James and John: just regular guys
The book of Mark does not paint a pretty picture of the disciples. They are either really lost and stupid or they totally get who Jesus is and they are just really …. human. And that is the core reason that we all wince as we read the stories of the disciples’ lessons with Jesus. As usual, we are appalled by the request that these two brothers make of Jesus. “Grant whatever we ask of you.” Of course, we would never be so arrogant to ask what they do of our great Teacher. “Let us sit at your left and right when you come into your kingdom.” Of course, we would never ask for special recognition. Of course, we would never ask for Jesus to tell us that he loves us more than the others … Or would we?
In his sermon on this text, Martin Luther King Jr. identifies the motivation behind the brothers’ question as the “drum major instinct.” There is a competitive impulse within all of us that makes us want to do and be better than the person next to us. We can trace this all the way back to Cain and Abel and the first story of sibling rivalry. But it’s also something that we see every day. We compare ourselves to one another, almost without thinking. The drum major instinct within us tells us that we need to be noticed and recognized. When someone tells us a story, it’s sometimes hard not to immediately share a story when something similar happened to us. It’s not that sharing your story with another person is bad, but sometimes being a friend means listening to and acknowledging the other person’s reality without the need to one-up them with your experience. But that drum major instinct pushes us to make the situation about us instead of them.
Social psychologists have identified this kind of attitude in people’s conversations as an individual is first introduced to someone else. Our first impulse when we meet someone is to try to impress them, to give them the best version of ourselves, to “put our best foot forward” which is not always a bad impulse … but we don’t always accurately portray who we are in those first few moments when we do that. This is an impulse that I have had to fight as I have been getting to know all of you, because while I want to be and do my best here, I also want to be myself. That requires me to lower my “impress-o-meter” and allow myself to make mistakes so that I can be genuine and honest with all of you instead of putting on a face and being who I think you want me to be. The drum major instinct that Martin Luther King Jr. identifies works within us all, just as it was alive and well within James and John.
Whether or not James and John fully understand who Jesus is at this moment, they are being completely human when they ask Jesus for this special favor. And by being completely human, they have their focus in the wrong location. Jesus takes this request and upsets and unsettles us in his response. We expect that Jesus would say no, I don’t play favorites. And no, I won’t reserve a special place for you. This is what we expect, and this is almost exactly what we get in Jesus’ response. Looking at the importance of becoming a servant is difficult because sometimes it’s the easy way out for us. Looking at just the servant aspect of this text allows us to overlook the fact that Jesus uses this as an opportunity to change the focus of James and John. They were asking for personal recognition and distinction, but they were also looking to share in some of the power that they expected Jesus to gain. In responding as he did, Jesus is not only reminding the brothers that it’s not about them, he also continues to say that the way that the world operates is not the way that God chooses to operate.
The danger of the ‘servant leader’ sermon
The topic of servant leadership is so frequent in Christian circles that the concept of a servant is almost over-used. It has become hyperbole, an over-exaggeration, like a caricature of person’s face instead of an actual picture. We talk about being a servant so much that it loses some of its meaning, and it becomes more talk than substance. The danger in over-talking this image of the servant leader is that it almost loses its power and ability to shock us. The Christian message is not one that is supposed to make us smile, nod our heads and say “oh, isn’t that nice?” The message of Christ’s life was world-altering, cosmic, and difficult to comprehend; it is even harder to accept and to allow it to change our lives. There is an inherent danger in talking a big talk about this and not living it out. In my meanderings this week, I found this short little tale:
One day, as the church parking lot filled up, people were surprised to find the doors to the church tightly locked. And there was a sign on the door. It read, “I’ve been preaching here for three years about how we should live out the gospel in our daily lives. You must have heard the message. Now go out and do something about it!”
If we’re going to talk about being servants, we’ll probably need to make sure we are following through on all of our talking.
There are a few important things to note about the audience of this text: this message is intended for those individuals who are in power or in a position to assume power and wield it in a society. Jesus speaks to the brothers, entrepreneurs who are expecting to gain power that resembles the political power they have experienced in their lifetime – the Roman model of government. Jesus’ statement “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” is a call for a radical reversal of roles and power as the world defines it. The one who is able to lord it over the others, to make the rules, and to reap all the benefits from the labor is to bend and care for those around them.
Being a servant, however, does not mean being a doormat. I am reminded of one of the memorable characters from the Harry Potter series; he’s introduced to us in the book HP and the Chamber of Secrets. Dobby is a house elf that comes to Harry in order to help Harry figure out a few things within the story. As a house elf, Dobby is unable to speak ill of the family that owns him (the dreaded Malfoys) and he is also unable to disobey that family. When he does, he inflicts harm on himself as a form of self-punishment. As the book reveals later, Dobby – while still just a servant and house-elf – is quite powerful. Dobby was not limited or defined by his role as a house-elf; he had a will of his own. Being a servant means willingly stepping out of the power roles set up for us by the world and, caring for and responding to what God desires for this world. And it must always be a choice: a choice each individual makes, voluntarily and spontaneously.
Why is the ‘servant leader’ important?
This text answers a very large question concerning the importance and relevance of Jesus for today’s society. Very often, the message of Jesus is “sold” as being good for your peace of mind, a commodity that answers a need for the people. The problem with offering up Jesus, in this way, as the answer to what ails the world, is that it starts with the wrong assumption. Most of these approaches ask people if they feel empty, if they feel neglected, if they feel insecure, and while the gospel message is for the people of this world – it is not about the people of this world. As Will Willimon puts it, “Jesus is not a technique for getting what we want out of God; Jesus is God’s way of getting what God wants out of us.” The focus on servant rockets us back into a humble state of mind and helps us to remember that we don’t get to demand things from God. Rather, it is our job to discern Jesus’ call in our life. How are we to live into the life of a servant? Will it be through serving community dinners, working at a senior center, sending cards to people, setting up a clothesline for the community, singing in the choir, serving as an elder or deacon, or some other fantastic service that hasn’t been mentioned? What is it that God is asking of this community?
Will Willimon identifies James and John and we the contemporary Christians as “sturdy dreamers” willing to tell Jesus, “yes, we are able to drink your cup and be baptized in our baptism.” The term sturdy dreamers catches me and holds me rapt, wondering what it is that we have the audacity and courage to ask of Christ. Jesus did not rebuke James and John for their questions. Instead, he said, “yes you will drink this cup.” And he used their question as a teaching moment to help James and John to truly see what the kingdom of heaven might look like. It was a lesson in religious imagination. We humans have a terrible time trying to imagine what heaven might look like, how it might operate. But perhaps, if we all screw up the courage to ask some terrifyingly big question, we will lean some marvelous big lesson about how to be more like Christ. For this lesson, it begins drinking the same cup that Jesus drank, being baptized in Jesus’ baptism, and following where his voice calls – to kneel at the feet of our friends and care for them, to break bread together, and to join our voices together as the early church did in proclaiming the good news of a Christ who sets us free from the bonds of this world: sets us free so that we may truly be a new creation in Christ. May we find the courage to ask the foolish and unwise question and be willing to meet the unsafe Jesus in our daily lives.
Let us pray: Startle us God, grant us visions and rich imaginations so that we may see how to live out the presence of your kingdom here and now. Help us to keep our drum major instinct in check so that we might respond to your call to be a servant. Teach us humility and teach us the true power of love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
 Martin Luther King Jr. “The Drum Major Instinct.” Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, on February 4, 1968. http://www.blackwebportal.com/wire/DA.cfm?ArticleID=513