Clergy meetings are be interesting things. You get a bunch of pastors in a room together, and strange things can happen. If you had to picture what a group of pastors meeting together would look like, what would you see….? I think most people expect clergy meetings to be extremely calm and always on point, with the pastors who are gathered talking about Scripture and holy things with reverence and insightfulness. You might be imagine all of us holy and unperturbed, thinking deeply.
And sometimes, that does happen. I’ve been to clergy gatherings where the discussion about God and the Bible was so good, it changed my sermon for that week and even my faith.
But many times, the pastors at clergy meetings have a tendency, either consciously or subconsciously, to try to one-up each other. And the conversations can go something like this:
“My congregation is using a brand new Sunday School curriculum that is bringing in children and young families in droves!”
“Well, my congregation is renovating the sanctuary so that 200 more people can attend worship!”
“At our congregation, we are starting a soup kitchen, so we can connect with the community and feed people with food AND God’s Word!”
It does happen. And pastors can get jealous when another pastor has something amazing going on at their congregation. They begin to wish that they could be the pastor at that other congregation. It’s called “pulpit envy,” I kid you not.
In a clergy meeting that happened a few years ago, a congregation that put up a new sign was the talk of the group. Other pastors wondered how this congregation managed to get such a great looking sign up when they themselves had to deal with so many restrictions from the town while trying to erect their own sign.
…The next day, someone from the town board visited this congregation to “discuss” the new sign and the town regulations regarding such a sign. Coincidence?! Perhaps. But the truth remains—pastors are not immune to jealousy and competition that we all feel sometimes.
This issue has existed in the human race for thousands of years. How do we know this? Let’s take a look at our Gospel reading for today.
“They came to Capernaum, and after going indoors Jesus asked his disciples. ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they would not answer him, because on the road they had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest.”
“They had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest.”
I think we all can relate to that. I don’t mean to say that we sit next to each other and go, “I’m the best!”, “No, I’m the best!” “No, I am!!” But we have this drive to always be the best, the most successful, the one with the biggest house, the most money, the one with the smartest kids.
And some ambition is good, right? We want to do things, be good at things. We want to be good at our jobs, get compliments from our bosses when we do a project well. Without ambition, we wouldn’t get anything done. We’d sit on our couches all the time, passively watching the TV, eating potato chips, wondering—why should we get up and do something??
But TOO MUCH ambition is not a good thing. When ambition becomes what drives a person, that’s a huge problem. And the disciples know this. They knew Jesus wouldn’t like their argument about who’s the best. When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about, what do they do….??
Yeah, they shut up. Because they know that Jesus wouldn’t like their excessive ambition. And Jesus tells them that what they are arguing about is the opposite of what they should be doing; he says “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be servant of all.”
And I think this text is very appropriate to our lives here in Clarence Center. We may not argue verbally about who’s the best all the time, but we act it out. We are expected to compete with co-workers at our jobs on a regular basis. We climb the corporate ladder as quickly as we can, so we can make the most money we can. We may build or buy bigger and bigger houses, we buy new cars before we probably need to.
For example, one of my neighbors in Clarence Center has a big house with a pool and a commercial-grade playground in their backyard. They actually built a bigger house across the way, and moved into that house a month or so ago. And they are still trying to sell their old house. Anyone want to be our neighbors…? I warn you, you may get sticker shock!
And the younger folks in our families aren’t immune to this. We put signs on our cars that proclaim our kids’ accomplishments (“My kid is an honors student at ‘insert school name here’”). Our kids are expected to take as many advanced classes as possible and get involved in many extracurricular activities so that they can get into the best possible college or university. And when they manage to do that, we replace the honors student sticker with one that proclaims which high-powered university they attend.
And because we are expected to live this way at our jobs and schools and in our family life, this over ambitiousness begins to inform our whole lives. We begin to make success an idol. If something isn’t going to further our future in some way, it’s seen as a failure and not worth our time.
And where does this over ambitiousness come from? Well, I’m sure we could analyze social norms and make charts and stuff, but at least one of the places it comes from is in our passage from today. Let’s back-up and read what it says BEFORE they start arguing about who is the greatest.
It says: “But they (that’s the disciples) did not understand what this teaching meant, and they were afraid to ask him.”
So Jesus is telling the disciples about how the Son of Man will be killed and then be resurrected three days later. That’s quite a statement! But the disciples don’t understand, and they are too afraid to ask Jesus what all that means.
And right after they don’t get it and are scared to ask Jesus about it, they are arguing with each other about who is the greatest. It’s not a coincidence that one follows the other.
I think a lot of our obsession to be the best comes from the fact that we are too scared to admit that we don’t have all the answers—and we are afraid to ask God the tough questions about things we don’t understand.
The thing is, though, God wants us to ask questions. God wants us to have an active faith, where we struggle with things we don’t understand and talk about it. Jesus has conversations with people in the Bible all the time, when they ask tough questions!
One of the big examples is in John chapter three, when Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders, and he came to ask Jesus questions on topics about faith that he had been struggling with, and Jesus talks with him and has a conversation. And Nicodemus is better for it—he ends up being one of the people who anoints Jesus body after the crucifixion and lays him in the tomb. His faith in Jesus became stronger because he struggled with those tough questions with Jesus.
When we are Christians who go to church, I think we assume we are supposed to have all the answers. But, that’s not the case! One of the great things about our faith is that we can ask questions and talk things out with others. That’s why group Bible studies and learning times like what we have on Sundays mornings and other opportunities during the week are great! Because we can talk and ask questions as grow in our faith together. (Shameless plug time—check your Mission Minutes for all of the ways you can join others in asking questions and growing in your faith!)
And like Nicodemus, when we struggle with those tough faith questions with each other and with Jesus, we are better for it. Our faith becomes stronger because we are active in our faith, thinking about it and learning to live it. And as we ask those tough questions, God is in the middle of our struggles, many times answering our questions directly or through other people.
In promotion materials for the Alpha Course, the introduction to Christianity class that we at Zion have offered before and are planning to offer again this spring, there is this one query:
“If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?”
So now, I invite you to think about that. Take some time today when you go home. Try asking God that question about something you’re struggling with. God wants to hear your questions, wants to be in that struggle with you. Bring it to God. And you may be surprised at how asking those tough questions of God can free you and help you grow in your faith. Amen.