A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on October 21, 2012.
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 38:1-7 (34-41); Psalm 1`04:1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5:1-10
Two months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon about the human struggle to gain power. He called the desire to be important, to be out front, the “drum major instinct” believing everyone wants to be at the front of the parade.
Unchecked, King said, the drum major instinct leads some folks to racial prejudice: People thinking they are better than others, putting others down because of their race or some other imagined deficiency.
Unchecked, King said, this drum major instinct leads nations into thinking they are better than other nations, going to war against one another in what he called a “bitter, colossal contest for supremacy.” He said this even as the Vietnam War was raging, (embroiled in a warlike spirit) a war King said was senseless and unjust. He said all this was a result of a perversion of the drum major instinct.
King said James and John, like all of us, had that drum major instinct, and when they asked Jesus about sitting in the places of honor, “one would have thought Jesus would have said, ‘You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?’” But, as King pointed out, that isn’t what Jesus did. Instead, Jesus tapped in to this drum major instinct. He said, in essence, “Oh, I see you want to be first. I see you want to be great. I see you want to be important. Very well. That’s what I want, too. I want you to be first. I want you to be great. I want you to be important.
In fact, if you are my disciples, you must be these things and (listen closely now) this is how it can happen. If you want to be first, then be first in love. If you want to be important and significant, then strive for moral excellence. If you want to be great, then serve others. Because that’s how it is in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever wishes to be great must be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom to humanity.”
No matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to escape thinking of ourselves and our relationships in terms of position and power. No matter how old we are, or what status of life we achieve or fail to achieve, there’s always an inner awareness we have of where we stand in the world.
This vignette from Mark tells us a not-so-complimentary conversation held between the disciples to determine who would be granted the roles of power and influence among Jesus’s first followers. James and John sidled up to Jesus and stated their request, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
It’s hard to fill in all the details with certainty what then happened among the other ten disciples. Was it an indication Jesus’ first group of followers were a group of ambitious and aggressive young bucks that were naturally sorting out the pecking order among them? Was it a power thing between James and John to settle between those two alone to determine which between them held the reins of power by knowing who would serve on Jesus’ right, the true place of power, and who would serve from the lesser position on Jesus’ left? Or was this a larger issue as these two brothers joined together in a power coalition against the other ten leaving only the decision as to who would serve as first in charge and who would serve as second in charge leaving the other ten with no real power to wield? Whatever the case, the issue reveals that the arrogance of the disciples was unbounded and that they wanted the places of power and authority without paying attention to those whom were shutting out.
Naturally, overhearing all this, the other ten disciples were furious with them! “What nerve! How could they possibly think they might be the only ones considered for those positions?” Restated: “Why didn’t I think of that first?” So Jesus had to settle this kind of petty sibling rivalry and so too we might consider their struggle for power simply recognizing we too are power brokers when it comes to life’s relationships. Some give their power away afraid of its demands and questioning whether they think themselves worthy of it. Others overreach taking power and privilege away from those around them as a show of their own undernourished ego.
Jesus said it squarely, “You don’t even know what you’re asking for. Are you able to drink from the cup that I am to drink from? Are you willing to be baptized with the baptism I am soon to be baptized in?” meaning likely the baptism of death on a cross.
As Jesus and the disciples were deliberately traveling from the area south around the Galilee climbing towards Jesus’ certain suffering in Jerusalem, only Jesus seemed to be in touch with the reality of what was to take place there. Centered in his thoughts were surely the struggle between power and the right to protect self and the suffering of body and soul that would be the death of ego itself.
The disciples were instead caught up with the success of the growing ministry among the towns and villages of the region. They witnessed the excitement of being a part of something larger than anything that had ever come to this part of the world since the days of glory created by David and the unified kingdom when respect and might marked the zenith days of Hebrew history. They were caught up in the signs of power and missed the nature and source of power itself.
They could only see things from the perspective of the eye of the storm that had swept over the Galilean countryside. They couldn’t see down the road that a cost would be demanded of them for following Jesus. The days of glory soon turned to days of great personal cost to be a follower. The cost of their discipleship would be great and to be a leader among the followers of Jesus was a position not many desired once they became targets of the forces that opposed Jesus.
Granted, it’s a tacky request, but it does have the virtue of being sincere. Before we throw James and John under the bus for being so crass, let’s remember what prompted their request in the first place. In the verses leading up to their exchange with Jesus, they’ve been listening to him describe what lies ahead in Jerusalem. The Son of Man, says Jesus, will be condemned, mocked, spat upon, flogged and killed. Three days later he’ll rise again.
James and John have given up a lot to follow Jesus—the comforts of home, stable incomes, family, friends—so it’s no surprise that they hear Jesus’ grim prediction and start wondering about their own futures. What kind of return can they reasonably expect to get from their investment in Jesus? If we are to understand the words and the example of Jesus in kingdom matters, we must address the power-lust that it a part of whom we are and recognize our need for healing. We must open ourselves up to recognizing our willingness to drink from the cup that Jesus drank from and to be baptized in the baptism of suffering that Jesus experienced. Only then will we be able to find ways to be reconcilers, as Jesus wants us to be.
Only when we find the way of humility and seek to serve and not to be served will we be able to be what Henri Nouwen called, “wounded healers,” servants of God in this world. By that he meant only when we recognize our own woundedness and the ways we have been broken can we be able to extend the hand of help to people. It’s our brokenness that enables us to remember what it means to be alienated from God. Only when we are in touch with our own alienation can we offer reconciliation.
Our Central Seminary friend Jerrod Hugenot, who now pastors in Bennington, New Hampshire, writes that, “Humility is not easy. It disarms us of our pretenses. To be humble admits the Christian story ends in a way shaped by the cross and points to the new life Christ gives us in his resurrection glory. We do not seek out the seat at his right or left. We allow ourselves to flourish in our simplicity and our devotion, not in the pursuit of matters seeking self-promotion. We are humble because we have chosen to be nothing else.”
It is similar to the story drawn from Nikos Kazantzakis’ book about St. Francis of Assisi. As Francis instructed his followers on living simply and trusting God alone. Francis told his disciples,
“Strengthen the world that is tottering and about to fall: Strengthen your hearts above wrath, ambition, and envy. Do not say: ‘Me! Me!’ Instead, make the self, that fierce insatiable beast, submit to God’s love. This ‘me’ does not enter paradise, but stands outside the gates and bellows.” (St. Francis, p. 309)
To illustrate his point, Francis told the story of a holy man who went to the gates of heaven after living a devout life. Each time the holy man came to the gate, a voice cried out, “Who is there?” And the holy man said, “It is me.” The voice said, “There’s no room for two here. Go away.” The holy man wound up plummeting back to earth, was given a chance to learn again and approached the gates when he had learned his lesson.
Finally, after a number of times approaching the gates with the same result, the holy man realized his error. When he approached the gates, the voice called out again, “Who is there?” And the holy man says, “It is you.” With that, the gates to paradise opened wide.
 Jerrod H. Hugenot, Lessons in Power, quoting Nikos Kazantzakis, St. Francis, 309-310, http://www.fbcbennington.org/sermonsjhh/2009/10/18/lessons-in-power-mark-1035-45.html