Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One Up

Sermon preached October 18, 2009

Texts: Mark 10:35-45

Play: Jean Knight, "Mr. Big Stuff"

So do you think this might be what the other disciples were saying to James and John – “who do you think you are, Mr. Big Stuff?” They were angry, for James and John had the audacity to ask Jesus to be seated on his right and left in his time of glory.
As is often the case in Mark, there is an underlying irony – sad and tragic and yet, humorous, all at the same time. Jesus time of “glory” is also going to be a time of sorrow. Death on a cross casts a large shadow over the telling of this story. Mark, the gospel writer, already knows what’s coming, but makes it clear that the disciples, James and John did not. They just wanted to be in places of importance, places of prime importance.
The other disciples were angry with James and John. It does not seem as if they are frustrated because James and John have misunderstood where following Jesus is taking them – to Jerusalem and the cross. They are angry because of the audacity of James and John, their presumption. Why should they seek the most important places? What about us? They don’t understand the situation any better than James and John. They just want to make their case for being important, being most important. There are only so many places at the top, and why should James and John be trying to claim them? The Reformation theologian John Calvin remarked that this story displays “the bright mirror of human vanity” (quoted in Feasting on the Word).
Jesus wisely intervenes. Yes, he admits, this is a dog eat dog world. This is a one up world, where everyone strives to be one up on others. Yes, this is a “he who dies with the most toys wins” world. But… BUT “it is not so among you.” What an interesting way of putting the matter. “But it is not so among you.” It isn’t? Of course it is – they have just been arguing about who is one up, who is the biggest dog in the pack. “But it is not so among you.” Jesus reminds them of who they are called to be, reminds them that when they are at their best as followers of Jesus, they will be different from the surrounding culture, the surrounding world.
And those words of Jesus echo through the centuries to our ears – “but it is not so among you.” We are invited to live differently because of who we are in Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, our relationships in Christian community should not be one up relationships, but rather relationships of mutuality, of caring, of support, of listening. Let me say a few words about what I think this means and doesn’t mean.
I don’t think this means there is no such thing as leadership in Christian community. Rather it means that leadership in Christian community is servant leadership. Servant leadership is well-defined by Robert Greenleaf, AT&T executive and Carleton College graduate in his book Servant Leadership (1977). A servant leader does all she can “to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” he asks: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what it the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? (13-14) Leaders in Christian community are concerned to remind others that they are important, and less concerned with their own importance. They are listening, learning, loving leaders.
I don’t think the words of Jesus mean there are no teachers in Christian community. Rather, teachers in Christian community share their knowledge aware that, in the words of a master teacher, Parker Palmer, “truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (A Hidden Wholeness, 127). We recognize in Christian community that there are those among us who have knowledge to convey, but the kind of teachers we need are good conversationalists. They are listening teachers who learn with and from those they teach.
We need leaders and teachers in Christian community. Jesus’ words don’t rule that out, but they do ask leaders and teachers to be careful. They caution all who would teach and lead that being a leader and/or teacher in Christian community requires deep self-awareness, keen self-analysis. Leaders point a direction, paint pictures of a path ahead. The danger is always that they do that without sufficient dialogue with those they are leading. It is a constant temptation. Teachers share their expertise, the knowledge they have gained in studying something more than others. Expertise is always in danger of becoming a one up game. It, too, is a constant temptation. Leaders and teachers in Christian community need to be deeply self-aware and keenly self-analytic.
Jesus words don’t eliminate the need for leaders and teachers in Christian community. They redefine what it means to teach and to lead. They challenge us, they challenge me, to be a different kind of teacher and leader. But maybe the most profound truth in the words of Jesus is that when it comes to the deepest questions of life, all of us carry insight and if we play one up games we miss the insights we need from each other. Who of us has God all wrapped up? We are going to be talking about that during Soul Kitchen today. Who of us has completely mastered what it means to be young, to grow old, to be a parent, to be a spouse, to seek a better world, to know what it means to love? We each have experiences to share that shed a light on what it means to live as a follower of Jesus, and if we are too caught up in games of our own self-importance, we miss the light in others. It should not be so among us.
A favorite movie of mine is Forrest Gump. I first saw it with a youth group in Corpus Christi, Texas, when I had led a youth mission trip to the area with my youth group from Ridgewood Park UMC in Dallas. It is a wonderful and rich film in so many ways, but one scene that has remained with me since I first saw the movie is the scene where Forrest proposes to Jenny. Forrest Gump is a person who is intellectually slow. Jenny is his life-long friend whose broken home led her to look for love and happiness in countless places and in countless ways – never quite finding it. So Forrest proposes, and when Jenny shakes her head “no,” Forrest replies, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” And he does.
To be a follower of Jesus is to seek to love, and each of us knows something about what love is, yet none of knows all of what love is or requires. So we need to listen to each other. We need to build a kind of community where we listen to each other’s stories of trying to love in a world that encourages one up living. But one up living, that’s not our way. Our way is the way of listening, of learning, of loving. May we be who we are. Amen.

Forrest Gump, "I Know What Love Is"

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