(a sermon for October 13, 2019, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Isaiah 6:1-8 and Mark 10:35-45)
(a podcast version of this message can be found here)
One thing is for certain regarding our text for this morning: it’s that in approaching Jesus the way that they did James and John, those wily Zebedee brothers, simply didn’t get it.
I mean, basically what they were attempting there was an astonishingly bolder version of the maneuver I suspect most of us learned as kids on the playground: the act of “calling it.” You remember what I’m talking about here: you wanted to make sure you got your turn on the swings before everyone else, so just as soon as you were out the door for recess you shouted, “I call first on the swings!” Or, if there was going to be a kickball game happening you’d say, “I call being captain” or “I call first ups,” and theoretically, at least, that was enough to seal the deal for you! I must confess that I was never particularly good at the art of “calling it,” but as I recall those kids who were pretty much ruled the Opal Myrick School playground! There were great benefits, you see, for being skilled in this particular maneuver!
Of course, there are other names for this: calling “dibs,” for instance; or, in the case of claiming the front seat on a car ride, it’s “calling shotgun.” But whatever it’s called, it all comes down to the same thing: it’s about being first, and best, and in prime position; really, it’s all about power. And when James and John walk up to Jesus and first say to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” it’s pretty much to establish that whatever else Jesus might have to say about those who would be granted the right to sit at his right hand and at his left in glory, as far as James and John were concerned the whole issue was pretty much settled because they had already called it!
Now, understanding that I’m simplifying this just a tad, it’s nonetheless true that for these two disciples this was no casual request; for what they were asking of Jesus – what they were claiming – were in fact the highest places of honor in his glory, the power seats of his coming Kingdom. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that in Matthew’s version of this particular story, it’s James’ and John’s mother who makes this request of Jesus, which gives this request a softer edge; you know, this is just a concerned parent looking out for her children (“They’re good boys, Jesus, they deserve it!” ). But Mark’s gospel cuts to the heart of the matter, which is that it’s James and John seeking out the honor for themselves. And the language used actually bears this out: the original Greek of this passage suggests that more than asking, more than even wanting, the Zebedee boys were literally craving that place of power; and even the rest of the disciples could see that this was nothing more than a brazen self-seeking attempt to claim leadership at a moment when very soon the whole world would be taking notice (because remember, in just a few days Jesus would be making his “triumphal” Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem).
Clearly, as I said before, James and John just didn’t get it. And, in the words of Mark Vitalis Hoffman of United Lutheran Seminary, this is why Jesus answered this request, “doubtless with considerable exasperation,” by suggesting that “they don’t have a clue what they are asking for.” James and John couldn’t possibly conceive of drinking the same “cup” of suffering and death that Jesus would soon have to drink; these two eager disciples had no understanding of what it would mean to be baptized with the same baptism that Jesus was to endure. All they could see was the glory of it; all they could envision was that they would be firmly enthroned with Jesus in his glory as the authentic leader in God’s kingdom.
And to all this, Jesus simply responds – and not for the first time, it should be noted – you want to be first in line? Really? You’re ready to be the leader? You’re craving greatness? Maybe, he says, you’ve forgotten how “godless rulers throw their weight around,” and how “when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads,” [The Message] or how so easily these so-called great leaders become tyrants over the people. Well, know this: this is not how leadership goes with you: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” For “that is what the Son of Man has done: he came to serve, not to be served – and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage [The Message, again].” If you’re going to be my disciples; if you’re going to lead in my name and do so authentically… this is “the Way.”
For me the most perplexing thing about this story is that even though we know how mistaken James and John were in making that request of Jesus, we do understand where it comes from. I mean, let’s be honest; by and large in this culture when we think of leadership we think of accomplishment, self-determination, power, influence, autonomy… and volume! In fact, this week I heard a news commentator express the opinion that one of the big problems in politics today is that no matter how honest or earnest or wise someone happens to be, in these days it’s virtually impossible for anyone who’s quiet and unassuming or, God forbid, self-sacrificing to ever be elected to public office! Never mind politics, that’s simply human nature! What’s that ancient expression, “Fortune favors the bold?” Well, all too often it’s precisely an aura of self-centered boldness that ends up passing for authority and leadership in these times; and as history has revealed again and again, that’s usually not for the better. And trust me here, lest we think this wholly a secular issue, the church is not immune. Writes Leonard Vander Zee, “From medieval Popes who vied with kings over territorial control to pastors who accumulated so much power that they became corrupted by it, the church has repeated this mistake over and over.”
In the end, you see, what we have in this world and even, at times, amongst the faithful is a failure to understand authentic leadership, which as Jesus defines it will always be marked by self-giving service; in knowing and living unto the truth that the greatest of all will be the servant of all. And this is not a novel concept: Jesus is proclaiming this truth all through the gospels; that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first;”(Matthew 19:30) that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it;” (7:14) and how he said, “Let the little children come to me… for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (19:14) What it all comes down to is where the Kingdom of God is concerned, this Way on which Jesus even now is calling us to walk – and on which we are called to lead others – turns out to be the complete inverse of the world’s concept of power and success and glory. As disciples of Jesus, you see, the way of truly authentic leadership happens not in being served but in serving others in Jesus’ name.
And what does all this mean for us, friends? I dare say that none of us here – or at least I hope none of us here – are seriously vying for position regarding that seat at the right hand of Jesus; I do think we understand, as Jesus himself said, that that place “is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Better for you and me, I think, to be about the work of the kingdom right here in our own little part of the world.
But I do think there’s a lesson here for you and I here on Mountain Road: that even for those of us who simply try to live out our faith in normal, everyday kind of ways, there is a real temptation to settle into a “receive” mode in which all of life is about our own personal fulfillment: our goals, our ambitions, our dreams for our future. And when that happens; as life becomes more and more self-centered, we become less centered on God’s purposes for our lives. As Rick Warren has written in The Purpose Driven Life, while many believe that we’re supposed to get the most out of life, “that’s not the reason God made you. You were created to add to life on earth, not just take from it. God wants you to give something back… you were created to serve God!” And this applies no matter what you do in your life: whether you work as a pastor, or whether you teach, or drive a truck, or pick up garbage or do brain surgery for a living… to quote Warren again, “Regardless of your job or career, you are called to full-time Christian service. A ‘non-serving Christian’ is a contradiction of terms… if you aren’t serving, you’re just existing… [and that’s tragic] because life is meant for ministry. God wants you to learn to love and serve others unselfishly.”
At the center of the spiritual life and our Christian faith is the Way on which Jesus calls each one of us here to walk and to live; it is the way of service, it is the way of self-giving and true sacrifice, and not only it is an example of true authority and authentic leadership in the church, it is also the way that our greatest leaders – even a few sitting in our own pews – are known.
Back in seminary, we “wanna-be” pastors were taught all about the different kinds of power structures that exist within your average congregation… and let me just say that 35 years later, it’s still a nice bit of information to have! There’s elected power, of course; you know, the church officers, the deacons and trustees, and committee leaders, the lay-people chosen to act for the congregation and who, depending on how a church operates and how it relates to one another as a congregation, can yield a fair amount of power and influence. But then there’s also those with reputational power; and these are the people in the congregation who maybe don’t hold an office at all, but likely have been a part of the church for a long time and are people everybody loves and respects. These are the ones, if there’s a difficult and uncertain vote to be taken in a church meeting, that everyone will look to just to see how they voted before deciding themselves (trust me, folks, it happens!).
I’ve also discovered, though, that there’s also a servant power that exists in the church; in fact, I’ve seen it at work in every congregation I’ve served as pastor, including this one. And the thing is, it’s a very quiet and utterly assuming power, and it doesn’t necessarily belong to those who are the movers and shakers of the church; truth be told, sometimes you might not even know who they are, or at least not until their work has touched you in some way for the better, and even then maybe not. But believe me when I tell you that it’s powerful stuff. These are the people who send the anonymous notes of encouragement; who somehow just seem to know when a plate of brownies or a dinner casserole is just the thing to ease a troubled heart and empty belly after a hard day; who go out of their way to offer a friend or neighbor a ride to church or to the Saturday night bean supper (hint, hint!), who come to your pastor with some kind of gift – of money or of resources or something else – and somehow manage to get me involved in a covert operation in bringing this gift to a perfect stranger, all with the explicit instructions to never – never (!) – reveal the donor; these are the people who pray persistently, who care constantly, who serve without question and who love without limit… all because that’s the way that Jesus has called them to live, and to lead. And they’re not people who believe themselves to be privileged or entitled, or even powerful in any way… in fact, in my experience quite often these folks are more like Isaiah in our Old Testament reading today, feeling as though they’re somehow unworthy of and ill equipped for the task of doing God’s work, and yet when the Lord asks, they’re the very first ones to say “Here am I; send me!”
And I’ll tell you something else… these are the people – the ones with servant power – who keep the church, this church, alive and moving and growing.
And just think of what could happen by God’s grace and leading if we all utilized a bit of that power in our work together…
I pray that as we seek to walk the way of true discipleship, this will be the power that propels us forward.
And may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry