Nothing From Nothing
Sermon preached October 18, 2015
Texts: Mark 10:35-45
Billy Preston, “Nothing From Nothing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuaG-TCpbtw
At an Ash Wednesday service, the pastor of a church suddenly interrupts the flow of the service and kneels at the altar, crying out, “O God, before you I am nothing!” So moved by this demonstration of piety, the lay leader of the church, a prominent community member immediately comes forward, kneels next to the pastor and cries out, “O God, before you I am nothing!” Then another member of the congregation, a person of much more modest means, comes forward, kneels and says, “O God, before you I am nothing!” The lay leader nudges the pastor and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
Who is something in the Jesus scheme of things? Do you have to be nothing to be something? Jesus and his disciples are on the road going to Jerusalem. Jesus keeps telling them that in Jerusalem he faces arrest and execution. So naturally, two of the disciples, brothers James and John, ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And what do they want? “Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.” Have they not been listening? Jesus has not been talking about glory but about trouble – arrest and death. The disciples often seem one French fry short of a Happy Meal in the Gospel of Mark.
Jesus asks them if they are able to follow his way, to which they say “yes.” The other disciples pick up on the conversation. They are not pleased with James and John. Jesus uses it as a teachable moment. You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and 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 a ransom for many. I appreciate the newer translation, The Common English Bible, in its rendering of that last sentence. For the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.
In the end, Jesus is not harsh with James and John. He does not criticize them for wanting to be important or significant or to matter. What he does do is redefine what it means to be important, to be significant, to matter. Jesus redefines greatness. Greatness, importance are found in service, not in wielding unchecked power over others.
If you have ever heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” it is difficult to read this text from Mark and not think about that sermon. It was the final sermon King preached before his assassination, and it was adapted from an earlier sermon of J. Wallace Hamilton, a well-known, liberal, white Methodist preacher. We used part of it in the “Invitation to Worship” earlier. I want to share just a bit more of it.
[Jesus] said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.” And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness…. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve…. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. (http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/)
But here is where it can still get messy. We humans can warp even this, and we are good at that kind of thing. Good ideas can also be misused. Look who thinks he’s nothing! We can even turn servanthood into a competition. We may want to get noticed for our servanthood, for our giving. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) amassed one of the greatest fortunes of the nineteenth century. When he retired in 1901 he was the richest man in the world. Then he spent the rest of his life giving his money away. By the time of his death, he had donated over $350 million to charity, an astounding sum at the time. He wrote a book entitled The Gospel of Wealth in which he argued that the rich should give their wealth away to those less fortunate. In all this, Carnegie, I think, deserves praise.
What is also interesting to me is that Carnegie’s name was attached to many of his donations. When you go by a library building he built, you see etched in stone “Carnegie Library.” The famous music hall he built in New York is “Carnegie Hall.” Here in Duluth we have “Amsoil Arena.” Now that’s o.k. It is good that people of means donate to help others. If any of you are wanting to donate to pay for the windows up here and would like you name attached, I am all ears. What I simply want to note is that even in giving and service there is something of that sense of self-importance. Most of the time that is a good thing. Sometimes it is not, as perhaps when a generous donor puts too many stipulations on the gift. To my knowledge Andrew Carnegie gave for libraries, but did not demand that they each had multiple copies of his book – but some would do just that.
Even Dr. King had this interesting internal struggle in his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.” King eerily reflects on his own death, and what he would like said about his life. If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody…. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. Nicely put, yet he also mentions his Noble Prize and his education even as he says they are not what matter most. And it is o.k.
The bottom line is this. Greatness is about giving – about giving oneself. Greatness is about service – about doing justice, fostering reconciliation, creating beauty, loving. Even just a bit more deeply it is about creating the kind of heart that can love and give and serve without being too self-conscious about it. There is nothing wrong about naming rights, or mentioning academic achievement. I’d like my obituary to mention that I have a Ph.D. In following Jesus, though, it is about developing a heart that can hold that kind of thing lightly.
In the Jesus scheme of things, it is not about being nothing, but about having such a strong sense of self, rooted in knowing that we are loved by God, that we don’t have to keep reminding others that we are somebody. We already know that. It is having such a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love that giving flows out of us greatly, without us being too worried about others thinking we are great. Theologian Walter Wink puts it well. You serve out of joy, not obligation…. Ambition can be positive or negative. In his vision of the new order of God, Jesus offers us a way to pour ourselves into an ambition worthy of our lives. (The Human Being, 95)
You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. Remember that greatness is about a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.
So be great in the ways only you can be great, knowing that you are loved deeply by God in Jesus Christ. Grow your heart and soul. Develop your capacities for loving and serving and giving. Share yourself with others and with the world. Know God’s love in Jesus. Show God’s love in the world. We can each do that just where we are and out of who we are.
About a month ago, I wrote a column in The Duluth Budgeteer about my high school homeroom teacher, Nancy Collyard. I had gone on-line and discovered that she had died in Hibbing in 2009 at the age of 69. It was a time of holding grief and gratitude together. I wrote about how she had been helpful to me during those challenging years of adolescence. I post my stories on my Facebook page. I am not above some self-promotion! The response was pretty amazing. I heard from a number of high school classmates who had also been touched by Mrs. Collyard. Here was a woman from Hibbing who died there quietly, who had touched a lot of lives. That’s greatness.
This week, on Facebook, the birthdate of a friend of mine popped up. Only this friend died in January 2014. Facebook can be a little bit creepy that way. Jim Perry was a United Methodist clergy person who was a Minnesota Conference staff person who worked a lot with other clergy. He was a friend and I miss him. I posted a couple of items about Jim on my Facebook page offering gratitude for who he was, the work he did, and the friendship he gave. Again, the response was pretty amazing. Others testified to how Jim touched their lives, or at least hit the “Like” button. Jim was from Vermont. That’s where he died, quietly. Yet his life touched other lives. That’s greatness.
Be great in the ways only you can be great, knowing that you are loved deeply by God in Jesus Christ. Grow your heart and soul. Develop your capacities for loving and serving and giving. Share yourself with others and with the world. Know God’s love in Jesus. Show God’s love in the world. We can each do that just where we are and out of who we are. We can all be great because we can all develop hearts filled with grace, and souls generated by love. Amen.