Messiah-ship without Easy Answers

Sermon Preached at the Celebration of Ministry at
St. John the Evangelist - New Brunswick, New Jersey
Mark 10:35-45     For an audio file of this sermon, click here.

First of all, let me just say what a great privilege and honor it is to have been invited to preach at the installation of my good friend and former Seabury classmate’s installation. Fr. Matthew and I spent 2 years together at Seabury Western in Evanston, Illinois and, perhaps most significantly, 2 weeks during that time on a 10 day trip to Omaha, Nebraska observing the “real world” of “real ministry” being done in “real time.” Looking back on those 2 years – and specifically on those 2 weeks – I must admit “watching the real world being played out by others” was a lot easier than “living” in the real world as one of the participants. But, I must quickly add, being one of the participants has been much more fulfilling – if not more exhausting.

I refer to that time in Nebraska because it was part of a class Fr. Matthew and I took on leadership in the church in the 21st century. Required reading for the course included Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership by Howard Gardner; Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading and Leadership without Easy Answers - two books by Ronald Heifetz; and Eugene Peterson’s book, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Leadership on the line, leadership without easy answers, staying alive through the dangers, unpredictability – truly, it is amazing that any of us wanted to be ordained after that class! And yet, despite the scary titles, here we both are.

The books for this class were not your typical “how-to” manuals on leadership. They included no top ten lists of characteristics that make up a good leader, no presentation of the three simple steps to guarantee the future growth and success of your church. Instead, they were filled with stories. I cannot speak for Fr. Matthew, but for me there was some level of frustration in that class on leadership. I wanted the “how-to” manual – I was sure there was some “expert” I could emulate in order to ensure my future congregation’s success – or, at the very least, some steps I could take to ensure that my congregation – whoever they might be - would find me likable despite my human failings! Instead, there were stories. Stories of leaders like Margaret Mead and Pope John XXIII, stories of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Martin Luther King, Jr. and we were left to figure it all out.

That frustration in seminary has proven to be one of the most lasting gifts I received. Because, my friends, our context is always changing. The people are always changing – individuals change and grow, some move away, others die, still others are born. Members rotate off of vestries, new members climb on board. The mission field is always changing – there was a time when “everyone went to church on Sunday morning” – or at least it seemed that way; today’s churches go head-to-head with Starbucks, the New York Times Crossword puzzle, kids soccer matches, a day at the beach, and more. The economy today is different than it was even two years ago. Unemployment rates fluctuate, house values fluctuate, and our population is much more transient than ever before. Many of us communicate by e-mail, text messages, Facebook and MySpace updates, and tweets. The average attention span for children is approximately 1 minute per year of age up to a maximum of around 20 minutes for adults. For those who are used to “concentrating” on instant media, attention spans may be as short as 15 seconds. In other words, some of you are no longer listening to a word I’m saying – are you with me? The point is, with all the change going on around us, having a list of leadership skills or a list of guaranteed steps to success is going to leave us unprepared as soon as the context for which that list was prepared has changed.

And so we have stories - stories of individuals who have led governments, businesses, families, churches, baseball teams; stories of persons who have made a difference in the lives of others; stories of those who have succeeded and stories of those who have failed. No lists of easy answers, no road maps to follow; just stories. Ronald Heifetz, the founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, shares this story about his time as a student in the Master Class of Gregor Piatigorsky, the great Russian cellist. He writes:

“We cellists would play a phrase of Brahms or Shostakovich, and Piatigorsky would launch into a story that seemed at first to come from nowhere with no apparent relevance to what we were doing. In time, he would often land hawklike on his subject. But sometimes the challenge of finding the connection was ours. If we looked hard, we could usually discern his intent, or find our own lesson beyond his intent. We had to take responsibility for our learning.”[i]
In today’s gospel reading, James and John ask Jesus “to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus responds, “What is it you want me to do for you?” I imagine the two – James and John – a bit sheepishly, but quickly, before they lose their nerve, saying, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Name us as your Vice President and Secretary of State. We want to be your “go to” guys. We want to be successful. We want others to look up to us. We want others to see how important we are. We want your importance to rub off on us. And before we start to shake our heads or roll our eyes - mocking them for their foolishness – perhaps, it would be more honest, if we admitted that we too might have asked for the same. Or, at the very least, admitted to being like the other disciples who became angry that they didn’t think to ask it first.

Mark’s gospel tells a story – a carefully crafted drama - that places this incident in a specific context. This drama begins at the end of chapter 8 with the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida. Immediately following this healing, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He follows this question with another, “. . . who do you say that I am?” And Peter, often the spokesperson among the twelve, responds, “You are the Messiah.” What follows then are a series of events and conversations in which Jesus explains what his Messiah-ship is about. In fact, Mark records three occasions between that healing in Bethsaida and the passage we heard this afternoon, in which Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah, the Son of Man, must suffer, must be rejected, must be treated with contempt, must be betrayed, and killed before he will in three days time, rise again.

In the two verses which precede the story of James and John making their request, Jesus and the disciples are on the road leading to Jerusalem and Jesus says, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And what happens next? “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.”

Three times Jesus speaks to them plainly about contempt, rejection, betrayal and death. And three times, Jesus’ disciples miss the boat; three times they do not hear what he has to say. Because, my brothers and sisters in Christ, those disciples - James, John, Peter, and the others - those disciples had already read the manual that included the keys to effective leadership in the early first century. They knew the characteristics of a “good” Messiah. They knew them because they lived under the rule of the Roman Empire and the head of the Roman Empire is the Caesar and the Caesar – is also referred to as “Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Savior of the World, Redeemer, and Liberator.”[ii] The Roman Empire’s Caesar, by the way he lived his life, provided the model of leadership that the disciples knew and expected from Jesus, the Son of God in their midst:
  • the Caesar had authority over Rome’s civil government
  • the Caesar had authority over the Roman army
  • the Caesar had the authority to declare war, to ratify treaties, to negotiate with foreign leaders and
  • the Caesar had authority over the religious institutions
In short, the Caesar was a God and who wouldn’t want to sit at his right hand? According to the leadership manual of the time – the manual the disciples knew - if Jesus was truly the Messiah, he would have been preparing to “lord it over” the Herodian king in charge of Galilee and he would have been preparing to play the “tyrant over” the Roman prefect who controlled Jerusalem and Judea. He may even have been preparing to wage war against Rome to liberate – to ransom – the lives of his people from the tyranny of the Roman Emperor. And if this is the story you have known all of your life, it would be very difficult to hear – let alone understand – a counter-story like the one being offered by Jesus. No wonder the disciples kept getting it wrong.
The disciples were a bit like Ronald Heifetz in those early days learning to play the cello. The disciples, attempted to follow Jesus, to live the life he would have them live when, in the midst of their travels, Jesus would launch into a story or a teaching that, to the disciples ears, seemed at first to come from nowhere with no apparent relevance to what they were doing. From time to time, Jesus might land hawklike on his subject. But most of the time, the disciples struggled to find the connection. If they looked hard, they could sometimes discern his intent. But the prevailing story of the time was a story of the virtue of power – a power as powerful as the Rome itself, an empire that spanned from modern day “England to Africa and from Syria to Spain,” an empire in which “one in every four people on earth lived and died under Roman law.”[iii]

This afternoon, we come together to celebrate new ministries here at St. John’s in New Brunswick - a new ministry for Fr. Matthew and a new ministry for each of you. All of you come to this time with expectations and hopes, with fears and perhaps some anxieties; all of you come with stories of leadership – leadership that has worked and leadership that has failed. These stories have come from the context of your lives. Perhaps some of your stories come from the corporate arena, other stories come from around the kitchen table, some of your stories come from committee meetings at church – here at St. John’s or at a congregation you have experienced in the past. Whenever we come together, our stories come together. We don’t tell these stories in words because these stories aren’t written down. Instead, we live these stories as we live our lives. We “embody” our stories.[iv] We are our stories. We bring our stories to life by the way we communicate with one another, by the decisions we make about the use of our resources, by the kind of hospitality we offer to stranger and to friend. Everything we do in life is an embodiment of the stories we have learned – whether they have worked well for us or not!

And today’s gospel offers us a choice – as it offered the disciples a choice. We can continue to live our lives by the cultural values of our time or we can take up the story of Jesus as our own. Kenneth Carder, a professor at Duke Divinity School, writes:
“Everybody wants to be somebody. Since the dawn of history, human beings have been trying to move up the scale of importance. The clincher used by the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve was ‘when you eat of [the tree of good and evil], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ (Gen. 3:5). Henri Nouwen says that ever since then, we have been tempted to replace love with power. . . power over love, control over the cross.”[v]
So at this turning point in your congregation’s life together, as you bring your stories together and embark upon new ministries together, I invite you to consider which stories you will embody, which stories you will rely on to carry you into the future.

Today’s gospel is clear. The story of Jesus is one of self-emptying love, a love so powerful that it lets go of all power and takes on justice, a love so ambitious that it lets go of all ambition and takes on generosity, and a love so strong that it lets go of all strength to take on joy. This afternoon, we come together to celebrate the new ministry of Fr. Matthew and a new ministry for each of you at St. John’s. Each of you comes to this time and this place with expectations and hopes, with fears and anxieties and each of you comes with stories. We don’t tell these stories with words; instead, we live these stories as we live our lives. What will be your story? Which story will you embody? What story will you show to the world as you witness to the self-emptying love of Christ?
If we look hard, we can usually discern Christ’s intent . . . but we have to take responsibility for our learning.

[i] Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 6.
[ii] John Dominic Crossan (from Victory and Peace or Justice and Peace, published by Living the Questions).
[iii] “The Roman Empire,” PBS (2006), website accessed on October 23, 2009.
[iv] For the notion of embodied stories, see Howard Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 9.
[v] Kenneth L. Carder, in Synthesis for Sunday, October 18, 2009.