Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
A married couple in their early 70’s were celebrating their 50th Wedding Anniversary in a quiet, romantic restaurant. Suddenly, a tiny fairy appeared on their table and said, "For being such an exemplary married couple and loving each other for all this time, I will grant you each a wish."
The wife answered, "Oh, I want to travel around the world with my darling husband." The fairy waved her magic wand and - poof! - two tickets for the Queen Mary II appeared in her hands. The husband thought for a moment: "Well, this is all very romantic, but an opportunity like this will never come again. I'm sorry my love, but my wish is to have a wife 30 years younger than I."
The wife, and the fairy, were deeply disappointed, but a wish is a wish. So the fairy waved her magic wand and poof!...the husband turned 103. The moral of this story: Be careful what you ask from those who have power.
The Apostles James and John learned that lesson when they asked Jesus to use his power to give them a place of great status in his kingdom. “Teacher,” they say to him, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” What they want is to sit at the head of the table and right next to him. They want to be in the president’s cabinet. They want to be on the board of trustees. They want to be recognized as great.
And I wonder if they were interested in the actual responsibility that comes with such a role or rather in the appearance that they were very important people.
Notice that Jesus did not tell them that they should not aspire to greatness. Notice, too, what Jesus did not tell James and John. He did not say, "You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?" He did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be."
But he turned their notion of greatness upside down and reordered the priorities. Don't give up this instinct,” he is telling them, “It's good if you use it correctly. Here’s what greatness looks like: to be first in love, to be first in integrity, to be first in accountability, to be first in reliability, to be first in generosity, first in humility, to be first in your willingness to serve others.
That’s greatness and that definition of greatness means that we all can be great by virtue of our place in God’s kingdom—our holy status as the beloved daughters and sons of God. The truly great ones are not the powerful ones who sit at the head of the table and get asked for their autograph. They are the unassuming ones who slip in and out among the guests refilling glasses and bringing more food.
The great ones are not the dignitaries to the right and left of the CEO. They are the ones stirring the gravy in the kitchen and correcting the spices in the soup. The power of God is the power to serve, and it is by service that we will transform the world—from the bottom up, not from the top down.
Sadly, the desire for greatness too often brings with it a sense of entitlement; entitlement that can cause great harm by the way some perceive their power. Here’s a disturbing story about the use of power—the power of words to hurt and demean others. A friend told me about this encounter she had last week in a store in Norwalk. She came to the check out where an African-American teenage boy was at the register. She has a habit of asking those in service professions how their day is going as a gesture of gratitude and respect for those who have worked in service jobs during the pandemic.
“Not so good,” the boy replied. “Most people,” she told me usually respond, “Good, and how about yours?” But this 16-year-old had a very different reply. “Why,” she asked, “What happened?” “Well,” the boy said, “I got called the “N” word twice today by customers.”
“That’s horrible,” my friend said. “You need to report that to the manager.” “Nah,” he replied,” “I’m used to it.” Used to it. In Norwalk, in Fairfield County. In 2021. He then asked her if he could carry her purchases to her car.
Membership in God’s household does not get us a place at the head table having our pictures taken with the powerful ones, rather it gets us a towel and basin with which to wash one another’s feet, the chance to refill each other’s wine glasses, stir the pots in the kitchen, and be sure that no one has gone without food.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The encounter Jesus has with the two Zebedee brothers is meant to both disturb and to reassure us. It is, on the one hand, a reminder that following Jesus means more than just saying we’re willing to do that. It means walking the walk; not just talking the talk.
It also reminds us that there have been others—some who heard it all directly from Jesus—who didn’t get it right for a long time. What does greatness looks like?: to be first in love, to be first in integrity, to be first in accountability, to be first in reliability, to be first in generosity, first in humility, to be first in your willingness to serve others.
The point is not so much to get it, but to stick with it and to keep listening and learning and growing. And to claim the power of grace that enables us to do that.