Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 21, 2012
For the past week, I have been wandering in a distant land. I was a foreigner, a nomad, in an alien world. I was lost among a people I did not know speaking a language I could not understand. What was it all about? Well, I was taking a class on accounting.
The Diocese of Texas sent me to SMU last week as their guinea pig. I was the first priest from this Diocese to be dissected by this particular accounting course at the Cox School of Business at SMU.
Because I was away from the church, I ditched my usual clothes – no collar, no sport coat, no fancy shoes. Just blue jeans and a comfortable shirt. I didn’t even shave. So you can imagine my surprise when I walked into the SMU Business School only to drown in a sea of gray suits. Every man had on their sharpest looking tie with the perfect dimple, and shoes shined to mirror-like perfection. Every woman had on impeccable makeup and high heels that would have sprained my ankles.
So there I am – unshaven, wearing jeans and a comfortable shirt awash in a sea of perfection. I was a sojourner in a strange and foreign land.
And as the accounting course began, everybody’s behavior took me by surprise. The executives and lawyers and headhunters were shooting up their hands with questions and unsolicited comments. I had no idea why they were acting like that. Honestly, I thought they were being kind of mean. But there came a moment, when I was scratching my three day beard that I realized something – all those other folks were after a promotion. They were taking this class to put something new on their resume, to get ahead of the next guy, to show the boss they had ambition. I was just trying to figure out what cash flow means. They were there to get ahead. They were chasing after that illusive dream, the dream of upward mobility.
This dream is not anything new. James and John were after the same dream. They shoot their hand up, and solicit Jesus – “Let us sit at your right and left hand when you come into your glory.” They want to be the big shots. They want to show off to the boss. James and John want to be executives in the heavenly boardroom, making the decisions that really matter. They’re wearing their best gray worsted wool suits – their ties have the perfect dimples. James and John want to be upwardly mobile.
And you know what – they’re just like us.
We live and breathe upward mobility. We want that better job, that corner office, that fat paycheck. We want the more dignified title and the power and authority that goes with it. Even parents want to be known as the “cool parents” or to be the family with the awesome pool and all the great snacks. Clergy hear that voice too – that bigger church, that more pompous title, that purple shirt. The dream of upward mobility is something that we cannot escape from. It’s just there – and it’s been there since James and John and Jesus.
Now, notice how Jesus responds to James and John. He doesn’t tell James and John that they’re stupid or evil. He doesn’t warn them against the evils of upward mobility. Jesus doesn’t even say that they’re wrong or bad or sinful. No. Jesus is fine with the disciples becoming upwardly mobile. Jesus just offers them a different approach. In order to get to the top, they must first work their way down.
Jesus says, “If you want to be great, then become the servant of all. If you want a promotion, then work your way down. If you want to serve as an executive in the heavenly boardroom, then submit your application to be the janitor. If you want to dwell with me in glory, then you must first be crucified.”
See – it’s that not being the top dog or the big cheese is an inherently bad thing. It’s all about how you get there. Jesus is saying is that if you want to be great, if you want to be the leader, if you want to be the ruler – then become the servant.
James and John can work their way down into greatness. These disciples are downwardly mobile when they sacrifice themselves. And when James and John choose to first be the janitors in God’s Kingdom, then they will be working their way to that executive corner office.
Perhaps this isn’t the sermon you were expecting. Maybe you were expecting me to tell everybody that they should avoid becoming leaders or executives or managers. But that’s not what this sermon is about, and I don’t believe that’s what Jesus is saying. It’s not that being at the top of the pyramid is bad, it’s all about how you get there.
To be upwardly mobile, we must first work our way down. If we want to be rich, then we have to give our wealth away. If we want to be the chief executive, then we must first know what it means to work in the mailroom. If we want to raised up in glory with Jesus, then we must first be crucified with him.
It works the same way in our Church. If we want to get a lot out of church, then we have to give a lot into our church. If we want to know God better, then we have to sacrifice our time by praying and worshiping.
This is the point of our stewardship. When we pledge and give away our wealth, we are working our way downwards. We are humbling ourselves. And yes, our giving should be sacrificial. It’s not supposed to be comfortable. Because being a servant of all is not easy. And though it costs us a lot, we hope to get something in return.
James and John become servants of all and then end up as great disciples. Jesus gives himself away to be crucified, and his death leads to resurrection. We give our wealth away, and our spirits grow to know God more. That’s simply the way it works. What goes down, must come up.
I don’t want you to think that this sermon is directed at you. This sermon is for all of us, and for me too. I’m a Christian just like you – and just like you I give to the mission of God in this Church. It’s not easy. It’s a sacrifice. But Maggie and I will sit down and sign that pledge card because we know, we know, that as we give and work our down, we are spiritually stronger for it.
All those folks at SMU in their Brooks Brothers suits or their Dooney & Burke purses were not after the wrong thing. Being at the top, being a leader, is not evil. It’s all about how you get there. What goes down, must come up. If you want to be great, then give it all away. If you want to be great, become the servant of all.