top of page

Downward Mobility






Sermon Preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

February 25, 2024

Sermon Text: Mark 10:35-45



It begins early in life, very early, in fact.


One high school senior in her college application to Duke University wrote,

“While still in the womb I spearheaded the movement for my twin and me to enter the birth canal.”


“While still in the nursery I organized the toddlers to campaign for recyclable diapers.”


“While in first grade I represented my class at the school board showdown on whether to move to 2 percent milk at snack time.”


“When I was in fourth grade I went on a Girl Scout expedition to the planet Jupiter,

and devised a system by which children could share oxygen on the return journey to save on baggage weight.”


“When I was in eighth grade

I scythed deep into the Amazonian jungle,

and found a previously unknown tribe.

I learned their language,

taught them how to play golf,

and helped them find a sustainable water supply.”


The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, a former chaplain at Duke University, is speaking in jest, of course, but he was also speaking to the very real pressure on high school seniors to talk about their astonishing record of leadership.


According to Samuel Wells:

The trouble is,

while we assume leadership is the answer to everything,

we are extremely skeptical about leaders themselves.

We’re always alert to ways in which leaders may simply be using the people or organization they lead to gain some nefarious benefit for themselves

-- a bloated salary,

some kind of gravy-train vacation perk, an opportunity to foster some possibly illegal business venture,

or (and now I speak in hushed tones) the most highly-prized commodities in corporate life: an office with windows and a convenient parking space.

We train our young people to be extremely ambitious, but we point them towards roles in which we know they will inevitably attract suspicion, cynicism and outright hostility.


In the last sermon he preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church before his assassination two months later,

the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the “Drum Major instinct,”

which he defined as a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.


Now, if anyone has the Drum Major instinct, it is James and John in today’s Gospel text. In fact, MLK’s Drum Major Instinct sermon was based on Mark 10:35-45.

James and John approach Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

What a way to start off.

It’s like saying, promise me you’ll say yes, even before I ask you the question.

But Jesus will have none of it.

Instead of saying yes right away, he redirects the question to James and John, asking, “What is it you want me to do for you?”


James and John reply, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”


Jesus responds, you do not know what you are asking.


And indeed, James and John do not know what they are asking, because the ones who will on Jesus’ right and left are the two thieves who are crucified with Jesus.


Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, Jesus asks.

In the Old Testament, in the Hebrew scriptures, the cup can be a symbol of joy and salvation, but it can also be a symbol of woe and suffering.


Perhaps James and John are thinking of the cup of joy and salvation, when Jesus is in fact talking about the cup of woe and suffering.


Then, Jesus asks, Are you able to be baptized with the baptism by which I am baptized?


And here, baptism can mean repentance and new beginnings, but it can also mean being flooded with troubles and drowning.

Perhaps here again James and John hear a promise of new beginning, while Jesus is talking about drowning in troubles.


The request of James and John seems particularly tone deaf because Jesus has already warned the disciples three times that he must suffer and die.


Jesus has not said, as soon as we get to Jerusalem, our reign of glory will begin immediately.




It sounds at first like James and John are still jostling for positions and angling for influence in Jesus’ reign of glory even though Jesus has warned that he must suffer and die.


A noted psychotherapist tells about the time that his car was struck by lightning as he was driving home.

Once he was safe at home, he began to share his ordeal with his teenage son, expecting at least some small degree of sympathy.

Instead, his son interrupted, “Dad, let’s go buy a lottery ticket. They say the chances of being hit by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”


James and John seem every bit as self-absorbed as the psychotherapist’s teenage son.


Jesus talks about his coming suffering and death, and James and John still want to lead the parade.


Did James and John simply not hear Jesus when he made his passion predictions?


Perhaps, but I think it’s even more likely that they did hear.


A few verses before today’s text, in Mark 10:32, we learn that those who were following Jesus to Jerusalem were afraid.


Now, all of a sudden, James and John become somewhat more sympathetic characters.

In the words of one commentator,

maybe Jesus’ ominous predictions of his passion have become clear to them.

Maybe they do understand what lies ahead.

And being afraid, they seek the promise of a secure future.

James and John may not be power hungry so much as acting quite naturally on their fears.


Nonetheless, in a climate of fear, it’s even more important to model the kind of servant leadership that doesn’t seek its own advantage but instead seeks the full flourishing of others.


In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown distinguishes Armored Leadership from Daring Leadership.


Armored Leadership hustles for worth. Its response to fear and uncertainty is to struggle for control.


In contrast, daring leadership acknowledges, names, and normalizes collective fear and uncertainty.


Vulnerability is not the enemy of strong leadership; instead, shared vulnerability is an essential component of the kind of leadership that is going to bring out the best in others.


Indeed, we are all in this together.


In the Drum Major instinct sermon, Dr. King said,

I've been to churches, you know, and they say, "We have so many doctors, and so many school teachers, and so many lawyers, and so many businessmen in our church." And that's fine, because doctors need to go to church, and lawyers, and businessmen, teachers—they ought to be in church. But they say that—even the preacher sometimes will go all through that—they say that as if the other people don't count. (Amen)

And the church is the one place where a doctor ought to forget that he's a doctor. The church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he's a Ph.D. (Yes) The church is the one place that the school teacher ought to forget the degree she has behind her name. The church is the one place where the lawyer ought to forget that he's a lawyer.

And any church that violates the "whosoever will, let him come" doctrine is a dead, cold church, (Yes) and nothing but a little social club with a thin veneer of religiosity.

When the church is true to its nature, (Whoo) it says, "Whosoever will, let him come."

It's the one place where everybody should be the same, standing before a common master and savior. (Yes, sir) And a recognition grows out of this—that all men are brothers because they are children (Yes) of a common father.

King concluded his sermon, which again, was two months to the day before he was assassinated, by saying


If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. . . .

If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.

Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition.

But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.


All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.







Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.


bottom of page