Livestronger: Lance, Jesus, the Fame Monster, and Glory

Livestronger: Lance, Jesus, the Fame Monster and Glory

October 18, 2012

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in East Longmeadow joint service with East Longmeadow United Methodist Church

“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptize; but to sit at my right hand or at my left hand is not mine to grant, but it is for those whom it has been prepared.’

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” ~ Mark 10:35-45









When it was good, it was very, very good. In cycling lore, it’s known as “the Look.” By 2001, Lance Armstrong had already won the Tour de France twice, and beaten testicular cancer. But he was not yet won seven. And cycling was not yet a well-known sport. In 2001, 10 days into a month of racing, the competitors turned to the mountains.  The route up L’Alpe d’Huez forced the riders to go through 21 switchbacks over 120 miles to ascend the mountain. Over his years of training, Lance had learned to keep his facial expression still. No pain, no emotion. And no way for other teams to read how Lance was doing. But on that day, Lance looked off, strained, tired. The whole day, Lance stayed towards the back and the German 1997 winner Jans Ullrich lead. The cyclists at the front of the pack work harder while those in the back can draft. The cyclists had been in the saddle for hours and still were only half a wheel apart. But when Lance’s US Postal Service Jose Luis Rubiera took off, Ullrich knew something was wrong. Rubiera led, Lance followed, and took the lead. And then came “the Look.” Out of the saddle and up on his pedals, Lance turned his head and looked back at Ullrich. Three, four, five seconds he held the stare. Lance turned his head, focused on the road and took off. And then off to lead and ultimately win the stage 1:59m ahead of Ullrich. And win 2001 Tour and 7 Tours, becoming one of the most dominant athletes in the history of cycling. Lance made for beautiful television and inspiration. When it was good, it was very very good. And then it got bad.

Let us pray…

You know you’ve made it big when you can get by on just one name and we all know who you are talking about: Barack, Mitt, Oprah, Ellen, Gaga, Polycarp, Pedro, Pele, Lance, Jesus. James and John want their name in lights.

These two brothers come to Jesus, sort of corner him when they’ve got some time alone. The Gospel writer Mark here identifies them as ‘sons of Zebedee.’ But elsewhere in the Gospels James and John are nicknamed “sons of Thunder,” and Lord knows you don’t get a nickname like that based on your subtlety. “Sons of light morning mist” or “sons of gentle breeze,” they were not. You know people like this- where the filter is off and they just say what they are thinking, sometimes actually say out loud what everyone is thinking.  James and John get Jesus alone and say to him “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory.” Jesus, when you win the race and climb up the podium, we want you to give us the silver and bronze.  We want the good seats. We’ll meet you at the finish line. And we’ll bring the champagne. Have a good race.

James and John’s naked ambition is a bit like our exposed super-ego. Want, want, want. Jesus, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.  We want power. We want fame. One commentator called them, the “Sons of Entitlement.” I want because it’s owed to me. I want even if it isn’t owed to me. Richard Rohr’s recent book on the spiritual and the twelve steps is designed for everyone, not just the sober and the drunk. Rohr’s argument is that all of us live in a culture of addiction. We want, want, want. James and John are not separate from us. They are us. Maybe more so, maybe more brazen.  But they are asking the things that we might be too polite to say: I want. And really, if asked honestly, I want to stand in glory without the hardship to get there.

Now there’s nothing wrong with getting clear on what you want. But the discipline of the Christian life is checking that want against the model of Christ. “whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all.” The Good News is this: Jesus meets our desire, even our unhealthy desires, with compassion. When James and John are behaving badly, Jesus doesn’t scold, but asks to hear more. Jesus asks, “what is it that you want me to do for you?” and then he explains.  “annoyingly patient” in the words of one commentator.

The United Church of Christ pastor and writer Lillian Daniels has said, “Anyone can find God alone on a picturesque mountaintop, the hiking trail, or the sunset. The miracle is that I can find God in the company of other people who are just as annoying as I am.” Here, Jesus gives us the model for tending the people who are just as annoying as James and John. James and John do a bit of what we all want- asking for what they want without the filter.

James and John don’t want glory, they want fame.

The Fame Monster is not just the title of the 2009 Lady Gaga album. The Fame Monster is an ancient idea from the Roman poet Virgil.  For the ancient Romans, Fama was the goddess who offered renown. She begins small and fearful, but grows larger and more menacing and the rumors grow.  When she was angry, she spread rumors. The poet Virgil paints the picture of the fame monster as a giant winged creature that lurked above the city, stepping from building to building. She lives in a home with 1,000 windows so she can always hear what is going on. She is made entirely of wings, feathers, eyes and tongues. As the wings rustle and she makes her way across the city, secrets and rumors float to the city below. Not thunder- whispers, rumors. She repeats, and repeats. She pries information out of the mortals and whispers it above the cities again and again until it floats down to the celebrity-watchers below. Fama is seductive, compelling- and she never sleeps. In Virgil’s words, she “had her feet on the ground, and her head in the clouds, making the small seem great and the great seem greater.”

James and John are great. They want to be greater.

But Fame is not what we get from following Jesus. We are offered glory, something lasting, something eternal. Something more lasting than the quick rumors the Fame Monster scatters over the city. The glory that Jesus offers his followers is different than fame and worldly renown. Fame is a monster to be continually fed. Glory grows among the nameless and the humble. Glory is not a monster, but a servant.

By this point, the other disciples have come over and realize that James and John are angling for their own benefit, looking for a shortcut to Jerusalem. And the ten are angry. James and John are trying to call “shot-gun” on the disciples’ tour bus, as if there are only one or two special seats. But the math of heaven doesn’t work like that.  For Christians, there is not just one front seat, but all the seats are front seats.  More than that, the good seats are for those who are servants. The good seats are not earned by fame but my service. Shoot, the good seats aren’t earned! When Jesus calls the disciples together he says “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all.”

Jesus looks out at their current political system and says “not that.” In the Greek, it is even possible that Jesus is being ironic- he’s not just talking about the “rulers” but “those who seem to be rulers” or those “so-called rulers.” For those rulers, their power is held by keeping others down. Jesus says, we’re going to lead differently, we’re going to work differently together. Our great ones are not going to be great by force and might; Our great ones will be a servant.

For those of us who love cycling, this is why the downfall of Lance Armstrong is so heartbreaking and crazy-making. Perhaps more than anyone in recent history, Lance moved cycling from being this weird, niche sport to something that many people knew about. At his best, Lance inspired people to get on their own bikes. At his best, Lance was the warrior who beat back the cancer monster. But as the documents and testimony of teammates finally all came out, Lance was also a ruler of the US Postal Service Cycling Team that lorded it over his teammates. Teammate after teammate tells of being pressured and forced into the team discipline of doping and secrecy. These other cyclists who considered themselves disciples of Lance were told that if they wanted greatness, they had to come under Lance’s discipline- and that included taking drugs, blood doping, lying and cheating. This week, at the US Olympic Cycling training center, a maintenance worker was seen scraping a quote from Lance off of the wall. Lance had said, “I was sure to come under attack from my adversaries, but what they didn’t know was how specifically and hard I had trained for this part of the race. It was time to show them.” The fame was fleeting. But the fame was so thorough that it slipped into our vocabulary. Someone who was far and away the best at what they did was dubbed Lance. You could have “the Lance Armstrong of needlepoint.” Never say, “the Jesus Christ of needlepoint.”

Because everything that we have as a culture is set up against the kind of servanthood and glory that Jesus asks of us. Neither Mitt nor Obama would be elected if they advocated for servanthood and self-sacrifice. (and while neither candidate has seriously addressed the issue of poverty during the debates, you can view the National Council of Churches effort to record their views here.) No corporation would be guided by the belief that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” But this is why we need the Church. This is why we need your churches as a witness to another way of being. The Fame Monster is so powerful in our culture of addiction. Your witness as a Christian to a different way of living is what allows others to imagine another way of being. Your unique, small life of servanthood, of mundane visits to 3 grade choir concerts and nursing homes, meeting anger with compassion, of meeting shortcuts and fame-seekers with patience is the counter-image to the fame monster and culture of domination. Your unique, patient, compassionate witness of Servanthood in this corner of the planet is the image of Christ.

The pictures are terrifying and strange. Bald men in track jackets lurch towards her, pulling her oversized sweatshirt. A tall, thin young woman, her hair blowing back as she moves forward is at the center. Her eyes look ahead, not to the men grabbing at her clothing. And even now, looking back through the grainy photographs of our history to 45 years earlier, you can still see clearly the paper number pinned to her chest: 261. “Give me those numbers and get the hell out of my race!” he yelled at her. Glory and servanthood go against every one of our instincts for power and fame. You want glory? Glory is not sitting on the throne at Jesus’ right hand. Glory is not 7 Tour de France victories at the expense of ruling over your teammates. Glory is getting spat upon, pulled apart, shoved out of the race and continuing on. Glory is a 19yr old journalism student Katherine Switzer attempting to become the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967.

Whatever race you are facing this day, may we too run or ride the race in glory. Amen.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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