I love our bulletin board in the hallway leading into the church – you know, the one where we post newspaper clippings featuring parish members. The other day I was looking at it and learned we have at least two budding artists in our congregation. Caroline Webb is pictured with some of the work she created this summer at a camp at the Cultural Arts Center and Margaret Laney Cross is pictured with her painting of James and the Giant Peach, which won best in show award at the North Suffolk Library. Congratulations to both of you. We are very proud of you.
I spent some time reflecting on my early experiences of receiving public recognition. Every week in Sunday School we were sent home with a bible memory verse. If we could recite it the next Sunday we got a star next to our name on a chart of the class’ students. That was a kind of recognition. The Akron Metro Parks had another. They gave children hiking sticks and for every trail you walked a park ranger gave you a little sticker to put on your staff. I remember being very proud of the numerous stickers I collected and displayed on my hiking stick.
Beyond being something that makes us feel good, recognition is a fundamental human need. Abraham Maslow famously created his hierarchy of needs. At a most basic level he says we need food, water, shelter, and warmth. At the next level we need safety, stability, and freedom from fear. After this we need a sense of belonging and love – family, friends, and perhaps a spouse. After these basic levels are met, Maslow says we strive for self-esteem, for a knowledge that our life matters. This includes mastery, achievement, respect, and recognition. Mother Teresa, who saw a lot of poverty in her life, once said there is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than there is for bread.
Think about this for moment. Once our most basic needs are met, there is something in our human nature craving to be connected with others (the drive to belong) and needs to know we are making a valuable contribute in life (the drive to matter and make a difference). How powerful is this drive? Research indicates 43% of employees who quit a job cite lack of recognition as a factor. Dale Carnegie observed people work for money but go the extra mile for recognition, praise, and rewards.
All of this brings us to this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. James and John – brothers – come to Jesus with an audacious request. When Jesus presides in glory they want to sit at his right and left side. Matthew tells the story a little differently. He has the boys’ mother making the request. Luke’s version is even more different for he has all the disciples arguing about who deserves this honor.
It is understandable why this is on their minds as the group walks to Jerusalem. Even though Jesus has told them three times he will be killed there, they seem to believe he will lead a messianic uprising, expel the Romans, and reestablish the throne of David. Given this belief, the disciples essentially are vying for cabinet positions in Jesus’ new administration. Imagine how crushed they must be not only when their friend is killed but when their vision of glory dies on the cross.
Now you or I, if we were in Jesus’ position, might be offended by the disciple’s blatant request for status. We might respond, “Who do you think you are?” But Jesus sees through their inappropriate appeal and perceives something very human in it. The brothers are asking for recognition. They want to know they matter to Jesus and have contributed something important to his ministry. So Jesus does a remarkable thing. He does not put down James and John, rather he teaches them about what “greatness” looks like in his kingdom. It is not about sitting in a position of great power and prestige, as they suppose. It is about being a servant to all. It is about giving and giving and giving yourself to others.
Abraham Lincoln famously advised not to worry when you are not recognized, just continue to strive to be worthy of recognition. I think Jesus would applaud this. Treat other people the right way. Look for ways to be helpful. Use often phrases like “Thank you”, “That is a job well done”, and “You add so much to make this a special place.” Do more than you are asked or expected to do and do it with a smile on your face and a laugh in your heart. Do this and you will find others recognize and appreciate who you are and what you do.