September 14th, 2021

James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37

Ambition fuels human behavior. Many events in people’s lives are motivated by ambition. A shopkeeper strives to find new ways to display goods in the ambitious hope of being more prosperous. A scientist pushes back the frontiers of knowledge because of a love of knowledge. We all know students who burn the midnight oil. All are motivated by ambition.

Ambition is the fuel for many helpful human behaviors, but there is a dark side to ambition. How many people have wrecked their lives because their ambitions were so great that they sacrificed all other values on the altar of their ambitions? We have seen the human wreckage left behind by people who abandoned, manipulated, or abused their families by seeking their own ambitions. Ambition is a healthy motivator of good behavior and good activities, but it also has a more demonic side.

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest and academician. His academic pursuits took him to a teaching post at Harvard, a great accomplishment for anyone in the academic arena. Yet Nouwen reached a time in his life when he was not satisfied. He left his comfortable teaching post at Harvard, teaching some of the most brilliant students in the country, and became a worker at Daybreak, a home for adults who were mentally disabled. After Nouwen had been at Daybreak for a time, he wrote:

Most of my past life has been built around the idea that my value depends on what I do. . . . I fought my way up to the lonely top of a little success, a little popularity, and a little power. But now, as I sit beside the slow and heavy-breathing Adam [a resident of Daybreak] I start seeing how violent that journey was, so filled with desires to be better than others, so marked by rivalry and competition, so pervaded with com- 240 pulsion and obsessions, so spotted with moments of suspicion, jealousy, resentment, and revenge. (Quoted in Pulpit Resource, November 12, 1990)

The Bible is skeptical about ambition. The book of James is a primer on practical Christianity. The writer says “selfish ambition” is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish. Hardly a recommendation, is it? James goes on to write that the primary results are disorder and wickedness.

Our gospel lesson speaks to this subject in tones gentle, yet powerful. The Gospel of Mark presents Jesus as the successful teacher and healer. Jesus attracts a large following. People who want to hear what Jesus has to say and want to see what he will do surround him. Then, just as Jesus’ popularity is reaching a peak, Jesus turns his back on all of it. Jesus withdraws from the public arena; he goes into hiding with his disciples and instructs them about the way of the cross. Jesus turns his back on the successes of his early career. He sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.

One day Jesus hears his disciples arguing with one another. Jesus asks, “What were you arguing about on the road?” They are embarrassed to admit that they were disputing which of them was the greatest. Jesus says to the disciples, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (NIV). The disciples cannot seem to learn. I understand because I can’t learn either. Can we really learn what it means to live this amazing paradox where those who would be first must be the very last and the servant of everyone? I don’t want to learn it. I’d rather be first my way, wouldn’t you?

In a wonderful Chinese folktale, a woman loses her only child in death. She goes to the holy man and asks him to bring her child back to life. He replies, “Search for the home that has never known sorrow, and, in that home, find the magic mustard seed and bring it to me. Then we will have the power to bring your child back.” The woman’s first stop is a great and luxurious palace. Thinking everything will be good and joyful there, she knocks on the door saying she is looking for a place without sorrow. “You have come to the wrong place,” they reply, and recount all the sorrows that have come to that home of power and wealth. The woman says to herself, “Who is better able to help these people than I who have had such misfortune of my own?” She stays to comfort them, and later continues her search, which takes her to the hovels and the palaces of China. In each place she becomes so involved in ministering to other people’s grief that she forgets her own. In her forgetfulness, she finds healing and peace.

Those who would find their life must lose it. Those who would be first must be last. This teaching runs so counter to our ambitious ways; but don’t we have to admit that Jesus was right? Our ambitions are compulsive and suspicious and obsessive and jealous and resentful and full of revenge. The only ambition that truly gives life is the ambition to serve others—no matter what the cost. O Lord, make us ambitious to serve our neighbor. Amen.

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