Sunday, October 17, 2021
It’s homecoming season, and just last weekend was both my seminary’s ten-year class reunion, which I joined virtually, and my college class’s 15-year-reunion, which I missed. Do any of your alma maters do alumni awards? I remember not long after I graduated seminary, my college nominated a “kid” even younger than I was, someone who was serving as a first-year pastor in middle of nowhere North Dakota for this distinguished young alumni award. I have a confession to make: I was jealous! I didn’t want to admit it, but here I was serving on the bishop’s staff as Director for Evangelical Mission in Nebraska, which come on, is way better than North Dakota, and I felt that I was passed over for the award. Overlooked. Neglected. When I stopped to think more about it, I was pretty silly. Don’t we want the best pastors serving every church everywhere, even in middle of nowhere North Dakota? Why couldn’t I simply be happy for my colleague, rather than jealous? Our faith isn’t a competition. Still, I like recognition for my hard work just like the next person!
In today’s gospel reading, James and John’s interaction with Jesus is almost comical it’s so ridiculous. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” they start out. That takes some guts to say to the Lord and Savior of the universe. But they don’t stop there! Out of all the faithful followers of Jesus in the whole world, they want to sit at Jesus’ right hand and at his left hand when he comes in glory. They must think they’re pretty hot stuff, second only to Jesus. They deserve to sit next to him. They should be recognized for all that they have done to follow him as his devoted disciples. Really, it’s the least Jesus could do, to let them sit by him for all eternity. They want to call “dibs” on being first place with Jesus!
We can laugh about James and John’s ridiculous request of Jesus, but the truth is, we’re often just as attracted to public recognition of our hard work and dedication to following Jesus. We can get pretty competitive with our fellow believers pretty quickly. Last week, we talked about our uneasy relationship with money and the fact that we live in a consumerist culture that makes it difficult to distance ourselves from the allure of wealth. Today, Jesus exposes another big temptation among even the most well-meaning of Christians: the allure of power and success. We are consumers, but we are also great competitors. Who doesn’t like to receive an award for doing good?! Who doesn’t like recognition for their efforts? Last week, to register for our virtual seminary class reunion there was even a line on the registration to list awards received. I was a little embarrassed to leave it blank. I like to impress other people just as much as the next guy, it turns out. I’m not any better than James or John.
How easy it is to look at other people, even in the church, and compare ourselves to others. Our default is to think, “What’s in it for me? What will I get in return?” We might even try to one-up each other. Partly we do this because outward recognition and rewards assures us of our worthiness with others. We can’t feel like we’re “good enough” without someone telling us we are, ideally with a trophy or certificate or something visual. I grew up in the generation that really reinforced this idea – you know, all of us on the soccer team whether we won or lost got a “participation” medal at the end of the season. Our parents had to make sure we all felt special. Jesus flips our understanding of Christian success on its head. He calls us to be humble and serve others, rather than expect to be served by others. He reminds us that faith is not a competition!
Have you notice by now in the gospel of Mark that the disciples are experts at asking inappropriate questions at completely the wrong time? You see, Jesus has just gotten done telling the disciples for the third time that he is going to be handed over and condemned to death, mocked, killed, and rise again. And this is the moment they need to ask Jesus about the seating arrangement in heaven? They don’t understand, Jesus tells them, that to sit at Christ’s right or left hand is to put themselves next to Jesus on the cross, which if you remember, was the place of two criminals. The closer we get to Jesus, the closer we get to suffering for the sake of the gospel. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus asks them. Do you even know what you’re talking about? Jesus asks James and John. Do we understand what Jesus is saying? I hope we’re humble enough to admit not all of the time, just like those first disciples!
While we may have a tendency to relate to others in competition rather than in collaboration, Jesus calls us all to follow him in service to one another. When we think about a traditional understand of our relationship with God, we may even think in terms of service: God wants us to serve him, to give him our all. We might think through our day and evaluate how well we’ve followed the commandments or rules God has given us. We often say we are here to serve God and to please God, not to please people. But Jesus even turns our service of God around in this passage from Mark! Christ demonstrates on the cross that it’s not about what we do for God to earn God’s love and attention, God loves us so much that he sends his only son to die on the cross for us. It’s about what God does for us! Jesus says that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve! Let that sink in for a moment. When we look at the cross, we realize with some embarrassment perhaps that we approach God like James and John: what have you done for me, lately, God? And Jesus shows us what he does for us, by dying on the cross and rising again. Jesus does what we could never do for ourselves!
It’s OK to sometimes get recognition for what we do in Jesus’ name, we’re only human. Rather than starting from a place of competition with others in the church, though, we strive to start from the place of service, without expectation of a reward. How can I love my neighbor? How can I serve someone else today? How can I be Christ to someone who needs to know the love and grace of God? All of us, no matter how great or small, young or old, whatever our talent, have a place in God’s kingdom and a part to play. Some of us can be generous financially or help keep track of our books and budgets. Some of us have good speaking voices or singing voices. Some of us can teach or listen well to others, visiting the sick and lonely. Some of us prefer to work behind the scenes, with our hands to maintain our property or make beautiful works of art or assist with technology and digital media! The truth is, we are all given a place next to Jesus as members of his kingdom, regardless of who we are and what we do. Our reward is in heaven, and it has already been secured for us by Jesus, the one who comes to serve and not be served, to give his life as a ransom for many. Thanks be to God! Amen.