October 21st, 2018
How Do You Define Success?
How do you define success? I think it is a good question. For some it is the accumulation of wealth and prestige. For others it is making sure that the kids are taken care of and successful. For others, who have had setback in life, it might be a new job or being cancer free for five years or reconciliation with family. Whatever it is there is a sense that as humans we pursue goals and there is something healthy about that.
That said, there is something about our faith which perpetually challenges our assumptions and how we define success is no exception. We see this throughout our scriptures this morning and I would like to draw our attention to Job and to the gospel. I have been working through the various pieces of scriptural Wisdom literature these past number of months. Looking at those books I often overlook, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes amongst others. Presently I am working through Job and what I like about Wisdom literature is that unlike the other parts of scripture where God acts and we respond, in this genre questions get asked and wrestled with. Job really looks at the question of unjust and needless suffering. In today’s passage God gives an answer. In response to the injustice done his servant Job, God responds to by asking him if he was there when the world began and reminding Job of the greatness of God. So God’s answer is that Job should know his place and that he is not the creator, a reemphasis of a theme throughout Job that the beginning of wisdom is the fear (or respect) of the Lord. So what we hear here, from the perspective of success (which where we began) is that, success is knowing the ways of God and not our own personal achievements and accomplishments. This theme is built upon in the gospel where we have an argument amongst the followers of Jesus. The brothers James and John ask to sit on the right hand and the left of Jesus. The other disciples get word of this and rebuke them. This is not the disciples at their finest. They still have not come to the understanding of the suffering Jesus is to go through. They expect him to be great so they want influence. The wider disciples get mad at James and John not because they have missed the core of Jesus’ message but rather because they want to be on the right and left. Interestingly, Jesus does not rebuke the disciples here but rather gives guidance. He says yes they will experience what he will, that is the baptism of his death (referring to their martyrdom) but then he also speaks of the kingdom values. That is the first shall be last and the last shall be first. This picks up on a consistent theme of Jesus, which I think is found so beautifully in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-13) where Jesus lifts up those who mourn and suffer, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and the poor in spirit. Not attributes we naturally are drawn to and certainly not what we think of success as. What Jesus is doing in today’s gospel is building upon his teachings and saying success is not what you typically think it is but is rather the first being last and the last being first.
So we have the gospel ideal and we set it against the lives that we lead and there is a disconnect. We all do have our goals, some may be a little more altruistic than others but there is a sense that within them there is a sense that they are self-serving. Where does this leave us then? I think first we need to recognize the disconnect, that our values are not always the kingdom values that God calls us to. I think we also should see, within this, there is a sense that life with its successes and failures is a reminder that it is not simply a series of wins until we die but rather that within the fabric of our lives we see moments and glimpses which take us beyond our own concerns and makes us truly understand that indeed God does have a way of guiding us. Guiding us like he guided James and John, in such a way that the gospel values of success start to become apparent in ways which were once foreign to us and where that inward working of the Spirit brings some clarity of what it means for the last to be first. This is why our faith is always a work in progress because even in our belief we do miss things. We miss the life God has called us to and we do get consumed by the cares of the world. What is wonderful about this gospel is how Jesus recognizes where his disciples are at, does not admonish them but makes it clear to them that their vision of what Jesus was about would evolve into a deeper understanding. I think the same is true for us, we still have those ways in which we strive but if we truly live in faith we will start to see and that value which espouses, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. I think that is one of the wonderful things about faith, that God walks with us gently in such a way that we grow in our faith and grow with each other into the fullness of the life God has called us to.
So for that gift of faith, thanks be to God. Amen.