Having the ambition of a servant

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

It’s been another week of firsts. Thousands of people lined up to be the first to have an iPhone 5. Many of whom turned right around and immediately sold their new toy for a profit. The Emmy Awards are on tonight. Millions will tune in to see if their favorites will go home with glory. Sports fans gasped as underdogs defeated the favorites. Meanwhile, our very national consciousness has become obsessed with polls and predictions: who will come out on top?

Are we obsessed with winning in this country? You bet!

Our culture worships winners. We take some shameful delight, schadenfreude, in the embarrassment and failure of others. Indeed we have a whole genre of television built around the very phenomenon of ruthless self-promotion at the expense of others – reality TV. It’s reality alright. Whether it’s The Apprentice or Survivor, Americans are obsessed with watching betrayal, ambition, strategic alliances, and, of course, ultimate victory.

What if there was a show about self-less cooperation, genuine teamwork, putting one’s own goals and glory second after that of a friend or even a stranger? Yawn! Let’s see what else is on! Somehow I think if Survivor went head-to-head with a show called Helper or Team Player…well, you can predict as well as I can. There’s not much interest in who was best at sacrificing.

Now, we do have some respect for loyalty, especially loyal service, from Millie in the downtown post office, to a really good waiter at our favorite restaurant, a bar-tender who remembers us and our usual. With the popularity of Downton Abbey we have been given, yet again, a glimpse into the life of the servant class in days gone by. Whether It is Charlie Carson, butler to the Crawleys, or Angus Hudson serving the Bellamys in Upstairs, Downstairs, or Stevens’ loyalty to Lord Darlington in Remains of the Day, we do honor and revere loyal servants.

And yet, when was the last time at a career fair you saw a booth for, “Loyal Servants wanted”? When did you hear a child when expressing her dreams and ambitions in elementary school say, “I want to be a humble, loyal postal worker who earns the respect of her customers for 30 years and then retires quietly on a modest pension”?

No, I fear we no longer consider humble service to be an avocation these days.

Indeed, even in the days of Jesus, it would seem ambition was first in most people’s minds. Jesus, upon hearing his disciples arguing over which one of them was the greatest, turned the tables on them. Jesus loves to turn tables, to force a fresh perspective. “Whoever wants to be first must be last. You must be the servant of all.” And he reinforces this by doing yet another unexpected and perplexing thing. He places a child in their midst.

Now this scene from the Gospels makes us want to break into a chorus of “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” but my guess is Jesus is saying something far more radical and not quite so precious.  You see, children in ancient cultures had NO voice, no rights. Even the children of Roman noblemen lived under the absolute authority of their pater familias. Slave or free, poor or noble, there were very few members of society who were lower in status than children. And yet Jesus chose a child to be the model of Christian ambition.

While his disciples bickered among themselves to who was the greatest, Jesus pointed them to the least; this unexpected figure as the model he considered to be “the first” among them.  Can you see them all, looking down?  When was the last time you wanted to be just like someone you looked down on?

No doubt the disciples before this moment would free right at home in our culture, spending so much time worried about who is number one.  We pursue the top spot, no matter what it takes.  We look up to see who is above us, and we strive to have what they have, gain a measure of their fame.  So many times we choose less than honorable means to get on top.  Sue your way to a fortune.  Cheat, lie, steal. It’s all fair game as long as you succeed.

“It is not so among you,” Jesus teaches them and us.

The reading from James is quite dramatic in its assessment of what selfish ambition does to the individual and to the group. “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”  What a fascinating take on group dynamics!  Could it be that the cause of so many of our societal woes is envy?  Can we even conceive of ambition that isn’t selfish?

The writer of James goes on: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?  You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”

And then comes this beautiful line, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”  Where greed and ambition succeed in destroying community, creating chaos, peace and submission are the very real alternatives the writer of James presents to us.  Are these popular options in our culture today?  Far from it.  Peacemaking and submission are more the descriptors of failure in business, athletics, and, yes, even politics. Compromise? Never! Selflessness? Are you kidding me?

In the upper room on the night before he died, Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. What are you doing Jesus? They gasped. He embodied the kind of ambition he was calling them pursue. He stooped lower. He got himself dirty. He was no better than a child in their midst.

We are told we should always be wanting something more, something better, something that others will envy.  Everyone it seems wants to be a winner, no matter what it takes.  Who is clamoring to be just like Mother Teresa?  What if we traded in our 15 minutes of fame for 15 years of service?  The sad truth is that if anyone is truly choosing a life of peacemaking and humility, we are less likely to ever hear their names, at least during their lifetime.

Might we all take Jesus at his word and choose as our role models the least among us to be our guides, the powerless and faithful instead of the proud and those on top. Friends, envy only works if we are looking up.  What would our society, what would our church be like if we choose to look down?  Amen.

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