In my first month in Watertown, New York, much like my first month here in Metuchen, I was directed to attend a few functions. It was an expectation of the senior pastor. No problem. Happy to do it.
One of those events in Watertown was to attend the monthly board meeting of the Urban Mission. The mission was born in the late 60s as an ecumenical effort to fight poverty. Through its life the three founding churches had become thirty, the initial efforts to help with hunger had grown into a food pantry. In addition there was a thrift store, a wheels to work program, an alternative to incarceration, AA meetings, a drop in center, and just about any other good intention you can imagine.
I went to the monthly meeting ready to find a serious and well-run organization- something to match its reputation. What I found was complete chaos. The meeting was poorly run and disjointed; the executive director spent most of her time rummaging through a canvas bag muttering, “I have that report in here somewhere.” People talked over one another and questions meant for committees were tossed around for the loudest voice to decide.
After the meeting I returned to my office and wrote a short note to the executive director. I thanked her for the opportunity to attend, but I made clear: this was one and done. I suggested the meeting was poorly run and out of control. Lastly, I directed her to change the name of the organization by dropping “urban.” Everyone calls it the mission I said; urban is not a good brand.
Some might call my letter the sort of straight-shooting people need. Others might call it what it really was: absolute arrogance. I was, shall we say, full of it. Cast in a better light, I was very tenacious. But we will get back to that.
Much to the credit of the Urban Mission, they didn’t change their name; no one stormed into my office demanding an apology. No calls were made to put me in my place. Instead I received a letter in reply to my letter. The letter thanked me for my frank observations and confessed indeed there was need for a bit of housekeeping. And then it said, our nominating committee met last night and you were unanimously selected as our next board chair.
Talk about put up or shut up. All of sudden I realized my straight forward critique had come full circle. You think you can do better pal? Here you go.
And I went. I jumped in. For the next six years I poured myself into the mission. By-laws and board composition: completely redrafted and changed. Wayward employees and failing leadership were given an opportunity to excel with different organizations. The finances, which were as murky as you might imagine, began to move toward complete transparency.
Old programs were reorganized; new programs were added. Two enormous changes had immediate impact. There was soon a functional board that could be decisive. No more chaos or bedlam. The second was that a large building was purchased to bring all four program locations into one. The community rallied; funds came in; the local savings and loan was extremely generous; the development authority significantly reduced the tipping fees for the thrift store so there was an end to the malaise of hoarding donated items. A group of local business folks helped redesign the thrift store. In one year, the store went from operating at a loss to generating a significant profit.
This all sounds a bit magical. It was anything but. This effort was filled with terribly long meetings and hours upon hours of conversation and negotiation and in the end lost sleep. I can remember waking up in the middle of the night and realizing I had just led a ministry to take on enormous debt, relocate, and then renovate thousands upon thousands of square feet. Why could I not leave well enough alone? That was a long night of no sleep.
Well, it all worked out. The building, the debt, the staff, the board: it got better and better. Yet, soon enough, I would not be better. Soon I would discover the limits of this success.
Our reading today is about success. James and John ask to be the successors of Jesus, to sit at his right hand and his left. When asked by Jesus if they are up to the task, can you drink my cup (can you suffer?), they say, we can. When asked if they are willing to be baptized like Jesus (sacrifice your life?), again they say, we can. This is a moment of pure bravado. The apostles are tenacious. They are ready to press on, to strive, to rise up, to fight, and win.
The other disciples grumble at such boasting. They are offended by the tenacity of James and John. We have all had this moment. Someone most likely read my letter to the Urban Mission and said, “who does this guy think he is?” I am not sure I will ever know who was wise enough to say, “put him in charge, that will fix him.” A part of me wants to know. I don’t want to know who grumbled and said, “do you believe the nerve.”
The response of Jesus though was different than the wisdom of the one that said, “put in him charge.” Jesus doesn’t say, “let’s see how you do boys.” The response of Jesus here is different as he is not inviting them to step up, but to take a seat; he is not asking them to rise to the occasion, but to learn how to kneel. Bono wrote, if you want to touch the sky, you better learn how to kneel.
The response of Jesus is paradoxical. He bids all the disciples to consider this: in politics, in finance, in war the savviest, the richest, the strongest win and keep their victory by might. Not so for us, he says. If you want to be great, you must be the least, a slave to all.
Jesus has expressed this truth, this teaching, at other times. You must die in order to live; give in order to keep; be last if you want to be first. To be great you must be the least, a slave to all, is part of the impossible ethic of Jesus, the irony of the gospel. I understood this quite well when I wrote my arrogant letter; I understood it when I stepped up and took a swing; I understood it when I was tenacious enough to completely redesign an organization. I understood what Jesus was teaching here as did James and John. Like myself, they understood; they just had no ability to live it.
In 2005 I made my first trip to Malawi, Africa. The person who boarded the plane in JFK was full of . . . let’s call it tenacity. When I got on the plane I was confident or arrogant; I was someone who gets things done or a bully. I knew how to use the unhappy to be me voice and make things happen. No problem could not be taken on, no need was beyond the reach of hard work, common sense, and gumption.
Three weeks later, the guy who got off the plane was still tenacious, but I was also now quite aware that there was a limit to what tenacity can do. For three weeks I walked villages that were starving, children dying. I sat with grandmothers raising too many grandchildren because all of her children had died of AIDS. Malaria and dysentery were no longer maladies on list; they were people with names and faces and graves.
This was not the first time I had experienced poverty or suffering, death and dying. No. I had seen tragedy, violence, suicide, addiction and on and on. I had seen them, but never on such a scale, such a scope, so far beyond what could be changed, fixed, even helped. Someone asked me once what changed my life, when did I begin to live in the freedom of Christ? I described one of the villages in Malawi on that first trip where the folks were eating the last of their food. Once this was gone they were facing six months of famine. I remember a small child took my hand and guided me through the village of vacant eyes. That was the moment of freedom for me. That hand, that child, that walk, was when I began to climb to glory. In that moment, with that child, I could feel the limit of what I could do and the power of humility
Please don’t half understand me. Tenacity gets things done. I love the work, the grit, the twist in the gut. There is something truly empowering about risk. I did not enjoy the long night with no sleep where I cursed myself and my hubris. That was no fun. I didn’t like the realization that one should have a very good plan before you disrupt forty employees and ask them to reimagine their job, their career, their day. Should have given that a bit more thought. But I loved the thrill of it. We rallied; we fought; we won. Tenacity gets things done.
But then it doesn’t. There is a limit to tenacity. Our text says that the other disciples were angry at James and John. It doesn’t say Jesus was angry with them. He doesn’t scold or rebuke or show disdain for their bravado. Jesus doesn’t suggest it is wrong. He does though suggest another way and perhaps a limit to what determination can do.
Tenacity, confidence, wit, drive, ambition: they can get you pretty far. With these you can achieve a lot of success. But there is a limit. They cannot reach glory. To reach glory you must find the power of humility.
In 2007 I smuggled an orthopedic surgical kit into Malawi. The kit is worth about $30,000. I smuggled it in so to avoid having it stolen at customs and sold in South Africa. There were only two orthopedic surgeons in Malawi, a nation of 14 million, at that time. This surgery kit would help one of them do more. I was willing to take the risk. I did because the math was so overwhelming. There is about one orthopedic surgeon for every 14,000 people in the US. Imagining one for every 7 million led me say, “put the kit in my trunk.”
It’s not like you wake up one day and realize, oh humility will take me farther in life than tenacity, and then have the power to live this way. The revelation takes time to work; the grace needs room to grow. James and John had walked with Jesus for three years. They had seen the miracles, listened to the controversies, beheld the transfiguration. James and John heard the paradox about giving and living and forgiving. They knew it. Yet, a week before his death, after all the time with Jesus, they were still trusting tenacity.
The need to trust humility more than tenacity is what I found in that hungry village so many years ago. Something inside of me could sense and know, my confidence is no match for this. Reorganize a non-profit, sure. End extreme poverty; feed millions of hungry people? Not a chance. On my best day what I could muster is like a drop in the ocean when placed beside this tsunami. I could sense humility; I just didn’t know how to trust it.
What do you trust? Where do you find the strength to lead you forward? What is the well you draw from to withstand dread and fear and challenge? Lots of possibilities. The chances are good all of us have mustered the courage to be brave, to be strong, to be fierce, to speak truth to power. We trust these. Such is grit and determination and ambition. Yet, have you found the strength of humility? Do you trust humility as the path to glory?
James and John had yet to find this strength and they hung out with Jesus every day. This teaching of Jesus recorded by Mark is there to say, perhaps we trust tenacity more than humility. Perhaps we have some room to grow before we climb to glory. Amen.
- Isaiah 54:4 - 10
- Mark 10:35 - 45