Monday, October 19, 2015

the desire for greatness

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Proper 24, Year B, 2015

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Sometimes I just have to laugh at the disciples. They are so thick-skulled at times that Jesus has to repeat himself in order for them to understand the lesson he’s trying to teach. 

Just before this passage, Jesus has predicted his death and resurrection for the third and final time. After the first time, Peter refuses to believe him and is reprimanded (Mark 8:31). After the second time, the disciples argue among themselves over who is the greatest (9:33-37). And this time, James and John have once again proven they’ve missed the mark when they tell Jesus they want to be seated right next to him in all his glory (10:37).

You see, the disciples believe, rightly, that the Messiah will come to usher in a new kingdom. But they interpret this to mean that Jesus is going to overthrow the Roman empire, or at the very least kick the Romans out of Jerusalem. And so when James and John ask to be on Jesus’ right and left side, they envision him as being a powerful, earthly king. They are trying to be great by association. 

Can you believe such arrogance? No wonder the other disciples were incensed! But the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in one of his sermons, cautions us that “…before we condemn [James and John] too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first…It’s a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.”

Each and every one of us has the desire to be first or best; it’s what Dr. King calls our “basic impulse.” It’s an instinct that has led to war and division, slavery and discrimination. It’s an instinct we have to keep fighting against all of our lives. 

Or perhaps, it’s an instinct that just needs to be re-framed

In his sermon, Dr. King continues, “ ‘[Jesus] reordered priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right…It’s a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love…I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.’ …and he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness.”

In our world, greatness is measured in power, wealth, and prestige. But in the kingdom of God, greatness is turned upside-down; “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). In his sermon, Dr. King proclaimed that “Nineteen centuries have come and gone and today [Jesus] stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history. All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned put together…have not affected the life of man on this earth…as much as that one solitary life” ("The Drum Major Instinct" by Dr. King). 

Unlike the disciples, you and I have the benefit of hindsight. We know what happens when Jesus goes to Jerusalem. At first, it appears the disciples are correct, and Jesus is paraded through cloak-and-palm-lined streets on a donkey to cheers of “Hosannah!…Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (Mark 11:9-10). But in less than a week the crowds change their tune and Jesus is betrayed, tried, convicted, and put to death on a cross.

James and John are probably surprised when they realize that the two people actually on Jesus’ left and right when the kingdom of God is ushered in are the two “bandits” crucified with him (Mark 15:27). The last will be first, indeed. 

To truly follow Jesus is to live a life of service to others, “translating love from easy and possibly empty words into meaningful deeds” (William J. Byron, SJ, The Word Explained, Year B, p. 232). Jesus redefines greatness, and “by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great…because everybody can serve” ("The Drum Major Instinct" by Dr. King).

My youngest sister once told me, “Lara, you may have set the bar, but I’m gonna raise it.” Before us today lies a challenge, to raise the bar with a new definition of greatness. May we follow Jesus’ example and help usher in the kingdom by serving one another, so that we can “take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love” (N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels). 

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