I am again preaching at Edenville UMC this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost.
In the early and mid 1980’s there was a “movement” to bring about excellence in business. It was not a new movement but rather a different approach to an age old approach. During that time, people looked for excellence in all areas, including my own area of science education. I mentioned this when I wrote my blog for May 7th of this year. (1) Two things came from this renewed search.
First, most of the innovations that occur in a business occur at the ground level of the business; very few innovations come from the top of the corporate ladder or through the internal structure of a company. Things like “Post-it notes” were not invented in corporate think tanks but rather from individuals aware of situations were applications were needed. The person responsible for the production of these ubiquitous yellow scraps of paper, Arthur Fry, knew two things.
First, Art Fry was in search of a bookmark that he could use for his church hymnal that was reusable and would not damage the hymnal. Second, he knew that his company, 3M, had created a glue-like substance that was not quite right; it was sticky but it wasn’t permanent. The combination made sense to him and he was able to develop a product that we use without thinking today. (2) But to get it done, Art Fry had to first overcome the internal inertia of the company that said that it could not be done. If he had worked for any other company besides 3 M, the likelihood would have been that the product would not have been invented. What the search for excellence showed was that innovation occurred when there was a climate of innovation. If management did not encourage it, then innovation was not going to occur.
The second thing that the search for excellence showed was that management needed to be aware of what was transpiring at the bottom levels of the corporate organization chart. Too often, it seems that the upper levels of management are not aware of what is transpiring at the bottom of the company. It was not that upper level managers had to do the work of the majority of the employees but it helped if they understood what was going on. While we like to think of corporate management in terms of a pyramid with the broad base at the bottom and the single most important person perched at the top; when it comes to knowledge about the company, the amount of knowledge should broaden and not narrow as one climbs the ladder.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear a very simple proposal. (3) James and John want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the new power structure that would come in God’s Kingdom. But Jesus’ rebuke to the “Sons of Thunder” (and the other disciples who were angered that these two would have the audacity to vocalize what they wanted for themselves) pointed out that neither James, John, nor any of the other disciples understood what price they would have to pay to gain those seats of power.
We understand today why the disciples would do this. It was the nature of society then and it is the nature of society today. Power and the authority that comes with power are what we seek; power and authority are the benchmarks by which things get done. Even John Kennedy understood that you could not get something done if you were not in a position of power. “I suppose anybody in politics would like to be President because that is the center of action, the mainspring, the wellspring of the American system.” (4) Later, as President, he would add “at least you have an opportunity to do something about all the problems which . . . I would be concerned [about] as a father or as a citizen . . .and if what you do is useful and successful, then . . . that is a great satisfaction.” (5) President Kennedy understood what access to power meant and what it was supposed to accomplish. It is not clear, or it seems that way to me, that many of the politicians today, on both of sides of the political aisle, have that same understanding.
Nor for that matter, do I think that we, as individuals, have a clear understanding of what having power means and what it requires of us as individuals. We want the glory that comes with power; we rejoice in having what others do not have. We want to sit in the seat of power; we want to sit where others cannot. But we fail to use that which we seek; we do not want to share what we have because we seem to think that it dilutes what we have gained. What good is it in today’s society to have something if everyone else has the same thing? That makes us no better than anyone else and there is nothing to be gained in that.
But we do not understand that simply having power does not give us what we seek. Having power and not using it for the common good, or having power and using it for personal gain is antithetical. Power used for one’s own self-interest only leads to corruption and destruction. Remember that when Jesus was in the wilderness and Satan tempted Him, one of the temptations was that of absolute power. (6) But Jesus understood that, if He were to have accepted Satan’s offer, He could not complete His mission. Satan’s offer of power comes the easy way, without commitment or sacrifice. But that is the way we see power today.
We live in a society and a world where having power means everything. We are not willing to accept the notion that having power means more than having a seat next to the Throne. We do not understand the true meaning of power. We do not understand how there can be death and destruction in this world; we do not understand how there can be suffering. We are quite willing to be like Job’s friends, who could only see a God capable of destruction and death, of causing pain and suffering. We have come to believe that we must seek and grab all the power that we can, for it is the only way that we can solve our problems.
It is to Job’s credit that he never bought into that viewpoint. He refused to accept the notion of a God that would punish someone for some unknown hideous evil. He refused to accept the notion of an all-powerful God who would cause pain, death, and destruction simply to prove that He was all powerful. All Job wanted was an accounting for what had transpired; he never once thought of denouncing God or questioning the power of God.
How many times are we like Job, suffering for unknown reasons, and demanding resolution in the simple terms? How many times do we ask for something without understanding what it is that we are asking for? How many times do we seek a simple solution when we do not even understand the problem?
In the Old Testament reading for today, God is responding to Job’s cry and demand for an explanation. Now some may say that God is lecturing or rebuking Job, saying that Job has no basis for his complaints. But God is simply pointing out to Job that Job has no understanding of God’s power. And since he has no understanding of God’s power, he cannot understand what has transpired in his life.
This is not an answer that we are willing to accept because it leaves us without an explanation. Job is willing to accept this answer because, more important than resolving the issue, he has met with God. Job’s faith in God is not lowered because he has not discovered the reason for his suffering; Job’s faith in God has increased because he has met God and God has responded to him.
As Jesus pointed out, those who would seek power must first be willing to be a servant. Those at the top of the power structure must be willing to serve at the bottom, if they are to gain what they seek. Jesus knew that the power that they sought would only come through suffering, pain, and death but it is not clear that the disciples understood what He was saying. The disciples still did not understand that they would endure pain and suffering much like Jesus would before they would gain what they sought. James was to be executed by Herod Agrippa I in A. D. 27 (7) and John would die alone in exile on the island of Patmos (8) after a life of being persecuted and watching his friends die. Gaining the right to sit on the right and left sides of the throne would not come from “connections” but through a commitment to the Gospel.
We are not called to be martyrs in the name of Jesus in order to be faithful servants or to gain a place at God’s table. We are not called to suffer simply because we are Christians. But we are called to make sure that others do not have to die or suffer for needless reasons. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus did not call Himself to the office of the high priest; He was called by His Father. (9) Jesus did not seek the power or the glory that was His; He accepted the same path that we must walk.
In doing so, Jesus became the mediator between God and us. He removed the barrier that confounded Job. Because Jesus experienced all of what a person goes through on this earth, He knows how difficult it is to obey God completely, just as He understood the attractions of temptation. (10)
We seek power because we think that it will provide us with all that we lack. And when we have gained the power, we find that we have nothing. Yet, in seeking Christ, we find that we have gained power beyond anything imaginable; we have gained the power over sin and death. This does not give us the right to laud it over others; it gives us the right to go out into the world and seek justice where there is injustice, to offer hope where there is despair, to find the hungry, heal the sick, and proclaim the Good News.
We often forget that two other men were crucified the same day as Jesus. We forget that one of those men taunted Jesus, saying that Jesus should save Himself. He saw power in its corrupt and selfish form. But the other man understood what the power of the Cross meant and he asked Jesus to forgive him of his sins. He saw and understood the power of Christ.
What will you ask for? Will you seek the power that brings nothing but death? Or will you seek Christ and gain victory over sin and death? Will you open your heart to the Holy Spirit so that you have the power to help others find peace and hope in this world?
(3) Mark 10: 35 – 45
(4) Stated often during the Presidential campaign of 1960 – Kennedy by Theodore Sorenson, page 95
(5) Stated in 1962 – from Kennedy by Theodore Sorenson, page 95
(6) Matthew 4: 8 – 9
(7) See Acts 12: 1 – 2
(8) Revelation 1: 9
(9) Hebrews 5: 5 – 6
(10) Hebrews 5: 8