Today, we’re concluding our series looking at the components that will make up our intentional discipleship plan, the method, the approach we’re going to use as we try to focus on our purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our hope is that we will help folks to Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, and Serve Jesus as we journey on the path of discipleship. We talked about how we want to work to bring folks into Jesus’ presence to meet him, and how we will do the hard work of choosing to follow Jesus, even when there are sometimes many paths we’re tempted to choose. Today, we think about how we continue to grow in the life of faith. As followers of Jesus, we commit to serving him, and the best way we’ve found to serve Jesus is in serving one another, serving our neighbor. Jesus always links together loving God and loving neighbor. We demonstrate our love of God and our service to Christ when we work to serve one another. The original incarnation of our intentional discipleship statement was Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, Serve (with) Jesus. The with in parenthesis was mean to indicate both that we are meant to serve Jesus and that, since the heart of Jesus’ work was serving others, we serve others with Jesus. It was a little too confusing and too disruptive of the flow of the statement to keep it, but the sense of it is still here. For me, we best embody Jesus’ call to be servants when we follow his example. Jesus served people in face-to-face, hands-on encounters. He built relationships with people. He listened to stories of pain and hurt and suffering. He went where he would meet all kinds of people. He gave his time and attention. He let people know that they were of worth, that they were loved, that they belonged to God and to the community. When we think about how we want to serve as a congregation, when we think about the best ministries and missions for us to engage with, the more they reflect the patterns of Jesus, the better we will embody the servant heart of Jesus.
Jesus talks about being a servant in our text today from the Gospel of Mark. James and John, brothers and part of the Twelve, approach Jesus with an extremely bold request. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” It’s almost like they think they can get Jesus to say yes and then tell him what they want. But Jesus asks them to say what it is they want. And they go bold: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words, give us the very best places there are, for all of eternity. Wow! I am just bowled over by them. Would you dare ask for such a thing?
Jesus has just been talking, as you remember, about how hard it is to enter the reign of God when we’ve got things like our wealth and our stuff and our love of accumulating weighing us down - harder than a camel going through the eye of a needle, in fact. Jesus says that it isn’t even possible for humans to do on their own merit. Only for God, with God, is it possible. In the short handful of verses between that passage and our text for today, later in Mark 10, Jesus speaks about how the first must be last and the last will be first. And then he describes his own eventual crucifixion and death, saying that he will be handed over to the religious authorities who will condemn him, mock him, beat him, flog him, and kill him. He does say that he will rise again after three days. But all in all, the conversations Jesus has been having with the disciples paint a picture of a challenging faith journey that requires our all. It makes me wonder, then, if James and John were even listening when I read about their request.
Jesus tries to tell them that they don’t know what they’re asking. But they insist that they can do it, they can follow where Jesus leads, drink the cup he drinks, be baptized with his baptism, meaning-laden imagery that speaks of the suffering and trials and violent death Jesus will endure. Jesus acknowledges that they will indeed walk the hard road with him. But he still doesn’t have seats of honor up for grabs. That’s not on offer.
When the other ten disciples learn of James and John’s request, they’re furious - whether because they think the request is foolish, or because they wish they’d ask themselves, we’re not told. So Jesus tries to set them straight. Outside of God’s way, Jesus says, when someone is a ruler, the ruler lords power over others. When someone is great, has great status, a role of honor, they act as a tyrant. That is not the way it is among disciples, Jesus says. If a disciple wants to be great, that disciple becomes a servant, not a ruler. If someone wants the best place, that one becomes a slave, not a tyrant. In fact, Jesus says, he himself “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” With that, the conversation ends, no doubt leaving the disciples with a lot to think about.
I think it is easy to dismiss this text, to insist that we don’t have to wrestle with Jesus’ words because we’d never be so silly, so daring, so deluded as to ask for the very best seats at Jesus’ side for eternity like James and John did. We just want a place with Jesus, right? But we don’t need the best place. Any place will do! Really! But anytime I want to dismiss a passage as “not about me” I know to be suspicious that I’m not being very honest with myself.
Some of you might not know this about me, but I can be pretty competitive. Not in every area of life. But I like to win, and I like to excel, and I can get really motivated to push myself if I have someone else in my field of vision that I can challenge myself against. For example, I, like many folks, use a Fitbit. And people often hold these “Workweek Hustle” challenges to see who can take the most steps from Monday-Friday. And I like to win these challenges. When I’m on my game, I will walk to exhaustion if it means I win the challenge, for which the prize is a big fat nothing other than bragging rights. And even when I’m off my game, being part of the competition usually pushes me to walk more steps than I might want to without the extra motivation - because I don’t want to look bad in front of my co-walkers. So, sometimes my competitive streak can serve me well, like when it pushes me to a healthier lifestyle, or years ago when I wanted our team from my first church to fundraise the most money when we participated in the Relay for Life. My competitive nature spurred me and others to be bolder and more consistent in our fundraising aims and our efforts did a lot of good for our community.
Other times though, I’m aware that my competitive nature can be less fun and more harmful to myself and others. When I was in high school, my relationship with my dearest friend was tainted over time by a competitive streak we nurtured between us. We were in everything together, and we seemed to want all the same things. We competed over who got the better scores on our piano and voice solos at NYSSMA, who got the better parts in the school play, who got better grades in our classes, who could gain the affection of the boys we liked - always the same boy of course, and honestly, even who could walk faster from place to place. Our competition with each other was covered in a sheen of niceness to each other’s faces, and meanwhile the heart of our friendship was crumbling.
Life in the church isn’t always free from that competitive edge either. I try hard to focus on following Jesus and tuning out any other voices, but I will admit that I can get pretty fixated on how I’m stacking up against other pastors. How many people do they have in worship? How many youth are coming to their fellowship group? Yeah, sure, they have a huge budget, but did they pay all of their Ministry Shares to conference this year? I want to be a good pastor, a successful pastor, and sometimes I’m tempted to measure my success by seeing how I stack up against others who are doing this same work.
I imagine, with some examination, you might find areas of your own life, in your own experiences, where you can relate. We can be very driven, sometimes in good ways, but often in ways that harm and hurt, when we’re chasing success. We want to get ahead. We compare ourselves. We become jealous. We want to be better than others, and when we get focused on wanting to be better than, we stop caring for the people who are around us. We want to have more than others so that we’ll know that we are successful, worthy. We try to secure our place, our power, our status. At our worst, our need to grab enough power skews to hate, to greed, to violence, and we see horrific acts occur, like the tragic shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. Such hateful actions seem like the sad but natural extension of our fear that there is not enough for all of us.
When I reflect on my own chasing after success, which I like to pretend I don’t do, that I’m above, James and John’s audacious request of Jesus starts to make a little more sense to me. All the time we struggle with the deep feeling that there is not enough to go around. Our insecurities and fears play up this idea of scarcity in our minds, helped along by messages from our larger culture. If there is not enough, we have to compete for limited resources - of power, of money, of status, of privilege, of rights, of admiration, maybe even of love. David Lose writes, “Are we not also tempted to assume that there is not enough to go around and, like James and John coming to make their request to Jesus apart from their compatriots, view those God has given us to be our companions merely as our competitors?” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/10/pentecost-22-b-gospel-irony/)
James and John believe Jesus is the ultimate source of power, and they want to make sure they have the best share of it they can secure. My friend Sara, who is a United Methodist pastor in Schenectady, had this to say about better understanding James and John: “[James and John] try to seek power within the system as they understand it – and by doing so they display just how much they believe that Jesus is the source of power. They ask to sit at his right and and his left … They lived in an honor-shame society, the ultimate hierarchical system. Honor was a zero sum game. They thought Jesus had it, and they were trying to gain more honor by getting closer to him and acknowledged by him.
“However, because it was a zero sum game, IF two members of the inner circle of 12 gained honor, then it meant the other 10 got moved further away and lost honor. The other disciples seemed to believe as James and John did: that things were scary, that this was a time to try to gain security, that Jesus was the best bet they had, and that Jesus was so honor-filled that the closer they got to him the better they'd do.
“It seems to me that they DID have the faith of a mustard seed, they just didn't have it in the right thing. While the disciples, led by James and John, are vying for honor in a zero sum game that permeated their society, Jesus is talking about an entirely different system. They ask for a favor, and Jesus says, “You don't get it. I'm not the honor-source you think I am. I'm here to upend the system, not to best it. Are you able to pay the price for upending the system with me?”” (https://www.facebook.com/notes/fumc-first-united-methodist-church-of-schenectady-new-york/twisting-expectations-based-on-isaiah-403-5-and-mark-1032-45/1792179214238204/)
Jesus is here to upend our system! He knows that chasing after enough power and status and success so that we don’t feel so scared and unsure of ourselves and our place inevitably leads to our lording our power over others, our becoming tyrants who look down from our places of privilege. That is not the way of Christ. That is not the path he’s taking. That is not the way God has chosen to work in the world, because no one can ever truly win at that game. If you want to compete, Jesus says, if you want to be the best for Jesus, here’s what you do: first place goes to the one who puts themselves last every time. The reward for greatest goes to the one who serves all, puts themselves at the lowest place. And to set the example, Jesus is the servant par excellence, willing to give his own life for others.
Your place with God is already secure - it has been, it will be always. God created you and loves you. No status you can achieve can earn you your place because it is already yours. No power you accrue will add any value to you in God’s eyes because you are already treasured beyond measure. Trusting in how very beloved you already are, all that energy you’ve been spending on striving for success can be turned instead into following Jesus. He’s already saved a place for you, by his side, a servant, pouring out your life for others as he does.
Yesterday, as news of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue unfolded, which followed news of an arrest made of a person sending packages containing bombs to politicians and other prominent figures, my brother Jim posted on facebook that he’d been listening the hip hop group Public Enemy, in particular their song, “Fight the Power,” with my niece Siggy. He told her that they should fight the power with love. Siggy told him in return that swords work better. Jim concluded, “It’s getting harder and harder to argue with that.”
It is getting hard, isn’t it? But we can recall the words we shared last week - “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Jesus is here, upending our system, reminding us that despite how it seems otherwise, the power of love is always better than the power of the sword, being last is actually better than striving for first, and the greatest leader we know wants us working right next to him, serving like he does, where we’ll find our status as child-of-God to be all we ever needed. Amen.