Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
As a child and an adolescent, I had some strange interests, and I’m going to tell you about one of them today. For about ten years, I intently studied a traditional Korean martial art. It taught me many things and actually complimented my spiritual upbringing in the Episcopal Church quite well. It taught me self-discipline in my body and mind. I also picked up something that wasn’t so helpful. I learned the phrase “minimum effort – maximum effect.” Even into my young adulthood, I held on to this belief that with the absolute minimum amount of effort, I could squeeze out the maximum amount of success, the highest grade, and the best result. You get the idea. And for a very long time, it worked. In endurance sports, martial arts, and a very few other activities, this may be true, but as I grew older and perhaps a little wiser, I found this to be a TERRIBLE mantra in life.
To share a new word I learned this week, this approach, this “minimum effort for maximum effect,” was pusillanimous. Are you familiar with that word? I wasn’t. A simple definition is “showing a lack of determination or courage”; in short, being timid. Pusillanimous people regularly opt for whatever is easier, more enjoyable, or easily attainable. Alternatively, there are people who are described as having magnanimity, to be of great spirit and to display a noble generosity. These two approaches are different outlooks on life, and I will talk in extremes to prove a point.
We are still working our way through chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel, and today it is a conversation between the brothers, James and John, and Jesus. Jesus has been traveling with the disciples and doing some teaching along the way. He does some teaching about divorce. He talks about money. And then Jesus tells his disciples that they are on their way to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, sentenced to death, killed, and after three days, will rise again. It is on the heels of this dire warning that Jesus engages James and John in a discussion as to who will be awarded the place of highest honor. James and John come right out and tell Jesus, “Arrange it, so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory.” Jesus responds, “You have no idea what you’re asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized like me?” To which the brothers say, “We are able.” Jesus then changes his mind and agrees, “Actually, you are right. You will drink the same cup. You will be baptized. But as for that place of honor, well, that’s for God to decide.”
Challenge accepted. But what’s really going on in this conversation? When we get down to it, here are the real questions we ought to be asking: How do we understand greatness? How do we measure success or ambition?
There are 2 ways to understand greatness or measure success. First, I’m going to talk about how it is measured in popular culture and then, I’m going to talk about how it is different in the Kingdom of God. You see, in the earthly kingdom or the kingdoms of our own making as we often talk about at Epiphany, the human desire for power, privilege, prestige, and control often take over.
Now, I’m not a huge fan of Saturday Night Live, but I saw a great clip from a recent episode called “The Millennials” with Miley Cyrus. Just to further incriminate myself, I am technically a “millennial” having been born in the 80s. The sketch shows several young adults in the workplace, making outrageous demands, acting put upon, and when their ridiculous requests are met with rational refusal, they cry out, “ASSAULT!”
The sketch was entertaining although totally unfair; it characterized my entire generation as entitled, lazy, technology-addicted young adults who have been raised as “special snowflakes” too delicate to handle the real world. Every character in this sketch could be aptly described as pusillanimous; unwilling to conform to self-discipline or sacrifice, having low ambitions, thus denying themselves the joy, meaning, and satisfaction that comes from engaging God’s kingdom. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, aren’t like Miley Cyrus at all, even though they may appear that way at first glance.
Now stay with me. I’m going to convince you that James and John are different from the slackers of my generation as portrayed on television. I’m going to make the case that James and John are in fact of great spirit and exhibitors of magnanimity.
To gain some perspective, let’s back up to chapter 9. Jesus, Peter, James, and John went up a high mountain together, and there Jesus was transfigured before them. Peter, James, and John were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them and from the cloud came the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
This was a life changing moment for the brothers and you can see their personal transformation in the text. Now, they look at Jesus and think, “How can we be more like you? We’ve seen the Messiah transfigured before us. We heard the voice of God. We want glory NOW.” But there is no alternative path to blessedness. There is no scenic route to Jerusalem. In other words, this isn’t going to be easy.
Just because James and John have been witness to incredible acts of God doesn’t mean instant gratification and glory. They are going to have to work for it. They are going to have to walk with Jesus every step of the way into Jerusalem, all the way to the cross. That is what I mean when I say there is no scenic route to Jerusalem. It’s going to be hard.
That’s what Jesus is telling them in his gentle, but firm manner. Jesus knows he is the Messiah. Jesus knows the road to glory and exultation is only by way of the cross. Jesus knows there is no scenic route to Jerusalem and that is why he has just forewarned his disciples that they will get there, but only by passing through a gauntlet of trials and tribulations.
James and John are eager. They are magnanimous of spirit when they say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus’ response is spot on. He doesn’t chide or scold or shame. But Jesus does teach them. He redirects their desire and ambition by modeling for them a different path. Jesus turns upside down our measure of success, our understanding of greatness.
It is different in God’s kingdom. As Jesus says in chapter 10, verse 43, “It is not so among you.” This is another one of those places where God flips things upside down. In the kingdom of Kate, or Matt, or Lisa, the successful are those who are powerful enough to always get their way—to run their own kingdom. But in God’s kingdom it’s all backwards, and greatness is measured in serving others. Greatness is measured in expending ourselves in love. Greatness is measured through sacrifice and by generosity to others. That’s what Jesus is saying.
“In the strange world of the reign of God, power is not a matter of ruling over others but of living on their behalf.”** It’s so easy to caught up in the kingdoms of our own making, in the power and control over the tiny fiefdoms and realms in which we dwell and delude ourselves into thinking we have any control. In reality—in the reality of God—there is no scenic route to Jerusalem.
Where is the honor or the glory? Are James and John seeking it in all of the same places that the misguided Millennials of Saturday Night Live are seeking it? It seems that way on the surface. They are seeking it in titles, in privileges, possibly in celebrity or wealth, but in truth where is it found? Honor and glory are found in goodness and in humility, in self-discipline and sacrifice.
When we engage God’s kingdom in intentional ways—and this is exactly what Jesus was modeling for James and John as he redirected their magnanimous ambition—THEN we find meaning, we find satisfaction, and ultimately we experience JOY.