Top Dogs

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

Opinion polls of American drivers always have the same result. When asked, most Americans report that they are good drivers—in fact, most drivers rate themselves as better than average!

Of course, this can’t be true. You don’t have to drive very long in New York City to realize that statistics in this case don’t lie: one-half of drivers are undoubtedly below average!

The fact is, people have high opinions of themselves. And so they expect the world to recognize their worth. Young lawyers in big firms may believe they will eventually make partner—even though they know that in fact only a small percentage of associate attorneys ever reach the highest level of their profession. Most trainee bankers think they have a good chance to become managing directors—even though they realize that there is only room for a few top executives in any bank.

We all want to be above the crowd. So it’s easy for us to sympathize with the disciples who appear in the Gospel for today.

James and John are talking with Jesus about the future. They ask if, when the Kingdom of God comes, he will let them sit beside him at the Heavenly banquet. Jesus declines their request; he says, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant.”

But James and John don’t accept this answer and they get angry with Jesus. So Christ responds with a simple and direct statement about what it means to be a disciple:

“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 as a ransom for many.”

We can sympathize with James’ and John’s desire to sit next to Jesus when he reigns in glory. It’s natural to want to be seated beside the host at a dinner party. These are the most prestigious places at the table.

But, as Jesus says, the Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t reward you the way people are rewarded in the secular world: with promotions, and twitter followers, and corner offices. For when your main goal is serving others, it doesn’t matter whether you receive recognition from the world.

Of course, we would also acknowledge that, at the end of time, after the Realm of God is established, and the universe is transformed and perfected by God, it’s unlikely that there will be a single “table” in Heaven, with two prized seats available right next to Jesus—and the entire rest of the fellowship of Christ sitting further away.

No, heaven will be infinitely different from the world we live in today. Indeed, one of the biggest differences between the next world and this one will be that everyone in Heaven will recognize that service is its own reward.

Admittedly, this goal of serving others can be tricky. I was telling the Men’s Group the other night about a little problem that I often encountered when I was a student in seminary. If a group of us was leaving the building at the same time, there would always be a delay at the front door–because no one wanted to be the first person to go out! We were all afraid to appear to be holding ourselves above the other students.

Such exaggerated piety can be annoying— as James and John were when they pestered Jesus for the best seats in Heaven. The Gospel lesson says that after the other ten disciples heard of their demand, they were jealous and angry.

Jesus replies to his followers that they are behaving just like unbelievers. They haven’t understood that Christian leaders are supposed to set an example for their congregations to follow–and that example should be showing that they have no interest in the success that the world values.

Bible scholars refer to this as “servant leadership.” Servant-leadership doesn’t come naturally. Like the seminarians who try hard to be the most humble, so Christian leaders try hard to make the church succeed so that more people will know God.

Now this can mean that leaders with large congregations hold themselves above those with smaller parishes. At the same time, those of us clergy with smaller parishes can be jealous of our more successful colleagues.

In this case, it’s interesting that people outside the church often can’t tell who is supposedly more successful. Which itself suggests why Jesus’ saying is wise.

For surely what matters is how much of our hearts we put into our ministry—this is true whether we are ordained or not. God judges the efforts we make, not our worldly success.

That doesn’t mean that Christians don’t care what the world thinks of them. I try to look for new ideas for ministry from other parishes. Even when I envy the success other priests have, I try to overcome my envy so I can learn from them.

The practical difference that the Christian attitude makes is, I think, this. We’re allowed to limit the worries we have in the world. We can compete with all our might when we’re out in the world at work, but when we get home, we can put rivalries to the side.

Who cares who sold more diapers last month? What matters—what ultimately matters—is the peace of our souls.

That doesn’t mean that we can be lethargic. Competition in general is a good thing. My own view that religion is much healthier in America than in European countries is because here we have a variety of faith options.

Unlike nations like France or Italy where there is one predominant church, in our country, there are hundreds of Christian denominations. So I may not like competing with aggressive evangelical groups—of which there are several in our neighborhood. But I have to admit that such competition forces me to keep trying new ways to make people feel welcome.

In the end, though, having done our best during the day, we may when the night comes let top dogs be top dogs. No reason to try to lord over others—or to fret that someone is lording over us!

After all, God is preparing us for a higher destiny. As in Garrison Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon: in Heaven, everyone is above average!

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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