In the dog eat dog world of the schoolyard, one of the most frequent insults kids hurl at each other is “loser.” As in, Joey so-and-so is a loser, or your big brother is a loser. And, even after all these years, these insults sting. They sting because we'd all rather win than lose. I remember a coach when I was a kid who used to say to us ten-year-old ball players, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
I know now how wrong he was, but along the way I learned that this is also the logic of bullies of all ages. Ridicule the weak and vulnerable. Stigmatize them. Tell others not to waste their time hanging out with losers, but instead join the bullies in their sham fellowship of viciousness and false superiority.
Of course, it isn’t just kids on the playground who do this. Office, family, and civil politics is filled with this kind of behavior.
We all love to be associated with success. Around here, I’ve learned that we live in “Champa Bay.” But notice how we stopped talking about the amazing 100 games won by the Rays. Why? Because they did not make it through the playoffs! By this calculus, and for most people, the most remarkable record in baseball means exactly “zip.”
We are intrigued by successful. We study the secrets of highly successful people. The tabloids in the supermarket aisle talk about the successes and scandals of the rich and famous. In politics, we love to back a winner to the point that the news covers politics in much the same way the sport pages cover those teams.
Human beings are always trying to move up on the scale of importance. And we are told from an early age that no one really remembers the runners-up and that if we will only feel fulfilled if we are successful, if we are winners. That’s who are valuable, important, and powerful.
Alas, people of faith are not immune. If one wanted to, one could read church history like a comic book where super-heroes (or super-reformers) do battle with super-baddies who want to hold the church back. But this is not how God’s kingdom unfolds; in fact, God’s way in the world is quite the opposite.
In today’s Gospel, two of Jesus’ closest followers, James and John, thought they were backing a winner. They thought that they were on God’s inside track, because they had been following Jesus since way back in Galilee.
So, one day, James and John come to Jesus with a request. I love how they approach him. They think that they so clever when they say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask,” as if they could box Jesus in. It’s like they’re children going to their mother and saying, “I want you to promise to do whatever we ask you to do before we tell you what it is. You’ve got to promise first. You’ve got to swear you’ll do it.” It’s a sure-fire signal that someone is up to something.
But Jesus cuts through their baloney when he just nods his head and says “uh huh” and asks “What is it that you want me to do for you?” Just get to the point, boys, what do you want?
With an amazing lack of shame, James and John ask Jesus “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Ah. There it is. Naked ambition. James and John see Jesus destined for glory, and for them, that means power. They imagine Jesus as a powerful ruler, maybe someone who is going to crack some heads and take names, snatching power from the Roman Empire itself. They see Jesus as a powerful warrior King, seated upon a throne of glory, with his attendants seated beside him. James and John are asking Jesus to promise that when he becomes a powerful king that he will remember them and give them a couple of choice positions in his court. To them, Jesus is a winner, someone on the way up in the world, and they want to go along for the ride and get a couple of choice positions of power and prestige in their imagined Kingdom of God.
Even though they left family and profession to follow Jesus, they just did not get it.
Jesus tells them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Basically, Jesus is saying that his disciples do not have the first clue as to who he is or what his whole mission is about. Jesus did not come to crack heads, take names, and take power. His power was not like the power that earthly rulers used.
No, the cup he drinks is the cup of suffering; the cup of his blood poured out for others.
The baptism with which Jesus is baptized is his passion and death.
Basically, when Jesus talks about his cup and his baptism he is talking about his cross. Jesus’ enthronement, his earthly throne, will be the cross. So, of course James and John don’t really know what they are asking for when they request to be on Jesus’ left hand and his right hand.
Remember who in fact will be on Jesus’ right and left at his crucifixion? Yup, two thieves. And only one of them got what was going on. So how could James and John possibly imagine the enormity of that being on his left and his right in glory really mean?
Jesus comes by it naturally. Remember the song his mother Mary sang? “He will cast down the mighty from their thrones… he will lift up the lowly and the rich will be sent empty away.”
So they (and we) are not following a king into a castle, but we are following Jesus the Messiah and Savior to his cross. This is not backing a winner, at least by the standards of the world, because by that measure James and John are hanging out with a loser.
Christ is showing his disciples that true greatness is not found in climbing to the top and exercising power over others; but, true greatness, true leadership is found in self-emptying, and in self-giving love. Unlike worldly rulers who lord it over others, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
A few years ago, I read a book and saw a TED talk given by Simon Sinek, who is one my favorite people who thinks about leadership and groups. In his book “Leaders Eat Last,” he tells this story about Captain William Swenson who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8, 2009:
On that day, a column of American and Afghan troops were making their way through a part of Afghanistan to help protect a group of Afghan government officials, who would be meeting with some local village elders. The column came under ambush, and was surrounded on three sides, and amongst many other things, Captain Swenson was recognized for running into live fire to rescue the wounded and pull out the dead. One of the people he rescued was a sergeant, and he and a comrade were making their way to a medevac helicopter.
And what was remarkable about this day is, by sheer coincidence, one of the medevac medics happened to have a GoPro camera on his helmet and captured the whole scene on camera. It shows Captain Swenson and his comrade bringing this wounded soldier who had received a gunshot to the neck. They put him in the helicopter, and then you see Captain Swenson bend over and give him a kiss before he turns around to rescue more. Sinek asks the question:
“…where do people like that come from? What is that? That is some deep, deep emotion, when you would want to do that. There's a love there, and I wanted to know why…? You know, in the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.”
So, Sinek asked those in military service, "Why would you do it? Why did you do it?" They all say the same thing: "Because they would have done it for me." This jives with my experience of every educator, nurse, EMT, firefighter, and cop that I have ever ministered to as a chaplain. It also jives with my experience as a parish priest in ordinary extraordinary communities just like this.
The challenge is that this deep sense of trust and cooperation are feelings, not instructions. As Sinek says, “I can't simply say to you, ‘Trust me,’ and you will. I can't simply instruct two people to cooperate, and they will. It's not how it works. It's a feeling.” Sinek’s observation points to what is at the core of what we are doing here today: because at the heart of Christian leadership is servanthood.
In the Gospel today, Jesus spells out of what the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ means for his disciples and we, his baptized people. Jesus really isn’t interested in the ways of worldly rulers but is actually more concerned about how his followers imitate the behavior of the world in the community of his followers. So the sting of Jesus’ words and the shock of recognition that James and John felt is surely also be felt by us, especially those of us in lay and ordained leadership, and all the baptized who are called to take up their crosses and follow Jesus.
At a time when the Church as we have always known is struggling, instead of trying to be “number one,” or falling back on rosy nostalgia, we are called to sling our towels over our shoulders and do the work of servants, following the example of the One who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Bulletin for Sunday service found here.
Link to Sunday service found at St. John's Clearwater FL website here.