It is election season. I know this because I haven’t seen a commercial for a product in weeks. Instead, I’ve seen commercials for people: Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds and Dave Loebsack. And, because I live on the Iowa-Illinois border, J.B. Pritzker and Bruce Rauner. And I’m ready for it to be over. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the used car dealers.
Now, we are a church and I am your pastor. So let me assure you that I’m not about to get partisan. I’m not about to tell you who I support or who to vote for. But I am going to get political, because it is election season and our reading today is about power. And politics is, at least a little bit, a big conversation about how we distribute and use power.
We’ve heard this story before. In today’s reading, two of the disciples—James and John—approach Jesus with a simple request. Remember that they know that Jesus is the messiah, and they are expecting him to be a certain kind of messiah. They are expecting him to chase the Romans out of Israel, to restore the throne of David, and to rule in glory.
So they ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
They ask, “Make us your second and third in command. Give us power.”
And the other disciples hear the conversation, and they get angry with James and John. Who are these two to be asking about sitting and Jesus’s right and left hand? And I suspect that some of them hear Jesus tell James and John that those seats are reserved, and they think, “One of those seats is reserved for me.”
So Jesus gives them a lesson on power. Jesus teaches them about those seats.
“There are people,” he says, “where he rulers lord it over the people. Their great ones are tyrants.”
And he’s right. We know those people. We know about people—we’ve met people—who abuse the power they have. Sometimes, we are those people.
Kim Jong Un has a lot of power. He abuses it. He starves his people. He is a dictator and a tyrant. The Saudi royal family has a lot of power. They abuse it. They kill journalists who are critical of the regime. They are dictators and tyrants. Vladimir Putin has a lot of power. He abuses it. He murders his enemies, imprisons dissidents, and invades foreign countries. He is a dictator and a tyrant.
But those are big, easy examples. We can think of dozens of others and hundreds that are more petty. Maybe you remember a boss who ruled your office or your workshop or your retail floor with an iron fist. Maybe you remember an office manager who controlled the key to the supply closed like it had nuclear launch codes engraved on it.
There are a few people who have a lot of power. There are many more who have a little power. But there are people at every rung of power who are good at abusing it. We all know those people. Sometimes we are those people.
Earlier this week, when I was struggling a bit with a sermon, I read a different take on the story of the fall of humanity.
You know the story. The first man and the first woman are in the Garden of Eden. They are surrounded by every kind of tree that is pleasing to the eye and good to eat. But there is one tree in the garden that they cannot eat from: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
But there’s this talking snake. And the snake says to them, “If you eat from this tree, you will be like God. Your eyes will be open, you will be wise, and you will know good and evil.”
So they eat. And God knows this. And God sends them away from the garden—with only the clothes on their backs and the promise that God still loves them—into a world that is cursed by their sin.
And it’s hard to understand why God doesn’t want people to have the knowledge of good and evil. And Addie Zierman turned me on to a quote by theologian and pastor Greg Boyd:
“We are not satisfied,” he writes,”being God-like in our capacity to love; we also want to become God-like in our capacity to judge, which is how the serpent tempts us. But in aspiring to the latter, we lose our capacity for the former, for unlike God, we cannot judge and love at the same time. The essence of sin is that we play God. We critically assess and evaluate everything and everyone from our limited, finite, biased perspective.” (end of quote)
We ate from that tree because we wanted to know good and evil. We wanted to be able to look at something or someone and say, “They are good,” or, “they are evil.” We wanted to judge.
And there’s this difference between God and us. God can judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect mercy. We can’t.
So there’s a problem when two disciples turn to Jesus and ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
There’s a problem because there are people whose rulers lord it over them. There are people whose great ones are tyrants. And we are not supposed to be those people.
So Jesus tells them, “Whoever among us wants to be great, must be a servant. Whosever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all.”
And I need to be careful here. There’s a tension. And it’s a tension that I struggle with. On the one hand, Jesus calls us to be servants to each other. We are called to give away what we have and be slaves to all. And we are called to do this because the one who we follow did not come to be served, but to serve; and to give his life as ransom for many.
On the other hand… I know what happens when someone serves others without any concern for themselves; or gives away too much to care for themselves; or walks right into abuse. Giving ourselves up for the sake of others can be an invitation for others to misuse their power. It can diminish us and make us victims. And I’m sure that Jesus wouldn’t ask us to be victims.
Jesus knows who we are. He knows that we see that judgement seat and that we want to sit there. He knows how much we long to look at something or someone and say, “This is good,” or “this is evil.” And he knows that we cannot do that with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect knowledge.
So he tells us, “There are people whose rulers lord it over them, whose great ones are tyrants, whose leaders are bad judges. That isn’t how we do things, because we do not prioritize judgement. We prioritize love. And we prioritize love by serving each other.”
And here’s the amazing thing: that works.
When we prioritize love and service, we can trust each other with power. Because we know that we will not lord our power over each other. We know that we will not rule over offices or workshops or retail floors—or churches—with iron fists. We know that we will not treat the key to the supply closet like it has nuclear launch codes engraved on it.
We know that we will use the power that we have—or, at least, as imperfect as we are, we will try to use the power that we have—to love one another and to serve one another. And we know that the people who we are serving will do the same for us.
Our power does not lie in looking at something or someone and saying, “This is good,” or “this is evil.” It lies in looking at something or someone and asking, “How can I help?”
And I don’t mean that in a foolish way. I don’t mean that we look at tyrants and dictators and ask, “How can I help this person in their tyranny?” I mean that we look at the people who are being hurt or oppressed and ask, “How do I help?”
We look at the person who is being silenced and ask, “How do I help amplify their voice?”
We look at the person who is being beat down and ask, “How do I help them stand up?”
We look at the person who is being pushed out and ask, “How do I help them get in?”
And, yes, we look at tyrants and dictators and ask, “How do I help them grow into the loving people who they were meant to be?”
We look at the brokenness of this world—and it is broken, we are broken, in so many ways—and ask how we can put it back together again.
We do that in this church, and in our homes, and in our workplaces, and, yes, in the voting booth.
It is election season. We are a church and I am your pastor. And I’m not about to get partisan. I’m not going to tell you who I support or who to vote for.
But I will ask you to do this. When you are thinking about your vote, knowing that we are all imperfect, ask this question: who is going to love, who is going to serve, who is going to prioritize love over judgement?
Who is going to bring good news to the poor? Who is going to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind? Who is going to let the oppressed go free and declare a time of the Lord’s favor?
Who is going to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty? Who will welcome the stranger and clothe the naked? Who will care for the sick and visit the prisoner?
Because I will tell you, we do not need more judges in power. We do not need more people who will look at this world and say, “This is good and this is evil.”
We need more people who will look at this world and ask, in humility, how we can love it better.
That is the work of leadership. And it begins with us.