Sunday, October 18th, 2015 – 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Mark 10:35-45
Hymns: “All Creatures of Our God and King”, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”, “Your Love, O Lord”, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Come, Share the Lord”, “God of This City”
How to Not Get Offered a Job
So there I was.
Back in July of 2013, I had my very first interview with a church that was looking at me as a pastoral candidate. This was a small church in a small town in North Carolina – a town, in fact, that’s almost the exact same size as Gower; the big difference is because it’s situated on an interstate highway, they have a stoplight.
So I drove up there for my interview, and they asked me some questions, and we discussed some things, and then one talked about one of the things they had put in their search and call profile: they weren’t happy with the size of the church, and they wanted to “grow” it, as it were. That’s all well and good. Most churches want to do that. In its purest form, that desire is the natural evangelical instinct.
There was just one problem with this particular church: they had about 120 members on the roll, averaging about 60-70 in worship. All the other churches in this particular town were about the same size, except for the Mormon church, which was quite a bit bigger. Now, had they been in Gower, where they would’ve been one of THREE churches, growing would not have been a particular problem. If only 350-360 people in town were members across the three churches, that’d leave another 1200 people to draw from!
The problem was that, in this town of about 1,550 people, there were TEN churches, the big Mormon church being one of them. And so I asked them, “Where would you want me to draw people in from? Given the situation in this town, I feel like I would almost have to go out and start cannibalizing the other churches and that, to me, is ethically and morally wrong.”
I did not get offered that job.
We must understand, though, that this is not a desire that was unique to this little small-town church in North Carolina. The desire to grow and be bigger is one that almost every church out there has, but for most of them, it really has nothing to do with that natural evangelical instinct I mentioned earlier. Yes, churches pay lip service to evangelism and say that they’re trying to get more people in the door for the glory of God, but realistically, most churches that are desperate to get more people in the door want to do so in order to 1) look bigger and 2) protect their bottom line.
Now, in case I wasn’t clear over the last two weeks, that flies in the face of two very important things that God desires of us: as I mentioned two weeks ago, we have been enjoined to NOT worry about the things of tomorrow, because 1) God will take care of us, and 2) as I mentioned last week, we can’t fix things on our own anyway! If we expect there to be a difference, we have to give our concerns up to the Lord, and not rely on our material wealth to carry us along.
For many churches, though, rather than taking the path of faith, they take the path of desiring a false sense of security. And one has to imagine that that is probably the place from which James and John were approaching Jesus in today’s Gospel passage.
You have to remember that all throughout the chapters leading up to this, through the discussions of wealth and the abilities of mortal men and who can cast out demons and who must be welcomed into the body of Christ and so on and so forth, Jesus has been telling his disciples that some nasty stuff is gonna be going down pretty soon: when he gets to Jerusalem, he’s going to be handed over to the authorities, who are going to KILL HIM.
As we know from years of hearing the words “Get behind me, Satan”, the disciples pretty much took one of two approaches to this prediction: 1) they just didn’t get what on earth Jesus was talking about, or 2) they made like Peter and took a trip down Denial River. With James and John, though, it seems like they may well have not only been listening to Jesus, but they actually picked up what he was putting down. They’ve realized that some seriously bad things are about to happen to their teacher, and they were smart enough to figure out that they might get caught up in the nastiness, too. So, they’re taking out an insurance policy by coming to Jesus here: “IN CASE WE DIE,” they’re saying, “we want to be at your right and left hands in your glory.”
Seems like a pretty legit human reaction. You know, they know who Jesus is – or at least, they’ve been told by Peter – so even if they’re not sure about it, why take the risk? Why not come to him and say, look, we’ve been faithful to you, we’re pretty sure about where you’re going, so when you get there, can the two of us occupy the prime positions of glory next to you?
Now, in one of my sermons a few months back, I mentioned a painting of Jesus where he’s got the palm of his hand covering half of his face, as though he’s just shaking his head in despair at something new and ridiculous one of his followers has said. I have to imagine that this had to have been one of those “facepalm Jesus” moments.
First of all, let’s talk about what were the two most important and arguably most glorious moments of Jesus’ ministry on earth: his death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. In the first of those two moments, Jesus’ crucifixion, the men on his left and on his right were not his followers, for they had abandoned him – no, instead, in that moment of glory, criminals hung on Jesus’ left and right hand sides, and one of those two, rather than displaying the arrogance and insecurity of James and John, acknowledged the divinity of Jesus and begged that he be remembered when Jesus entered paradise.
And of course, when the glorious moment of resurrection came, the disciples were all hidden away, locked in a room where the authorities could not find them. The people on his left and right that day were the women of faith who had also followed him, and as a result of their faithfulness, became the VERY first to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
With all that in mind, we have to remember that Jesus was not one to just straight out say “Yes” or “No” to people when they asked him for something. If they wanted something, he wanted them to understand why they could or couldn’t have it. So he asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Of course, James and John had no way of knowing that the cup to which he referred would be the cup that represented Jesus’ blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins, and that the baptism to which he referred would be the baptism of death, to be reborn to new life. And perhaps they realized that he was speaking in metaphors here, but either way, eager to please the one at whose left and right hands they wanted to sit, they enthusiastically replied, “We are able!”
“All well and good,” Jesus told them, “but one last thing: sitting at my right or my left is not mine to grant.”
James and John have exemplified one more problem found among so many people of faith: the desire for glory of their own. They seem to think that, because they’ve been Jesus’ followers and they’ve done well as his followers, they deserve to have places of glory. They deserve to be at the left and right hands of Jesus. And they might well think that, but what exactly makes them more deserving to be in those positions than any of the other ten of the disciples? Or any of the other followers of Christ? Or any of the other billions of Christians who would follow them over the last two millennia?
And really, that brings us full circle back to the desire for churches to get bigger and better. Yes, in no small part, have this underlying need to get bigger in order to be more financially secure. But guess what? Being bigger LOOKS better. It makes a church LOOK successful. It makes a church LOOK prestigious. Far too many churches operate under the delusion that if they could only be bigger, then they would surely draw in more people, though more often than not, the reason people aren’t coming to a particular church have far more to do with its spiritual health than the size of its congregation!
But there’s more to this story – both on the end with James and John, and on the end with the churches. You see, when the rest of the disciples heard about James and John’s presumption that they could ask for these places of glory in the kingdom, they got pretty ticked off. And churches tend to be the same way – if we see another church seeking out success that they don’t necessarily deserve, especially if it encroaches into something we think belongs to us, and ESPECIALLY if they actually succeed at it, we tend to get a little bit irritated. It’s a big part of why there’s this lovely little think called inter-denominational rivalry that’s been going on for a thousand years and won’t be ending anytime soon.
In the Gospel passage, though, Jesus decides that it’s time to put a stop to this nonsense. He tells his disciples that among the Gentiles – e.g., the Samaritans, the Romans, etc. – those who are considered the rulers lord it over those who they rule. They treat them horribly and are generally tyrannical in nature. That is something for which there is no place in the kingdom of God, he tells them. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”
I feel like we’ve heard this before. Ah, yes, we have – he who wishes to be first must be last, and he who is last shall be first. But not long after he told his disciples this, Jesus would demonstrate the idea of being a leader by being a servant in very present detail, when he washed their feet before they joined together to celebrate the Last Supper.
In order to lead, we must first serve. It’s a lesson that many churches must learn, re-learn, and learn again. It is serving our communities that will make us great, and not our size or our prestige.
The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. We have been given the example by the one who is our Savior – seek not glory, but humbly be a servant. Let us gladly follow in the path of our Lord.