* a sermon preached in Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on October 22, 2015 *
Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.
Text: Mark 10:35-45
I feel it.
It never fails.
As the excitement starts to build, I become wrapped up in it. It’s all so…attractive.
The glitz, the pomp, the circumstance… Bright lights, elaborate sets… People telling me what I need, giving me the exact right remedy for what’s ailing me… I hang on every word, “Yes! You get it! Tell me more!”
“Tell me why my very livelihood is at stake and then offer me the source of my freedom.”
And I know what you’re all thinking, “But Chris, Christmas is two months away, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.” And you’d be right, but we are, in fact, right smack dab in the middle of election season!
And, truthfully, I’m already getting tired of it; I’m already starting to get burned (“Bern“ed?) out (no pun intended). Everyone clamoring for the same seat, trying to make a case for why they should be the most powerful human being in the country, often differentiating themselves by attacking others. And even if they don’t get the nomination, they’ll do and say whatever it takes to get a seat in the new administration. Because if I can’t be first, well, second isn’t so bad, and I could live with secretary.
Everyone’s on a power trip.
It’s a circus, and everyone’s a monkey.
And it’s the same sort of sentiment I hear from James and John in our gospel today. James and John, the fiery Sons of Thunder, doing and saying whatever it takes, making the case for why they should be Jesus’ right and left hand dudes. “We are able to drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism, Teacher.”
And we, we who know how this story plays out, we think, “C’mon guys… You don’t have a clue… Give it a rest…”
But consider where James and John are at. Consider where any of the disciples are at.
Here was their Rabbi, their teacher, the one who had called them out of whatever work they were doing at the time; fishing, accounting, woodworking…whatever the family business was because that’s just what you did. Jesus calls them from that and takes them around, healing, casting out, preaching, teaching, making well, restoring… Jesus calls them from the mundane and gives their lives new meaning and purpose.
It’s not so different for you and I, is it? This calling, this holy vocation that we’ve begun to discern for our lives… Pastor. Chaplain. Deaconess. Youth Director. Diaconal Minister. Professor. Associate in Ministry.
Calling…vocation…they’re not just words. They’re meaning. Purpose.
So the disciples, in their recently uncovered vocations, have started to hear the rumblings and see the fame being ascribed to their teacher. James and John, along with Peter, even saw Jesus transfigured in glory right in front of their eyes. The crowds have been getting larger and larger. What was once a dull murmur has started to reach a fever pitch. And now Jesus tells you we’re headed to Jerusalem. What other possible reason would you have to go to the capital if not to assert yourself as an alternative power? Even Jesus told you as much in the first two times he foretold his death in Mark that he would be confronted by the religious leaders.
So try and imagine; you’ve seen the fame beginning to spread, you’ve seen the glory of God surround your teacher, you’re on your way to confront the ruling powers…to borrow from Dr. Pickett, of course you’re trying ride those coattails! “Don’t forget us when you become powerful, Jesus. Remember us who have been with you from the beginning. Give us a seat in the new Jesus Administration!”
Because everyone’s on a power trip.
But no one realizes those coattails are slippery. No one realizes that power can cause us to trip.
So Jesus lays it out for them. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Boom. Mic drop.
Our own Blessed Martin Luther said it this way: “A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. And a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
We call it servant leadership, right? Leading from the bottom up, rather than top down. Standing alongside, rather than ruling from above. Power with, rather than power over.
This is not quietism. It’s not subordination.
It’s empowerment. It’s agency. It’s freeing that which has us bound.
Power with. Power alongside. Because although James and John wanted seats of authority next to Jesus, we know the rest of this narrative. We know who’s ultimately situated at Jesus’ right and left, don’t we? Criminals. Thieves. Robbers. The looked-down-upons. The hurting. The broken.
And when we find ourselves on the way to the Jerusalems, to the centers of power in this world…when we confront the structures of power that oppress and keep people from living anything less than the abundant, vibrant life that God intends for God’s people…when we take Jesus seriously and take up our cross and follow…we will find ourselves on that hill in the city dump outside of town.
And that’s servant leadership. Being led to the broken, hurting, vulnerable, marginalized places of the world…to bear witness to it…to be transformed by it…and to behold the redemptive power of Christ’s resurrection in it.
Through the freedom given to us through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, we are freed from that which binds us to live lives in complete service of the other. Because the recognition is that my well-being is necessarily intertwined with yours, and your ability to freely live as God intends you to live is directly related that same ability of the person sitting right next to you.
You know, if you know me well, you know I hate jargon and buzzwords, and it is cliché, but servant leadership is what we’re called to as leaders in the church. That’s certainly clear, both in the Scriptural witness and as exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus. And I would be sorely remiss if I didn’t note that in the Lutheran church, we have 3 such rosters explicitly dedicated to this ministry of Word and Service; sisters and brothers who understand their call to ministry especially in service of God’s people. I’ve been exceptionally blessed to see these incredible women and men do some of the most transformative ministry I’ve ever had the privilege to observe specifically in those moments and places of brokenness, and pain, and hurting.
And it’s not a passive or submissive service. It’s a service of presence. Of compassion. Of accompaniment. Of empathy. Of empowerment.
It’s clear from the Gospel narrative whom Jesus aligns himself alongside, who occupies the places of power in the kingdom of God. And it’s clear from the Gospel narrative the call on our lives, to live lives in service of those without, and to empower them. But power with is not zero-sum.
Power trips inevitably lead to abuses of power, but it’s difficult to trip someone when you’re standing—and walking—alongside them.