“What makes someone great?” Colchester Federated Church, October 17, 2021, Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Mark 10:35-45)

There was an interesting patient I met when I was a hospital chaplain intern at The Cleveland Clinic.  The first time I met him; he yelled at me and told me to get out of his room.  I had just walked in, announced that I was “Lauren, the chaplain,” and he went off.  He said something along the lines of, “So you’re the chaplain?  Well, I don’t think Jesus came to condemn me, and I don’t think that God wants me to burn in hell.  I’ve done some messed up things in my life, but I don’t need you to judge me or tell me that you have all the answers.”  My introduction sparked this immediate negative response because he assumed judgement.  Doesn’t that say something about how some folks view organized religion?  When he finished ranting, I said, “Well, I don’t think God wants you to burn in hell either.  Have a nice day.”  I turned to leave, but he stopped me.  “Oh, okay, sit down.”

This was my first conversation with Tattoo Dave.  Dave was a tattoo artist, and he insisted that I call him “Tattoo Dave” because that’s what his friends called him.  He was in the hospital with bladder cancer that was spreading throughout his body.  He was very sick and in pain both physically and emotionally, lying in that hospital bed examining his life.  We had great theological conversations.  He was a Universalist, and he loved Jesus.  For him, Jesus was the underdog—the little guy—who in his own way stood up to everyone in power.  And Jesus won in the end.  Tattoo Dave loved that.  I visited him my last day at the hospital to say goodbye.  He sat up in bed the best he could to give me a hug, and ended our many hours of conversations with, “Thanks for everything, Lauren.  I’ll give you a free tattoo anytime you want.  Now get the hell out of here before I cry.”

I’ve never met anyone with more wounded pride than Tattoo Dave.  He was constantly trying to prove himself.  He was short and small in stature and wanted to be the toughest guy you would ever meet.  But once you heard his story, it was clear that there were many insecurities he was covering up with his tough outer exterior.  It was all an act.  He had made bad mistakes, and he assumed condemnation.  One of Tattoo Dave’s biggest issues was actually feeling unlovable and unworthy.  But doesn’t God love us no matter what we have done or left undone?  The love of God is there, whether we always feel worthy of that unconditional love of God or not.

Sometimes when we hear today’s story from Mark’s Gospel about James and John wanting to sit at the right and left of Jesus as he enters his glory, we assume arrogance.  But what if their struggle (just like Tattoo Dave’s) was actually about needing assurance from Jesus that they were worthy and beloved children of God?  Maybe James and John were seeking guarantees of their positions in Jesus’ life to know that they were on the right track.

In our text Jesus and his disciples are on the road again, going up to Jerusalem.  Along the way, he’s teaching his followers that he will die at the hands of those in power and in three days will rise again.  As he’s sharing the events that are to come (for the third time in Mark’s Gospel), James and John come forward and say that they want Jesus to do for them whatever they ask.  Jesus responds, “What do you want me to do for you?”  And then their request comes, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”[1] 

Now this request is all the more crass because Jesus had just predicted his own death and resurrection for the third time.  James and John seem more focused on themselves and their position in Jesus’ inner circle both now and in the future than on the difficult fate that awaits their teacher and friend.  Though Jesus patiently explains that the brothers don’t know what they’re asking, challenging them as to whether or not they can drink the cup he drinks or receive the baptism he receives.  Jesus is asking them if they are truly willing to go as far as he will go for the sake of the Kingdom of God. 

The other disciples overhear this conversation and become angry with James and John.  Jesus basically has to call a team meeting, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around.  But that’s not the way it will be with you.  Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”[2]  The expectations of the disciples once again are challenged by Jesus.  Again, Jesus is explaining that the point of following him is serving one another.  Leadership isn’t about showing off.  Leadership isn’t about ordering people around.  The true leader, the exemplary follower of Jesus Christ, is the servant of all.  The one who doesn’t come to be served, but to serve others.

It could be that Jesus is calling the disciples (including you and me) to contemplate our purpose in life.  What makes someone great?  What helps a person know that they are living a meaningful life and that they are worthy?  Our purpose may or may not be tied to the jobs that we perform to “make a living.” 

There was an article this week in The Washington Post about the Great Resignation.  The authors Taylor Telford and Aaron Gregg shared that more people than ever are leaving their jobs, relating, “They seem to come from every industry and span generations. Some are following through on long-deferred plans to leave, no longer willing or able to wait out the pandemic. Others are burned out from too many long shifts, late nights and unspent vacation days. And many say the public health crisis forced them to reassess their jobs and priorities.”[3]  We’re talking about 4.3 million people who quit their jobs in August.  Women have borne the brunt of job losses since the pandemic began.  All of these circumstances are the most acute among low-wage workers, and some economists are reflecting that workers may be revolting against years of stressful conditions and low wages.  For salaried employees there are concerns about flexibility with when and where work gets done.  For me as clergy, I was recently required to fill out a survey and the question was posed about how many times one has thought of leaving the ministry in the last 18 months.  Not if one has had these thoughts—how many times have you thought about leaving ministry?  Because ministers are leaving. 

This honesty is not meant to make you nervous; you’re still stuck with me here at CFC.  Though across the board, no matter what our profession happens to be, people are contemplating what we should be prioritizing in our lives.  People are asking questions about how they are compensated and treated at their places of employment.  Do we deserve better working conditions?  How are we spending our days?  Is this it—is this what I’m meant to be doing with my life?

Jesus speaks about serving others in our Gospel story from Mark.  He ends by saying, “For the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”[4]  Following Jesus is ultimately about liberation.  It’s about freedom.  It’s about being the people that God created us to be.  Remember that you are worthy and beloved by God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 10:37, CEB.
[2] Mark 10:42-45.
[3] Taylor Telford and Aaron Gregg, “Why is everyone quitting, and how do I know whether it’s time to leave my job?” The Washington Post, October 13, 2021.
[4] Mark 10:45.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash