flights are full and Delta is hopeful and optimistic. After losing $9 billion in 2020, Delta turned a profit last quarter and is on track to do the same this quarter. Delta was the first airline to volunteer to help with the evacuation of Afghanistan. With more than two dozen flights out of Kabul, they airlifted 3,000 refugees from the crumbling nation. When praised for his leadership, Bastian brushes aside the compliments, saying, “It’s all about the people.”
Of course, after Jesus, the best example of the power of servant leadership is found in the disciples, the ones who really didn’t get it when Jesus told them three times that whoever wishes to be greatest of all must be servant of all. Ten of the disciples would follow Jesus in losing their lives for the sake of the gospel. As they reached out to the world with the good news of God’s amazing love, the disciples died untimely deaths in pursuit of Jesus’ mission and in service to God’s Kingdom. They were crucified, put to the sword, stabbed, clubbed, stoned, and burned. Even John, the only disciple to live to old age, suffered—driven out of Israel and forced to live in exile on the other side of the Mediterranean. Despite the high cost of servanthood, by the time John died, the gospel had spread exponentially. House churches spanned the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Syria to Spain. Everywhere people were affirming that God is love and Jesus is Lord.
Those servant churches would grow. Within four centuries, Christianity, which began as a persecuted sect of Judaism, was granted status as an official religion on the Roman Empire. Today there are 2.5 billion Christians worldwide, about a third of the world’s population. Nowadays, the fastest growing churches in the world are in places like Iran, China, and North Korea, where servants of the gospel take great risks to share the good news that Jesus, who was slave of all, loved us so much that he died for our sins.
I suspect that there would be more thriving churches if we worried less about number of members and the size of endowments and we thought more about servant leadership. It is in putting love into action, it is in choosing to serve others, it is in saying “yes” to Jesus’s humble purpose, that greatness is found and growth comes. May it be just as true for us as it is for those titans of industry. May it be just as true for us as it was for Jesus and the early church. Amen.
Americans don’t like to talk about money. In May, Business Insider Magazine conducted a poll of 2,130 people to determine the topics they were most likely to discuss with friends. Last on the list was money, outranked by current events, family, health, sex, relationships, and politics.
Rachel Sherman, a sociologist with the New School, reports that how we feel about discussing money may be determined by how much we have. Affluent Americans say they are circumspect about money because they don’t want their lower-wage-earning friends to feel bad. Middle income Americans tend to shy away from the topic of money because they may be economically fragile—the cost of their kid’s college education, a surge in healthcare expenses, or an unexpected big-ticket home repair can leave them reeling with more month than money. Working class Americans are much more transparent about money. They freely discuss the challenges or even impossibilities of supporting a family on minimum wage work. They swap ideas about how they stretch their dollars and cut corners.
Kimberly Chong, an anthropology lecturer at University College, London, teaches that at the heart of the taboo on money talk is a cultural belief that money is associated with personal worth. Social status, power, and respect are tied to our paychecks and our bank accounts. It’s like that bumper sticker, “The boy, who dies with the most toys, wins.” That sort of thinking is uncomfortable in a democracy where we affirm the equality of all citizens, even as we acknowledge the reality of income inequality and the concentration of wealth.
We don’t like to talk about money, if we can help it. We really don’t like talking about it in church. Perhaps my calling our attention to the topic has got you feeling uncomfortable—or wishing that I would change the subject.
Jesus didn’t have any trouble talking about money. He talked about it a lot. Indeed, the only topic that Jesus talked about more than money was the Kingdom of God. If you counted, you would see that eleven of Jesus’ thirty-nine parables are about money. Today’s reading from Mark’s gospel speaks frankly about the tension that can exist between our understanding of earthly riches and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.
As Jesus and his friends were departing on a missionary journey, a rich man stopped them and asked the Lord an urgent question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In Jesus’ day, eternal life was just another way of saying the Kingdom of God. Jesus sounded impatient as he counted off the requirements of the Torah: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, no fraud, be sure to honor your parents. Perhaps feeling relieved, the man was quick to share that he was all about that sort of righteous living.
Mark gives us a window into Jesus’ feelings. The Lord, seeing the rich man and hearing of his obedience, loved the man. Jesus saw that it was this man’s heartfelt desire to love God and love his neighbor as himself. This man had disciple written all over him. And so, Jesus extended to him the same invitation he had made to Levi the tax collector and Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the fishermen: “Follow me.”
When the rich man heard the cost of discipleship, he balked. The thought of selling his property, and parting with the proceeds made his heart skip a beat, tied his stomach in knots, and sent his mind scampering down rabbit trails of worry and fear. The rich man went away grieving. The Greek word that describes how the man felt is stugnasas. It means shocked, surprised, and in sorrow. The man had a crisis of character. He turned away from Jesus, unable to accept what the Lord asked of him.
It’s a story that is hard to hear and perhaps harder to understand. Even the disciples struggled with what Jesus had to say about the rich man and camels passing through needles’ eyes. In the ancient near east, wealth was seen as a blessing from God. From the point of view of the disciples, this rich man was one of God’s beloved ones. How else could he have amassed that land, those homes, those belongings, those slaves? It didn’t make sense to the twelve. If the rich man wasn’t first in line at the pearly gates, then who could be saved?
Over the centuries, Bible scholars and preachers have grappled with how best to interpret this tough story, a story that questions our relationship with God and money. The monastic tradition has long looked to this passage as a proof text for vows of voluntary poverty. Postulants of the Franciscan, Claretians, and other religious orders take vows of poverty upon entrance, renouncing their worldly possessions. What they own becomes the community’s and is used or disposed of for the benefit of all.
In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, our spiritual ancestor John Calvin taught that the rich man’s problem was more than money. The rich man wanted to know what he must “do” to inherit eternal life. For Calvin, that smacked of works’ righteousness, as if we earn our way into God’s Kingdom by accruing God’s particular favor with good deeds. Eternal life, Calvin taught, is God’s freely given gift for all who place their trust in Jesus. We cannot earn our way into heaven, but God’s grace makes the impossible possible for us.
During stewardship season, generations of preachers have used this story to invite us to be generous givers. The rich man makes us question what we truly value. Is it Jesus and a life spent in his company, or is it our money and the things that we possess? In our love for Jesus, we are inspired, maybe not to sell all that we have, but to hold our possessions loosely. We prayerfully consider how our abundance may be used in Jesus’ purpose. We live generously as a blessing to church and community.
I think those are all valid and responsible ways of preaching about the rich man. Some are called to a life of voluntary poverty and radical sharing. Heaven is ours only by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are, indeed, blessed to be a blessing to our church and others. Ultimately, all we have and all we are belongs to God, whether we are rich men and women, or middle-class families, or the working poor who live so creatively on so little.
But the story of the rich man goes deeper than all that. Jesus calls us to question the core assumptions and the cultural beliefs about money that possess our society. Jesus contradicts the premise that our personal worth is tied to our net worth. That assumption prompts us to value some people over others. It’s a short leap from there to what the disciples presumed: that the rich man’s wealth was a sign of God’s special favor.
But that wasn’t how Jesus saw the world. Jesus loved the rich man. Yet, Jesus also loved those low-status, vulnerable children whom he hugged and blessed. Jesus loved those disciples, who struggled to understand his teaching. That abundant and overflowing love of Jesus was a reflection of God’s love. After all, God so loved the world that God sent the beloved son to die for us.
At the close of today’s reading, Jesus told his friends that those core cultural beliefs that we hold about personal worth and net worth don’t apply in the Kingdom of God. There, many who are first will be last and the last will be first. Jesus invited his friends—Jesus invites us—to let go of our false assumptions. We are called to envision a world where the penniless Haitian migrant at the southern border is as loved by God as the billionaire businessman. It’s a world where the illiterate day laborer is of equal value to the university professor. It’s a world where the residents of Edgewood House, and others who are reliant upon the social safety net, are every bit as valued and beloved as those who are enjoying a leaf-peeping getaway at The Point this weekend. That’s some radical stuff, Jesus.
If we accept what Jesus has to say, it will change how we see not only our neighbors but also our possessions. If our personal worth isn’t incumbent upon the size of our paychecks or our 401Ks or our brokerage accounts, then it gets easier to live generously and share freely. Our abundance becomes a way to shape a world where all may know that they are the beloved by our limitlessly loving God. That’s an invitation to discipleship that can make us feel stugnasas—shocked, surprised, or in sorrow. Or, Jesus’s invitation just might grant us a foretaste of the Kingdom to come and the life eternal. Jesus says, “Follow me.” How will we respond?
Black, C. Clifton. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Loudenback, Tanza. “A Survey of 2,000 Americans Found . . .” in Insider: Business Magazine. Accessed online at businessinsider.com.
Menendez-Atun͂a,Luis. “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 10, 2021. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Pinsker, Joe. “Why So Many Americans Don’t Talk about Money” in The Atlantic, March 2, 2020. Accessed online at theatlantic.com.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — Mark 10:2-16 “When Dreams Die”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on our health—and hard on our marriages. As employers furloughed workers or businesses went virtual, couples found themselves spending more time together and lots of it. That round-the-clock intimacy has been complicated by other factors. Lay offs and job loss have meant less income and greater economic pressure. Social distance has stretched the limits of our family and friend support network. If you have kids, closed schools and quarantined daycares created impossible challenges of childcare, homeschooling, and distance learning.
Studies show that during the first seven to eight months of the pandemic, the divorce rate surged. That spring, a survey of 1,277 couples found that 29.9% of them said they were in serious trouble and headed for divorce. Ken Jewell, a New Yok City divorce lawyer, related that when his office reopened after the shut-down in June 2020, he saw a 48% jump in requests for counsel. A further dark consequence of the COVID crisis has been an increase in domestic violence and substance abuse. Apostles’ House in Newark, a shelter for women and children, reports that their beds have been full throughout the pandemic.
Beyond the social science and the statistics, we all know couples whose marriages have become fraught, embattled, or failed over the past year and a half. Young couples with children, middle-aged empty-nesters, and even retired folks with years of marriage under their belts are calling it quits. There is a lot of heart-ache out there. Weddings are among the most hopeful and joyous moments in our lives. When those dreams die, they take a piece of us with them.
The Pharisees put Jesus to the test with a question about divorce, “Tell us, rabbi, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The fact that the Pharisees knew by heart what the Torah had to say about divorce reveals that there was a larger controversy brewing. Deuteronomy 24 instructs that a man my write a certificate of divorce if his wife commits an “erwat dabar”—an indecent thing. The two great rabbinic traditions of Jesus’ day disagreed about what an indecent thing might be. The Hillel School taught that it was up to the husband’s discretion. A poorly cooked meal, childlessness, failure to observe the Torah, sexual immorality, or inability to complete household tasks, all could be grounds for divorce. The Shammai School allowed men to divorce wives for only one reason: serious infidelity. The Pharisees anticipated that Jesus’ response, one way or the other, would make him enemies.
It is likely that Jesus’ answer offended everyone. It certainly left the disciples scratching their heads and asking more questions. Instead of weighing in on what indecent thing would be grounds for divorce, Jesus called his listeners to re-think their understanding of marriage. Jesus turned to the creation stories of Genesis in which humanity is created male and female in God’s image. Something sacred is stamped upon each of us, and we are given to one another in the covenant of marriage. Two become one with God at the center of the relationship. In that union, we find a wholeness and completeness that was part of God’s plan right from the start. “What God has joined together,” Jesus teaches, “Let no one separate.”
Behind Jesus’ words lies a deep pastoral concern for women. According to Jewish law, a woman had no right to divorce her husband on any ground. It is hard for us to understand, but in first century Israel, women were a little like sexual property. Young women passed from a father’s household to a husband’s household in an arranged agreement that had monetary and social benefit for the father. The husband had every legal right to dismiss the wife at his discretion, like bad goods that failed to live up to their anticipated benefit. The impact of divorce upon a woman could be catastrophic. She might be able to return to her kinfolk. If not, she had no safety net—no alimony, no property rights, no home, no right to even parent her own children. She depended on the charity of neighbors or was forced to beg or resort to prostitution.
Jesus’s teaching about divorce contradicted this prevailing notion of women as property. Indeed, Jesus’s suggestion that women could divorce husbands would have sounded deeply shocking and offensive to the Pharisees. Jesus invited his listeners to see women as beings created in God’s image, whose equal footing was essential to wholeness in marriage. Marriage—this shared sacred identity and need for wholeness—was at the heart of God’s best hope for humanity. Jesus’s words were—and still are—a radical, counter-cultural, deeply truthful lesson.
Despite God’s original intent and Jesus’ provocative teaching, divorce persists. Presbyterians have been debating it since the Westminster Assembly of the Divines met in 1647. They allowed for divorce by husbands or wives in cases of adultery and willful desertion. The aggrieved party could later remarry “as if the offending party were dead.” Our denomination’s current stance on divorce is best expressed in a 1981 revision of the Westminster Confession. We acknowledge God’s holy intent for marriage, yet we also recognize the frailty and sin of humankind, “The weakness of one or both partners may lead to the gross and persistent denial of the marriage vows so that the marriage dies at the heart and becomes intolerable.” When dreams die, separation and divorce may become acceptable and permissible. That same guidance applies to traditional unions and to our refined definition of marriage, adopted in 2014, between “two people.”
Beyond the words of scripture, the teaching of Jesus, and the guidance of the church, is the uniquely painful reality of divorce. It feels like something dies at the heart. On the day in 2004 when I accepted this church’s call to serve as your pastor, I stood in the pulpit and shared that I was divorced. A brief, early marriage to my college boyfriend had come to a sad end, more than a decade earlier. My ex-husband’s adultery and “willful desertion” might have ticked all the boxes for the Westminster Assembly of the Divines, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I had felt profound grief, shame, rejection, and a visceral pain that told me that part of my heart was dying. I know that many of you in your own experience have felt the same, whether you have been through divorce or experienced the end of a long-time committed relationship, whether you are children of divorced parents or your adult children have suffered through divorce.
That collective pain of divorce is so great that it is tempting to not preach about it at all. Jesus, we hear your beautiful vision of marriage that is sacred and deeply reverent with God at the very heart of it. We freely acknowledge that there would be a whole lot less divorce, and many more happy marriages, if those relationships were entered into in the spirit of your teaching. But Adam and Eve have left the garden. We live in a frail and fallen world where we regularly disappoint you and one another. Lord, have mercy upon us.
It’s significant that Jesus followed his tough teaching on divorce with the blessing of children, those most vulnerable and lowest status members of the Hebrew household. Although the disciples wished to turn the children away as a waste of Jesus’s time, the Lord welcomed them and blessed them. Jesus welcomed the children, the outsider, the vulnerable, the rejected, the leper, the Pharisee, the low-status-second-class citizen. It’s safe to presume that Jesus welcomed the divorced. It’s safe to say that Jesus continues to welcome those who are divorced. The grace of Jesus Christ is always sufficient for us. Thanks be to God.
The most recent studies of marriage have shown that as the pandemic has continued, the divorce rate has levelled and begun to decline. Some of the reasons for that may not be good. The economic strain of the pandemic may have forced couples to remain together. The lack of childcare has put plans for separation on hold. Closed courts and a backlog of cases may be causing a temporary lull. Five states that make divorce rates public are showing a drop in the number of couples rushing to the courts. A recent survey of 2,429 couples found that 17% of those questioned now say that their marriage has been strengthened by the pandemic. They began to communicate better. More time together deepened their appreciation for one another. They spent time with the kids, exercised together, cooked together, and cultivated new shared hobbies. Their feelings changed for the better. Perhaps they began to glimpse in their spouses that sacred image that each of us bears. Perhaps they are now finding in one another that wholeness and completeness that God originally planned.
Mallozzi, Vincent. “Divorce Rates Are Now Dropping: Here Are Some Reasons Why” in The New York Times, March 24, 101`. Accessed online at nytimes.com.
Staniunas, David. “Marriage, Divorce, and Mariners” in Presbyterian Historical Society Newsletter, June 26, 2014. Accessed online at pcusa.org.
Wall, Robert W. “Divorce” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strongman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988.