Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle B
Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45
For those of you who have never been to Mepkin Abbey, I recommend it highly. It is an abbey of Trappist monks who live northwest of Charleston on a beautiful piece of property along the Cooper River. They provide retreats lasting several days, and also offer longer-term stays for men that really want to experience what it is like to be a monk. A homily is not supposed to be a commercial, but I’ll just say that I can think of few people I know who would not benefit from a retreat with these very holy people [https://mepkinabbey.org/].
I, along with the rest of my class, had a retreat there in the weeks just before we were ordained as deacons. I remember a lot of things from my days there, but one thing I read one afternoon in their library came back to me as I read today’s readings. It was a book written by a businessman who, after a skydiving accident found in Mepkin Abbey a place where he was able to regain meaning in his life. Before his accident, August Turak was the typical brash person trying to make his mark on the world through aggressively pushing through his ideas and desires. After his accident and spending time at Mepkin, he found that he could be successful but in a new way, what is today called the Servant Leader model, and he learned this especially from one particular monk.
In his book, Brother John [https://www.amazon.com/Brother-John-Monk-Pilgrim-Purpose/dp/1945507942], he recounts one particular act of service which this monk did for him and others that caused him to stop and take notice. The Trappist monks live an austere life, and while they do not take a vow of silence they generally eat their meals quietly while listening to a monk reading various religious material. There are few exceptions, and one of them is a celebration on Christmas eve, after evening Mass, where the monks get together over cookies, cakes and cider and exchange Christmas wishes and brotherly conversation. When the author, who was staying with the monks for several months and was at this gathering, went to leave and return to his room for the night, Brother John was outside the door with an umbrella. Since it had started raining while they were at Mass, Brother John knew that most in attendance did not have an umbrella, so he was outside to escort the brothers and their visitors to their rooms with an umbrella so they wouldn't get wet. After escorting Mr. Turak, he returned and did the same for the others. Brother John could have been inside having fun with his fellow monks, but he instead served them with a Christmas gift of service.
The first reading, from Isaiah's passage on the Suffering Servant, is read by Christians as a foreshadow by the prophet of the nature of Christ. The Messiah would be a conquering hero who would sweep the Romans and other enemies of Israel from the Holy Land? No, Isaiah told of His being a servant, whose obedience and suffering would ransom believers from their sin and restore them to the grace of God. Christ tells this to his apostles, that they too must serve those around them if they wish to be his disciples.
So how does one combine the idea of being a servant and being a leader? Everyone who has been a parent knows the answer: you provide for the needs of children who cannot provide for themselves, but you teach, correct, coach, and challenge them as they mature to also grow in abilities they'll need in life. A leader of adults can also do the same, and this the the principle behind servant leadership. Whether at work, at church, at a community organization, or any other situation, a servant leader makes sure that his or her people have everything the need to succeed: knowledge, resources, and support. Great leaders develop great teams around them using these principles.
There is a direct and very important application of this principle which we need to discuss this weekend, because this is the kick-off weekend of a synod that Pope Francis has called. The word “synod” is one of those Church terms which is hard for some to really understand, but it is simply a Greek term which means “assembly.” A synod can be called at multiple levels in our Church, but the ones that usually get the attention are the assemblies involving the pope calling together all the bishops for advice and decisions of doctrine and administration. But this time, Pope Francis has asked that the synod be of a different format, engaging people, both clergy and lay, at all levels of the Roman Catholic Church.
It is fitting that we begin this synod here at Saint James on the weekend that we are talking about being a servant and servant leadership. One of the stated goals of this synod has been to address the occurrence of clericalism. Here we run into another Church term, but again this is a long word for a simple concept: clericalism is where the church leaders – the clergy: cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons – run the show in a top-down fashion, with little consultation of the lay people who fill the pews. To counteract this tendency towards clericalism, this synod is to follow a bottom-up approach, first having a synod, or assembly, of the laity at every parish, looking for ideas and seeking input from all. Then the parish input will be forwarded to a synod of our diocese, the Diocese of Charleston, which is the whole state of South Carolina, and then to synods at regional, national, and continental levels. Finally there will be a synod of the Church, where these ideas will be forwarded to the bishops for final determinations on the recommendations.
The fundamental questions that the synod at all levels is being asked to consider is this: A synodal Church, in announcing the Gospel, “journeys together:” How is this “journeying together” happening today in your particular Church? What steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our “journey together”? [https://stjamesconway.org/parish-life/synod] These questions are broad in their scope, and are meant to counteract all the forces in modern times that try to drive people apart. Some people are using the comparison of a family, which also modern life is trying to drive apart. But if we as a Church, we as a family, try to listen to each other, try to understand one another, try to all be servants of the Lord together, we can come together as one in love and mutual support. At the end of the process, the clergy are still in charge of leading the Church, just as the parents can never totally abdicate their leadership of the family, but both will lead better knowing and responding to the needs of their fellow members.
But this will only happen if we all try to play a part. There will be notices in the bulletin, on our web site, on Facebook, on Flocknote, and other platforms for how this will take place over the coming months. Please take some time to read about the synod and to participate where you can. This will only be as good as we make it.
As we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we take the Body of Christ in communion with all people attending Mass in all parts of the world and in so doing become the Body of Christ His Church. We pray that the synod will also help us to become one, facing the challenges of the modern world and forging a path together on our journey. Let us all become better servants, like Brother John, to make our fellow traveler's journeys in life better, and lead by making sure their needs are met.