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Mark 10_35-45

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TITLE:  On Getting a Good Seat in Heaven                  SCRIPTURE:  Mark 10:35-45

What makes a nation great?  Is it size?  Wealth?  A powerful military?  Or is it something less tangible -- a government devoted to meeting the needs of its citizens -- and people who help each other?

What makes a president great?  Most of us would agree that George Washington was great.  He led the colonial army in the Revolutionary War, and won freedom for the American colonies.  But one of the greatest things that Washington ever did was to step down voluntarily after his second term, thereby establishing a principle that presidents should not be allowed to rule for life.  That was a generous act that may have saved us from a dictator at some point in our history.

What makes an athlete great?  Scoring lots of points?  Making lots of assists?  Stopping the opposition?  A young man named David Robinson has done all those things and more as a basketball player for the San Antonio Spurs.  He was the NBA (National Basketball Association) Rookie of the Year in 1990 --Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 --MVP (Most Valuable Player of the Year) in 1995 -- the list goes on and on.  He should be a shoo-in for the Basketball Hall of Fame when he is eligible.

But it is what Robinson does off-court that makes him truly great in the esteem of many.  In 1991 he visited the Gates Elementary School in San Antonio and challenged the kids to go to college, promising each one who did a $2000 scholarship.  Inspired by his example, many of them took him up on his offer -- and he ended up giving each of them $8000 instead of $2000.  Then he and his wife started the Carver Academy in San Antonio, named after George Washington Carver.  Robinson donated $9 million to get the school on its feet -- believed to be the largest charitable contribution ever made by a professional athlete.  Carver Academy is dedicated not only to academic excellence but also to the spiritual development of the kids.  Robinson is a Christian, and he wants the kids to understand that spiritual values are as important as academics or athletics.

Have you ever known anyone who was great?  Most of us would have to say no.  The people with whom we rub shoulders aren't presidents or royalty or Hall of Fame athletes.  We see those people from afar -- not up close. 

But maybe we do know some great people -- and have just never stopped to think of them that way.

Our Gospel lesson today suggests a different way of understanding greatness.  It tells us how God calculates greatness -- and you can be sure that it has nothing to do with putting points on the scoreboard.  God's way of calculating greatness doesn't have much to do with power or wealth or athletic prowess. 

But let me start at the beginning.  Our Gospel lesson today has two of Jesus' disciples, two brothers, James and John, coming to Jesus to ask that he allow them to sit with him at the head table when he comes into his kingdom -- one at Jesus' right hand and the other at his left hand.

If you have ever attended staff meetings in a large organization, you know what James and John were talking about.  In a typical staff meeting, the boss sits at the head of the table, flanked by two seats, one at the boss's right and the other at the boss's left.  Those seats go to the boss's most trusted advisors.  There's a good reason for that arrangement.  If something comes up that the boss doesn't understand, he or she can turn to the person on one side or the other and get quick clarification.  Then, having been brought up to speed, the boss can make a comment without looking foolish.

In a staff meeting, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who the VIPs (Very Important Persons) are.  The boss is front and center.  The boss's two most trusted advisors are in seats flanking the boss.  From there on, the closer you are to the head of the table, the more important your position.  The minor players don't even get to sit at the table.  They sit at seats in the back or around the perimeter of the room.  If you attend meetings like that, it is easy to become envious of the people who sit close to the boss -- and especially to envy the one at the boss's right and the one at the boss's left. 

Jesus and his disciples were headed for Jerusalem, where the disciples thought that Jesus would become king.  When that happened, James and John wanted to sit at the head of the table with Jesus.  They wanted the two most honored seats.

There was something else going on too.  Jesus had already chosen three disciples as his favorites, and those three included James and John.  The third member of that favored group was Peter.  Organizationally, three is a dangerous number.  When you get three people together, typically two of them will bond and the third will be the outsider.  James and John were brothers, and they bonded.  Peter was the outsider.  By asking Jesus for the seats at his right and left, James and John were trying to push Peter to the side.  Pretty clever, weren't they!  Only two people could sit next to the boss, so James and John were trying to insure that they were the two -- and that Peter would have to find a chair somewhere further down the table.

Jesus, of course, knew exactly what was going on, so he asked James and John a question:  "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

That isn't the kind of language we usually use, so let me explain.  Jesus was asking James and John if they were able to share his fate.  They, imagining Jesus at the head of the table, said, "We are able."  Jesus then told them that they would share his fate, but he couldn't promise them the seats at his right and left.

Let me just digress for just a moment.  Do you remember who shared the places at Jesus' right and left?  It turned out to be two thieves.  When Jesus was lifted up, it was on a cross, and there was a thief at his right hand and a thief at his left hand.  That was one of God's ways of warning us to expect some surprises in his kingdom.  In God's kingdom, the old rules -- the world's rules -- won't apply.  We will have to learn a whole new set of rules.

So Jesus tells James and John -- and us -- what to expect.  He gives them -- and us -- a glimpse into God's kingdom.  He explains the new rules.  He begins by talking about the rulers with whom James and John are familiar.  Those rulers lord it over people, Jesus says.  The ones whom people usually count as great are really only tyrants -- oppressors -- people who exercise power cruelly and unjustly.  Jesus tells James and John -- and us -- that the kingdom of God isn't like that. 

And then Jesus goes on to tell James and John -- and us -- exactly who the great people will be in the kingdom of God.  The great people won't be the powerbrokers.  They won't be the wealthy.  They won't be the people who are at the head of the table in this world.  Jesus says:

      "Whoever wishes to be great among you
      must be your servant,
      and whoever wishes to be first among you
      must be slave of all."

Many people spend their whole lives trying to become rich and famous -- or rich and powerful -- or maybe just rich.  Only a few people get there. The rest of us envy them.

But Jesus tells us that we need not envy them, because God will judge by different rules: 

-- God won't honor the people who made the most money, but the people who gave the most of themselves.  God doesn't admire takers, but givers.

-- God won't honor the people who wielded power, but people who loved their neighbors and helped those in need.

-- God won't reward the people with great talent, but people with great hearts.

David Robinson, the basketball player, understands that.  He is a very bright guy.  He passed up lots of elite colleges that wanted him to play ball for them and went to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.  Do you know what he majored in?  He majored in mathematics.  I wonder how many of NBA players could have survived as math majors.

Robinson is smart, but he isn't just head-smart -- he is heart-smart as well.  He is a Christian, and he has taken seriously what Jesus says here.  He has made lots of money and achieved lots of fame, but has chosen to devote his life to the betterment of others -- children in particular.  When I get to heaven, I expect to see David Robinson and people like him sitting at the head of the table with Jesus -- people who have devoted themselves to service -- to giving -- to others.

But you don't have to be rich or famous to qualify for that honor.  There are people in this congregation that I expect to see sitting pretty high up at Jesus' table.  People don't think of them as great.  They don't think of themselves as great.  Not many people know their names, but God knows their names.

They are the people whom God has sent to show the rest of us the way -- those who give themselves in quiet service to our church or our children --those who show up whenever there is a need at the church or elsewhere in the community -- those who lend a hand to their neighbor when needed -- those who help the homeless or the hungry -- those who give generously for disaster relief.  They are not people who are bucking for a seat at the head of the table.  I expect to see a look of surprise on their face when Jesus says, "Come on up here and sit with me."

Hear once again what Jesus said.  He said:

      "Whoever wishes to become great among you
      must be your servant,
      and whoever wishes to be first among you
      must be slave of all."

Let me say that once again, because it will be on the final exam!

      "Whoever wishes to become great among you
      must be your servant,
      and whoever wishes to be first among you
      must be slave of all."

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