Humility and Ambition

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
A sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

The year was 1957, and Americans were suddenly very worried. In the twelve years after the end of WWII, it was clear that the world had two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. A “cold war” was raging, with both nations scrambling for the upper hand. The competition was not limited to the land, however. On October 4 of that year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in history. Americans grew very concerned. Were we losing the Space Race?

Stamp_2011_Gagarin_(1)Things took an even more ominous turn, when, in 1961, the Russians successfully launched a man into orbit around the earth. That man’s name was Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin is as legendary in Russian history as Neil Armstrong is in our nation’s history. Truly, Yuri Gagarin has achieved that rare feat so many seek – immortality.

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know much about Yuri Gagarin beyond his place in history, which still gives many Americans a twinge of resentment and jealousy. They beat us into space!

Some years ago I saw a documentary on the Space Race and I learned how very different our two space programs were. American astronauts like Alan Shephard and Neil Armstrong were highly educated military officers. They studied physics and knew their spacecraft very well. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on the other hand, was a steel worker. He volunteered to be a test pilot with the Soviet Air Force. He never studied physics. He only knew the very basics of operating the spacecraft. But he was brave and willing, and, even more importantly, he was 5’2” – this was a crucial qualification, because the cosmonaut program only had one size space suit, and Gagarin fit it.

Out of many hopeful applicants, six men were chosen to be the first cosmonauts, Gagarin among them. These six candidates underwent long hours of testing and training, but the choice of which one of these men would be the first man in space was not made until just a few days before the rocket would be launched. So, why was it Yuri Gagarin in the end that became the first man into space?

During his training with the other finalists, something in Yuri’s character left a deep impression on the director of the cosmonaut program, Sergey Korolyov. Something unexpected happened on the day when the cosmonauts were being shown the spacecraft, the Vostok, for the first time. Gagarin was the first to volunteer to enter the craft. But before he climbed into the space capsule that would make him famous, Yuri Gagarin did something perhaps remarkable – he stooped down and took off his shoes.

It was and is customary in many parts of Eastern Europe to remove one’s shoes before entering someone’s home. It is a gesture that shows respect for its owners. Gagarin’s simple gesture spoke loudly to the director. He was showing respect and ultimately humility. What could have been dismissed as a quaint ritual that this blue-collar peasant performed out of tradition so deeply impressed Korolyov that Gagarin was moved to the head of the line.

In our readings today, we hear strong words about ambition and humility. The reading from James is quite dramatic in its assessment of what selfish ambition does to individuals and even to groups. “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.”

I remember some years back, when reality TV shows like The Apprentice were at their peak of popularity, I was chatting with author Dorothy Allison. We were reflecting over lunch about what American culture teaches us about ambition. The winning contestants on these shows are the ruthless ones. They succeed by teaming up against other contestants and throwing one by one under the bus, until only one is left standing.

What if, we wondered aloud, what if someone created a show where selflessness and self-sacrifice determined the winner? One of our luncheon companions chimed in, “Who would watch that?”

jesus-and-childJesus, upon hearing his disciples arguing over which one of them was the greatest, turned the tables on them once again by placing a child in their midst. Children in ancient cultures had NO voice, no rights. There were very few members of society who were lower in status than children, slaves perhaps. And yet Jesus chose a child to be the model of Christian humility. “If you want to be first, you must be like this child. This powerless, vulnerable child.”

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

We usually are more like the disciples before seeing this child. We worry about who is number one. We pursue the top spot, no matter what it takes or who it hurts. We spend our time looking up to see who is above us, and we strive to have what they have. We want to gain a measure of their fame and their success.

Many of us desperately choose quick ways to get to the top. Sue your way to a fortune. Cheat, lie, steal. Remember Bernie Madoff? He made his fortune chiefly by defrauding his closest friends and even family. Now, contrast him with this woman described in our reading from Proverbs.

She sounds like supermom! A “wonder woman” indeed! Does she remind you of anyone else? What about Lady Wisdom in last week’s reading? This morning’s reading almost seems to tell us what Lady Wisdom would be like if she got married and had a family. She is hardworking and successful, even competing in business ventures like a man would. There is much symbolic language about the wealth that she gains – the color of her children’s clothes, a lamp that never goes out. Yes, she is ambitious, but this ideal woman is also defined by her care for the poor. Wisdom is the essence of her success, and not the kind of wisdom that exploits and dominates, but the wisdom described in the reading from James – pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

And then comes this beautiful line in James, “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. But who today 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 a moment before we pursue our ambition to show the respect of Yuri Gagarin and take off our shoes? Might we all take Jesus at his word and choose as our role models the least among us to be our guides, instead of the proud and those on top. Friends, the world’s system of envy and ambition only works if we are looking up. What if we choose to look down instead?

May God grant us the ambition of a child, the wisdom of a peacemaker, and the humility of a man who takes the time to remove his shoes.




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