Friday, September 18, 2009

Who is the Greatest?

Mark 9. 30-37

Let me start by asking you to use your imaginations for a moment. What would you do if you knew that you only had a week to live? Assuming you were fit and healthy, that is. If you had full health, and freedom of movement, what would you do with your last few days on earth?

It's a puzzle isn't it?

If it was me, I'd probably want to spend time with the family that I hardly ever see - because they are scattered around the country. Or I'd want to do something really bonkers - like sky-diving. Perhaps I'd go on that trip to Egypt that I've always promised myself. Who knows?

What about you? What would you do?

Of course, this is all very theoretical. None of us is ever likely to have to make those kinds of choices. None of us really knows when we are going to die. But that wasn't the case for Jesus. He knew that his journey towards Jerusalem was going to result in his death...and he had to decide what he was going to do with his final days.

In today's gospel, we hear the second of three occasions in Mark's Gospel that Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to suffer, die, and rise again. We find Jesus knowing with absolute certainty that his road to Jerusalem is going to lead to death - and a painful one at that. The question we are presented with is this: how does Jesus choose to spend his last days on earth?

He could have gone sight-seeing. Perhaps he could have had a mega-party with all his friends and followers. Being God-on-Earth, he could have held mighty rallies, and shown mighty acts of power to wow the crowd.

But no. Instead, Jesus chooses to spend some of his last days on earth teaching his followers about what it really means to be a disciple. He teaches them about two vital things. Two things that are so important, that he takes his disciples aside to make sure they've got the message. Those two things are: the vital importance of humility, and the command to reach out to the weakest members of society.

When they arrive at a stop-over in Capernaum, Jesus turns to his followers and asks them "What were you arguing about on the road?" (v. 33). "But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest" (v.34)

Mark adds a nice little detail now. He says; "Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said...". Sitting down was what a Rabbi did when they were teaching their disciples. Sitting down was a sign that serious teaching was about to take place. When a Rabbi sits down, you take notice. Now what it is that Jesus wanted his disciples to take notice of? He says to them...

"If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all".

It's the topsy-turvey Kingdom of God again, isn't it? Time and time again, Jesus turns our eyes away from human notions of power. He turns the world upside down - away from people having power over people. Instead, he says that real power is found in service.

Last week, as most of you will know, we had the pleasure of a visit from Bishop Daniel of the Cape Coast. He reminded us that Bishops are called to be the 'servants of the servants of the servants of God'. Let's just break that down!

The people of God - all of us - are called to be servants of God. Priests and ministers are called be servants to the servants. And Bishops are called to be the servants of the servants of the servants! It's quite different from the way that we often view Bishops and church leaders. We tend to look up to them - and give them deference. Over the years, church leaders have accumulated 'the Reverend', or 'Father'. Archdeacons are called 'Venerable', and Bishops are called the 'Right Reverend', or 'Lord Bishop'.

Actually - as Bishop Daniel reminded us - all these titles are a million miles from the notion of service that Jesus spoke about. Thankfully, all these titles now have very little meaning. They are pointers to the job that each individual priest does...not attempted descriptions of their 'levels of holiness'. And, thankfully, most of the Bishops, Archdeacons and priests that I know are a long way from demanding that kind of deference. For example, at his farewell service last week, I remembered that when I first met Bishop Kenneth, he invited us to think of him as 'cuddly Bishop Ken'!

The notion of service is absolutely central to the Gospel. Jesus teaches us that it is in serving others that we find wholeness of life for ourselves. Rather than being a sacrifice, in fact we find that when we serve one another, there is a kind of freedom, and a kind of joy, that infects us. This is an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Jesus served us too, by living among our ancestors, teaching us through them what God is like, and then showing us the way to perfect freedom through his own service and sacrifice on the cross. Before he died, one of his most significant acts was to wash his disciples' feet. Just imagine that. Smelly, dirty feet. Covered in camel dung. That was a job that usually got done by the lowest member of the household - a slave, or a child. It was certainly not a job that was done by the master of the house.

But Jesus found liberation through his own service. Because of his willingness to serve others, by dying on the cross, the Scriptures tell us that God raised him up. God gave Jesus the liberation of resurrection.

And we too can find a sort of liberation as well. There is the sort of 'liberation from self' which comes from thinking about others, instead of being focused on myself. There is the liberation which comes from giving money away, and seeing lives transformed through it...rather than keeping all my money for myself. There is liberation in giving time to the service of others, instead of time for the serving of self.

Ask anyone who works in a charity shop, or who serves soup at a soup kitchen, or who labours in the African sun to bring relief to the starving. They will tell you that there is liberation in serving others. Ask anyone who works in the Community Cafe - giving their time freely in the service of others. Ask them how they feel when one of their regulars, perhaps an elderly widow who lives on her own, comes in for some warmth, a smile, and a chat.

Ask those who serve in the choir - giving up their Friday evenings to try and make sense of my bumbling conducting. Ask them how they feel when they get to serve you, the congregation, with their music on a Sunday morning. Ask those who came yesterday to the church work-day...what did it feel like to serve the whole church community with a few hours of labour? Ask Roy and Josie and Shirley and Eileen and Jeanette and Martin and Chris and Sheila and Geoff and Clare and Emily and Mary and Andy and Caitlin and Chloe. Ask them whether it felt good, deep down inside, to know that they were serving others. Ask Brenda Le Provost and Pat Atkinson who give up every Monday and Thursday to keep watch on the church, welcome visitors and distribute the pew news. Ask them whether they feel a sense of freedom, a sense of joy that comes from serving each other in that way.

The fact is that the church of God, and the work of God, exists entirely on the voluntary service of its members. Without that sense of service...we could not be here. Without the gifts of time (and indeed money) that you give, this church would have closed years ago...and with it would have gone all the good that we are able to do in this community.

But Jesus' message in today's gospel was not only about service. After making his great statement that those who would be great must be the servant of all, he "took a little child, and had him stand among them"(v.36). Taking that child in his arms, he said to his disciples, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me".

Why did he do this? What's so special about children? Well that's a question you hardly need to ask if you are a parent! But, in Jesus day, children were treated rather differently. For one thing, a child was a burden on the family - until they were old enough to work. (Come to think of it, nothing's changed!). Children didn't have any of the rights that children have today. There was no 'criminal records bureau' protecting them. There was no state education. There was no right to free medical treatment. There was no protection in law against exploitation and child labour.

If an adult called a child over to them, in Jesus' day, it wouldn't usually be to give them a hug. Adults used children as runners. "Come here child! Go and get me that bunch of grapes!". Children were, most definitely, to be seen and not heard. Did you know that in some circumstances, it was even legal for a father to kill his child!

So children were essentially treated as goods and cheap labour...even slave labour. They were the least powerful members of society. They couldn't change anything. There were no school councils asking for their opinion. There were no youth workers and teachers who tried to help them develop as whole human beings.

Jesus didn't take that child into his arms because he was sentimental about kids. He picked up that child to show that he, Jesus, was on the side of the poorest, the most dis-possessed, the most abused and sometimes despised members of society.

And so that was his message, that day, in the house in Caperneum. Anyone who wants to be considered great in God's kingdom must be the servant of all...and especially a servant to the poorest and most outcast in any society. We are called to bless and serve the poor...not only for the sake of the poor, though that would be a good enough reason. But for our sake too. As we bless others, whether it is with gifts of money or of time, we ourselves will find blessing. Our as Good King Wenceslas reminded us..."Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourself find blessing".

Finally, I believe, this message needs to be a challenge to the way that we give. The thought of that Christmas carol reminds me that the dreaded season of present buying is pretty much upon us. No doubt many of us will be starting to wrack our brains to think "what can I buy for my son or daughter or mum or dad - something that they don't have already...or which they wouldn't be capable of going out to buy for themselves if they wanted it?" Let me encourage you to think 'outside of the Christmas box' this year. Let me invite you to think about whether you could bless the poor with your gifts - as well as bless your family.

Think, for example, about buying a present of a cow, or a goat, that could be used in Africa or India to feed a starving family. The harvest has failed in Kenya this year. Millions will be going hungry while we are stuffing ourselves with turkey and chocolate. Could we perhaps spare some of our wealth for the table of a poor family?

There are now plenty of charities who enable us to buy presents that will really help someone in need - presents which can be sent on behalf of our own already rich relatives. Let me encourage you, seriously, to think about whether you could change the pattern of Christmas this year - whether Christmas really could be about goodwill to all...not just our family and friends.

So finally, may you discover the liberation that comes from service. May you discover the joy of taking the lowest members of our society into your arms and blessing them.


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