Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 24, 2006. 
Based on Mark 9:30-37 (Proper 20, Year B).

We love pecking orders. Class rank. Tax brackets. Organizational flow charts. We like to know precisely where we stand. Especially when we’re close to the top and we’ve got a bunch of people below us that we can peck. I’d say this is a uniquely human phenomenon but it’s obviously not since the term “pecking order” itself comes from the barnyard. The chicken coop to be precise. 

Now I’m not much of a farmer. I know that comes as a shock. But from what I understand (okay, from I learned on the internet), a pecking order is basically a system of organization among a group of chickens. The way it works is that a bird pecks another bird who is of a lower rank, and then submits to pecking from a bird of a higher rank. The basic concept is that it’s necessary to determine who is the top chicken, who is the bottom chicken, and where all the rest of the chickens fit in between. This is important because it determines, among other things, which chicken gets to eat first. I’m not sure how this all relates to the idea of getting hen pecked, but I do know something about that.

This whole system of the pecking order is basically what the disciples were trying to figure out as they talked amongst themselves in this morning’s gospel reading from Mark. I’ve always considered this the “Muhammad Ali” passage because the disciples are overly concerned about which one of them is the greatest. They were trying to figure out who among them was the top chicken. In other words, the pecking order. And they knew it was a silly conversation; they knew they were being vain. When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about they fall into an embarrassed silence. 

To engage in such petty concerns highlights just how completely they’ve missed the point of Jesus’ message. Because not only does God reject the whole notion of the pecking order, God turns the whole barn upside down. And so suddenly the ones who are glorified are the ones at the bottom of the class, the ones who don’t make enough money to even pay taxes, and the proverbial office flunkies. In an instant our entire worldview is altered. The things we strive for are rendered irrelevant. 

That’s not to say that Jesus rejects the whole idea of ambition as a worldly evil. Without it we’d just sit around the farmyard in a hammock all day, every day. The cows wouldn’t get milked, the fields wouldn’t get harvested, the pigs wouldn’t get fed. Maybe I’m taking the whole farm analogy too far; I really don’t know what I’m talking about. But it is good to strive for self improvement. It is good to seek to do our best in all things. Jesus just wants us to focus our ambition. To focus our ambition on the things that are above. To be ambitious about our spiritual lives. Not because there’s a spiritual hierarchy, but because being ambitious about our relationship with God draws us closer to God. 

But it’s hard to let go of the pecking order. And lest you think the church doesn’t get sucked into the same mentality, try having lunch with a group of clergy. It generally starts out pleasantly enough but before long the conversation turns to things like average Sunday attendance and budget size and the number of pledging units. In other words, the pecking order. With the not so subtle implication being that bigger and wealthier is better than smaller and poorer. And I’m always reminded of something I was told by my field ed supervisor in seminary. Whenever we’d talk about ways to grow the church he would say “Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, not count them.” And this always brings me right back to the essentials of parish ministry. Of course he’s now Dean of the Cathedral in Kansas City, which is both big and wealthy. But the point remains.

The other problem with the pecking order is that we end up putting others down in order to raise ourselves up. Which makes sense since it’s all rooted in our deep insecurities. The feeling that we can only build ourselves up by tearing others down. So we peck at one another; we are critical of one another; we abuse one another. Pecking is fine for chickens; but it’s not fine for human beings. Because when we start pecking, it rejects the notion of seeing each person as a child of God. The pecking order dehumanizes us by assigning us a numerical rank or pigeon holing us (to use another bird analogy). It gives us numbers instead of honoring us for our uniqueness in the sight of God. We start to see people as stepping stones instead of fellow flesh and blood sojourners on this journey of life and faith.

I bid you to think of some ways you can let go of some of your own pecking order mentality. Get out of the chicken coop. Stop pecking others and stop allowing yourself to be pecked. It’s not worth it. And it puts up a barrier, chicken wire if you will, between you and God. 

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006

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