Where’s Your Ambition?

October 17, 2021

Mark 10:35-45

James and John are ambitious and demanding in the gospel lesson this morning. They are bold and direct. They come right out and ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left in his glory. This is great, they are acknowledging who Jesus is. However, they seem to be stepping outside of their bounds just a little. Jesus does not tell them no, but he does say it is not his choice to make. It will not be easy, but you must become a servant and slave to all. Jesus could be speaking about himself here as he is the ultimate servant leader and has come to liberate God’s people. This is Jesus’ mission, and he turns preconceived notions upside down.

While James and John are ambitious in a self-centered way, it does not mean ambition in and of itself is bad. We can find many stories of ambition which drove individuals to success.

  • Many of you know who Stephen King is. He is a writer who has sold millions of books and many have been made into movies. However, it took him being rejected 60 times before he finally sold his first short story for $35.  
  • How about Steve Jobs? The idea of starting a computer company with Steve Wozniak after dropping out of college in their garage no less. Look at where Apple is today, and I am sure that more than half of us own one of their products. Jobs’ continued ambition led to constant innovation and success.
  • Who doesn’t love Kentucky Fried Chicken? Colonel Harland Sanders didn’t start selling his chicken until he was forty and took ten more years to perfect it as he served it from his roadside gas station out of his personal living quarters attached to the station.
  • Dorothy Day was ambitious as a journalist and true to her faith as she fought for those underserved. She co-founded the Catholic Worker Newspaper, and houses were created in her name throughout the country to support the homeless and oppressed. Her ambition served those in society who were being overlooked.
  • Let’s not forget Martin Luther. If Luther was not ambitious in posting his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, we would most likely not be here as Lutherans. His ambitions in writing and sharing the Good News result in over sixty-five volumes of his work, not counting translating the Bible into German.

Ambition led these people to great success in their fields and we know them all by name. However, one could question their ambition, whether it was personal, and how they affected the common good. For sure, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther were living out a calling to serve the people.

Without ambition, we can fall into complacency. A level of comfort where we do not want to rock the boat. This can lead to apathy where we have a lack of enthusiasm or concern. These past months have made it easy to fall into this realm as life has seemed to pause and now, we are trying to give it a jumpstart.  

This time has also created a greater sense of me-culture. What is in it for me? Similar to what James and John were thinking when they approached Jesus. They thought it would be great to sit in a place of prominence with Jesus. Who does not want to be right next to the leader who has power and authority? However, Jesus must once again remind them he does things differently. Jesus is redefining what it means to be the Messiah, have greatness, what power looks like, and God’s mission in the world.

Mission in the world is what Jesus is called to as he is also of the world. Jesus calls God’s people to the same mission and he leads by example. Are we following Jesus by being less concerned about where we are and instead focusing on what it means to love our neighbors? Are we living out our mission or just maintaining our place in the community? A mission oriented church looks much different from a maintenance oriented church. For example:

  • When thinking about change, the majority of members in a maintenance congregation ask, “How will this affect me?” The majority of members in the mission congregation ask, “Will this increase our ability to reach those outside?”
  • When thinking of its vision for ministry, the maintenance congregation says, “We have to be faithful to our past.” The mission congregation says, “We have to be faithful to our future.”
  • The maintenance congregation seeks to avoid conflict at any cost (but rarely succeeds). The mission congregation understands that conflict is the price of progress, and is willing to pay the price. It understands that it cannot take everyone with it. This causes some grief, but it does not keep it from doing what needs to be done.
  • The leadership style in the maintenance congregation is primarily managerial, where leaders try to keep everything in order and running smoothly. The leadership style in a mission congregation is primarily transformational, casting a vision of what can be, and marching off the map in order to bring the vision into reality.
  • The maintenance congregation looks at the community and asks, How can we get these people to support our congregation?” The mission congregation asks, “How can the Church support these people?
  • The maintenance congregation thinks about how to save their congregation. The mission congregation thinks about how to reach the world.[1]

I would say Trinity is currently spread out on the spectrum in these areas. There is a sense of wanting to maintain, but there is a desire in many to move forward. Within this next month or two, Trinity is launching the free food pantry and a care closet at the middle school. These are in response to listening to the needs of the community. Over the years, Trinity has used many programs to discover the needs of the community, such as the LEAD program which came to an abrupt halt as we entered into the pandemic. These past few weeks we have been exploring more what it looks like to Thrive Beyond COVID. These have been rich conversations with some great ideas emerging.

Jesus calls us to live out our mission. At Trinity, the current Mission statement is, Called to Celebrate God’s Word together and open our arms in service to all. By living out this mission, you are living out the mission God is calling you to as a congregation. When ambition meets mission, great change can happen.

Ambition can be a great thing. It can also lead us into dark places when our mind is focused on something other than the divine. James and John were focused on themselves and their standing in the kingdom to come. They had taken their eyes off from Jesus’ teaching and did not leave room for the Spirit to work. When focused on Christ, ambition calls us to mission. A mission modeled on Jesus. A mission of service and caring for the neighbor and stranger alike. While maintenance is a good thing and it keeps the current state operational, mission calls us into the mysterious where God is calling us to ventures unknown. May you be ambitious in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and serving with love. For it is in Jesus, we were first served.

[1] Brian Stoffregen. Crossmarks Christian Resources (www.crossmarks.com). Commentary on Mark 10:35-45

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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