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By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
When I read the gospel lesson for today, the first thing that popped into my head was a sermon title: “The Best Seats Are in the Back.” It seemed to fit. That’s essentially what Jesus told James and John when they asked him to let them sit on either side of him in heaven. So, I thought that’d make a good sermon: “The Best Seats Are in the Back.” But then, I figured you back seat Presbyterians would never let me hear the end of it!
So, I decided to go with the title, “Healthy Ambition,” because, well, when you get to the heart of what James and John were asking of Jesus, that’s essentially what it’s all about: Ambition – wanting something; in this case, the seats of highest honor.
What does it mean to be ambitious? That’s what I’d like to explore in the sermon this morning. When is ambition a healthy thing to have, and when can it get you into trouble? I hope, before it’s over, we’ll be able to see ourselves in the faces of James and John and so, direct our ambitions toward something more noble than having the best seats in the house.
Let’s begin with a question: Are you ambitious? Please say yes. If you’re not, you need to see a doctor. Ambition, in and of itself, comes naturally. It’s how we’re wired. Healthy ambition is a sign of a positive self-esteem. It’s what parents try to instill in their children from the earliest age: “You can do it, honey, just keep trying” … “Just a little more practice, and you’ll be the captain of the team.”
Ambition is what motivates us to get up in the morning and want to do our best. At the heart of ambition is a healthy appetite, a hunger for recognition and reward. According to the Bible, it’s in our genes.
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In the Book of Genesis, we’re told how God took a lump of moist clay and fashioned it into a little man and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living being. (Gen. 2:7) What we need to know is that the word translated here as “living being” is the word, “nephesh,” which literally means, “a bundle of appetites.”
That’s what we are – a bundle of appetites. And it’s this bundle of appetites that stirs a hunger within us to want nice things, to savor the goodness of life, to flex our muscles and prove our ability and accomplish great goals.
A healthy appetite is essential to good health, and it lies at the heart of healthy ambition: We hunger for something we don’t have, and that hunger drives us to excel – to want a college education, for example, a more prominent position, a better salary, a loving family and a comfortable home, a good name in the community.
Students study hard to make good grades because they want to be recognized, maybe get a scholarship. This is so important because, once established, this pursuit of excellence will stay with them for a lifetime. Young adults put in long hours and go the extra mile because they want to move up the ladder. Middle-aged adults save and invest their money in order to enjoy a comfortable retirement.
It all has to do with ambition – that force within us that compels us to strive to reach our God-given potential.
Several of you had the chance to meet Ana Rosales, who was here a couple of Sundays ago for my installation. Ana is a senior at Austin Seminary. She’s the current recipient of the President’s Scholarship, one of the highest honors the seminary has to offer. She’s a gifted young woman with a lot of potential. She’s got a bright future ahead of her.
What’s remarkable about Ana is that she grew up in the poorest conditions in Mexico you can imagine. As a young girl, she and her mother fled for their lives in the middle of the night to get away from an abusive husband and father. They left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They lived in a one-room house with a dirt floor and no electricity or running water.
Ana and her mother were befriended by a mission team from Park Place Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, who got them into a decent home and, in the process, convinced Ana’s mother to send her to the Presbyterian Pan American School in Kingsville, Texas.
It wasn’t easy. When Ana came to the U.S., she didn’t know a soul, and she couldn’t speak a word of English. But she had two things going for her: She had a deep, abiding faith in God, and she had a healthy dose of ambition. She believed God had a plan for her life, and she wanted to make something of herself to the glory of God.
She graduated from Pan Am among the top of her class and went to Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas, where she graduated in just over three years. This May, she’ll receive her Masters of Divinity from Austin Seminary. I asked her what she was going to do after graduation, and she said she was hoping to get into a Ph.D. program at Princeton.
Now, that’s what I’d call healthy ambition!
Unfortunately, there’s also a dark side to ambition. It’s called greed. Instead of wanting to do something with your life to the glory of God, you want to get what you can for yourself … and the more you can get, the better.
Left unchecked, greed is like a cancer – it grows and spreads and infects everything it touches. Plus, it’s cyclical – the more you have, the more you want. And this leads to an addiction where, no matter how much you have, it’s never quite enough.
Whether it’s a hunger for power or prominence or prestige or worldly possessions, once greed takes hold of ambition, it corrupts, and then it kills.
This is what happened to Kenneth Lay, the founder and CEO of Enron. He grew up in Missouri, the son of a part-time Baptist preacher and tractor salesman. His family was dirt poor.
But Lay was ambitious. He managed to get accepted into the University of Missouri, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He went on from there to land a job with Exxon in Houston. That led to a government job as a federal regulator. In no time, he was undersecretary for the Department of the Interior. He was a rising star.
When the federal government deregulated energy, Lay returned to the private sector to form Enron. It quickly became a high-tech corporation on the cutting edge. Its stocks soared. Investors couldn’t get enough of it. Then it fizzled. And then it crashed.
As it turned out, Lay and his executives were cooking the books – falsifying reports so as to exaggerate earnings. Toward the end, Lay sold off most of his stock while convincing others to buy more. When Enron folded, he walked away with millions of dollars, while everyone else lost the farm. You may have been one of them.
Lay’s friends say he was a good man at heart. Yet, something went wrong. Instead of enjoying the fruits of success, ambition got the best of him. In the end, he was convicted of ten counts of fraud and conspiracy. He would’ve gone to prison, but he died of a heart attack awaiting his sentence.
There’s a dark side to ambition, and it’s called greed. You see it every time one individual steps in front of another to get ahead. That’s the issue James and John brought to Jesus:
“Teacher, we want you to do for us
whatever we will ask.” (Mark 10:35)
Never mind the others – Peter, Andrew, Matthew and Thomas; Nathaniel, Thaddeus, Philip and Bartholemew … forget Judas, for that matter – just take care of us and give us what we want.
That’s the dark side of ambition – we want preferential treatment, and we’re willing to step over others to get it. Jesus would have nothing to do with this. He said,
“You don’t know what you are asking.
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,
and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38).
Then he went on to say,
“You shall indeed drink the cup that I drink,
and you shall be baptized
with the baptism that I am baptized with;
but to sit at my right hand and at my left hand is not mine to give,
but for whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10:39-40)
We’re all ambitious – or we ought to be. We all want various things out of life. It’s only natural. The issue is how we relate to others in the process: Are we determined to gain at another’s cost; or, are we willing to step back and help others get what they want, as we seek to fulfill our own ambitions?
The story is told of a track meet for special kids, kids physically and mentally challenged. The climax was the big quarter mile race at the end. The contestants lined up and the gun sounded. They were off. Everything went well until they got to the final turn. One of the contestants stumbled and fell. As soon as the others realized what had happened, they turned and came back to the fallen runner and helped him to his feet. Then, arm in arm, they limped together toward the finish line. As the herd of runners passed in front of the crowd, everyone stood to cheer them on. No one cared to notice who actually crossed the finish line first. What difference did that make? What mattered was that they finished – every last one them completed the race – no one was left behind.
In the final analysis, that’s the most distinguishing mark of Christian maturity I know – when your ambitions turn from satisfying your own wants and needs to attending to the needs of others.
Oddly enough, when that happens, you don’t become less ambitious; you become more ambitious, only your ambitions are focused on something far greater than yourself – the Kingdom of God – and your greatest joy comes in doing for others.
I don’t know of better example than Bill and Melinda Gates. Gates co-founded Microsoft in 1975 and, in no time, was multi-millionaire. By the time he turned forty, he was one of the richest men in the world.
In 1994, he married Melinda France, a former Microsoft employee, and whether it was due to her influence or his own personal growth or a combination of both, they formed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and started focusing their efforts on such world issues as poverty, hunger, health care, education and peace. They’ve poured billions of dollars into the foundation and spent countless hours traveling and speaking and encouraging others to join them.
Bill and Melinda Gates were two of the most ambitious young people you’d ever find. Now, they’re more ambitious than ever, though it’s not about making more money, or wielding more power or accumulating more toys; it’s about helping those less fortunate and making this world a better place in which to live.
But you don’t have to be rich to have healthy ambition. Osceola McCarty was a little old lady in Hattiesburg, Mississippi who made a living taking in laundry for folks on the nicer side of town. She scrimped and saved her meager earnings and, when she was eighty-seven years old, she donated $150,000 to Southern Mississippi University. Someone asked her what motivated her to work so hard and then it all away. She said, “I always wanted to help somebody else’s child go to college.”
That’s healthy ambition.
Well, here’s what I’d like for you to take home with you today: We’re all ambitious, in one way or another. That’s how God created us to be. Ambition is a healthy thing when it motivates us to reach our God-given potential. But it’s even healthier when we become ambitious for the Lord.
So, be ambitious. Be all that you can be. And may your ambition lead you to find fulfillment, not simply by gaining more stuff for yourself, but by losing your life in service to others.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.