October 22

The Least and the Greatest

By Marsh Chapel

Mark 10: 35-45

Who taught you about power?

Who taught you by precept or example about the use of authority?

Think for a minute, or for a good stretch of a lifetime, about those who modeled for you the spiritual dimensions of leadership. Unreflectively we follow their lead if reflectively we do not assess their example. And every one of us has power, exercises some authority, and leads, especially in our example. None of us deconstructs our own identity in culture as fully as we might. And we need to. Let there be no secrets where the issue is power. (Wouldn’t that be heavenly?) We are only as sick as our secrets.

Carlyle Marney used to ask us: “Friend, who told you who you was?”

The Gospel today asks of us a narrower question: who taught you about power? The Gospel today tells us that authentic authority, real responsibility are a matter of the heart. What are your models of power? Do they include at least a little Shaker simplicity, a little Ambrosian authority, a little steady service?

Shaker Simplicity?

Is one the heartfelt happiness of simplicity? Heartfelt leadership is ultimately simple.

It is intriguing that the Gospel lessons about living, in Mark, are set in the humble reaches of the lake country of Galilee. Writing in Rome in trouble in 70AD, there must have been some comfort, some folkloric encouragement for the persecuted urban Christians in these polished memories of Jesus teaching along the shores of Galilee. There is beauty along the lake. There is calm along the lake. There is peace along the lake. There is serenity along the lake. Along the lake there is space and time to sift, reminisce, remember, sort. The still waters still restore the soul to stillness. Today’s regatta, outside our Chapel, at the head of the Charles, in its pristine beauty and vigorous discipline, bring a kind of peace, too.

Yet, though our lesson is ostensibly set in the country, up in the North Country lake region, make no mistake: these few phrases are crafted in urban Christianity. We have, exegetically, an ‘alto aria’ in Mark 10. Very little of what we hear today, and through this season of readings, comes out of the history of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the church, like we, that is struggling in these pages for a sense of power’s use. That is the second level or line in a Gospel reading. Surely #4 the baritone of tradition will follow. Surely #3 Mark, in his tenor editing, will intervene. Surely #1, the ethereal Soprano of the Nazarene echoes still. But the earliest struggles of the early church are visible here, in the dominical sayings about power. In #2, the alto voice…

Mark 10: 35ff is a place where the priority, of Mark is clear. Mark is the earliest gospel. Notice how his successors cringe at his composition. Most tellingly, Matthew removes the selfish request from the lips of the disciples, and has their mother ask! But then Matthew still has Jesus respond to the disciples! Matthew, ever the scribe, pins the responsibility on their ‘Momma’, like many today telling ‘yo momma’ jokes.

Luke simply erases the passage, and so ‘spares the twelve’. They too knew the embarrassment of inherited Scripture: what is your sense of the most offensive? John, the Jews…Psalms, dash their children on rocks…Genesis, rape and violence…David (not a children’s story)…household codes in Colossians, and assumption of slavery and of patriarchy…I

These readings come around and we mutter, ‘Is this really necessary?’

THE SCRIPTURE IS A LIVING TRADITION—the earliest writers were utterly clear about that (Luke is so embarrassed he eliminates the whole passage. Matthew has their mother ask!—and John Wesley assumes he is right!).

Mark wants to show that the disciples, as do many in his own church, intentionally miss the point. The point? There is no real greatness, there is no real leadership, without humility, none without suffering, none without pain, none without public rebuke, none without the patience of Job, none without a pastoral heart for those who experience the consequences of decisions which others make. If, in your work, you have shown humility, known suffering, felt pain, had rebuke, summoned patience, found empathy—for all the cost, take heart. You are not far from the leadership kingdom of heaven…

The intonation of glory is a clue that we are reading from years after Golgotha. The stark reference to the cup of sorrow bears a memory of Golgotha. The knowing, counter knowing of the question about baptism, and its portents reveals the hurt of Golgotha. The shadow of grief that darkens this discourse is the shadow of the Cross of Christ. And the final phrase is unmistakable in its reference: to give his life as a ransom for many.the Christian community, we ourselves included, may not ever be unclear about the potential abuse of power. That particular portal to blindness has been nailed, nailed shut.

Who taught you what you know about power?

Said John Wesley, repeatedly, “if thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand”.

And Calvin: What is the chief purpose of human life? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.

There will come a day when you wake up to the purity of the heart that, as Kierkegaard said, is to “will one thing”. That is conversion, often wrought in power struggle.

You may come to a morning hour, even this one, in which you sense a new opening, a desire to live a life that makes God smile. You will become kinder, happier, more generous, more forgiving. This is the purpose of being alive, to speak and act and be in a way that brings a smile to the divine countenance.

Again I remind you of the Shaker community. In their work, their dress, their furniture, their devotion, their relations, the Shakers lived simply. The heart of their simplicity, and ours at our best, is the desire to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called”. Every renewal in Christian history has had this feature: Paul mending tents, Augustine chaste again, Luther and Erasmus cleansing Rome, Wesley and his coal miners, Latin American base communities, and every spiritual nudging in our own very human church.

Who are you trying to please? And how? And why?

Think of someone you have known who lived with a heartfelt, powerful simplicity.

Who taught you about authority?

There is an authority that is visible in
every person who has found the freedom of vocation, the freedom to live with abandon. Look around at the windows in this charming Chapel, following worship, and you will see the faces of women and men who found a simplicity, a way to live with abandon.

Ambrosian Authority?

Is another model the heartfelt affirmation of the common good?

Mark 10:35 is one of the few spots in the earliest gospel at which the emerging institutional needs of the church are visible. Christianity wrestled with formational questions in the first century: For whom is the gospel? What are the definitive texts? And especially, who shall hold authority? What, How, Where. And Who?

As this passage shows, from the outset it has been terribly difficult for the Christian church to maintain its own authentic form of authority, over against the lesser models abroad in every age. I emphasize the little phrase, slave of all, or servant of the whole. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” said Paul.

Aristotle taught us to attend to the true, the good, the beautiful. In the late fourth century there emerged a good, great leader of the church, Ambrose of Milan. In just eight days he went from unbaptized layman to Bishop. His rhetorical skill, musicianship, diplomatic agility and attention to the preparations for Baptism provided the power behind his lasting influence in Northern Italy. Above all, Ambrose used his authority for the common good. Notice in the Scripture there is no avoidance of the need for leadership. Authority may be shared but responsibility is not to be shirked. What lasts, what counts, what is true and good and beautiful, finally, is what “builds up”.

The greatest teacher of the earlier church, Augustine of Hippo, came to Milan a non-Christian. From the influence of Ambrose he left baptized and believing and worked a generation to set the foundations for the church over a thousand years to come.

I find some striking parallels to the story of Ambrose in a now popular book by Jim Collins, “Good to Great.” Here are the qualities of those in authority in companies that became great when they had before been good: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believe his own clippings—a plow horse not a show horse. A plow horse not a show horse. A lot of progress can be made when we do not linger too long over who gets the credit.

Some years ago I went to a church meeting near Canada on a very cold night. It was led by our Bishop. For some reason I was not in a very happy mood, nor was I very charitable in my internal review of his remarks that evening. I do not recall his topic or theme. I remember clearly seeing him help to move hymnals, borrowed from other churches for the large crowd, so they could be returned. Snow, dark, long arms carrying a dozen hymnals into the tundra.

Who taught you about power?

Think of someone you have known who lived with heartfelt passion for the common good.

Who taught you about leadership?

Steady Service?

Is another the example of deliberate and deliberative service, of steady service, of sincere service, of suffering service?

Bultmann places our passage in his category of ‘legal sayings and church rules’. These later sayings have used a word like ransom and: ‘ taken from the redemption theories of Hellenistic Christianity’ (Bultmann, HST, 87).

The earlier warnings of suffering and death had fallen upon deaf ears…

“The basic inability of the disciples to grasp or accept Jesus’ concept of messiahship or its corollary, suffering discipleship, becomes reflected more and more in their total relationship to Jesus. The conflict over the correct interpretation of messiahship widens into a general conflict and misunderstanding in almost every area of their relationship

A few years ago Charles Rice of Drew spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox Church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel. Then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon.

Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again. A servant of the servants of God, washing away the accumulated piety before her…

Rice had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. And through him I did too. Maybe it will work for you. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety. Including pretense and presumption and position. Service that lasts is deliberate and also deliberative, it is steady service.

Think of someone you have known who provided heartfelt service to the servants of God. Steady, sincere, suffering service.

Who taught you about power?


Every one of us has some power. If you have a pen, a telephone, a computer, email, a tongue, a household, a family, a job, a community, a church—then you have some authority.

Who taught you, by precept and example, how to use it? How much of what you picked up needs keeping and how much needs to be put out on the curb?

A simple passion for the common good of the servants of God is at the heart of leadership.

Here is leadership: simple, authentic service.

Here is leadership: simple, authentic service.

Here is leadership: simple, authentic service.

For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

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