September 23, 2018/Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Jeremiah 11:18-20 /Second Reading: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a/Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
When you hear the word AMBITION, what individuals come to mind? Maybe Steve Jobs, who started out building devices in his garage and came to be the head of one of the largest, most successful corporations in the world. Or J.K. Rowling, who was living on welfare as a single mom when she wrote her first book. It was rejected by 12 publishers. However, her Harry Potter series made her the world’s first billionaire author. Some of you are old enough to recall Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Back in 1967 he performed the first human heart transplant – pioneering a procedure that has saved countless lives. Over 30,000 transplants are performed annually in the USA. Billy Mills is a Native American who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Poverty and alcoholism rates run high at Pine Ridge. Mills made it to college at Kansas, where he ran track and cross country. He joined the Marines after college. He tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1964, finishing second in the 10,000 meters. At the Tokyo Olympics, his qualifying times in the preliminary heats were considerably slower than those of world record holder, Ron Clarke, from Australia, so he was thought to have no chance. But, as they reached the final lap of the 10,000 race, it became a three way struggle between Mills, Clarke and a runner from Morocco. With less than half a lap to go, Mills seemed out of it. But in the last 100 meters, he surged with an incredible finishing kick to take the gold medal, setting a new Olympic record – and running 50 seconds faster than he ever had.
Ambition is defined as “a strong desire to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” When it comes to achieving lofty goals, desire and drive count as much – perhaps even more – than talent. Ambitious persons are generally admired. Those who achieve success are richly rewarded. Parents encourage their children to be ambitious. However, our readings today remind us that there can be a downside, even a dark side, to ambition: when it is selfish. James writes this in the Second Reading: “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Ambition that aims solely for personal gain, for wealth and power, can be destructive – both to the person who strives for success, and to those who are used and abused by that person along the way. Ambition is like pride – it comes in both healthy and unhealthy forms. Healthy pride consists in a sense of self-worth, self-respect, and self-confidence. People are proud when they contribute to a successful venture. Unhealthy pride devolves into vanity and arrogance. The arrogant are preoccupied with themselves and look down on others. Healthy ambition moves an individual to work hard and utilize their talents to the max. Unhealthy ambition can be ruthless, materialistic, covetous and manipulative.
Whether or not ambition is healthy and laudable depends to a large extent on our understanding of greatness. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus overhears an argument going on among his disciples. It turns out they where arguing about who among them was the greatest. They were trying to establish a pecking order. Jesus straightens them out in no uncertain terms. He says to them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In the Second Reading James warns against the pitfalls of selfish ambition. Jesus proposes a better way: selfless ambition. Jesus teaches his disciples (and us) what it means to be great in the eyes of God. True greatness is not making it to the top of the heap, but rather caring for those who are at the bottom. Greatness does not consist in achieving a level of status where many are eager to serve you – but in finding ways to be of service to others. The way of godliness does not follow the path of upward mobility, but instead pursues downward mobility, to where the needs are greatest. Just last Sunday we heard Jesus say that the goal of discipleship is not to save your life, but to lose your life for the sake of the gospel. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul sums up the path that Jesus followed, and encourages us to emulate his attitude:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” –Philippians 12
That’s real downward mobility – from heaven to earth, from almighty power to humble servanthood. The real question is: can we see the greatness in Christ’s life – and seek to emulate it? Or, was it great for Jesus – but not so much for us? It is a strange and unexpected ambition to want to be humble and to serve. This world does not see greatness in humility. To be great in the world’s eyes is to achieve fame and fortune, to distinguish yourself from the crowd. Worldly ambition strives for status and material rewards. What does Christian ambition look like? It aims to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Christians are to be about more than praising Christ for his great goodness, and thanking him for all he has done for us. Christians are called to be ambitious about serving, loving, forgiving – following the way of Jesus. What greater ambition can any of us have than to become more like Jesus? Can you name a goal more daunting, more challenging than that? Yet this is precisely our life’s work: to grow up into Christ. Certainly an element of worldly ambition is “to make a name for yourself,” to be recognized and appreciated by many for your achievements. Our primary aim as Christians is to lead lives that are pleasing to God. St. Ambrose said it well: “Anyone who wants more than God as an audience is too ambitious!”
Years ago Muhammad Ali loudly proclaimed: “I am the greatest of all time.” The last election featured the slogan: “Make America Great Again.” What’s needed is clarity on what it truly means to be great. While on vacation this summer Susan and I were at an outdoor café over in Michigan. Our server was wearing a T-shirt that had the message: “Make America Grateful Again.” We both agreed that this was a wise and commendable aspiration. How much better off we all would be if instead of whining and criticizing and arguing – we all took time to be grateful for the blessings we have. We asked the waiter where he got the T-shirt. Turns out, he got it at a Grateful Dead concert! And that was the point of the T-shirt, to celebrate that band. All the same, living in gratitude is a great way to go.
Can we become more ambitious Christians? Can we set aside selfish, self-serving ambition and try for selfless ambition? John the Baptist understood the nature of greatness. None other than Jesus called John the Baptist one of the greatest of God’s prophets. Yet when John met Jesus, his response was this: “He must increase. I must decrease.” That is true spiritual ambition: more of Christ, less of me. I’ve shared many times what Mother Teresa had to say about greatness – yet it bears repeating: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love.” That’s a worthy ambition for us all: each day, make love your aim.