October 18, 2015, Who’s On First? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Our society places a lot of stock in ambition. From earliest childhood, the whole educational system is set up to encourage us to be ambitious, and we reward those who rise above the rest. We make a big deal about grades and achievements, and we give prizes to those who about who score high on tests and we cheer our kids on when they win big at sports and we brag on facebook when they earn prizes for their artwork or music. We reward ambition and success, from kindergarten right on through to adulthood. And mostly, that all seems pretty natural; it makes perfect sense to us even though when we grew up most of us had to make peace with not being the first and the best. There are those exceptional people – maybe they are born into privilege with the expectation of power and authority, or maybe they are born into poverty and neglect that they need to escape from – however they began life, there are some people who grow up with big ambitions to succeed and get ahead, and they spend their lives working toward those leadership positions, always moving up the ladder. But then there are all the rest of us with our smaller ambitions, who mostly spend our lives following the leaders, admiring or maybe sometimes resenting those who’ve gotten ahead.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were the first kind of people, earnest young men, a little hot-headed, energetic, and ambitious. One of the reasons they were all about being the followers of the Messiah, was because they truly believed that Jesus was the winning ticket. The Roman legions had occupied their nation for almost a century, the Promised Land that God had given to the people of Israel as their inheritance forever. But now, with the coming of God’s Messiah, the days of the Romans were numbered. The apostles all believed that with the coming of Jesus the time had come for God to crush the Romans and set things straight again – sort of a Donald Trump kind of idea, making Israel great again. And the Zebedee boys were going to be in on the ground floor of it all.
They felt sure enough that Jesus would be victorious over their enemies, and confident enough about their own importance in the whole thing that they went to Jesus to ask him to reserve the seats of greatest authority for them, one at his right hand and one at his left, when he was enthroned in the seat of power at last. They were ready to suffer, ready to fight, ready do what needed to be done, if only they could end up on the top of the heap, as it were. Of course, when the other ten apostles found out what James and John had done they were really annoyed with them for trying to put themselves ahead of everyone else – not so much, I think, because they thought it was wrong, not even because they were appalled at their lack of humility. I suspect it was more a matter of jealousy, wishing that they’d thought of asking first.
It was another one of those times when Jesus had to call his friends together for a spot of hard teaching. But it wasn’t hard because the apostles were simple uneducated yokels and theology was way over their heads. They were all raised on the Hebrew scriptures, so they were probably more literate than the average American. And they were all trained in their various businesses of fishing or tax-collecting or whatever, so they had practical smarts, too. They weren’t highly educated, but they weren’t dumb. What made it so hard for them to understand is that Jesus was teaching them the ways of a kingdom that was not of this world. It was like he was teaching them a foreign language and foreign customs only much more so. And on the day we read about today, he taught them about power and ambition, as it is spoken in the language of the kingdom of heaven – and it was the complete opposite of what they had been taught as children, and what they had observed in the world, and even completely opposite to what they felt, intuitively, to be normal and natural and “right”. It wasn’t complicated, but it was radically new and different.
“You know how it is with the Gentiles,” Jesus said to them, “how those who reach the top lord it over everybody at the bottom. That’s not how it is going to be with you. The kingdom of God runs counter to the kingdom of this world. Power and authority in the kingdom of God isn’t going to look like any power or authority the world has ever seen. Winning and getting ahead in the kingdom of heaven won’t look anything like victory and success in this kingdom. The first – the rich, the well-respected, the clever and powerful – they come last in my kingdom, but the last – the poor, the outcasts, the despised and downtrodden – they come first.
One of the world’s favorite story-lines is what we call “rags to riches” – the story of some man or woman who was born in poverty and obscurity and who made a name for himself or herself, who got famous and had an influence on Important Things. It’s even better if they got really rich, of course. The world admires a self-made man – somebody like Abraham Lincoln who grew up in a little log cabin and studied law by firelight and became president. The world – and especially our part of the world – admires ambition; it’s the essence of the American Dream.
But the kingdom of heaven turns the American Dream on its head. Because our Lord didn’t rise from poverty and obscurity to squash the bad guys and take his place in the seat of honor. Our Lord Jesus came from the place of incomparable power and glory and authority. And then he gave it all up – “he emptied himself of all but love”, as the hymn goes – he gave up all glory and power to become the servant of every man, woman and child trapped in this kingdom. The ambitious man in the kingdom of heaven wraps a towel around his waist and washes feet. The ambitious man in the kingdom of heaven lays his hands on the leper and allows the sinful woman to anoint him and welcomes the little children when they interrupt his teaching. The ambitious man in the kingdom of heaven lays down his own life for the life of the world.
Human success can be measured in terms of money or power or fame; Jesus came with an ambition that was going to end in blood and sweat and pain and dishonor? It was a hard teaching. But it wasn’t just a new way of thinking that Jesus had to teach his twelve friends that day; it was a new way of seeing: to really see that for all its pride and glory, even the greatest victory of this world is cut short by death at the last. But the failure of the cross, for all its shame and grief, ended in everlasting life.
We know the paradox of the cross –we’ve heard it preached so many times it might even be that it loses its strangeness for us, unless we take the time to really meditate on Christ’s life and Passion; take time to really focus on prayers like the collect for Tuesday of Holy Week, where we pray: “O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life.” But I think the big challenge for most of us is to allow the way of the Cross to change the way we understand our own lives.
In 1811 and 1812 there was a series of four earthquakes along the New Madrid fault line: the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded east of the Rockies in our country. The shock was so great that it changed the course of the Mississippi River. That’s the kind of change the Cross of Christ makes in our lives. Jesus didn’t come with a new religion; the kingdom of heaven brought an entirely new way of thinking and seeing and living. The lives of James and John, and the other apostles, their hopes, their ambitions, their interactions with the people around them, underwent a seismic shift that rippled out into the whole civilized world and beyond. And it began with the Messiah that nobody expected, the Servant-King who came to lay down his life for the love of his people.
But the kingdom of heaven continues breaking its way into the world with the people that nobody expected, with us, the course of our lives changed forever. Sometimes we forget, when we read about the Gentiles, that we’re talking about ourselves, the ones who were considered outside the pale of God’s kingdom – but now his beloved children, purely by his grace. We’re not the Moral Majority or the Moral Minority or the Voice of God in America, or the Party to Bring Back Family Values – we are the least and the last, welcomed into the kingdom by the good will and pleasure of God. The course of our lives doesn’t run the way of the world anymore. Our hopes and ambitions run counter to the strivings in the world around us. We know how it is in this world, how those who are considered important and powerful lord it over the rest, and exercise authority over those beneath them. But it shall not be so with us. Whoever would be first among us must be the servant of all. For even our Lord came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.