James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but 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.”
This past week, I saw that LEO Weekly came out with their “Readers’ Choice Awards,” their annual Best of Louisville roundup where readers vote for their favorite choice in a long list of categories – Best Movie Theater, Best Farmers’ Market, Best Chocolate Shop, and so on. As I looked through the listings, I agreed with a lot of the winners. Keeping away from categories that people might consider politically partisan, or the even more contentious categories like Best Place for Pizza, and just looking at some of the creative categories, I was delighted to see three incredibly talented people get top honors on the list: Jon Cherry for Best Photographer, Kyle Gordon for Best Videographer, and Hannah Drake for Best Local Writer. There were some other choices that I disagreed with, too. I suppose it’s possible that some of those disagreements were just a result of my particular age – I’d have likely voted differently for Best Local Radio Station than most 20 year-olds, for example. And I know that with each trip around the sun that you make, the relevance of certain categories changes. I mean, even if the answers varied, people of any age would have an opinion on the Best Place for a Romantic Dinner, but over time, the odds are that you might be less interested in categories like Best Body Piercing, Best Head Shop, and Best Twitter Feed, and more interested in seeing categories like Best Urologist, Best Orthopedic Surgeon, and Best Place to Buy Sensible Shoes. I’m not entirely there yet, but still, I’m just sayin’…
The LEO list does identify some of the best in our city; people, places, and events that help to make our city great and that really deserve recognition and the glory of being name to the list. But it is a bit subjective, of course, and it will always be more a popularity poll than any kind of scientific, objective determination of the “best of” some particular thing. So while it would definitely be fun to have year-long bragging rights if Springdale Presbyterian was voted Best Place to Worship – we weren’t – I’m not exactly going to lie awake at nights worrying about it.
It’s also definitely true that lists like this one can be subject to distortion by vote-casting campaigns, lobbying efforts on the part of some in order to beat out their competition and get top billing in their particular category.
As we heard today’s gospel text, we were peeking in on a similar kind of lobbying attempt to gain a place of honor and glory. Admittedly, in the case of the apostles James and John asking to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and left hand when Jesus had come into his glory – basically, being named Best Apostles – the stakes were a lot more serious than getting named in the LEO list, but there’s a similar human emotion and motivation involved. We heard that the other ten apostles took a dim view of the brothers’ efforts, and for the most part, biblical commentators and two thousand years’ worth of preachers have, too. It was presumptuous, self-serving, and frankly, just plain tacky. I’ve preached this text that way multiple times in the past, and I probably will again in the future. This time around, though, as I let their words dwell and simmer in my brain, I heard them with a slight bit more grace.
As Mark points out in his lead-in by reminding us of James and John’s father, Zebedee, these two bothers have given up a lot to be there on the road with Jesus that day – family, friends, community, business, a steady income and social respectability – all to follow Jesus, the homeless, wandering preacher and maybe-messiah, relying on charity to survive and undoubtedly being looked down upon by more polite society for it. Keeping that in mind, and granting that their request was self-serving, I can still imagine that at its core was something much more respectable and valid – the basic, existential human need that we all have to know that our efforts, our sacrifices made in order to do what we think is right, was ultimately worth it – put another way, the deep existential need to know that our lives actually mattered.
Maybe it was with that more palatable way of understanding the brothers’ request that Jesus offered them his answer – that paired along with the need for a childlike nature that we heard about a couple of weeks ago, to be truly great in God’s estimation, in God’s realm, a person needs to be a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and not in a grudging or transactional sense, as if we were trying to buy their way into heaven, but rather, recognizing that we’ve already been redeemed; that we and God have already been reconciled. And recognizing the depths to which Christ became a servant to all, we’re grateful, and with God’s help, now we can, and need to, reflect and offer that same servant nature to others, by offering them love and compassion and acceptance and assistance. Jesus didn’t put it quite this way, but maybe we could say that exhibiting that servant nature is the best evidence possible that a person has really, truly grasped the core truth of the gospel, and *that’s* what makes them great, and worthy or real glory, in God’s eyes.
In our Presbyterian tradition, our form of governance and leadership rests on this exact principle. We have a carefully thought-out balance of sharing congregational leadership responsibilities. Certain duties are reserved for the pastor, a Minister of Word and Sacrament, also sometimes known as a Teaching Elder. Other leadership duties are reserved for the Session, made up of the installed pastor – or pastors, if there are more than one – and Ruling Elders, who are elected and ordained by the congregation. Being elected a Ruling Elder isn’t a small thing. It isn’t the same as being elected to the Board of some social club or organization. It’s something very serious. A person being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder first prayerfully seeks discernment from God whether this kind of leadership is something that God is calling them to; and to consider that the call will require them to share their talents, their time, their imagination. And whether we’re talking about Minsters of Word and Sacrament or Ruling Elders, it isn’t a kind of leadership that “lords it over” people, as Jesus says, and our own Book of Order echoes, but rather, to exhibit what compassionate servant leadership looks like as a spiritual discipline.
We believe that the congregation is an equally important part of this discernment process, to correctly sense God’s will. Voting for someone to be ordained and serve as a Ruling Elder isn’t just a vote of expediency in order to just fill a slot. It’s far more meaningful than being voted to a “Best of” slot on the LEO list. In their vote, the congregation is validating the person’s sense that God may be calling the to this particular kind of servant leadership. It’s community affirmation that they’ve carefully, prayerfully considered the person, and in them, they recognize not only an abiding love of God and a strong, mature Christian faith, but also particular gifts for this kind of leadership of the congregation in ways that keep it on the path that God is leading it on. The vote is confirmation that in this person, the congregation recognizes the servant nature that Jesus talks about.
So as a member of the congregation, recognize that every single one of us who drinks of the same cup as Jesus, and who is baptized in the same baptism as him – every single one of us – is called in some way or another to be a leader, by being a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and a servant’s way of living the gospel. As a member of the congregation, when we vote on servant leaders for Session and other positions next month, remember what it really represents. And if you yourself end up being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder, and if, as you’re considering it, you wonder and worry if it’s worth the effort – remember this particular gospel text, and that in it, Jesus has already cast his vote that most definitely it is.
Thanks be to God.