The Ethics of Ambition

Ambition hangs in the air in Washington, like the late August humidity that came back with a force this week.  This city lives and breathes ambition, which is fitting.  Ambition comes from the same latin root as amble, to walk around.  Ambition originally, literally, referred to someone who walked around asking for your vote.  We have a few of those ambition people, people walking around, asking for your vote, in Washington.  Have you noticed?  Ambition is a very Washington word.

Today’s Gospel is one of Jesus’ kindler, gentler, discussions of ambition.  He gives a pragmatic piece of advice: “Don’t come into a party and automatically take the seat of honor.  Let the host honor you, lest you embarrass yourself.”  I gotta say, I like this kind and gentle Jesus.  He’s practical, useful.  He keeps us out of trouble.  The lesson seems to be: if you’re very ambitious, that’s okay, but make sure to curb your ambition with a bit of humility.  Otherwise you could embarrass yourself.

Ambition is a particularly salient topic of discussion on the Sunday before Labor Day.  We hold in the fiber of our national identity a sense that those with great ambitions will be rewarded through hard work.  We have a sense that our labors can bring us social and economic advances.  Ambition is part of the fabric of America, a value that we hold dearly.  We can think that if a worker spends his whole career flipping burgers, barely scraping by, that worker lacked ambition.  That valuation of ambition may be partially true, but that vision of ambition lacks a sense of reality.

You can have all the ambition in the world, but if you lack access to education and resources, ambition is not going to carry you very far.  You can have all the ambition in the world, but minimum wage still isn’t going to pay the rent in D.C.  If we really valued ambition, we would work harder to level the playing field.  We would make sure that ambitious young people in Anacostia have the same chance as their peers in Bethesda, have access to the same quality education, the same health care, safe streets and a quiet place to study.  In America, we value ambition.  But as long as so much of America continues to grow up in poverty and hunger, as long as so much of America lacks access to quality education and work that pays well enough to make ends meet, we won’t know the real potential of American ambition.

Acknowledging ambition as a particular American value, we also have to note that ambition has not been universally praised.  Shakespeare warned about ambition, “by that sin fell the angels.”  If ambition is a virtue, then like most virtues there is a flip side.  On the flip side ambition can become a vice.  Ambition can be a liability.  How often do we hear about a project or a person that was “overly ambitious?”  Ambition can get us into trouble.  Ask any one of the interns returning to college from the Hill right now about the dangers of ambition.  They all have stories about ambition.  If we’re honest, many of us in Washington, myself included, have some embarrassing stories about where our ambitions have taken us.

I recently re-read a wise and well written memoir, an account of ambition gone awry, one that I commend to you.  Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Leaving Church” recounts her decision to give up her position as the Rector of Grace Calvary Church in Clarkesville, Georgia.  By all outward markers, she had been incredibly successful.  The pews were packed on Sunday mornings.  She had been declared one of the best preachers in the United States.  Inwardly, she was exhausted by the work.  She knew she had to leave.  She writes, “I had built a reputation for preaching and writing, both at the local level and beyond.  I had done everything I knew how to do to draw near to the heart of God as I could, only to find myself out of gas, on a lonely road, filled with bitterness and self pity.”  How many of us have been on that lonely road of ambition?  How many of us who have been running on the fumes of ambition have found ourselves sputtering, exhausted?

I like Barbara Brown Taylor’s image.  I love the image from Jeremiah.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate.” (God really wants to make a point here) “my people…have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”  I love that image, cracked cisterns.  Because that is what it feels like when you run out of juice, when the energy you have been pouring into the image you have created for yourself runs dry.  When the dream you have dreamed with so much ambition doesn’t come to fruition, it feels like you are trying to draw water from a cracked cistern.  Bone dry.

BE APPALLED God says.  My people have quit drawing on me, the stream of living water.  My people have built themselves up instead.  My people are trying to draw meaning from these cracked cisterns.  My people are busy competing with one another for position.  My people are looking down the empty well of prestige.  Be appalled.  Be scandalized.  Be shocked.

Inherent in God’s righteous indignation is an offer.  DRAW from God.  Dip your buckets in the stream of living water.  Don’t worry about where you sit in the social hierarchy.  Ask any former head cheerleader, position, in the long run, is fleeting.  Instead drink deep from the presence of God.  You see Jeremiah is stunned that that the people have “changed their glory for something that does not profit.”  Because the waters of God are plentiful.  God’s presence, like the River Jordan, is deep and wide.  Tired?  Thirsty?  Lonely?  Come to the living stream.  This is the invitation at the heart of the desolation.

One of life’s deep mysteries is that God’s grace can often be found most readily at rock bottom.  Only when we have dried out our cracked cistern.  Only when we have run out of gas.  Only when all of our ambition has come to naught, and we find ourselves laid flat, only then do we hear the trickle of water that leads to the living stream.  There is a certain freedom to hitting rock bottom, a freedom that comes because we can finally let go of all of that human ambition.  We are free to pick up what God would have for us.

The word humility comes from the Latin, “humus.”  At root being humble means being “earthy,” covered in dirt.  Jesus admonition today is not really about proper social etiquette.  Jesus had no interest in being first century Palestine’s Emily Post.  We can see that as we read on in the Gospel.  After discussing where to sit at the wedding banquet, Jesus then gives a more fundamental instruction about who to invite to the party.  What he says takes him out of the realm of social nicety.  “when you give a banquet, invite the poor; invite the crippled; invite the lame; invite the blind.”  It turns out that Jesus is LESS concerned about who sits where and MORE concerned about all the people who aren’t at the table.  Where are the poor at this party?  Where are the disabled?  Where are the humble people?  Where are the dirty people?

Jesus was ambitious, but the object of his ambition was not his own exaltation.  Jesus always ran away when they wanted to make him king.  Jesus’ ambition was about everyone, everyone having a seat at the table.  I think we sort of gloss over how radical Jesus’ advice is here.  We’re sort of used to listening to these stories about Jesus, sort of like the oft-heard stories of a kooky old uncle.  I think in our familiarity with these stories, we often forget how scandalous Jesus’ teaching is, even in our own time..  At your parties invite the poor.  Go out to the streets; find someone who is disabled, someone who is begging, someone who is covered in humble dirt.  BRING HIM TO LUNCH.  Celebrate with her.  This really is wild.  Jesus’ ambition will get us in trouble in our own social class.

But Jesus invites us to consider.

  • Who is the object of your ambition?
  • Who is it your ambition to serve?

When we seek to serve ourselves, we end up like all those people Jeremiah is describing drawing on cracked cisterns.  When we seek to serve others, especially when we seek to serve people who are radically different from ourselves something incredible can happen.

Ellis and Mike
One of Ellis and My engagement photos.

Some of you know that I am recently engaged.  I met Ellis Anderson at the wedding of a good friend from seminary.  I saw him across the room, and I thought he was cute.  We struck up a conversation that continued over the first summer we knew one another in person, on the phone, via text messages.  Ellis was cute, and Ellis was funny.  I remember one moment though when I knew I was falling in love with him.  Ellis was describing how he came to find himself, at the age of thirty one, working full-time on a second bachelor’s degree.  He said that he had sort of spent college and the years afterward treading water.  Those are my words.  Ellis would say he was “wasting time.”  He was frustrated because he didn’t know what to do with himself, he didn’t know what to do with his life.  He had the degree.  He had a job, but he wasn’t happy.  He decided to apply for the Peace Corps, because, he said, “If I can’t figure out how to live my life for myself, I thought, maybe I could figure out how to live my life for others.”

When he said that, I was done for.  He had me.  I don’t think there is anything sexier he could have said.  That experience in Peace Corps eventually led him to apply to teaching college, and in a few years he will become an elementary school teacher with an additional certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.  Now when I told Ellis he was making an appearance in my sermon, he said, “just don’t make me out as a pinnacle of moral virtue.”  So I won’t.  William Sloane Coffin used to say, “the moral profile of a human being is like a giraffe, lofty upfront, but dragging a bit behind.”  Ellis will be the first to tell you that keeping your ambition focused on serving others is not easy business.  We all fail sometimes.

But Ellis found the deep invitation inherent in Jesus’ seemingly social advice today.  Ambition is a resource.  We all want to move on up the table.  But if you spend your energy serving yourself, you will find yourself lonely at the top of your table, drawing on cracked cisterns.  The more difficult work is more rewarding.  Seeking to make room at the table for all of God’s chosen people, the poor, the disabled, those who lack access, seeking to make sure everyone has a seat will cost you your life’s work.  But when the good of others becomes your ambition, you are free.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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