Bosses From Hell and One From Heaven

by Rev. Scott Summerville

Mark 1:14-16

I don’t want you to think that I’m looking for your sympathy, but I must tell you that I had to write two sermons this week. At the beginning of the week I read the Scriptures for today, and I was fascinated by the words of the apostle Paul in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians (7:29): “Brothers and sisters… from now on… let those who have wives be as though they had none.”

Hmmm… no wife. What is this? I have had a wife for a very long time, and I had always been of the opinion that I should pay close attention to my wife. I am certain that this is her opinion as well. I have found that I pay a heavy price when I do not pay close attention to my wife. But there it is in the Good Book: “from now on let those who have wives be as though they had none.”

I follow this advice for several days. I ignored my wife as completely as possible, during which time I composed a sermon on this very subject: “Living As Though You Do Not Have a Wife When, In Fact, You Have One.” However, but by the end of the week I was forced to abandon both my sermon and my attempt to be faithful to the teaching of the apostle Paul with respect to wives. Let just say, living as though my wife was not there was not working well. Furthermore, I got a phone call at the end of the week from a young couple who are planning to be married here later this year, saying that they were going to be in town and they were going to come to the service this morning. That did it. I had to tear up that sermon on the importance of ignoring your wife and start afresh.

Fortunately there are always several weekly Scriptures from which to choose, so rather than focusing today on First Corinthians chapter 7, I shall focus on the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1 (14-16).

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.
Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Years ago I preached a sermon on this passage in which I stated that this was the most sad and tragic passage in the entire Bible, because it is where Jesus asks men to give up fishing. I was an avid fisherman at that time. After I preached that sermon, I was cornered at the coffee hour by a retired commercial fishermen. He said, “Young man, if you knew anything about real fishing, you would have had a different interpretation on that gospel story. Do you know what it’s like to be on the deck of a fishing boat getting sprayed by freezing water for twelve hours at a clip, with your back breaking and your hands cracked?”

It always fascinates me how much our own life experience affects the way that we read the Scriptures. To me, the fishermen in the story were giving up something very pleasurable – fishing. To the old fisherman, they were giving up back breaking, miserable, dangerous labor. No two people hear the same story in exactly the same way. What’s more, no person comes to the same story in exactly the same way when they read it again and again. This is what makes the Scripture so rich and fascinating in the life of the church. The words stay the same, but each person reading this story has different life experience, and each of us is changing our perspective throughout our lifetime.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

What does this story connect to in your life at this very moment?

As I read those words this week, what came to my mind was all the people who are struggling with their bosses. This week several people spoke about painful experiences they are having at work because the of the behavior of their bosses. I hear this complaint very often. So as I thought about the gospel story today, my attention turned to the way Jesus called forth the devotion and love of those who worked with him. I thought of Jesus as a boss. The disciples refer to Jesus as Master; to them he was the boss. They dropped everything and freely followed him.

So what sort of a boss was he? Does he have anything to teach us about being a boss? Let’s think of the disciples as his staff. Does the interaction that Jesus has with his “staff” shed any light on the struggles many people have in the workplace, especially the struggles people have when the boss is not anything like Jesus Christ?”

You can have the greatest job in the world on paper – a perfect career – but if the people you work with and especially if the people you work for are not reasonable, emotionally mature, and ethical, your life can be miserable.

So what kind of a boss was Jesus?

He was always clear about what he expected.
He was not a manipulator.
He was extremely direct.
He acted with authority, but at the same time with humility.
He expected extraordinary things of those who followed him, but when they failed, he did not reject them; instead he strengthened them so they would be less likely to fail again.
He rubbed shoulders with his staff. They shared the same food; the same living conditions; they traveled together; his feet got just as dusty and dirty and sore as theirs.
He did not treat his staff as his personal servants – in fact he was a servant to them, even shocking them by washing their feet.
He also embodied the principle that the essence of leadership is love. One of his last memos to his staff read, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

So the question, “What kind of a boss was Jesus?” is a question we can answer pretty readily. Those of us who have authority over other human beings at work or in other positions of leadership, can learn a great deal from Jesus and the way he inspired and loved and served those who worked for him.

The second question I posed is more difficult. Does the relationship between Jesus and the disciples offer any guidance for those who are struggling in their relationships with people in authority over them?

Many people are in unhappy and abusive situations in their work. I hear from people whose bosses, as they experience them, are inconsistent, manipulative, inappropriately angry and unsupportive. This phenomenon is common enough to be one of the most significant life issues that face people today. The distresses of the economy and widespread job insecurity are likely to make the problem more severe.

There are a number of internet sites devoted to people sharing their stories about bad bosses. Here’s an example – a story from one of these sites:
“This group of engineers, who had won an award for efficiency and productivity, actually had the president of the company stand up at the awards dinner and berate them [at the awards dinner!] He told them that they were not good workers, they were lazy slackers, and many of them should leave the company. Then he pointed to the door. This was apparently his way of motivating people, or keeping them from getting ‘a big head’ about their success.”
Ouch! I should add that there are also web sites for stories about good bosses.
There are not nearly as many of them, but there are such places.

Very often those who are in charge do not seem to be aware of the negative effects that they are having on those who work under them. And it’s not like you can say to your boss, “The staff has conferred and we have decided that we should let you know that you are a inconsistent, defensive, inappropriately angry, and unsupportive, and, PS, a few of us think you’re just a jerk. ”

This is the dilemma of being in a relationship of uneven power, unequal power – you can’t just say what you think and what you are feeling.

Living in abusive conditions of any sort makes people sick. Several years ago a member of this congregation was dealing with a messy situation at work and she had internalized the mess – she was constantly attacking herself, blaming herself for the problems, and blaming herself in addition for not being able to deal with the problems. By having other people as a sounding board she was able to acknowledge that she was not the problem, and she was able to come up with a strategy that worked for her. She was able to stay in that job with integrity and with some satisfaction. It was gratifying to see her achieve this sense of control and dignity where before she felt abused and powerless.

I asked the question: Does the interaction that Jesus has with his “staff” shed any light on the struggles many people have in the workplace, especially the struggles people have when the boss is not anything like Jesus Christ?”

Jesus deeply loved his disciples; at the same time he was aware of their humanity and they never expected them to be anything other human. Sometimes it is hard to remember when people have authority over us that they are simply human; but that is an essential awareness. It helps us realize that their hurtful behaviors are arising out of their own human failings, their own fears, their own ignorance. It is important to remember that everybody in the situation is human. And the boss may be more scared than you are.

Back to the story of the fishermen: When Jesus called the fisherman they dropped their nets and followed him. Fix that image in your mind: “Follow me!” And they dropped everything and followed him. This is radical faith.

No one wants to lose a job, especially in these times, but the image of these fishermen dropping everything, giving up their old jobs, and following Jesus is a powerful primal image of faith. Sometimes we have responsibilities to other people and all sorts of reasons why we feel we must suffer abuse rather than move on. I am not advising anyone to do anything foolish. But I do say, remember the fisherman. Living by faith means at some point in your life you do things simply because they are right, even if they do not seem to be practical. Sometimes we have to take a leap into the unknown in order to free ourselves and get a fresh start.

Maybe you’re not going to quit your job today; but remember the fisherman; remember that you also have the power to take bold action when you need to. Sometime we value security so much, that we allow ourselves to remain in unhealthy and abusive conditions that kill our souls.

This subject is one that grows that longer you ponder it, and I cannot encompass it in one message. I would be very happy to hear from any of you this week or at any time how you have experienced these kinds of struggles in your work, what have you have learned, and how your understanding of the gospel affects the way you cope with challenges in your life and work? If you would allow me, I might even use your experience as material for a future sermon.

One more comment for now:

You may not be able to control the boss, but that does not mean that the boss has the power to control you, at least not all of you. It is not possible to control how others will be, especially when others have power over us. This makes it all the more important to nurture those parts of our lives that we do have control over- our relationships with family, friends, and church, so that whatever we have to face, we will be able to draw from an inner reservoir of wisdom, love, and strength. We need strategies to cope with the difficult people and the problems we confront, bad bosses and all the rest, but every strategy must begin with the strengthening of our inward being.

We cannot control other people, but also we cannot surrender our lives to the domination of any other human being.

I shall conclude with a “good boss” story. This is from a “Good Boss” web site:
My boss is a dynamo. She works very long hours and does very detailed and technical work, but she never forgets to tell me how much she appreciates me. If I have stayed on long after my regular eight-hour day she thanks me profusely and has even treated me to dinner. She often will come to me with photocopying jobs, and upon finding me busy with other peoples’ work, she just rolls up her sleeves and does it herself. She’s not above doing “menial” tasks! She is a real team player, and sees our work as “our work” rather than a division of duties. She is a true example of one who leads by example. I am proud to work for her and with her, and I believe that the quality of work we produce is enhanced by the fine working environment she creates.

May you find such a boss;
may you be such a boss,
may you become such a leader.

Grace and peace to you.

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