A sermon on Mark 10:32-45
When I was growing up, I went to church camp every year. As soon as I graduated High School (actually, a few weeks before I actually graduated), I headed off to camp to work for the summer. It was here that I not only learned the Christian Values I hold on to today, but I also had the opportunity to live them.
Carved in the stone by the waterfall was the phrase, “God is love.” The community I experienced there was the closest I have ever been to loving one another as yourself. It was the rare place where, as I grew up, I could be genuinely myself (even as I was still figuring out who I was).
It was also the place that thought me that I could question the church, that I could hate hymns (and that was okay), the place where I learned about the non-canonical gospels and the place where I heard my call to ministry and, try as I might, I could not unhear it.
Last month, I went back for the camp’s 75th anniversary. We had a picnic and everybody lined up. As though we were kids again (or really because some things don’t change no matter who old you get), some people rushed for the front of the line. I opted for the middle. The middle, at camp, was the safest place to be. Because you never knew when the staff would decide it was a “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” meal. It was a total crapshoot as to whether rushing to the front would actually get you served first or quickly land you at the back of the line. While I am generally not one to play it safe, I like to eat, so the middle always made the most sense to me.
Now this verse from Matthew, and the corresponding idea that is evidenced in both Mark (which we have here) and Luke, are tattooed in my memory, and this scripture regularly competes with what I have been taught by the world.
It started when I was young – my grandfather always told me to look out for number one. My father was in a pretty consistent battle to keep up with the Jonses (which, oddly, was most obvious in his weird desire to have the best lawn, but I digress). Awards went to the people who finished first, the kids who were fastest always got picked first, the kids who cut and pushed their way to the front of the line usually got it (and unless we were at church camp, that was just how it was). And on and on it goes. We are often rewarded when we fight to be at the front of the line or the top of the heap, no matter who we push aside or who gets stepped on.
More often than not, those who are at the front of the line or the top of the pile lord it over the ones below, often totally unaware of the real struggles those not at the front of the line have.
This is one of the biggest problems with being at the front of the line – you lose your ability to see those behind you. Even if you do decide to turn around, you can only see those just a bit behind you. You can’t see the back of the line.
When one surrounds oneself with privilege, it is so easy to forget the have-not’s. I grew up fairly well off, but I thought I was middle class because, for a long time, most of what I experienced was people richer than me. People who had houses on the lake with elevators down tot heir private beach, kids whose parents had multiple luxury cars – these things made my large 3 bedroom house and my parent’s buicks look positively poor. To my parent’s credit, they tried to show me, they tried to tell me, but it wasn’t until I went off on my own and made friends in other places that I got to see how truly wealthy I was. I couldn’t see the rest of the line from where I was standing, in large part because I was so concerned with who was in front of me, I rarely thought to look back.
We hear a lot of talk today about greatness. But rarely do we hear about what that word means to those who recite it over and over again. I suspect, however, that greatness means power and authority. I suspect that, in that context, greatness is a power, privilege, and position that allows certain groups to lord such things over others.
To those of us who follow Christ, a lot of the world’s paradigms are inverted. The way the world sees greatness is diametrically opposed to the way Christ sees greatness. We are James and John, asking to have a position that we don’t understand.
I mean, how entitled and blind are James and John to even ask this question? Seriously, they are asking the Son of God if he will give them whatever they want. What?! Who does that?! This requests makes me think these two have rarely heard no in their lives. It makes me think that they have, generally speaking, been at the front of many lines. It also shows clearly that they still don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, what Jesus is going to do. They just saw the transfiguration, and were likely thinking that they want that. They want to be all glowy and heavenly with Jesus and Abraham and Elijah. They still don’t get that the path to that place involves deep sacrifice, involves pain, involves death.
They want to be great, but they are thinking in the world’s terms, not in Jesus’ terms.
In the world, greatness is having your name on the top of buildings, it is wealth, it is the ability to cut to the front of the line and climb to the top of the heap by any means necessary, no matter who you slander, insult, or otherwise hurt along the way. Greatness is the ability to say whatever you want and not face consequences. It is to have enough power, authority and influence that the masses will not question you; everything you say is truth, even when your words are lies that hurt people. Greatness, in our current discourse, is being able to do whatever you want and not only not paying the price, but leaving the vulnerable to pay the price for you. It is backing out of promises and leaving those depending on you high and dry.
Greatness, in our current national conversation, means keeping to ourselves, protecting those who look like us, those who are “deserving”
For those who follow Jesus, greatness is defined differently. Greatness is going to the back of the line, it is moving to the back of the bus and offering our place to someone who was forced to be in the back. It is handing the microphone to those who rarely get to speak. It is giving up what we have: our power, our privilege, our money, or our voice so that others might have a share in those things too. Greatness is serving. It is giving up our very lives so that we might serve those who have been pushed to the bottom of the heap. To be great, those of us who claim Christ and have power, privilege and/or wealth are called to give that up and serve those who have less.
Greatness gets mocked and spit on. Greatness gets crucified. Greatness dies discredited. Greatness does all of these things so that we might live. Greatness does this to show God’s beloved children that there is another way, that there is strength in weakness, there is winning in losing, there is salvation in death.
Those around this kind of greatness do not understand – they see power the way the world sees power. They focus on Christ as victor and king and deny his status as a crucified victim of an unjust system, as a man who got caught, as a brown skinned man from the middle east, as a loser. Strength shows no weakness, power no vulnerability. They cannot understand the necessity of the crucifixion, they move ahead to the resurrection to the ascension, to asking for a share in the power they do not even begin to understand.
But Christ shows us the power in weakness, the strength in vulnerability. Christ shows us that to move to the bottom of the power structure is to be at the top, that greatness isn’t about winning wars, dropping bombs, forcing others to bend to your will or making them do or be as you think they should. Greatness is not having your name at the top of a building; it is having your name atop a cross upon which you have been crucified.
Greatness is found in serving. Greatness is found in love. Greatness is found in giving up so that others might have. Greatness is found in the cross. Greatness is found in Christ.
As a part of this sermon, I read the poem Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes. Everyone should know it. Read it ASAP.