The Best Leader
Every American knows Superman, but I never appreciated him until a few weeks ago. A philosopher I read argued that Superman’s point isn’t his cool powers… but rather the ethical scenario he presents: how would a perfectly strong… and perfectly moral… person behave? Superman fights crime because breaking the law is wrong, right? But should Superman uphold unjust laws, like Jim Crow or the Holocaust? Or if Supes can oppose unjust laws, shouldn’t we worry that one strongman gets to dictate terms, even if he tramples democracy? Every Superman story asks: how does someone use power ethically? The first Superman story I ever read was Red Son, which asked the question: “What if Superman wasn’t raised by farmers from Smallville, Kansas, USA… but rather grew up in Stalin's Soviet Union?” In Red Son, Superman is still perfectly strong, but rather than perfect American values, he was raised to be the perfect Soviet. Since he’s perfectly strong and perfectly moral—albeit a different morality than ours—this alternate Man of Steel rules Earth as a benevolent dictator, while Lex Luthor leads a pathetic resistance. After all, if Supes is truly better than us in every way—stronger, faster, smarter—why shouldn’t he rule over us for our own good?
There’s another Superman story I only learned about recently but haven’t yet read: All Star Superman. In that story, Superman learns he only has a year left to live before his powers burn him from the inside out. So what does the perfect person do with his last days? As much good as he can. Superman saves cities; lends Lois Lane his powers for a day; devotes his supercomputer to curing cancer; gets Lex Luther arrested for good. But he also saves the day in small ways. He sees a glum young woman, arguing with her psychiatrist, but thinks little of it. Days later, in the midst of tearfully explaining to Lois Lane that he won't live much longer, Supes suddenly flies away, leaving a heartbroken Lois behind. His super hearing allows him to hear the young woman from before, preparing to jump off a skyscraper. Supes flies up to her but doesn’t touch her: he talks her off the ledge, telling the woman she’s stronger than she thinks. Superman—the strongest man alive—could just force her down to safety. But he doesn’t. He lets her have the power, lets her decide to come down, tells this poor girl teetering on the edge that she too has the power to help others. Strength—to the All Star Superman—isn’t about blowing up monsters. It’s about helping people, whether you’re saving a city… or just one person. Unlike Red Son’s Superman, who uses strength to force his vision of goodness upon others, All Star Superman races against time to give everything he has to lift up as many people as he can.
But you and I? We are not Superman. We are not perfectly strong, and we are not perfectly good. In fact, I would wager a big reason why we are not perfectly good is because we are not perfectly powerful. I’ll say it again: a big reason why you and I are not perfectly good… is because we are not perfectly powerful. Our weaknesses often make us afraid of other people: afraid of what they’ll say about us, that they might hurt us, affect our job, affect our lives. You and I don’t have perfect knowledge, so we are never certain how others will act. You and I aren’t perfectly strong, so we worry we may not do well should others do unto us before we can do unto them. I’m sure you’ve heard sermons before on today’s scripture: Christian leaders serve other people, put other’s needs before their own, take the lowest position and the least credit instead of claiming what’s rightfully theirs. I’m sure someone, somewhere has preached that to you before. But in our daily lives, how tempting is it to do otherwise! We don’t want to pass up on the credit lest we get passed up for promotion. We don’t want to take the lowest spot lest we get left only crumbs. When others gossip or lie about us, we don’t want to turn the other cheek, lest our reputation be ruined. It’s easy for Superman to make hard choices: his super hearing, super strength, flying, and the rest means he’s never in real danger of losing, never truly at-risk. Plus, he’s fictional. It’s us ordinary schmucks—who don’t know what tomorrow will bring—who gamble with every choice we make, often compromising our ethics and morals because we’re afraid of what might happen to us. Our weaknesses make us fear.
The lesson Jesus gives here shows up in all four gospel accounts of Christ’s life, but only Luke’s gospel locates it during the Last Supper. It’s my favorite version. Jesus teaches, “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” But in Luke’s Last Supper, Jesus demonstrates that point: he adopts the posture of a slave, serving food and drink to his disciples. Yet moments later, Jesus informs his disciples one of them will betray him: this reveals a true leader serves even those who would do them wrong, a true leader sacrifices even for their enemies. And in his teaching, Jesus notes how common the opposite is: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But it must not be so with you.” Christian leadership is not about power or authority. Apparently, it’s not even about getting recognition for your selfless actions, since Jesus even disapproves of the pagan leaders who wield the title “benefactor” so that all can marvel at how generous and noble they are. A true Christian leader must not care who gets the credit. And finally in this meal, Jesus both nurtures and chastises, comforts and rebukes, because he both feeds and encourages his disciples in this meal while also scolding those who do wrong. And so a real Christian leader looks out for those under their care, building them up… not only in strength and courage but in the wise use of those gifts. A Christian leader serves others always.
But how can this be? Is it not lunacy to serve even those who would harm you, as Jesus here serves Judas at the Last Supper? Is it not foolishness to give up for the sake of others, never knowing whether you’ll get back in return, not even taking the credit for your sacrifice but giving up even the fame of being do-gooder? How can you take such risks when—unlike Superman—you have no guarantee you’ll survive it should your generous risks go south?
Because what the Lord over and over declares in the Old Testament, what Jesus Christ reveals in the New… is that, yes, the times may be scary. But Jesus right before his own death says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But it must not be so with you. The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” The reason we can act foolishly in the eyes of others, the reason why we can give without worry about getting credit, the reason we can turn the other cheek when insulted or threatened by others… is that our Christian faith declares God is with us. Emmanuelle, God with us… is our secret weapon. God with us means that—if we serve even those who wish us ill—we know that Christ did the same, that Christ is with us in that moment, that even should that chapter of our life not have a happy ending that the Lord who is author of all our stories promised us how the book at large ends. When we turn the other cheek at gossip encircling us, we know that Christ who was mocked and the man of sorrows is with us. We can serve others, we can self-sacrifice, we can lead in the self-offering way Christ lead… because we are replenished by the God who looks out for us. Christ’s assurance gives us a quiet self-confidence, a humble trust that God is with us… that enables us to wash the feet of a Judas, to pray for the forgiveness of enemies even as they crucify us, to bless others and then like Jesus warn them to not mention it to others but rather keep our help in secret trust. If you read the Old Testament, the worst kings of Israel were those who trusted in their own power, in their own cunning, in alliances with rival kingdoms or gods. They all failed. But the best kings? They held onto a quiet, certain hope… that YHWH, the Lord of Hosts, was with them always. It is the same today: true Christian leaders rely not on their own strength or wisdom… but rather trust in a patient, enduring hope that God is with them. We can be so courageous in our leadership… because not only has Christ shown us it’s possible: Christ with us… makes it possible for us too.
So sisters and brothers, when fear makes you want to bend the rules a bit for your own safety, or when you are called to lead others, when you are looking for a leader to follow yourself… remember these words of Christ. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But it must not be so with you. The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” As Christians, we look to be and look follow leaders… who see our power not as something to hoard, not as something to use to assert our will on others… but rather as something to give away to build others up, just as Christ set aside all glory on the cross that we might be saved. I’m told there’s an election coming up. I obviously will never tell you who or what to vote for. But I will tell you this: Jesus our king of kings is our truest leader. And he teaches and demonstrates to us that those who lead must serve, those who are great must set aside their pride to become like the least, that no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Leadership is about setting others over and above yourself. May we Christians—in our ministry, in our families, in our work, in our life in the wider world—imitate Christ, taking on the mantle of leadership… so that we might be servants. Amen.