The musical Wicked, which is both a prequel and sequel to The Wizard of Oz, tells the story of two unlikely friends, Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the Good Witch), and their relationship struggles through opposing personalities and viewpoints. In one song, the popular girl (Glinda) offers to help her unpopular roommate (Elphaba) become more…
I’ll help you be popular!
You’ll hang with the right cohorts
You’ll be good at sports
Know the slang you’ve got to know
So let’s start
‘Cause you’ve got an awfully long way to go…
I know about popular
And with an assist from me
To be who you’ll be
Instead of dreary, who you were… well, are
There’s nothing that can stop you
From becoming popular…
Please, it’s all about popular!
It’s not about aptitude
It’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be
Very, very popular like me!
As culture continues to diminish and ignore the faithful work of congregations, temptations abound for the church to try to reclaim the spotlight with something popular. If culture is succeeding at X, the church should try a Christianized version of X, or so the thinking goes. We should appropriate generic marketing strategies and priorities to grab some of the attraction popular culture holds for people.
Like most of the Gospel of Mark, Mark 10 proceeds at a breakneck pace. Jesus blesses little children. Jesus talks with the rich person who wants to inherit eternal life without changing his earthly life. Jesus foretells his death and resurrection a third time.
At which point we come to a request from disciples James and John. A bid to be popular, if you will:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Appoint us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Jesus’ response to their status play is both a rebuke and a reminder of Jesus’ own mission and identity:
“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be 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 baptized…
In short, Jesus doesn’t think much of their bid to be popular—and neither do their colleagues. The other ten disciples become angry with James and John. And then Jesus intervenes, saying,
“…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”
As a church board, one of your responsibilities is to focus on the unique mission and identity of your community of faith and offer that to the world, instead of a pale imitation of what culture is already serving up. The opposite of “popular” for the church is not “unpopular,” although fears of unpopularity haunt congregations who feel bypassed by culture. The opposite of chasing popular for the church is following Jesus. It is serving need. It is speaking God’s word of truth and hope.
For a congregation, Jesus’ death and resurrection – the cup that he drank and asks followers to partake of as well – is the most important value in this and any time, whether that is popular or not. Navigating this in our fraught world will require attention, gentleness, discernment, and faith.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye offers an opportunity for discernment when she focuses in on the word “famous” and invites us to ask ourselves, famous to whom?
by Naomi Shihab Nye
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
Can you remember a time in your own life when you attempted to become popular? What happened?
Can you remember a time when your church attempted to become popular? What happened?
What lines stand out to you in Shihab Nye’s poem?
How does she define famous?
What do you—and your church—want to be famous for? Who do you want to be famous to?