Readings: Psalm 1, Proverbs 1:20-33, James 3:1-12, Mark 9;30-37
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, September 23 2018
Who were your heroes when you were growing up? Whose pictures would you have put up in your room? (If you had a room in which you were allowed to put pictures up in)? And what kind of role models were they? When I was in my early teens I started off with a few sporting pictures, mostly race car drivers, but later on they gave way to rock stars and momento's of things I'd done or places I'd been.
When I think back, some of the people whose pictures I had on my wall didn't make for good heroes. I used to have a picture of Jimi Hendrix, the guitarist. As a rock guitarist he was a genius, but when it came to mastering life he was a dismal failure. Whilst proclaiming a message of love, peace and freedom through his music, in his personal life he couldn't hold down a relationship, he could be hurtful and ego-centric and far from being free he was addicted to a drug habit that eventually cost him his life.
What kind of role model is that? What sort of hero? I guess there must be something in me, that made heroes out of racing drivers and rock stars; something in me (and maybe in you) that admires people who flaunt convention, flirt with death and live "Life on the Edge."
One day Jesus was talking with the disciples about what sort of a Messiah He would turn out to be, and far from getting the point, they wandered off on their own and started having a discussion about, "Who is the greatest?” This was not the sort of conversation they wanted Jesus in on because when He asked them, "What are you lot arguing about?" they lapsed into an embarrassing silence.
It was all part of the learning process. Jesus couldn't really start explaining God's way of doing things until they had worked through for themselves some of the ideas about what made a person great and what made people, including themselves, important. In the pecking order of life, who were the great ones, who were the important ones?
It's a stupid argument to become involved in.
- Farmers could claim to be the greatest, because they produce the food and drink that everyone, from the pet hamster to the President consumes.
- A teacher could say, no I'm the most important. Under my influence the minds and lives of the future are shaped.
- A doctor could say, I'm the greatest because I keep you alive, I fix you when you are broken, I have the knowledge to make things right.
- A funeral director may say, it's O.K. for you lot to brag about what you do in life, I'm the only one who can deal with you when life runs out. No-one else will take that upon themselves.
- And so it goes.
Jesus refuses to be dragged into the argument. He calls them over and says something along the lines of, "Come here, sit down, we need to talk this one through. So you want to be the first do you? You want to be the hero, you want be the big guy? Then stop worrying about where you come in the scheme of things and start concentrating on how you can be of service to somebody else! Drop all this stuff about your rights and your needs and start worrying about how someone else's rights can be fulfilled and how someone else's needs can be met."
Then, somewhere around, there's a little kid playing, maybe making a bit of noise in the way that so infuriates us important adults when we are trying to concentrate. I know. I've done it.
I've sat in a service and there's been a kid in front or behind making a commotion. You do imagine what is going through peoples minds. Is the preacher up there thinking, "I've got a right to be heard. I worked hard on this message!" Are the the choir members thinking, "We don't want that racket ruining the anthem we've been rehearsing all week"
Are those sitting around the child thinking, "I came here to listen to a sermon, not some noisy kid." And are the parents thinking "This is our church. We've got a right to be here, hey... when we had our child baptized... you guys promised to help us bring this child up in the faith and right now we are having serious problems!"
It could be my friend was right. Whenever he hears of a family with a new arrival he likes to tell them... "Now you are in for trouble. Don't you realize that children are your parent's way of getting there own back?"
Being part of any kind of family is a high calling. Being part of the Christian Family is a real challenge. We all feel like we have our rights and our needs and when those rights and needs don't seem to be met we start thinking like the disciples, "Hold on a minute, who is important around here, whose needs take priority?”
On the basis of this passage of Scripture, the Kingdom way is about putting others needs before personal rights. And for each group of us in the congregation, Little ones, Youth, Older adults, Parents and Singles, all of us need to think not only about what has this church got for me, but how can I help the others of my family, who are maybe at a different stage of life or experience be a part of the family. To paraphrase a famous quotation, "Ask not what your church family can do for you, Ask what you can do for your church family".
To bring that point home to the disciples, Jesus invited the noisy kid over to where He sat with His disciples. He put His arms round the child and said something along the lines of, "You know something, If you can recognize the rights of a little child like this, if you can welcome and receive what he can teach you, then you'll be doing the will of God, then you'll be coming near to greatness, then you'll be a hero. Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives me; and whoever receives Me does not just receive me, but Him who sent me."
At the time Jesus was speaking children had no rights, no privileges, no legal status, no voice whatsoever. They were non people. They didn't matter. They didn't count. We have lost the element of surprise that this incident must have had on it's first hearers. Our social conventions are so radically different to those of antiquity. Sometimes we look upon childhood with a romantic view, as a period of simplicity and innocence. In those times no such notion existed. A child, particularly a female child, just didn't count for much, simply wasn't important.
That child stands for all people who are not held in high regard, all those without a place, all those without a voice. Those who others label and call names to make themselves feel superior. Those who are seen as useless or no-hopers or just "Different.” We often pay lip service to the view that the "First shall be last" so long as we are not challenged to the test of accepting someone whom we consider a real "Outsider."
The theologian Karl Barth describes the radical acceptance of others as the basis of Christian Ethics. "To think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable as one to whom Jesus Christ is brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with them on this assumption."
All of this brings us full circle to where we started, thinking about heroes and who is important and what it takes to be great. I very much doubt that anybody here will be running home to change the pictures on their walls or that any of us will go out and try and find a few pictures of Karl Barth, the disciples, or Jesus Himself in an effort to give ourselves good role models to follow.
Because, after all, greatness is about a lot more than image. It's not about looking good or even about winning the admiration of others. From the Kingdom perspective, a view which has the habit of turning everything upside down, greatness is measured by how great you make others feel. Importance is about what importance you give to others lives, particularly those whom the world denies any real significance.
A dieing man once said to Mother Teresa, "All my life I have lived like an animal. Now you are letting me die like a King".
You want to be great? You want to be important? Then forget about being great and being important and get on with the business of sharing the love that God has given you with a needy world. There's a hymn that speaks of Jesus in this way:-
"Thou who wast rich, beyond all measure,
All for our sake, becamest poor"
That is greatness. One who would rather die on a cross for our sake than see us divorced from God's love. One who prayed, for others, "Lord, not my will, but thine be done."
Serving ourselves only leads to a never ending desire for more of what we don't have. Christ challenges us to serve one another, to say "Yes" to God and in doing so discover an otherwise unattainable peace, a peace born out of having the humility to count others as more important than ourselves.
May God help us to govern our lives by Kingdom values
and see each other from a Jesus perspective.
That's what is important.
That is true greatness.
And to God's name be all glory.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.
*Hymn “Who is Greatest in the Kingdom?”
NETTLETON 18.104.22.168 D (#355 "Hear The Good News of Salvation")
Text © 2018 by Carol Winfrey Gillette. Used with permission.
"Who is greatest in the kingdom? Who among us is the best?"
The disciples were debating: "In God's reign, who will be blest?"
Jesus, had those twelve forgotten? Faithful living has a cost —
And to journey where You'd lead them, they would journey to the cross.
"Who is greatest in the kingdom?" The disciples heard Your call:
"If you want to be the first one, you must be the last of all."
Do not think that high position is a thing that you deserve!
"If you want to be the first, then, be the first to humbly serve."
"Who is greatest in the kingdom? Who will take the throne and reign?"
Christ, You put a child among them, and You told them once again:
"If you give a child a welcome, then you also welcome me."
Faithful service, not ambition, builds up God's community.