by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The Promised One has come not to be served but to serve—….” — Mark 10:43a-45. 
Please bear with me. I am about to share two very personal stories concerning my family background. I have used them before. But my intent is to frame them in a different context. (Slight pause.)
Well, I have often mentioned my mother died at a relatively early age. She was only 58. I was 35. She had cancer of the bladder which, even back when she died in 1983, was fatal only 10% of the time. She simply was on the wrong side of the bracket when it came to those odds.
Here’s some background about my family you need to know for the story I will tell. I am the first of three children. I have a brother, 14 months younger than I am and a sister who is 4 years younger.
Not long before Mom died I had a conversation with her which I think was cathartic. My judgment is she wanted to, she felt had to say this to someone. For a number of reasons, reasons which I shall get to later, I was the one with whom she had this discussion.
Here’s some more context: my mother was the youngest in her family, raised by a single mother in the 1920s and 1930s. She had one sibling who was much older.
As a single parent, her mother worked and was absent a lot. My mother, in fact, told me tales of being what today is called a latchkey child and this was back in the 20s and 30s.
I suspect one result of her family situation was she had no role models when it came to having and raising her own children. And so, in the course of this chat my mother described her three children in this way.
She labeled me, her firstborn, as her experiment. She had never really raising a child up close, so I was her experiment. She then said my brother was her baby and my sister was her plaything, her enjoyment.
I need to be clear. I am not saying any of that was good or even healthy. I am simply offering, repeating her description of her children. I am convinced she was trying to explain how she related to us, how she recognized us as different, as individuals.
In a real sense what she said illustrates how much she loved each of us. And she loved each of us both differently and deeply. (Slight pause.)
Well, please bear with me. The next thing I want to say is also something very personal about my family background. And I have mentioned this here before.
When I was about five years old my father had what was called in the terms used back in the early 1950s a nervous breakdown. Today we would have recognized this as the onset of a mental illness known as Passive Dependency or Passive Aggression.
One of the consequences of that was as the next oldest male— again, we are looking at a different era, the early 50s— as the next oldest male, family members looked to me for leadership. Or at least they invested me with and groomed me for that role.
I could tell you tales about how that happened and what it looked like. Suffice it to say my mother chose to have the aforementioned conversation with me and that should be a good illustration of my place in that family structure.
But illustrating my place in that structure is not the point. More to the point is in that family structure I clearly was fulfilling a leadership role, and that was true by the time I was in my early teens.
I also need to be clear about this: I am not saying any of that was good or even healthy when it comes to family dynamics. I am simply offering these stories to illustrate two aspects of family dynamics not just in my family but in any family.
One aspect of these dynamics could be labeled as relationship— that story of my mother and her children. A second aspect of these dynamics could be labeled as structure. And in that structure leadership was craved. Again, this is not just any family. Relationship and structure are present in all families, in fact in any organization.
That opens a classic question. The question is not ‘Which is more important, relationship or structure?’ since structure and relationship are givens. The question is ‘Which will be the driving force in any family, in any group, in any institution— relationship or structure? (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Mark. “Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The Promised One has come not to be served but to serve—….” (Slight pause.)
There are three scenes in this reading. First, there is the request of James and John for prominent spots in the Dominion. There is also the anger expressed by the other disciples at the audaciousness of the request. Last we have Jesus. (Quote:) “Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest;….”
Please note, Jesus does not rebuke the brothers. We might want to— not Jesus. And yes, Jesus also confronts them with reality.
And then there is anger on the part of the other disciples. It’s likely this reflects jealousy rather than indignation. Jealousy about the structure.
Again, Jesus resists a rebuke. Jesus instead uses the pagan authorities as models of how to not exercise leadership. And Jesus does it again: confronts with reality.
You see, in a choice between structure and relationship, the criterion for leadership is not the effectiveness of structure, who gets the job done the quickest, who has the better program. Rather, in the Dominion of God we are called to be faithful.
The text even admits faithfulness as a style of leadership and a style of life runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of that day and I would suggest it runs counter to the prevailing wisdom we have today since effectiveness, speed and programs are highly valued. This, therefore, may not make much sense to those whose eyes are stuck on effectiveness, speed and programs. These all consider the bottom line… but these go no further than the bottom line.
In the Dominion of God the needs of people, how service can be rendered to meet those needs are vital. Priority is given to relationships. (Slight pause.)
I want to go back to the earlier discussion about my family. Clearly there was a structure. But the problem with that structure was not even the fact that I was young when the family turned to me.
The problem with that structure is my family was not looking for a leader. The problem of any structure which does not rely on relationship is that structure— effectiveness, speed, programs— structure simply searches for a hero. A structure tries to find fixes, tries to find someone to fix things. Structure searches for a hero.
Let me substitute a theological term for the word hero. People look for a savior. Jesus did not have a hero complex. In fact what makes Jesus Savior is a willingness to be a servant.
The reason we call Jesus Savior is there is a willingness displayed in the Christ to say we are in this together. The reason we call Jesus Savior is there is a willingness displayed in the Christ to say we need to support one another.
The reason we call Jesus Savior is there is a willingness displayed in the Christ to explore relationship. The reason we call Jesus Savior is there is a willingness displayed in the Christ to be in relationship. The reason we call Jesus Savior is there is a willingness displayed in the Christ to not be served but to serve. (Slight pause.)
One more observation— did James and John and the disciples completely miss the point of the preaching of Jesus? Did they completely miss the point when Jesus put the little child in their midst?
Did they completely miss the point when Jesus blessed the group of children who otherwise seemed a nuisance? Did they completely miss the point when Jesus spoke to the rich man about the need to break with possessions?
My answer which might surprise some is ‘no,’ they did not miss the point. Rather, they willfully ignored the point. Why?
You see, we are human. We are imperfect and in our imperfection we believe structure is perfect. We believe structure— the very thought of which gives us great comfort— we believe structure will be a solution for everything. And we, therefore, do seek the comfort of structure rather than the haphazardness of relationship. But relationship is what Jesus relies on.
Relationship is what Jesus teaches, and perhaps more importantly acts out. Jesus teaches and acts out relationship with God and one another. And you know what that is— relationship with God and with one another— you know what that is, right? Yes— here comes that word again: covenant. Covenant— it’s about relationship. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Tell me, how often have you heard people chant, ‘We’re number one?’ A lot, right? How often have you heard people chant, ‘We’re all in this together.’ Never, right? But that’s what sound leadership is about. It recognizes that we are all one, that we are all in this together. You’ve heard of a three legged race where two partners need to cooperate? And believe me, just two people cooperating is hard to do. Well, church is a thousand legged race were everyone needs to cooperate. And that is really hard since what it actually says is everyone needs to be a leader just like everyone else is a leader and everyone needs to serve one another.”
BENEDICTION: There is a cost and there is a joy in discipleship. There is a cost and there is a joy in truly being church, in deeply loving one another. May the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.
 This was the Gospel reading and the translation used.
Mark 10:35-45 [ILV] ~ The Gospel makes a point like this quite often, so the sentiment addressed by this passage was probably a truth found in the communities of the early church: any kind of power structure was not welcome. Hear now this reading from the Gospel we have come to know as Mark’s.
 The Children of Zebedee, James and John, approached Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to grant our request.”
 “What is it?” Jesus asked.
 They replied, “Grant to us that we sit next to you, one at your right and one at your left, when you come into your glory.”
 But Jesus told them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I will drink or be baptized in the same baptism with which I am baptized?”
 “We can,” they replied.
Jesus said in response, “The cup I drink you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will share;  but as for sitting at my right or at my left, that is not mine to grant; it is for those for whom it has been reserved.”
 The other ten, on hearing about this, began to be indignant with James and John.
 So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that among the Gentiles, those whom exercise authority, those who are domineering and arrogant, those who are perceived to be ‘great ones,’ they know how to make their own importance felt.  But it cannot be like that with you. Anyone among you who wishes to aspire to greatness must serve the rest;  whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.  The Promised One has come not to be served but to serve— to give one life in ransom for the many.”