A sermon on Mark 10:35-45 and Hebrews 5:1-10 on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24B in the Zabriskie Memorial Church of Saint John the Evangelist on 18 October 2015
Ambition: you either have too much of it or not enough. Those who have too much are criticized for their overreaching presumption. Those who don’t have enough are thought of as lazy and lacking initiative. Paradoxically, our society encourages us to be ambitious, while simultaneously warning us against getting too big for our britches. We are to “aim high,” but not too high. How is this possible? Or is ambition actually a bad thing altogether—something incompatible with gospel values?
James and John, those ambitious sons of Zebedee, provide a good test case for these questions. In Matthew’s gospel, it’s their mother who approaches Jesus, thereby shielding these brothers from the accusation of hubris, but in Mark’s telling, these siblings are real go-getters, directly approaching Jesus while they’re all on their way to Jerusalem. They ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” This is a strange request, since in the previous two verses, Jesus had just explicitly stated that when they arrive in Jerusalem, “the Son of Man will be handed over…and they will condemn him to death; then they will…mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
Apparently, the only part the brothers caught was “he will rise again,” which I guess they took to mean that he will be victorious and enter into his “glory.” So James and John must have been optimists as well as opportunists. Or perhaps they did understand a little—after all, they claimed they were able to share in Jesus’ “baptism” and “cup,” though the symbolism is so opaque that we can’t know for sure whether they really understood what Jesus was getting at or not.
The other ten disciples, meanwhile, were understandably angry at the brothers’ presumptuousness. For his part, Jesus, though not rebuking the brothers outright, used their presumption as a sort of “teachable moment” for all the disciples, declaring, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Both James and John in their hubris, and the ten in their reactivity, all tacitly assumed that Jesus was, in fact, their ticket to glory, power, and perks. Why else would the other ten get jealous? But Jesus tells them that rather than seeking glory, power, and perks, they must be willing instead to embrace suffering, service, and persecutions.
What about us? Thankfully, up until now my own life has been pretty much free from the last of those three, persecutions. Still, I have plenty of ambition for glory and power, but very little ambition when it comes to suffering and service. Yet, if Jesus is to be believed, in order to “become great” and to “be first,” we must be ambitious for exactly these things.
But maybe “ambitious” is the wrong word to describe a Christ-like attitude toward suffering and service. For there’s one detail that I’ve always skipped over, which is that Jesus tells the brothers that, “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.” I’ve usually given that phrase little notice, because I’ve always thought of it as Jesus essentially passing the buck on to his Father, kind of like when Margaret and Andrew ask me if they can watch a movie, and instead of just telling them no, I ask them, “What did your mother say to that?” But in reading over this morning’s lesson from Hebrews, I found a striking parallel in what the author of that letter says about Jesus our great High Priest, namely, that “one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God.” This is significant, I think, because it gives us a hint about how we are to look at ambition as Christians. We may aspire to great things, but the ultimate test is one of discernment: is this something I am pursuing because of what it will do for me, or is this actually a call from God? Does it have service of others at its root, or does it primarily serve my ego?
I take this question as a personal challenge, because being in the midst of our stewardship campaign, it’s too easy for me to look at the success we’ve had thus far and get a big ego about it. The bishop and his second-in-command recently said very flattering things about my abilities in fundraising in front of a room full of my clergy colleagues. I felt simultaneously proud—similar to the feeling I had as a child when the teacher would compliment my work in front of the entire class—and embarrassed, because I knew that my “success” has had little to do with me personally, and everything to do with your faith in this community.
Nevertheless, when it comes to raising the funds we need in order to do what I believe we’ve been called to do as a church, a choir school, and a community center, I am ambitious. Thus far, we have raised more in under two weeks than we did in the entire three months of last year’s stewardship campaign—and half of those who pledged last year have yet to return their pledge cards for this year, which means we could see $50,000 or more of additional pledging coming in if everyone renews their pledge. I am ambitious to get this done. But I have no business standing before you today talking about the church and money if what I am saying does not have the service of others at its root. I can be bold in asking for your support because I know that if I get too big for my britches, I have a wife who will remind me that everyone here who has given to the church has done so not out of love for me, but out of love for God and our neighbors, or at least out of a conviction that St. John’s is doing good things worth supporting.
So yes, I am ambitious. But in all things, my ambition and our ambition must be to serve others, not ourselves. We need to be aware of our ambitions, but not blinded by them. God’s call to us to serve others trumps any grand design for our own future, either as individuals or as a community, and it is our attentiveness to what God has prepared for us that really matters. It is from this place of attentive service that we can be generous in the giving of our time, talent, and treasure, and it is to this end that I stand here today. For “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” May this be my—and our—ambition in stewardship, now and always.