Most of us who live in Washington are transplants. We’ve come from somewhere else and can’t help being at least a little fascinated by living in what people call “the most powerful city on earth.” Here we are in the capital of the world’s one superpower. Here live the leaders of the nation with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, and with a cultural life that dominates the world. If you’re looking for power, you’ve come to the right place.
A book that has taught me a good bit about this city is a memoir called Washington by journalist Meg Greenfield, about her years here as a political reporter and columnist. Washington has been likened to many things, she says—to an elitist men’s club, to a recklessly run business, to a den of every known public and private vice—lechery, greed, pride, sloth, and above all, the lust for acquiring power and wielding it.
But none of these quite captures Washington, or at least the government and press side of Washington, for her. The best analogy she’s found, she says, is to say that Washington is like—high school. Think about it. High school is a nervous place where everyone is anxious, but everyone adopts a laid back, nothing could bother me, attitude. These are the years, she says, when young people first encounter a social code that calculates worth as popularity and popularity as the ability to please and be associated with the right people and to impress and be admired by everyone else.
People come to town and start to make their way up the various hierarchies—in Congress, in the executive branch, or the administrative bureaucracies, in the law firms and lobbying outfits. Influence and control are the name of the game. If you acquire enough of either you too may be able to ride through the city in a limousine with tinted windows. And the crowds may throng around you, to shake your hand, or be photographed with you, just to be close to all that glory.
James and John, the Zebedee brothers in our gospel lesson today, would probably fare pretty well in Washington. Along with Peter they are Jesus’ closest disciples, and they are devoted to his cause. But they are also planning ahead, getting themselves positioned for a major appointment in the new administration. Of course Jesus isn’t running for office, but he’s the one who is going to bring in God’s new age, and by golly, they want to be at the top of it.
The brothers have been hearing their leader talk about some troubling things—about facing suffering and certain death—but it seems to have gone right past them. They are interested in his power. After all, that may have been what attracted them from the beginning. He had a magnetism that drew huge crowds, and there was always a buzz of excitement around him. This man was destined for greatness.
So it’s hard to blame them when they sidle up beside their leader and say to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Not very subtle. “Well, what do you want?” Jesus responds. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at our left, in your glory,” they say. Maybe one could be Secretary of State, and another Secretary of Defense, or CEO and COO, with Jesus as Chairman of the Board. When God’s kingdom comes, they want to be at the head of the cabinet room table.
But Jesus is probably shaking his head when he says, “You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” And then like eager new recruits trying to impress the boss they say, “We are able!”
Then not surprisingly, we see that the other ten disciples, who are listening to all this, are furious at James and John for this blatant power grab. And so Jesus once again has to remind all of them of the way of real discipleship. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Your life is not about you, he is saying. Not about what power you can hold, who you can impress, what kind of press coverage you can pick up, how many other people you can be in charge of. Your life is about whether or not you learn how to serve. It means giving yourself to God’s work in some way, no matter how small. That is the path to real greatness, whether at home, or in business, or in the halls of Congress or the White House.
But, do you see? Discipleship isn’t about a new set of policies, but a whole new way of leading and serving. Jesus is giving them a new definition of greatness. Don’t look for it on the front page of the paper, in big dramatic gestures, in the limelight of press conferences. It will almost always be small, unnoticed, close to the ground. Jesus’ view of greatness will look very different.
It will look, for example, like Dr. Paul Farmer, who created an organization called Partners in Health, to build treatment centers first in Haiti and increasingly across the world to fight AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Farmer grew up in humble circumstances and graduated from Duke University and Harvard Medical School—places of power, we might say. But along the way he happened to visit Haiti where he was appalled by the shocking health conditions and the almost non-existent health care. And it made of him a tireless servant—hiking five hours into the mountains to care for as sick child while at the same time working night and day to create a worldwide organization. Paul Farmer doesn’t travel in motorcades. He lives on a shoestring and works himself to exhaustion. But when we look at him we see greatness.
Or look at Muhammud Yunus of Bangladesh, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize, an economist who has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to begin the climb out of grinding poverty through micro-credit loans.
Or look closer to home—at the countless teachers in the schools of our city who labor against immense odds to give this city’s young people a chance at a decent life, or look at social workers and nurses, look at the caregivers in our nursing homes. And, it has to be said, look at the politicians and government workers who do actually dedicate themselves to lives of service, working quietly under the radar. These people are showing us a different kind of greatness.
Of course this greatness makes no sense in Washington or any place else for that matter, at least on the world’s terms.
And even prominent Christians have jumped right over this kind of talk. You may have seen the recent cover story in Time Magazine—on the gospel of prosperity. Stick with Jesus, some preachers are saying, and you’ll move up. God wants you to prosper and have the house of your dreams and everything else you want. Of course there is a piece of truth in this—that Jesus does promise you the one abundant life that matters more than any other. But it isn’t a life on top of the power heap. It’s a full, good life in the trenches, making a difference in human lives, making the world a better place. It isn’t the best seat at the banquet table. It’s the privilege of working back in the kitchen.
One danger in election year time is we tend to hear a lot of prosperity gospel from our politicians. ‘Vote for me and you’ll get richer and happier,’ they often say. But what we need from our politicians is an authentic view of greatness. I pray that our nation will elect leaders who are committed to being servants, who are passionate about providing health care and decent education for everyone, who are determined to fight poverty at home and abroad, who are committed to humanitarian assistance in places of severe crisis such as Darfur in Sudan, and who will work to protect our fragile earth. And I pray that we will elect leaders who can collaborate with each other both in the Congress and across the globe. Can this nation that has so much fulfill its calling to servant greatness?
We all caught a glimpse of this servant greatness over the last few weeks as we watched a small community of Amish men and women in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania make their way through a terrible tragedy. We saw on our televisions a peculiar world without cell phones, electricity, or automobiles, with women wearing bonnets, and horse-drawn buggies the only mode of transportation.. But nothing could have been more strange than the way this community dealt with the terrible schoolhouse murder of five young girls by a deranged father who then took his own life.
Less than 48 hours after the killings the grandfather of one of the slain girls was standing next to his granddaughter’s body as it was being prepared for burial. He said to a group of young boys gathered around, “We must not think evil of this man,” he said. And he went on to urge them to forgive the killer.
The community itself embraced the widow of the killer, inviting her to the funerals, telling her that she would be welcome to stay in their community. And as cash gifts began to pour in for the families of the victims from across the country, they insisted on sharing the money with her.
How strange can you get? Here the Amish are, simply living Jesus’ way. Nothing more, nothing less. Not just when it’s easy, but when it must be unimaginably hard. How could they do this, you have to ask? Could you forgive the murderer of your child? Could I? For them it seemed so clear, so obvious. The only possible explanation is that these Amish have been living Christ’s way not for a day, not to face this one crisis, but over a lifetime—a lifetime of learning to be servants, peacemakers, a people who forgive. So when the crisis came, they knew what to do.
I was struck one evening by an essay on the PBS NewsHour by Anne Taylor Fleming about this Amish community. It showed footage of the ways other people deal with their hurt and anger: bitter-faced Americans holding up signs demanding that some other killer be executed, images of rioting and hatred in the Middle East and here at home. And then the focus shifted again to the quiet, peaceful people of Nickel Mines, living the way Jesus calls them to live, showing us another way.
In our lesson today Jesus is showing all of us disciples what real greatness looks like. And he is calling them to live that way so the rest of the world can see this way of servanthood to be its only hope.
Will you learn this way of service, and humility, and forgiveness? he says. Will you, here in Washington, this bastion of power, will you show that there is another, humbler way?
“Will you drink the cup that I drink? Will you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Will you? Will you?