Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 17, 2021
Mark 10:35-45 “The Upside-Down World of Jesus”
Prior to taking the position here as your pastor, most of you know I worked for the national setting of the United Church of Christ in the Council for Health and Human Service Ministries. One of my primary areas of focus there was to be the administrator and instructor for the Nollau Leadership Institute. Named for Rev. Louis Nollau, it was a yearlong hybrid course focusing on servant leadership skills in the church-related non-profit sector. While we taught some practical tools, we mostly focused on helping our students understand the ‘why’ of the work they were doing. All students were serving in organizations that embodied Christian missions of service, justice, and love. Many were working with the most vulnerable people in their community. And all of them could have made a great deal more money by working somewhere else. Our goal, by the end of the course, was to help our students claim their work as a vocation, not just a job. And, no matter their religious beliefs, we wanted them to understand that they were doing God’s work.
One year, the CEO of a large senior living community in southern California sent his vice president for community engagement – I think that was her title anyway. Essentially she headed the marketing department. Her name was Sue and she was in late middle age. Sue had attained a high level position at this senior living community, had a staff reporting directly to her, and was responsible for a vital department. However, at our first gathering she confided in me that she didn’t think the Institute was right for her. She felt that she was given a privilege she didn’t earn – that leadership skills were only meant for people in a CEO position. I did my best to assure her that she was very welcome in the course and I was sure she would do well.
Now, the first gathering of the students was focused on helping them understand the concept of vocation and to better understand the mission of their organization. They studied and discussed the history of how their organizations were formed – nearly all of which started with one or two people looking around them, seeing a group of people in need, and giving their all to meet that need – all done as an act of Christian faith. After the students had a proper appreciation for why their organization started and continued to serve, we helped them to consider the ways in which each student was serving that mission. Even if their work was such that they rarely or never interacted with a client or customer, we helped each and every one see that what they were doing was service, that they were caring for the vulnerable, that they were fulfilling a call from God to care for the least of these.
I kept my eye on Sue all week. She was one of those students who ‘got it’ quickly. She became animated and excited. She started use words like mission and vocation easily, claiming them for herself. As the organizer of the retreat, and one of its instructors, I took a great deal of pride in this – it often took a full year for students to achieve that level of understanding of their purpose and drive, if they did at all. I was excited to spend the year journey alongside Sue, eager to see how the Institute would affect her. Three weeks after that first retreat, Sue called me and told me she had resigned from her job. It was all because of me, she said, and she made sure her CEO knew that.
I’ll tell you the rest of Sue’s story in a minute, but first I want to explain why I am telling you her story. The Nollau Leadership Institute was not religious instruction. But, we were a church-based organization, and all of our students were from religious nonprofits. So, while a student’s religious beliefs had no bearing on their eligibility to participate, and we were certainly not proselyting, I used religious language and ritual in my instruction – all be it, carefully. As I was the only ordained instructor, it was my role to weave in spiritual and religious understanding into the curriculum. One of the ways I did this was by telling the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples when he gathered with them right before his arrest as told in the Gospel of John. I felt, at the time, that was the best example of servant leadership in the ministry of Jesus. But, this week, as I have considered the Gospel lesson for today, I wish I had used this scripture instead. The interaction between James and John and Jesus teaches us more about what Christian leadership really means, more so, I think, than even that extraordinary moment of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet.
The brothers James and John do not come off very well in this story, even by Mark’s standards – the Gospel of Mark being known for portraying the disciples in less than flattering ways. James and John make quite a demand, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” I am not sure if amazement at their boldness, or incredulity at their impertinence is the better response. Either way, this is not the type of interaction we are accustomed to between Jesus and those who follow him. Of all the responses Jesus could have given to such a request, the gentleness of the one that follows is not what I would have expected, “What is it you want me to do for you?” I hear no sarcasm, no derision, no dismissal in that response. I hear a genuine curiosity and patience – the response of a caring teacher.
James and John want assurance that they will be given places of authority and position, that they will sit at Jesus’ left and right hands, reflecting his glory. They want assurances that the sacrifices they have made by giving up all they had to follow him were not going to be for nothing. They can handle it, they tell Jesus, even after he tells them they don’t know what they are asking. They can handle the power they are asking for, or as the scripture says, “drink of the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism as Jesus.”
James and John, like the rest of the disciples throughout the Gospels, didn’t yet understand who Jesus was or why he was doing what he was doing. They understood, like most of us even today, only worldly power. They only understood worldly authority. They couldn’t conceive of a world in which those with the most, gave the most. The last shall be first and the first shall be last was, and continues to be, a concept that is so counter-intuitive – that even when spoken directly from the mouth of Jesus cannot be understood or fathomed. The possibility that Jesus was showing, the Kingdom of God, simply does not conform to how we have learned to live and thrive in this world. James and John had been taught, just as you and I have been, that power equals success, that authority means superiority, and the ultimate goal in life is to achieve both.
But Jesus says that is not what we should be striving for. That a world organized from the top-down, a world based on the assumption of scarcity, a world that equals value with money is not what God wants for us. But, as we know, this is nearly impossible for most people to understand, let alone live out. Which is why Jesus lives an example for us. So when James and John make their audacious demand, a leader living into human expectations of authority would have punished them in some way. But instead, he lives his lesson of servant leadership into existence. He listens, he teaches, he shows them what it means for the first to the last. So, while James and John get a lot wrong about Jesus in this scripture – they get one thing absolutely right. They have dedicated their lives to the right Teacher. Even if they don’t yet understand who and what he is, they were committed to Jesus – striving to achieve places by his side, in his glory. And, in the end, as church lore tells us – they lived that lesson into reality. They spread Gospel, stood up to authorities that tried to silence the Good News, and became early leaders of our faith. It wasn’t easy – James we think as martyred and John banished – but they never gave up their service to God and God’s people.
And that brings me back to Sue. She had never considered that her life could be one of vocation. She had been taught that she needed to achieve authority and wealth. She needed to strive for success, success as the world defines it. She thought a life of service and vocation was for other people. Something, and I don’t know what, during that first gathering of the Nollau Leadership Institute, broke through all of that messaging and she realized her deep-seeded desire for service was in fact what brought value into her life. Sue is now the fulltime Christian education director at a Presbyterian church. It is hard work, and she needs to work a couple of other jobs to make ends meet – but she has never been happier. Even her old CEO – none to pleased with me (you need to understand, this was a bit of a problem as my organization was a membership organization, and that CEO’s business paid dues that, eventually, covered my salary), but even her CEO finally accepted that Sue was now doing what she loved and he was free to find someone whose vocation and search for purpose would be found in her old position – a task at which he succeeded.
I am not suggesting that to be a true Christian servant leader we must all give up our jobs and serve the church. Not at all. The beautiful thing about vocation and answering God’s call is it can be done in so many ways. For some, that is career choice. But for some it is caring for family. For many it is through volunteer work or art or travel or picking up trash along the road. God calls each of us to serve God’s glorious creation in our own way. As Christians we have a wonderful example to follow – an example of service in the place of authority, justice in the place of authoritarianism, and hope in the place of despair. Amen.
Good and Loving God, In a world where many would seek to damage your creation, bring hatred to your people, show violence to your children … help us always to be grateful for the gifts of love and life, for the glimpses of transforming beauty and unending wonder. Take us now, and use us well to combat evil and destruction wherever we find it.
In world driven by greed and a lust for power; where the material threatens to overwhelm the spiritual; where goodness seems too frail in the face of badness … help us not to give up on righteousness and truth; to believe that you can use well the gifts we offer; that you will call forth the gifts of your people again and again.
In a world where people are broken at the hands of humanity and by the vagaries of nature … help us to trust the healing of your blessing and love, placed even now in the hands of those who seek to face down injustice and champion human rights; who stand in the dark places with your light held high; who give of themselves for the sake of others.
In a world where we struggle to understand pain and suffering, and, most especially, in the lives of those we love … we bring before you those for whom we weep; those we embrace in our hearts; those to who we reach out in the yearnings of our prayers …
In a world where we can feel so insignificant and helpless … help us to know you have a place for us; lift our spirits when we don’t feel good enough; fit us into your plan in amazing ways.
In a world where so much is focused on the here and now … help us to remain bound with those who have gone before us; to rejoice in our fellowship in the one kingdom of your love; to give thanks that, from time to time, we have a glimpse of eternity.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher, who taught us to pray by saying…Our Father…