October 18, 2015
21st Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
When he was visiting New York City last month, Pope Francis presided over a service of “Vespers with the Clergy, Men and Women Religious.” It was an evening prayer service intended for priests, nuns, and brothers who have committed their entire lives to the Gospel. It was an opportunity for the Pope to speak encouraging words to these humble leaders in the Catholic Church who have taken vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and to challenge them to live even more deeply into their commitment to serve the poor and those on the margins.
As it turns out, priests, monks, and sisters weren’t the only ones attending the service. Among the crowd that night—in fact, seated mostly in the front rows—were wealthy donors, members of the 1%, who had contributed to the $175 million restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Some of those donors even got to be part of the welcoming committee, out there with Senator Schumer, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor di Blasio, shaking hands with the Pope as soon as he arrived at the cathedral. But being invited to greet the Pope and sitting near the front of the cathedral for that service—none of that was enough; many of the one-percenters complained about their seats. As one cable news journalist said, “You know, a lot of Wall Street guys gave a lot of money to this. They raised a lot of money over the last couple of years to renovate this thing. They thought they would have better seating.” The whole situation is stunning, really, considering Pope Francis’s own commitment to a life of humility, simplicity, and solidarity with the poor, and to cleansing the Catholic Church of garish displays of egregious wealth.
Squabbling over the best seats in the house isn’t a new problem for the church. It goes back at least as far as today’s gospel lesson. Two of Jesus’ disciples—James and John, the sons of Zebedee—these two brothers come before Jesus with an audacious request. “Teacher, we’d like you to arrange it so that, when you sit on your glorious throne, we may sit next to you in the places of honor, one on your right and the other on your left.” Lots of words come to mind to describe these two disciples in this moment: arrogant, self-absorbed, pompous, presumptuous. The whole incident reflects so poorly on the two brothers that when Matthew tells this same story in his gospel, he has James and John’s mother make the bold request on their behalf. And Luke’s gospel glosses over the details altogether, simply calling the event a “dispute” over which one of the disciples would be the greatest. It’s almost embarrassing for these two brothers that this story is captured here in scripture. Like the one-percenters who complained about their seats at the Pope’s worship last month, James and John are completely out of sync with Jesus. They just don’t get it.
But it’s not just James and John who don’t get it. When the other ten disciples hear about the brothers’ request, they get angry. I suspect that they too dream of power and status, and they resent James and John’s attempt to get ahead. So this story paints a pretty ugly picture of all of the twelve disciples, Jesus’s most intimate companions, his inner circle. They’re a clueless bunch who seem not to have heard anything Jesus has been trying to teach them.
It’s easy to trash the one-percenters who have more money than most of us can even imagine or the disciples whose cluelessness in today’s gospel lesson I suspect was embellished a bit to make a point. But the truth is we’re not so different from them. The idea that greatness comes from status and power is what we’ve all be taught—maybe not directly, but especially as Americans, it’s in the air we breathe. We just can’t escape it.
Earlier this week I was talking with a colleague of mine who has children in their mid-twenties. She confessed that she struggles with the decision she made to send her kids to public schools as they were growing up. It was a decision that grew out of her values. She’s an advocate for a strong public education system. She knew that keeping her own children in public schools was key to ensuring those schools had the resources they need to provide a solid education for all the children in her community. And she wanted her children to go to schools that reflected the full socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic diversity of the community where her family lives. She believed that this experience would form them into better citizens, into the kind of adults who are more tolerant and more aware of the world around them.
Now that her kids are grown up, she has been reflecting on that decision. “It’s not that my kids aren’t successful,” she said. “I mean, they are wonderful people. They’re making their way in the world. They’re doing just fine. But when I get together with my friends in the suburbs who sent their kids to private schools, I start to wonder if I made a mistake. The conversation always revolves around how smart and talented their children are, how successful they have become. I’m constantly wondering if I messed up. Did I let my kids down?”
That is real. I bet some of you can relate. It’s easy to be an egalitarian until our own families come into the picture.
And yet, Jesus calls us to set aside our usual ways of thinking and overturns our typical understanding of what it means to be powerful and successful. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” he says. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As he so often does, Jesus preaches a complete reversal of common wisdom. “You say greatness is lording power over others. I tell you greatness is becoming the servant of your neighbor. You say power is being seated in the place of honor. I tell you power is sacrificing privilege for the sake of others.” Again and again, Jesus challenges business as usual and puts before us an alternative vision for the world.
What if we imagined a complete reversal of what it means to be among the 1%, if our quest for greatness was directed not toward the endless accumulation of wealth for ourselves but toward the endless sharing of wealth for the sake of our neighbor? What if being among the 1% meant not piling up more and more wealth for oneself but being among the most generous in giving, so that we might be agents of God’s grace to a world desperately in need?
In a little bit you’re going to hear more about this year’s theme for stewardship season. We are all going to be invited to be part of the 1%. Not the 1% that accumulates more, but the 1% that gives away. We’re turning the idea of the 1% on its head. The specific invitation is to increase your pledge to the church by 1% of your annual income. If your annual income is $50,000, you’re invited to increase your pledge for next year by $500 on top of what you’ve already been giving. Increasing your pledge by 1% of your annual income might not sound like a lot, but we know that God can take a small gift and turn it into something much bigger. In fact, even as we ask you to consider increasing your pledge for next year by 1% of your annual income, we have increased our 2016 congregational pledge to the ELCA World Hunger Campaign by 1% of our annual budget. That amounts to an increase of about $10,000—proof that a relatively small commitment can have a huge impact.
Here’s the thing: Don’t increase your pledge because you want VIP seating here on Sunday mornings, or because you want some kind of special recognition, or because you want the status and power that comes from being a generous giver. The church actually isn’t that desperate for your money. Increase your pledge because you want to model an alternative vision for the world, where generosity triumphs over greed, where there’s more giving than taking. Do it because you want to see if Jesus was really onto something when he taught that greatness is servanthood and power is sacrifice.
I’ll admit it: I like the front-row seats, too. But when you show up with generosity in your heart, there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Kevin Ahern, “A Tale of Two Churches: The 1% Shall Be First and the Religious Shall Be Last,” on (DT) Daily Theology, http://dailytheology.org/2015/09/24/a-tale-of-two-churches-the-1-shall-be-first-and-the-religious-shall-be-last/.
David B. Howell, “Mark 10:35-45: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
David J. Lose, “Pentecost 21B: Who Will You Serve?”, on …In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/pentecost-21-b-who-will-you-serve/.