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.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But 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?” 39They 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; 40but 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.” 41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
********************************************************************************************************** Dumb disciples... power seeking, don't know what it is to be a servant, want to be waited on and have people under them dimwits... that's not what being a disciple is... is it? We're supposed to scramble for LAST place, not first! Disciples aren't supposed to go after title, or status, or wealth... right? Sons of Zebedee... don't you know better?
I wonder... what if they were our sons? What if, instead of sons on Zebedee they were sons of Pepe? Instead of the Zebedee boys, they were the Pep boys? I'm wondering how I might see the story then... from a parent's perspective- I see my 2 sons walk away from the very profitable family business- the same business I've groomed them to take over since they could walk... but they come to me one day with a happiness I've never seen, and tell me about this new opportunity they've found, and that they can do it together- and the person they are going to follow is more than gifted in communication, 'and he stands up for the poor and marginalized,Mom, and he's inclusive in his preaching, he heals people, he changes lives... Mom- didn't you always want that for us? To do something that matters?' And as their parent, I would say, "absolutely... if this really brings you joy, then do it... forget the family business... follow your hearts... follow God's call"
And they do... and I know they will do well... but I also want them to work hard... and when the time is right... rise through the ranks. I mean- that's how we measure success isn't it? As the organization gets larger, I would want them to be promoted- I would look for things like job security, I would want them to have people under them, so that if something happened, they wouldn't be the first to be let go... I want them to be self sufficient. So... what is it about the Zebedee boys, that makes them so unlikable in this passage? Why do we look at this story and want to scold them for wanting to get promoted and sit in the on the left and right hand of Jesus when he comes into power? What's wrong with that? We'll get back to them in a minute...
Today is Kick off Sunday- we use this football metaphor to begin a new church year. The kick off of a football game is the opening play of the game- and there's a feeling, after that first kick, when the ball is high in the air sailing toward the receiving team, that is unlike any other in the game, and it's filled with hope. It's a new beginning! This could be our year! Old records don't matter- even the underdog teams have a chance of going all the way- (Go Eagles, right?). And on this Sunday each year, we get that same feeling- we picture ourselves getting involved, and we pray as we grow, people will be engaged and spiritually fed and that discipleship will flourish this season at FBC Moorestown. And, like any team building coach, I stand in the pulpit looking out at all the gifted people God has brought together in this place, (watching that first kick sail through the air) and begin to think of ways that we can uncover, explore and use the gifts present in our community of faith to best serve and honor God. Go FBCM!
Our summer series on Backyard Body Building focused on just that. And just like we just saw with the children, every single one of us is needed, every single gift God has placed in our community is on purpose. Jesus picked 12 starter for his team for the same reasons- each of them brought something to the ministry team that was needed and valuable to the movement. The ideal is that everyone uses the gifts they have been given... And I listened to Rev. Nevin's sermon from last week, and how we sometimes see our gifts as not so valuable- as not enough- and we use that as a way of not engaging fully and his point is well taken. Our own assessment of ourselves and the gift God has given us sometimes stands in the way of participating in the work of ministry.
And his sermon is a great transition into our series for the fall, Backyard, Stumbling Blocks, or, things that keep us from moving forward, individually and as a church... stumbling blocks, or, what trips us up and keeps us from living out God's call in our backyard and beyond. (no, not more call sermons, please!) But truly, uncovering our own stumbling blocks is the only way to avoid tripping and falling over ourselves and each other... because make no mistake- there will be things, as we go forward, that will pop up, that can serve to derail all of our growth as a community, and being aware of some of them will help us avoid and/or deal with them as they happen.
And that brings us back to today's passage- the Zebedee boys, though making what would be to us, a normal request, just encountered stumbling block number one... competition. What is inside of us that strives for recognition, that desires status, or being number one? The easy answer is, we've seen what number 2 looks like, and we don't want it. But more than that, there are things that come with authority and position. power for one. And not just the ability to boss someone around, though that is surely part of it.
John and I taught marching band together at one point in our lives, and I remember a conversation that i had with a member of that district's board of education about why he was seeking reelection. He said, "You see, at my job, everyone has me like this (and placed a thumb face down on his opposite palm), but when I'm on the board, I get to to this, (and he turned the palm and thumb over, to reverse the power/oppression image.) . No one likes feeling demeaned, or less than... and no one, I don't care who you are, likes being told what to do all the time. And we'll do just about anything to NOT be in that position. When we have experienced that, or witnessed it, or have been taught to fear it, our natural instinct is to rise above it. So we ask again, what's wrong with that? Didn't Jesus teach us to stand against the systems that disempower some and empower others, to battle the powers and principalities Pastor jen was talking to us about a few weeks ago- to put on the full armor of God and fight oppression?
Yes. Jesus taught us to fight against oppression. For EVERYONE! In fact, if you noticed, Jesus didn't really tell the Zebedee boys that there was something wrong with their request... but what he did do is frame for them what what that "promotion" might look like. "Do you even know what you're asking? Can you drink the cup I'm going to drink? Leadership is not about lording things over people- it's about serving them," Jesus says. With leadership comes sacrifice, and service, and self-denial. With leadership comes responsibility for the masses. Putting the group before yourself. Fighting oppression by not becoming an oppressor. This is what servant leadership is about.
And though it sounds so simple, it's an easy trap to fall into, and if you need proof, just think about some of the leaders from history- many starting out with good intentions, but perhaps an inch at a time, became part of the problem. We've witnessed the misuse of power in government, in business, in sports for goodness sake. We've seen how mega corporations have crushed the mom and pop stores, How family farms are bring turned into housing developments because they can no longer compete with factory farms. How students from wealthy school districts continue to flourish while our inner city students struggle with less... everything. And because sadly, this has been much of our experience with leadership in general we've learned to NOT trust our leaders, and for the most part, anyone with any kind of power, with good reason.
Beyond power, position comes access to privilege, and wealth, and security... no wonder we crave it... (and I dont have to lay all that out for you, but suffice it to say, no wonder we want it for our children. But as Jesus describes it, leaders have access to those things in order to open those doors to everyone- to level the playing field so everyone is cared for, everyone is secure, everyone knows their value! On a grand scale, this seems like it would be impossible... how do you use your gifts and lead, if that's your gift, and still be a servant? Let me give you a real life example.
A few months ago I was privileged to go to Rutgers University to watch Howard's high school choir perform in a choral competition. They sang beautifully- filling to large auditorium with rich resonant sound. Afterward, as a learning tool for the students, one of the judges come to the stage to give a mini clinic to the choir. As I spoke with the kids afterward about the overall experience, they expressed how wonderful it felt to perform, but how it can be deflating when the judge comes up to criticize something they had worked so hard at. I tried explaining that the purpose of the clinic was to help them work on things to make them a better choir, and how self critique is so important, and hat I was sure their director felt the same way... what I didn't know is that Howard was right behind me, He stepped forward and quickly interjected- "Absolutely! And you know, all that stuff the judge was saying abut consonants was brand new to me. I was so happy he brought that out so now we can go back and try it together!" I don't think I have ever smiled so broadly. Instead of Howard, as the director, the leader, saying, "See? I told you about those consonants" or "You really messed up those syllables" he put himself in the position of not just a willingness to learn with his students, but a transparency that is rare in leadership. Openly admitting :I don't have all the answers! I'm learning too! We're all in this together!" No wonder his students love him. No competition, no lording anything over them as so many do... servant leadership.
So how does all of this play out in our backyard? First, finding out what we're good at- discovering our gifts. Then, being thankful for our gifts... no matter what they are. And that means not worrying about what gifts we don't have that other's might have. Not that anyone here does that... Instead, what if we encouraged and thanked each other for using the gifts we do have. What if we made each other feel so valuable, whether we are a balloon runner or a balloon popper, or a chair holder or a runner- each person would know that we can't be church without them. What if we prayed for each other, and with each other, and gave of ourselves, putting the needs of the masses in front of the need of ourselves... no competition, no comparison, just communion.
It's a new year church- the ball has just been kicked and it's sailing high in the air... can we receive what God is bringing to us this season? Can we make space for everyone, look out for others on the field so we don't collide, and be honest enough to admit we don't have all the answers? And when we fumble... and rest assured we will fumble... we don't cast blame- instead we learn, and grow, and pray, and move forward with God. I love this place- I love all of you- and I am confident that God has brought every one of us together because each one of us brings something valuable to this movement... and if you haven't thought of church that way, I invite you to think about it again- when we work together in the model Jesus laid out for us, when we act together and work together in the communion of the saints, living life as Christs hands and feet on earth, we have the capacity through Christ, to change the world... and we begin in our own backyard.