Sunday, October 21, 2012

Downward Mobility



This is the message I preached on Mark 10:35-45  at Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY, where I have the prprivilege of being the pastor.   
 A few years ago, Monster.com had an advertising campaign featuring children saying:
When I grow up, I want to file all day. I want to claw my way up to middle management…be replaced on a whim. I wanna be a yes man…yes woman…anything for a raise sir. When I grow up I want to be underappreciated…paid less for doing the same job.  (Monster.com, You Tube, 1999)
From the world’s perspective, who would want to strive to be or do any of these things? It is not the American dream. How often do we hear people tell children, “You can be anything you want to be! You may even be President one day!” Our human nature causes us to want to get ahead, be successful, and have the biggest, the brightest and the best. We desire upward mobility and we want recognition! -- So did Jesus’ disciples—at least the two of them that owned up to it.
After all, James and John were part of the inner circle of disciples. They were the only disciples, besides Peter, who were with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They were special. Weren’t they entitled to preferential treatment?
James and John clearly “demonstrate their failure to grasp what Jesus [been teaching them]” (Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B, after Pentecost 2, 99). Naturally, the other disciples got angry with James and John about this end run around them trying to set themselves up in positions of power in Jesus’ kingdom and leaving the others out of the picture. However, I cannot help but wonder if James and John just said what the other disciples were secretly thinking. They were the ones with the nerve to verbalize it.
Last Sunday after church, I sat in on part of the confirmation lesson. I arrived just in time for a question about Luther’s teaching on the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Simply put, a theology of glory is about me and a theology of the cross is about Jesus. Who is the center of attention? Who is doing the acting? Who is getting the glory? Given the nature of the discussion we had in confirmation class last week, I would say the disciples should have been in class.
Have any of us ever worked with people like James and John? You know the kind of people who are always talking to the boss privately about some scheme to promote him or herself. James and John approach Jesus on the sly to see if they can get the biggest promotion ever—to have prestigious positions of power when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Where have they been? Haven’t they heard the message Jesus had been teaching repeatedly about suffering and death and service? Jesus spoke of the agony of crucifixion and they talk about getting glory. Were they punch drunk from earlier successes? Could they imagine only an outcome of triumph and glory? And they were not even considering the rest of the disciples! No wonder the others were angry with James and John.
            From our 21st century perspective, it is easy to find fault with James and John. Surely if we had the opportunity to hear the gospel straight from Jesus and see the miracles, we would have reacted differently, wouldn’t we?  Our human nature tells us to look out for ourselves. There is not enough money or time to help others. We can hardly get by on our own.
            If we read a newspaper or magazine, watch TV, or listen to the radio, we are constantly bombarded with messages telling us to look out for number one. Whole hosts of products guarantee to make us happier, healthier, wealthier or younger looking. We pay professional athletes and celebrities more than we pay our President, teachers, nurses or other public servants. The siren song of our culture lures us into thinking we just have to be like these idols it has created.
            Jesus’ teaching is completely the opposite of this! It was counter cultural in his day and it is counter cultural in ours. Society promotes a theology of glory and upward mobility, while Jesus lives the theology of the cross, the way of downward mobility.
            For some, Pax Romana or Roman Peace was anything but peaceful. Caesars had been killed. Generals vied for power. Herod married his brother’s wife and then killed John the Baptist because of his message. The gentile means of exercising leadership was tyrannical. Is it possible that by living under this empire, the disciples would be tempted to operate like the gentiles?  Would it be a case of the abused becoming abusers? Exercising lordship and authority was the way greatness was measured in the worldly society of Jesus’ day.
            “But it is not so among [Christians]” (v. 43) according to Jesus. How many times have we succumbed to the idea that we are incapable of making a difference in our own world? After all, that is just the way the world is today. Jesus’ answer to us is the same as it was to his disciples then, “But it is not so among you” (v. 43). Jesus’ upside down kingdom is one of greatness through service. It is driven by the downward mobility of the theology of the cross. Being a servant is not just a matter of what you do. It is who you are! It is our identity! This is how we are to behave with one another. Those who are leaders in the church are servant leaders. Servants in Jesus’ time waited on tables and were pretty low on the totem pole. Our word deacon comes from the Greek word for servant. The way to be great in God’s church is to be a servant of Christ and of each other.
            As though that is not low enough, Jesus says his followers need to be slaves of all—not just the people we like, not just other Christians, but people we do not like, who are different from us, who do not even care about Jesus and the church! One becomes great by being a servant, but one becomes first by being a slave of all. A slave was much lower on the social scale than a servant was. In first century society, you could not get any lower than a slave could. This involved total submission and was downward mobility at its best. Author and mystic Henri Nouwen explained it like this:
The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which the world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. . . . It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.
Did you catch that last phrase, “Jesus Christ is made manifest.” This is not about people walking all over us, but about revealing the love of Jesus in our lives to a dying and desperate world.
            Jesus cites his own exemplary life of service, but we are not Jesus. How can we be expected to live lives like his? Jesus died on the cross to pay the ransom for our sin. The key is in that word “ransom.” What is a ransom? We think of it as something paid to set a hostage free. In ancient times, it was the payment to set slaves free. By his death, Jesus set us free to serve. In baptism, we are set free from sin, death and the power of the devil. We do not have to be enslaved to this world’s way of upward mobility, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able to follow the way of the cross.
            I wish you could see what I see and hear the stories that I hear about our community of faith at Bethel. So many of you really “get” what it means to live in service to God and others without looking for recognition for your efforts. Each of us has had times when we have experienced the truth of Jesus' words—when we have put someone else's needs before our own. Each of us has volunteered, helped a friend, encouraged someone down in the dumps, or lent a hand to someone in need, and when we did so experienced the joy of giving ourselves to another. Each of us, has overcome our concerns about not having enough by making ourselves open to the needs of another and found that openness rewarded not simply by the gratitude of the recipient but by our own increased sense of purpose, fulfillment, and courage. (David Lose)
            A number of years ago Christian singer/songwriter Michael W. Smith wrote a song called “Secret Ambition.” The words of the chorus are:
Nobody knew His secret ambition
Nobody knew His claim to fame
He broke the old rules steeped in tradition
He tore the Holy Veil away
Questioning those in powerful position
Running to those who called His name
(But) Nobody knew His secret ambition
Was to give His life away.
Michael W. Smith, "Secret Ambition" on I 2 Eye © 1989.
What is our secret ambition? Amen.

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