A Sermon For The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Year B), Preached At Christ The Kng Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 23 Sunday, 2012.
Lections: Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
"He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." (Mk 9:35)
While I was thinking about this sermon on Saturday morning, I was in a ditch picking up garbage. My wife Kay belongs to a church that takes responsibility for a stretch of highway just outside town, and today was their day to go walk a kilometre of roadside and pick up litter. The bit that Kay and I were given was just across from a very busy Tim Hortons (non-Canadians, think Starbucks, sort of) and so there was a LOT of trash.
Usually I prefer to write my sermons in my comfortable study, surrounded by all my highbrow intellectual books and biblical commentaries, with my diplomas on my “I love me” wall. Being in a ditch was not at all comfortable. It wasn’t physically comfortable because the act of bending over repeatedly for several hours to pick up litter makes the back and legs hurt. I am more grateful than I can say that I don’t have to do stoop labour for a living, and I now have a better idea of what it’s like to work in the greenhouses around here.
Besides the physical discomfort, being in a ditch picking up litter wasn’t mentally comfortable, either. I know that some of you will think I’m a big fat jerk for saying this, but I wasn’t really keen to be seen in a ditch picking up trash while other people drove by in their comfortable cars and trucks. I had a lot of time to reflect on why I felt this discomfort. Why wasn’t I bursting with civic pride that I was doing my duty as a model citizen, pitching in to make my community more beautiful? Why wasn’t I going with that emotion? (Aside: after this sermon, several people told either me or Kay that they had driven by us on Saturday and thought that convicts were out working - I'm not sure if I felt better or worse for that!)
I decided that my discomfort came from the fact that I have internalized the idea that such work is menial labour, the kind that our society gives to the uneducated, unskilled, or immigrant. It’s not work for credentialed, intellectual, important people like me. So I have to say, I felt pretty abashed as I reached for yet another discarded coffee cup and remembered today’s gospel.
In Mark 9 the disciples have been having an argument while travelling with Jesus to Capernaum. When Jesus asks them what the argument was about, they tell him that “they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (Mk 9:34). I wonder if they were a little sheepish when they confessed that to Jesus, as if realizing suddenly that their master has never showed much interest in status and greatness. Jesus has been wearing his feet to nubs, walking from town to town teaching and helping people, and here they are arguing about which one is the best disciple. Me in my ditch today, ashamed of my garbage bag, I can relate to their sudden feeling that they have missed something really important about Jesus’ message.
Last Sunday I talked about how Jesus realized that he could only demonstrate God’s power to the world in two ways, by the cross and by the empty tomb. The cross was the only way to show a radical vision of love and forgiveness to a world that thinks in terms of power and prestige. That was why Peter tried to persuade Jesus that there must be some other way for Jesus, because to him a Messiah was someone who wielded great power and authority. When Jesus went on to say that his followers had to take up a cross, die to the world, and follow him, he was talking about a rejection of the “who’s the greatest” mentality that the disciples, or me in my ditch, were still buying into.
Jesus demonstrates his point to the disciples by picking up a child and saying 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." This verse is sometimes taken to be a call to adopt a spirituality of childlike simplicity. As the preacher Alyce McKenzie writes, these sermons urge us to become `more pure, more innocent, more humble, more spontaneous, more trusting`.
Those are great things to be, but I think they start with our decisions about who we want to spend time with and what we want to do with them. I`ve seen smart, gifted Christian leaders dedicate themselves to working in Larche homes, or in prison ministry, or in small rural parishes when their gifts of preaching and exegesis could have served wider audiences. In my own service in a military chaplaincy that is often tempted by rank and prestige and medals, I have seen the same capacity for service. My first chaplain team leader, a major, spent a day on his hands and knees cleaning up a military residence when the family he had put in there on an emergency basis had trashed the place. He did it because he felt responsible, but also because he knew that someone had to, and it might as well be him. He will remain among the best chaplains I have ever known.
In making these choices to give themselves to situations where the only currencies are love and service, Christians like these ones show that they understand something of what it means to welcome, and to follow, our Lord. May we, who aspire to be Jesus`followers, also understand what kind of greatness He offers us.Agnus Day.