His given name was Abel Head Pierce, but everyone knew him as Shanghai, Shanghai Pierce. He was born June 29, 1834, in New Hampshire, of all places. At age 17 he decided to stow away on a ship headed for Galveston, Texas, to seek, as it were, his fame and fortune. He had 75 cents in his pocket. When he arrived in Texas, he decided to promote his childhood nickname of Shanghai, referring to his resemblance to a Shanghai rooster, with his 6'4" frame like that of the long-legged breed of roosters.
From the very start, Shanghai Pierce began to work in the cattle business, bartering a year's work for $200 worth of cattle to begin his own herd. After the year, he began branding stray cattle and building his herd. In a short period of time, he had built a herd large enough to entitle him the appellation of cattle baron. He was quite a sight on the Texas plain, wearing brocaded vests, broad-brimmed, high-peaked hats. Sounds sort of like an Episcopal bishop I know. He even ordered his own gravesite statue prior to his death so that he could enjoy looking at himself. Supposedly, at sunset he would lift a glass to toast himself as he regaled, "Here's to old Shanghai!" If legend has any truth, his grandiose ego would make Donald Trump look as if he had an inferiority complex.
At his ranch, he decided to build a city with everything needed by his employees. He called the town Thank God, Texas, until some of his more refined friends convinced him that Blessing, Texas, had a better and more acceptable feel.
In his later years, Shanghai invited some of his friends from Boston to visit him on his ranch. He toured them throughout the complex, braggadociously noting his considerable accomplishments in developing this veritable city. As they rode through the dusty streets in a buggy driven by two white horses, Shanghai would point out the various landmarks. "Well, over there's the commissary. Best in the territory. And over there's the school. Two rooms, not one. And over there's the livery. The best blacksmith in the state of Texas. And over there is the saloon. Finest whiskey on this side of the Mississippi." And the list went on and on, as Shanghai puffed out his chest like his namesake rooster.
As they were continuing on Shanghai's tour, one of his guests spotted the steeple of a church set in a group of mesquite trees. He asked his host, "Shanghai, do you belong to that church?" Shanghai spat out some tobacco juice and bellowed, "Hell, no! That church belongs to me."
A story of humor, that is, until you live within such an ethos of possession. And then it's no laughing matter. Rather, it will make you cry. Weep.
This kind of agenda as to who is great, who is in possession of the church, who is in charge, is what's behind the wrangling between the disciples in today's passage from Mark. Note that this conversation occurs immediately after Peter's confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the center point of Mark's Gospel. It's then that Jesus tries to explain the true nature of greatness. It's not position or possession, but, rather, being a servant. And for Jesus this image of servanthood is going to find flesh and blood, incarnational expression in the cross. Jesus tried and tried to get it through the hardened brains of his students that saw the Messiah as one who would come in power and glory. Rather, Jesus was trying to get them to re-image the notion of the Messiah as one who would be servant, who would give himself for others, even through death on a cross. That would prove to be a hard sell for them, as well as for us now.
And what's more, Jesus then calls his disciples to follow him in this way of being in the world, of being a servant. Jesus is crystal clear in his message to those disciples and to us-if you are to follow my way, you must be a servant. Case closed.
So do you not find it odd that immediately following this command, the disciples are literally on the road with Jesus, but they are still not following in the way of Jesus? They are discussing among themselves who among them is the greatest. They are quarreling about who's No. 1, immediately following the exhortation that to really apprentice with Jesus in the Way, one must be servant. The gospel writer is making a strategic move in placing this story so pregnantly proximate to the command to serve. We overhear Jesus asking the disciples what they've been so busy discussing. Just like kids caught in bad behavior, they fall silent, hoping the transgression would be overlooked. Rather than forcing the confession, Jesus makes one of those amazing statements that pierce our preconceptions about reality: The one who wants to be first must be last; you must be servant of all.
What a bombshell. That runs so counter to the way we think of life, being No. 1 in all that we do, striving to be on top, using whatever means necessary to have power. Our culture has Shanghaied us into thinking that the reality of competition rules the day. That's just the way it is. And if we're honest, aren't we trained in that image of reality from the moment we enter into school as we compete for top grades, as we compete in athletics, as we compete even in art and creativity? Isn't that what our society is all about-competition to see who is the best? This view of reality is infused in our personal souls, as well as the tribalism of our own kind and the nationalism of our land.
Here Jesus offers another view of life, a sub-version if you will. A version of reality that says that the key to a deep joy in living is that of servanthood, of giving oneself to the other.
Admittedly, this is not an easy thing to buy into when you've been sold a bill of goods all your life. There's little you can teach me about competition. I was raised on it, always trying to be the teacher's pet, striving to be the best. My sport of choice, golf, peculiarly emphasized competition, the solo effort to be standing on the top of the hill with a trophy at the end of the day. In academics, I was always wanting to finish first, not just in the pragmatic notion of getting into the graduate school of my choice. Rather, there was something in me that drove me to prove myself by doing better than the other. I remember it coming to a crescendo when one of my fraternity brothers, a close friend, asked me if I had found a back test in a critical final exam that would give him some sense of what was coming on the test ahead. I had done my homework and I had unearthed a copy of a former year's test; but when he asked, I told him no. I lied, in order to keep the advantage on the competition. The next morning when I looked at myself in the mirror, I couldn't live with what I saw. How had I allowed the system to capture me to the point of denying my friend a piece of my good fortune? How could I have become so possessed by a need to succeed that I would become ruthless in my dealings with another? Thankfully, I splashed some water on my face, waking me up to my deeper identity as a baptized follower of the Lord of Life, and I made sure that he got copies of the test. In that moment, I knew that I was acting out of my best self, the self that Christ calls me to be, a servant.
I'm certain that you've had both moments in your life, times of looking in the mirror and wondering what in the world you've done with the deepest values and commitments. Times of giving yourself to the other and feeling that sense of alignment with God's purposes. Herein is the struggle of being just on the road with Jesus carrying him along like an obligatory suitcase or making his way the center of the way you see life, the way you live life.
I wish that I could tell you that I won the war that day, the war within myself concerning being an ego-driven person and a servant-centered person. I cannot. I do celebrate the victories along the way, but I do not lull myself into the illusion that it's mission accomplished. My hunch is that on this day you may be aware of the gap between what you want to be and what you are in reality. The good news is that God desires that you come to a deep knowledge of who you really are, your true self, and has given you the gift of choice to decide, to be intentional about being a servant in God's creation. And you and I know that when that happens, if only in fleeting moments, we will taste the true joy of living.
As I said, Shanghai would toast himself as the Texas sun set. The good news is that God toasts us, "Here's to my children. May they learn to serve and experience my joy!"
Let us pray.
Loving God, we give you thanks for the gift of life and for the windfall of our birth. We pray that you would awaken us to your call to service and that you would continue to bless us in the living of these days. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.