Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL Matthew 20:20-28
September 2, 2018
Rev. Sean Weston
“Showing Another Way” Philippians 3:17-4:1
The late U.S. Senator John McCain, whose funeral took place on Friday, spent over five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was tortured mercilessly; such that other prisoners were sure he would die. After a few months, weighing just 100 pounds, he was brought to the head of the prison, where he was offered release. Once they realized McCain’s faith was a top-ranking officer in the Navy, they wanted to look good and merciful by letting him go.
McCain refused. The U.S. Military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured. Others had been at the prison for much longer. Enraged at his refusal, they beat him up again. Then he spent four more years in prison before his release.
If you’ve paid attention to U.S. political culture for long enough, you’ve probably heard some version of that story over and over again. But stop and try to imagine that moment: try to imagine getting offered freedom and turning it down. I talked about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs last week, and the vital importance those most basic needs of food, shelter, and security. Imagine how loudly your self-interest, that basic human need for survival, would be screaming at you. And yet, he refused. The Code mattered. The morale of his fellow prisoners mattered. Fairness mattered. It mattered enough to refuse freedom – at least the physical kind of freedom. I wonder if there isn’t a deeper freedom he found that day.
By his own admission, McCain entered into his military service as a profoundly selfish and immature person. He would almost certainly have been kicked out if his father and grandfather hasn’t been towering, powerful legends. He had a horrible temper and treated people – especially women – quite poorly. You can read about this in his book. And there are some that say even his refusal to be released was a selfish act, because his violation of military code could have ended his career. I’ll be the first to say that I disagreed sharply with most of McCain’s politics. But that doesn’t give me or anyone license to malign his motives in making a decision I can’t begin to imagine. I don’t think those of us who haven’t been tortured can begin to imagine how hard it would be to refuse release. Whoever he was before, his decision cannot be called selfish. He had discovered something beyond himself. Something worth great sacrifice.
“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus along with her sons. Bowing before him, she asked a favor of him. “What do you want?” he asked.
She responded, “Say that these two sons of mine will sit, one on your right hand and one on your left, in your kingdom.” Like any good mother, she wanted to be sure that her sons would do well in life. Like many, she seemed still to think that Jesus was going to become an earthly king and her sons had been quite loyal to him and so she was making sure they would get their due. It’s not really too different from all the people who want jobs when politicians take office. What’s wrong with wanting to secure your place, after all?
Jesus replied, “you don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink from the cup I’m about to drink from?” Perhaps still thinking the cup to be a cup of glory and power and authority, they said to him “we can.” “Sure, Jesus, we’ve got what it takes.”
I imagine Jesus sighing: “you just don’t get it, do you.” At this point the other 10 disciples were angry with the sons of Zebedee. How dare they try and get the high positions next to Jesus? What made them any more deserving than anyone else? I hear this story and imagine arguments about who gets to play with a toy first; I hear echoes of a President enraged that a deceased Senator is getting good press. I hear twelve young men wanting to make sure they wouldn’t be left behind.
At this point, Jesus sighs again, and gathers them around him. “You’re missing the point. This movement, this community is not about protecting your own status. It’s not about getting to do whatever you want. It’s not about making sure you’re first in line. Yes, that’s what the political rulers are like. That’s what you’ve seen at school and at work all the time. But it shouldn’t be that way with you – with us. Here, we live not for ourselves but for one another, for the community. That’s the best way to make sure you’re okay. “Whoever wants to be great,” Jesus says, will look beyond themselves. It’s not about “me” here. It’s about “us.” That’s why I’m here in the first place: to give my life to set everybody free. It’s not about me. It’s about us.
We do not live in a culture prepared to hear these words. This is seen perhaps most clearly in the reality that the current leader of this nation, Donald Trump, is notoriously concerned only for himself and his image. His power. His authority. His wealth. His media coverage. What he did. What he will do. He seeks to destroy anybody or anything in his way. As far as I can tell, he has no real concept of “us.” It’s all “me.” He has no sense of what it means to look out for the wellbeing of others. It is no wonder that he is famously enraged by recent coverage of John McCain. Every time someone speaks of McCain’s principles, his sacrifices, his commitment to the common good, we are reminded that we have no such things from the current President, someone who has said McCain was no war hero because he got captured, leading me to wonder what he thinks of a man named Jesus who was captured and killed for others.
It’s easy to point to Trump, and indeed he provides enough material for a lifetime of studying self-centeredness. But he is simply an extreme example of a common way of seeing the world: it’s all about me. He wouldn’t have the power he did if he didn’t tap into something deep – something I think is deep in us all.
But that is not how it is to be among we who wish to follow Jesus. That is not the path we are to take, tempting as it often is. As Paul wrote to the church in a place called Philippi, “There are many out there taking other paths, choosing other goals, and trying to get you to go along with them. I’ve warned you of them many times; sadly, I’m having to do it again. All they want is easy street. They hate Christ’s cross. But easy street is a dead-end street. Those who live there make their bellies their gods; belches are their praise; all they can think of is their appetites.”
There is another way, Paul says. “There’s far more to life for us.” Where others are proud of their citizenship status as Romans, we’re citizens of high heaven. Where others wait for the arrival of the emperor in his power and might, we await the arrival of the Savior, Jesus Christ, who as we speak is putting everything as it should be. He’ll make us beautiful and whole.
“There’s far more to life for us.” Us.
It may seem like easy street is the place to be. It may seem that greatness is found by securing your own place in the front of the line. But there is far more to life for us, if we can learn that the best way for me to have what I need is for all of us to have what we need. True life is found when we look for what is best not just for ourselves, not just for the people we like, but for the whole community, the whole nation, the whole world. Commitment to the common good.
That commitment led John McCain to refuse freedom for himself, to seek the good of the whole. That commitment led followers of Jesus to give up everything to start communities of faith that focused on we rather than me. That commitment is what makes for greatness.
In a selfish and suffering world, a better way is desperately needed. May we be among those who show that better way. For along that path there is true life. Amen.
 This is a creative presentation of Matthew 20:20-28. Not every quotation is directly from scripture. They are designed to capture my sense of the dialogue and motivations of the characters.