A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 20, 2015 (Proper 20, Year B)
Who among us is the greatest Christian? Now this is really important so we’re going to spend a bit of time getting to the bottom of this. And just to be fair, I’ll disqualify myself. Not because I actually believe that I am holier than thou — it’s one of those employees-and-immediate-family- members-are-not-eligible-to-win things. I mean, I’m paid to be here. I’m also going to go on record as disqualifying any nuns. We have several Sisters of St. Margaret among us as we do most every Sunday and, sorry, but that’s just not fair. So they’re out.
But what should the criteria be? If we based it purely on church attendance, that might lead to some uncomfortable squirming in the pews. And, anyway, we don’t keep a giant ledger with attendance charts in the church office (as far as you know). What about average hours of prayer logged in a given month? Not bad, but we’d have to go on the honor system and I don’t want to invite prayer fraud into the equation. “Lead us not into temptation” and all that.
We need something more quantifiable. How about money? Maybe the greatest Christian here is the one who has given the most money to St. John’s over the past year. Sure, there’s the little problem of Jesus’ story about the widow’s mite; the passage where he praises the poor woman who gives only two coins but gives from her heart. But we do keep meticulous giving records.
I think you see where I’m going with this. The whole notion of competitive Christianity is absurd. You can’t win the life of faith as if it’s some sort of competition. There are no trophies or certificates of achievement handed out at the Annual Meeting. There’s no parish ranking system.
And yet this is precisely what the disciples were trying to do as they walked along that road to Capernaum with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t call them out on it during the journey, even though he’s absolutely aware of what’s going on. He bides his time and waits until they’re all gathered later that evening and asks them, “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” And…awkward silence. Until they sheepishly admit that they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.
Just last week we heard Jesus rebuke Peter for setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. And here’s yet another clear example of the disciples just not getting it. They’re so focused on how their relationship with Jesus will benefit themselves that they fail to grasp the heart of his message, which is to look beyond themselves. They’re more concerned with how they’ll be perceived by others than actually serving others.
And you can’t really blame them. Well, you can, but think about the ways in which we judge our own self worth. We’re culturally rewarded for focusing on being the greatest, on winning, on being successful. Think about the ways we measure ourselves against one another. What’s your GPA? What’s your salary? How many bedrooms are in your house? What kind of car do you drive? How much do you give to your alma mater? What tax bracket are you in?
And lest you think clergy are above all this, you’ve never been to a clergy conference. ‘What’s your Average Sunday Attendance? How big is your operating budget? How many programs do you have? What’s the size of your endowment?’ It can quickly devolve into a not-so-glorified pissing contest. And you realize you’ve been feeding right into the mentality against which Jesus has warned us.
It’s also an oppressive way to live, all this competition; over time it beats you down because you can’t win everything, you can’t be the greatest at everything. I mean go to a football game and you’ll see fans of both teams holding up those “We’re Number 1” foam fingers. Yet both teams can’t, in fact, be number one. There will always be a number two. But they don’t sell foam fingers that proclaim “We’re Number 2!” at the concession stand.
The larger point here is that in Jesus’ realm it’s not about being successful but being faithful. So much of our energy and time and effort goes into pursuing perfection and self-promotion when we should really be pursuing peace and promoting harmony. Human wisdom, human ambition only gets you so far. The portion of James’ letter we heard this morning continues the theme. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Again, it’s about seeing things from the divine perspective, not the human one. “For what will it profit them,” Jesus says, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life.”
So here goes Jesus shaking up the entire order of things — something he does all the time. I mean, is there anything more counter-cultural than telling people that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first?” This isn’t just to make people who come in dead last in a road race feel better. Or to buck up those at end of the buffet line. Jesus is placing all of our notions of societal order and place and status and tossing them into one of those lottery machines that mixes up all the numbered balls.
Or maybe that’s a lousy analogy, because it’s too random; but time and again those who are most honored in God’s kingdom are the servants and those who are the least. We see this all the time in the gospels. Those who are the most blessed, those who get most of Jesus’ attention are not the ones with the fattest bank accounts or the biggest houses or the most followers on Twitter. The ones Jesus blesses and commends are the sick, the blind, the lame, children, outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, women, the elderly — in other words, those on the very margins of society.
If we’re able to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, from that divine perspective, it changes our entire outlook on what really matters. It puts into perspective our silly and ultimately hopeless strivings to be on top, to keep up with the Joneses, to be “successful” as it is defined by others. You’re already successful in God’s eyes. Being made in the image of God takes care of that. Which gives you the freedom to pursue faithfulness with reckless abandon. To spend time growing your relationship with Jesus and reaching out to those in any kind of need or trouble and being present for those who need your love. That’s what it means to focus on divine things. And in so doing, the urgent need for worldly success fades to black.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015