How to be Great: Sermon for October 21, 2012

Mark 10:35-45
10:35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

10:36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

10:37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

10:38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

10:39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;

10:40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

10:41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.

10:42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.

10:43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,

10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I’m not a big fan of flying. It’s not the actual flying part that I don’t like, so much, as it is everything else. It’s the getting to the airport early, taking off my shoes and belt and emptying my pockets at security, and running the length of the Chicago airport to make a narrow connection part of flying that I don’t like.

But more than anything else, it’s seating on the plane that drives me up the wall. For those of us who aren’t exactly small people, flying can be especially torturous. When I book my tickets I try to pick seats that have the least likelihood of someone sitting next to me. And then the night before I fly, when I go online to check in, I look at the seat map and try to play this game of changing my seats to get closer to the front of the plane, or to get a window seat, or an exit row seat, or to sit in a row where there’s an empty seat.

And airlines are wise to the fact people do this now. They save certain seats and then try to entice you into paying to upgrade into a really good one with more leg room or arm room. A few weeks ago when I was flying to Kansas. I thought I’d found the perfect seats on flight that looked underbooked. But, of course, I spent the flight crammed up against the bulkhead next to a guy who hogged the armrests.

Knowing where I’m going to sit causes me more anxiety and stress than it should. But I can’t seem to help it. Which is why I relate to the two disciples who come to Jesus in today’s passage and want to make sure they’ve reserved the two best seats for the biggest trip of their lives.

James and John come to Jesus and they say, “We want you to do something for us.” And he says, essentially, okay…I’ll play along…what do you want me to do? They tell him that when he is in his glory, when he is recognized as great and for whom he is, they want to have the two best seats in the house. One wants to sit at his right hand, and one wants to sit at his left.

Jesus doesn’t immediately say no, but he asks them this: can you drink the cup that I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism I’m about to receive? And what he’s really saying to them is can you handle what’s about to happen. Can you go through the trials and pain and death that I’m about to face along with me? Are you really prepared to do what it takes to sit at my right or left hand? Because it’s not going to be easy.

The other disciples hear this and they get really angry at James and John. Not because of anything Jesus had said. They don’t even seem to hear Jesus. But because James and John had requested the two seats that everyone else had wanted for themselves. They all wanted to sit beside Jesus when Jesus was finally made great. But James and John jumped the line and asked first, and now the rest of the disciples were staring at them angrily, the way people in airports might glower at the people who get the free seat upgrades.

But what they were all missing was the reality of what Jesus was saying. Which was that if you want the best seats, if you want the place of honor, it’s not as easy as picking them off of a seating map, or maybe even paying another $20 for an exit row. It’s not about picking out the place that will be the most comfortable for you, or will allow for the smoothest flight. Instead not about picking the place where you can be the most served. Instead, it’s about picking the place where you can be asked to serve the most.

Today is the second sermon of our series on what it means to give. Last week we talked about giving away the things that keep of from God. Today we read this passage and we learn from Jesus about another kind of giving. We learn about giving by serving. Jesus tells the disciples that in the end they won’t be at his side because they want glory or comfort or riches. Instead you end up at Jesus’ side because you want to serve. If anyone among you wants to be great, he tells them, they have to serve.

It was a new kind of greatness for the day and age. Jesus tells them, look…in my book being great doesn’t look anything like being a tyrant and lording it over people. Being great means to give, being great means to serve, being great means to choose a harder way.

He tells them bluntly: I didn’t come to be served. I come to serve.

That’s a good reminder for anyone who wants to be at Jesus’s side. Being a follower of Christ is not about asking “what’s in it for me”. Being a follower of Christ is about “what can I give to others”. It’s about being next to the one who is always going to choose to serve others, and being ready to go where ever he goes, and to do whatever is asked of you. Jesus tells us that service, a willingness to give by serving, is true greatness.

In the Christian fellowship I was a part of in college I was taught that this was called “servant leadership”. That the most valuable thing one could do with their life was not to make lots of money, or have lots of prestige, but to use the gifts God had given us to truly give to others. The message was clear: you are not really great if you are not serving.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of servant leadership this election cycle. Don’t worry…I’m not about to preach partisan politics. It hasn’t in response to any one race or any one group of candidates, but in terms of the whole process. I hear a lot of candidates being described by their supporters as being great men or great women. Their successes in business or law or education are trumpeted, and an amazing amount of resources are spent to get their fellow citizens to elect them to the next place of greatness. Resources that will be spent again in two or four or six years. Often times this is done against a backdrop of the candidate telling you what their faith has taught them, or how religious they are. We Christians seem particularly good at talking about that.

And I’m not meaning to doubt anyone’s Christian commitments. But what you don’t hear a lot about is service, and about becoming great not by who you are, but by what you have done to put aside your own ambitions, and your own desires, and your own quest for the best seats in the house, and focus not on your own ego, but on what you can truly give to others. What we have today is a far cry from “ask not what your country can do for you…” But Jesus told us how to be great, and he was pretty clear that being great wasn’t about getting to a place where you could just be comfortable and be adored. It was about finding the place where you could give the most.

We shouldn’t blame candidates too much for all of this, though. The reality is that they are a lot like the rest of us. They are products of a society that teaches a distorted view of what it means to be great, and then passes it on to the next generation.

I read an article yesterday in Forbes magazine called “The Ten Worst College Majors”. That sounded pretty serious. Like they were going to tell me the bad majors. The ones that had no worth. The ones that were a waste of time and would lead you to a life devoid of meaning.

And then I read the article and realized that my two college majors were on this list. English and religion. That surprised me, because my life feels pretty meaningful to me. But when I read the only criteria for this article, the one about the “worst college majors” it was this: how much money you make immediately after graduation, and how likely you are to get a job.

That was it. It wasn’t “how likely you are to lead a meaningful life”. It wasn’t “who can you serve with this degree”. It wasn’t “what will you contribute”. It was all about “what’s in it for me”. I found myself feeling grateful for all the English and religion and history majors I had known who had been my teachers, and clergy, and coaches, and mentors. I found myself grateful that they had been more concerned about what they could give to others than about what they could get.

What I’ve learned about what it means to be a Christian I’ve learned from people who knew what it was to serve. Not themselves.  But others. I’ve learned it from people who gave by serving, and who didn’t demand in return that they be served. I’ve learned from people who knew what it meant to be on Jesus’ right hand here on earth, and who knew that the places Jesus went were not always the easiest or more comfortable places.

As much as I wish being a disciple of Christ gave me options to choose my own seats, and pay a small fee to sit in the exit row, I know it doesn’t. Being a disciple of Christ is not about my own comfort, or about having an easy trip. It’s about giving by serving others, and serving God.

It can start small. As you know, a few weeks ago I was spending time at a 19,000 member church in Kansas City. And they had a lot of parking lots. And the closest parking lot to the church was reserved for visitors. The further lots were much further away. Like the walk from here down to the Saloon, at least. And when a visitor comes to talk about formally joining the church, this is what they’re told: you have to give up your parking space. Now that you want to be a disciple of Christ here in this community, you need to give your parking space to someone else who comes to this place to find Christ, and you have to start parking further away. It’s such a small way to give, such a small way to serve others, but it’s a great example of how Christian community requires sacrifice right from the start.

And so here’s my challenge to you this week. If you really want to sit on the right hand of Jesus, what will it take for you to become one of Jesus’ right hand men or women here in this life? What will it look like for you to become the one who asks not, “what’s in this for me” but instead “what do I have to give others”? What would it look like to be great, in the real sense of the word. What would it look like to serve?

And what would it look like to make commitments to service and really mean them. In your family. With your friends. In your community. In your church. To your world? What would it look like to choose a different kind of greatness? One that made others great as well?

The good news is that service is one of the easiest ways to find joy in giving. And the even better news is that if you are doing it, you don’t even have to ask to be at Jesus’ right hand. Just look next to you. Jesus is already there with us whenever we serve. And choosing a life that lets us stand next to Jesus is the greatest gift that we could ever give ourselves. Amen.

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