September 23, 2012
Sermon: “How to Get Ahead”
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,‘ Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Yesterday my dog Nim and I participated in an American Kennel Club hunt test up in the poconos. There was a pile of dogs there, as always. Some are very talented, highly trained, athletes. Still, dogs will be dogs and for some reason will fail to perform up to par.

Over the years I have learned a lot about training dogs. One of the techniques is called the ‘chain gang.’ This method is designed to use the competitive nature of the animal to our benefit. See, sometimes even a highly trained dog will act ambivalent. That means they act like a cat. So what you do is put the dog on a chain and make them watch another dog perform. They will howl, bark, and generally carry on because they aren’t being included in the action. Do this a couple of times and, in most cases, you can re-light the fire in them.

Human beings are not all that different. We are competitive. This trait is like all traits in humanity in that it falls along a spectrum. Some people are competitive in almost everything, and others don’t appear competitive but I suspect they are, but in areas that are not easily noticed.

The key to using this trait to your advantage is not dissimilar to my chain gang for my dog. When I was a child, there were days when I wasn’t all that fired up about going to Sunday School. So my Mother, in her infinite wisdom, had a rule: no Sunday school, no other activities for the rest of the day. No pick up football game in the vacant lot across the street that afternoon. So I’d be in my room, gazing out the window (which faced that very same lot), howling, barking, and generally carrying on. I’d get there and see other children having a good time, and so I’d give up on my sulking and join in. Once there, I was glad to be there. The next Sunday I was up and ready to roll when it was time to leave for church.

Now, Christianity is not a competitive sport. Still, I regularly hear people say something to the effect of “if I was a better Christian I’d…” Fill in the blank. If I was a better Christian, I’d give more to the church. If I was a better Christian, I’d attend worship more often. If I was a better Christian, I wouldn’t use language like that. If I were a better Christian, I would volunteer to do this, or that. Fill in the blank. People know what sort of practices mark the Christian life and we are each painfully aware of how we are not measuring up.

The problem with this sort of self-talk is not that it belittles us. The problem with this kind of talk is that it leads us to some rather grandiose expectations for the Christian life. The idea goes something like this: if we somehow manage to live out our faith par excellence, We can come to expect honor and status.

Unfortunately, this is what often happens right here in the nave of this Church. All of you are hooked up to a short chain while the preacher parades in front of you stellar examples of the Christian faith, hoping that you’ll get antsy and once released bolt from these doors, out into the world, with new found purpose and vigor, and thus find a special place in the Kingdom.

Why there are even preachers who maintain this expectation. Because they have given their lives to serve the Lord in ministry, they expect to be up there on the pedestal, serving as the exemplary model for discipleship, revered (as in Reverend).

Years ago I was the chair of the planning committee for the Pennsylvania State Pastor’s Conference. The committee met during the event for a dinner with one of the presenters. I was getting ready, putting name cards at the table, arranging the seating. At one end I put the card for one of our ‘seasoned’ pastors and next to it, one of our newest, youngest, members so that through the conversation over dinner that new member might get better acquainted with the work of the committee. The seasoned statesman came in, looked over the cards, picked his up and switched it with the one that was seated next to the presenter. I was more than a little taken aback by this. It takes a bonus amount of chutzpah to do this, and it reveals the need to be perceived to be in a place of prestige.

Deep down, most of us believe in salvation by works. We readily judge others by their deeds. Ask most any Christian today how they plan to get to heaven, and they will readily tell you that it is by trying to lead a good life and helping others. By works, in other words. Few will first cite their faith in the loving mercy of God and in Christ’s redemptive death on the cross.

Meanwhile, we still all want to get ahead in the world – perhaps not unlike the disciples in today’s gospel account.

We have all heard that old saw, “I’d rather see a good sermon than hear one.” Faith formation, if nothing else, intends to teach basic Christian behaviors, practices. And in teaching the faith you have to start somewhere. And at some level, we all begin with works. For most of us, including the disciples, this means somehow taming our own base instincts for self-defeating and self-destructive behavior. Where, in other words, do “conflicts and disputes” come from, James asks. Precisely from the “cravings” that are at war within each of us. That which comes from heaven, on the other hand, is in James’ words “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Human wisdom left to itself, James concludes, is too often “boastful and false to the truth” – seeking, not unlike the disciples, self-aggrandizement and recognition – to be the greatest.

Let me tell you how to get ahead in this faith business. It isn’t about having a photographic command of the scriptures. It isn’t even about never using foul language once. It isn’t about giving a tithe of your income to the church (even though I wouldn’t discourage that). It isn’t measured by having the new elevator project named after your great aunt Gertie. The emperor Constantine is said to be entombed in a statue, of himself, seated, bible on his lap, pointing to his favorite verse of scripture. No, this doesn’t indicate greatness either. True faith is marked by a willing to serve with others without wielding power over them, but rather serving them, with a humble and gracious spirit.

Our society suffers from a debilitating addiction to a “greatness” understanding of leadership. Families feed this addiction to their children. And an addiction to being the best or greatest in faith, whether it is about being right on this matter or that or building up the institution into a shining jewel of facility and program, is a pandemic virus in the church. The earliest strand of this deadly addiction can be traced back to the church’s origin. It is the very question the disciples are arguing about in this text.

This may seem to derail our current conversation about what is our passion and what we want to be the ‘best in the world’ at doing. It is not so much these questions or the pursuit of the goals that is wrong minded. The problem is that all too often we see ‘being the best’ as the goal. This is not the goal, or even the penultimate goal. It isn’t even a appropriate goal for disciples. What is it? It is a consequence of acting on our faith.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all.” Notice that he does not say servant to all, but servant of all, which suggests that the disciples are called to be servant leaders regardless of what other people seek to be. Servant leaders practice greatness by being givers who serve together through shared leadership, responsibility and accountability.

In Herman Hess’ book “Journey to the East” Three men embark on a journey, guided by a servant named Leo. He is the central figure in the story, not only doing the menial chores but also sustaining the group with his spirit and song. He is a person of profound presence. All goes well on the journey until Leo goes missing. Then the group flounders and finally, the mission is abandoned. Apparently they cannot get to where they are going without this servant Leo. After years of wandering, the narrator finally locates Leo and joins the religious order that sponsored the journey. Once there, he learns that Leo is not actually a ‘bottom rung’ servant but is the ‘head’ and guiding spirit of the whole Order, a great and noble leader.

Jesus makes it clear that to get ahead in this group requires a strategy that is counterintuitive, even in first century Palestine; more so in twenty first century America. It means banding together so that we might go where we would rather not go. It is the way of downward mobility, bowing, as it were, to knee height level, to where children see…persons, who in ancient times were at the lowest level of honor and social stature.