Rev. Peter Faass
Oh my gosh! This Gospel story is not what I needed to hear this week. The world is so filled with bombastic braggadocio these days that encountering the arrogance and hot air of James and John just about undid me. We experience so much unrelenting pride, egotism and self-importance assaulting us daily, that we hope to find some respite in church. But that’s not the case today. “Oh please, not the disciples too!” I thought, when I read this passage in Mark.
James and John, AKA the sons of thunder - that alone should tell us something about their personalities - sure had high opinions of themselves. That thunder moniker is revealing; it indicates they were big Type A extroverts with lots of bravura and bluster. They were the kind of people who suck the air out of a room as their inflated egos shove everyone else up against the walls. People who waste no opportunity to let you know how smart, savvy, well-connected, and rich they are. They certainly don’t miss any opportunity to take care of themselves. You know the type: Two scoops of ice cream for them, one for everybody else.
“’Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ (Now there’s a red flag statement, if ever there was one) And [Jesus] said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’”
These two guys are schemers. They must have been on a coffee run at Starbucks when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. You remember, right? “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” No meekness here. As Jesus speaks of his kingdom, these guys see an opportunity to jockey for positions of great power and authority in the new Jesus administration. They want first dibs on being Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, acquiring all the power and benefits that accrue to these positions. Worse yet, they do it behind the backs of their other ten colleagues. You may have run into people like this in the workplace, or your family or – heaven forbid – the Church!
James and John were prepared to throw the other disciples under the bus to get what they wanted – wealth, possessions, power and status. They wanted the government planes and expense accounts. They wanted the glory and all its trappings they believed Jesus would deliver, and they were hell bent to get it, regardless of how that impacted others.
Things haven’t changed much from the first century to the 21st. Encountering the tidal wave of arrogance, hubris and greed that washes over us these days is not only appalling, it’s exhausting. It’s a trail to read or listen to the news anymore. I really need a good dose of humility right now. I think we all do. I crave quiet and unassuming, not loud and arrogant.
The truth is, I think people who are quiet, thoughtful, self-effacing and humble have the most to offer. And I think this is true because they are of God, because these qualities are incarnated in Jesus. “The last shall be first,” he said. Don’t rush for the place of honor at the head of the table at a banquet.
“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Mt.20:28) “He poured water into a basin, washed the disciples' feet.” Jesus is all about humility and becoming the servant of all. So when I say I want more humility, I’m saying I want more Jesus. I want more Jesus-like behavior.
Following Jesus is about service to others. He literally exhausts himself trying to drill that message into his disciples. Following Jesus is about taking the lower seat at the banquet, not the one flanking the host. It is about caring for the least of those among us, not sucking up to the well-connected and the powerful. It is about loving our neighbors as ourselves. Not trampling over others to get what we want.
This servanthood roll is our prime directive from God. We should hold adherence to it as a yardstick by which we measure not only the moral quality of our own lives, but of those running for elected office in all levels of government, and of CEO’s, CFO’s, stockholders, bishops, priests, deacons, and all who lead in the Church (in other words, of all people).
What the world needs now is humility, compassion and love. Despite how many believe, these qualities of humility, compassion and love are not signs of weakness – of being a so-called snowflake – they are signs of moral strength. Of ethical strength. Of Jesus’ strength.
We've experienced this Jesus strength when we serve others. These are moments where we have put someone else's needs first and ours last. This isn’t because we want something in return, but solely from the sheer delight of serving, as Jesus calls us to.
Those are moments when we volunteer for St. Herman’s, or helped a friend in need, or comforted and encouraged someone in despair, or lent a hand to someone who is ill by cooking a meal or running an errand. When we do these things, we experience the joy of giving ourselves to another person. When we do these things, we make ourselves vulnerable to the needs of others – we don’t jockey to get the best for ourselves. In these compassionate acts of putting others first, we have been rewarded not simply by the gratitude of the recipient but by our own increased sense of purpose, fulfillment, courage, and – hopefully, as Christians - of building up God’s reign.
My appeal to you in these days of an often savagely unsympathetic, selfish, arrogant, and mean-spirited culture is to build on these experiences. Heaven knows there is no dearth of opportunities to do these things in this congregation. The good stewardship of time and talent is equally as important as our treasure.
When you give of yourself to others, Jesus is at work in you - and he will continue to do good works through you if you desire. Make Jesus’ humility and compassion for all God’s children the context of your life, this church, our communities and this nation in which we live.
In so doing you will be Jesus’ hands at work in the world. And this work has the power to heal the cancer of arrogance, greed and “MeFirst-ism” that is assaulting us. Let it be so.