Homily for the 18th Sunday of Pentecost September 23, 2012

WHO’S THE GREATEST?

As I’ve said before, I’m a great fan of nature documentaries, and I will watch almost anything involving lions.  As is the case with many people, one of the disturbing things about lions is the way they eat.  Unique among cats, lions live together in groups – extended families — called prides, and they hunt in beautifully coordinated attacks which require great skill, courage, endurance and teamwork. It’s very impressive.  But when they have the prey – when the prize is in front of them — they almost tear each other apart in their effort to get at it first and to get the biggest share.  They are often injured by each other in the process of trying to consume their prize.

After the feeding frenzy, they spend time licking and nuzzling each other, rolling about together, almost apologetically, as though they are somewhat embarrassed, as if making up for their momentary fury, their temporary loss of concern for each other, and their blind craving to get at what they wanted no matter who was in front of them.

Seeing lions “go for it” is a spectacle that is disturbing and yet fascinating — we both abhor it and are somehow drawn to it.  We like to think we’re more civilized than lions, yet it’s interesting what you hear just wandering around a shopping mall:

“I’d kill for a latte right now.”

“If she doesn’t invite me to the party Saturday, I’ll kill that bitch!”

“If my mom shows up to pick me up wearing that stupid hat again, I’ll kill her.”

Comedian Steven Wright captured the duality of our human nature quite well when he said, “I’d kill for a Nobel Peace prize.”

Perhaps people who stand in line for the latest I-phone or for tickets to Lady Gaga concerts also console and congratulate each other after the battle, but until that time, it’s like a feeding frenzy on the Serengeti and everyone out for Number One!

Every now and again we seem to lose our minds, and get so focused on some thing that we just have to have that we lose perspective about everything else, and perhaps behave in ways we are ashamed or embarrassed about afterward.

Watching the X-Factor the other night, two things struck me: first, that many of the people auditioning have been wrongly informed that they are great singers and many of them cannot be convinced that they are not; and secondly, that one of the characteristics the judges are looking for is an intense desire to “have it all” — a burning desire to be Number One — to win.  They want to see the talent first of all, but the judges also want to see that gleam in their eye, they want to see that will to be first, because the judges know that, in the harsh world of the music industry, it’s survival of the fittest, and you have to be very tough and very focused.

So the show entertains us by showing both how foolish the desire for greatness can be, and what amazing things can happen when this desire is actually accompanied by some talent.  For the folks with no talent, the burning gleam in their eye is probably some form of insanity.   Sometimes people just want the greatness – they want to be at the top – and have no idea what it would mean to get there, or be there.  They have a vision of themselves having arrived, without the effort, without the journey, without the talent.

Yes, stepping on someone’s face to get the most recent version of a phone or game or brand of corn flakes is obviously a bad thing.  But wanting to go for the gold and to fulfill your ambitions is not always a bad thing, as X Factor reveals in some of the quite moving stories that are portrayed.  “Follow your bliss,” as one modern philosopher put it.   We want our young people to explore their talents and abilities and not shrink back from excellence because of guilt or false humility – hiding your light under a bushel is not humility.

At times Christianity seems to demand the impossible from people.  Really, nobody in their right mind willingly becomes a slave and yet that is what St. Paul routinely called himself.   No one waiting in a line-up, say, for the latest I Phone, willingly goes to the back of the line to allow others to go ahead.  It’s what we call counter-intuitive.  It goes against what we consider common sense or the conventional way, and seems to urge upon us a negative concept of self, and to encourage us to sell ourselves short.

I think there are many in our world who probably look to lions and sharks and hyenas as role models, admiring their strength and aggressiveness and the way they dominate in their environments.   And they all have admirable qualities.  But sometimes the lions’ cubs starve to death because the adults are so absorbed with getting what they want.  Sometimes the lions seriously injure and maim each other in the process of grasping for the prize.   Surely we can learn something from that.  As we consider lions clawing and biting at each other, I am reminded of the recent incident in which two homeless men in St Louis fought to the death — over a bag of Cheeto’s!    So much for the “eye on the prize” approach.  It does have its down side.

When Jesus calls his disciples to think again about their ambitions he is not asking them to become mediocre or complacent, or to act as if they don’t care.  He is not asking them to be doormats in every possible situation.  He is not urging them to desire anything less than the kingdom.  He wants them to be great, but not necessarily in the way the world usually defines that term.

Jesus knows full well that when we are focused solely on the prize, we can become impulsive, obsessive, and quite blind to what is immediately around us, and we do start stepping on people, hurting people, ignoring people, quite unintentionally, as in the case with lions grasping at a carcass.   We can compromise and damage ourselves as well as those around us when we lose a larger perspective on things and forget to look around as well as forward.

As Jesus articulates to his disciples the inner meaning of his calling, his purpose on earth, their first reaction is to try to block him, and the next thing they do is turn on each other, competing for the top places in the kingdom as they imagine it, and arguing with each other about who is greatest.  This is pretty typical for 14 year old boys, but among the inner circle of Christ’s select followers, it looks pretty immature and inappropriate.   We tend to expect more of people who identify themselves with Christ.

Christianity challenges and confronts the kind of world where one dominates and another suffers, where one wins and another loses, where some have opportunities and others never get near the door, and where we see each other as rivals and not as neighbours.  Jesus deliberately turns their attention away from a certain approach to greatness and calls them to a different kind.

Competition can be very good – as a way of testing ourselves and trying to bring out the best in ourselves, and in others; it can be mutually beneficial.  It is less helpful when we use it  as a way to determine our ultimate worth, and someone else’s worthlessness.  It is less helpful when we see it in narrow terms, as if being a poor athlete makes you a poor human being for instance, or as if not looking like a Barbie doll means you are doomed to a meaningless life.

The kingdom is not about better than, greater than — or less than.  It’s like after three years, the disciples haven’t comprehended anything Jesus has taught them.

That is not the kind of Kingdom Jesus envisioned – not a place where only a few survivors make it.  It is more like a vineyard in which everyone is given a place, a purpose and a reward; it is like a place where there is so much room that no one has to be anxious or envious; it is a place where the “impossible” abundance of God’s grace is experienced, and all human gifts can be welcomed and offered.

In this sense, greatness has to do with the kind of person you are, and the way you make the world a better place, rather than with the position you have or the amount of things you accumulate.  Greatness in the Kingdom of God is accessible to everyone and consists of the degree to which you have become free to offer your life in service to others – the degree to which you can open your heart in love and compassion.

Jesus is talking in terms of death and resurrection – his own personal sacrifice symbolizing the new way that God is offering. The old way had to go because it was part of the problem – part of a system of domination which was part of the legacy of ancient times when humans, like animals, had to compete with lions and baboons and rhinos for their existence.  In Christ, that way of being becomes obsolete (see Hebrews 8:13).

“In Christ, there is a new creation,” as Paul says (2 Corinthians 5: 17).  So Jesus calls for a new way, and symbolizes this by telling his followers to look to the freshness and innocence of children, and to make sure they did not get caught up in the envy and ambition that seems to characterize the world

A child is a symbol of vulnerability (for obvious reasons but also because a child was virtually a non-person in that era), as well as a symbol of renewal, and of hope.  Children remind us to pay attention to the future, for their sake, and speak to us of our  responsibility to create a way forward that is hopeful and positive for succeeding generations.  When we are tempted by our nature to look to power and self-survival, to succeed at all costs – when we notice our vision narrowing and a sense of desperation and scarcity rising in ourselves, the Gospel says we are to deliberately turn our attention to the least – to widen our vision instead of narrowing it, and to look to those around us who might be run over, marginalized, left out, damaged by greed, ambition, envy and aggression.

We’ve all met the kind of people who simply have to claw their way to the front of the row, the top of the heap – they’ve got to have a better car than you, they’ve got to have the latest phone — and we’ve all seen the pathetic bumper stickers which proclaim the secular creed: “the one who dies with the most toys wins.”   They have their reward, as Jesus said.

Think about this:

Name the five wealthiest people in the world.

Name the last five years’ worth of Stanley Cup winners.

Name the last three winners of the Miss Universe contest.

Name the last three dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.

How did you do?

The point is, today’s headliner is tomorrow’s meaningless statistic.  I remember Muhammad Ali proclaiming “I am the greatest of all time!”  And I remember a moment just a few years later when he got savagely beaten and humiliated by a younger, stronger fighter.  His “time” lasted just several years.

Not even Jesus went around saying he was the greatest.   Jesus diverts our attention from what we call greatness so that we might pay attention to things and people the world tends to ignore, and says, the least can be the greatest, if you have eyes to see.

Here’s another quiz. See how you do on this one:

List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.

Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.

Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.

What matters to you?  What is really important?

Today’s Gospel raises some important questions for us to think about: What is the true nature of greatness?  How can we be “great” without compromising or destroying the hopes and dreams of those around us?  How can we fulfill our true purpose without getting caught up in all the envy and hype that pulls our attention toward unworthy forms of consumerism rather than true service?

Let us pray today for the freedom of Christ, that we may become fully human, let us pray for grace, that we might live the Christian life with integrity, and let us pray for divine wisdom, that we might discern the way forward in righteousness and peace.

The Rev. Grant Rodgers+