Reading(s): Mark 9:30-37. This sermon was given by Sally at All Saints, North Baddesley.
I am one of those people who after buying something that I don’t fully understand how to use will only ever read a user Manual if all else fails. I am not proud of the fact that I am like this, I just can’t face reading so many words, because I am terribly impatient with having to follow instructions. Also, I often find it difficult to concentrate and even understand what is written, more so especially if the instructions are badly written! What I really need is someone to sit there and demonstrate how the device or whatever it is works. There are various types of learning styles and most of us can relate to at least one of them, there are those who learn by listening to someone or reading about something. Others find it easier to learn by watching something being demonstrated, in other words visual images and others find that being ‘hands on’ practically doing something themselves is the best way to learn. We are all different and as we go through life we find our own way of learning. Although there are times when we crave for those around us to understand that our learning skills may not be the same as theirs.
In some ways I have quite a lot of sympathy for Jesus’s disciples as they pass through Galilee in this morning’s gospel reading, and head towards Jerusalem. At this point Jesus is finding that they are failing to understand that betrayal and death await him. A Messiah who suffers is obviously not on their radar and why should it be? However, instead of the disciples asking Jesus questions, which is another way of learning and probably would have helped them understand what he was trying to tell them, they decide to argue amongst themselves, rather like children. When they arrive in Cupernaum Jesus sits them down and asks what they were arguing about and of course they were silent, probably ashamed or even afraid, but Jesus knew exactly what they were arguing about, they were squabbling amongst themselves about who was the greatest. I wonder also if the disciples felt that being with someone who had the ability to perform miracles and help so many people, they started to have a very inflated view of themselves. The idea of greatness is a question men and women often ask of themselves and others, though not necessarily out loud in a discussion, but rather by their view of each other. In most places especially in businesses with high achievers there tends to be a competition not only to determine who is better than average and therefore great, but also who is greater than that and who is the greatest. In sport recently we have watched the Olympics and Paralympics and the giving of medals has determined who is the greatest with those winning the Gold medal being the greatest.
Yet, as we all know, the greatest athletes do not always win every contest. We also understand that even if a person is great in the sense of having exceptional abilities, be it sport, work or whatever, they are not a great person unless they also have good character qualities.
The memory that I hold regarding church and who was thought of as being the greatest or of importance is when I was an Army wife. My husband was stationed at a British Military hospital in Germany where I attended the Sunday church services, they took place in part of the hospital building, not in a garrison church. The officers and their families sat in the front whilst we junior ranks sat at the back and there was no passing of the peace (obviously not because of Covid) but that sort of mingling was certainly not allowed. Therefore it came as a bit of a shock when I left Germany and attended a church just outside Evesham where people actually could sit anywhere in a church and turned towards each other to pass the peace.
The church is supposed to be distinctive and special and for that to happen we need to rethink the way we think about ourselves and others, not only in worship but at other times. The letter of James talked about the sin of ‘selfish ambition’ which is exactly what the disciples were guilty of. Unfortunately, this can so often be what we are guilty of when we live by the values of the world and of lording it over one another. We achieve greatness in the kingdom of heaven by serving one another. Therefore, we must first quell selfish ambition and align ourselves with servant hood, helping others. It is also about the way we value other people and respect them for who they are, even when it does not conform to our way of life. If God values most highly the least important, the most vulnerable, the least wise then we should do the same. Greatness never puts itself in a position of superiority over another. It is not about me; my country, my religion, my politics, my bank account, my house, my job, my accomplishments, my reputation, my status. Our greatness is revealed in our service and care of others regardless of our willingness to pay, repay, or return the favour.
Often when visiting those who have been bereaved and asking about their loved one who has died I am told, “they would do anything for anyone” and I am absolutely sure they were extremely helpful and considerate to those around them. But it is quite a loaded statement which I am sure not many of us can live up to, especially when we are faced with so many people who need our help and support, our Christian calling is to help everyone we meet, regardless of who they are friend, relation or stranger. Jesus said “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. Then to drive the point home even more about greatness and humility Jesus puts a child in front of them, a visual aid if you like Because how we treat those from whom we can receive nothing in return determines our hearts. In Jesus' day, most people did not consider children to be significant in the social pecking order, for they along with women were second class citizens. In many ways, this view still exists today particularly for those who work supporting the elderly at home or in care. There are other such jobs which do not have a very high status in our society, reflected mainly in the low wages and poor working conditions. But these are the people who during the pandemic put others first even though they had a greater risk of catching the virus. Jesus reminds his followers that the way they welcome, treat, and value children reveals a great deal about themselves, the last will be first and those whom society might not value are deeply valued by God. Welcoming God into our lives means welcoming those whom society may look down upon. And faith, well that is not all about a church doctrine or power or privilege. It is about service to others service to the point of sacrifice. It can be expressed equally through individual actions and experiences as it can be in church-wide attitudes, actions and public declarations. Each and every day we will have the opportunity to show how Christ’s love can bring healing to our hurting world and we must do this with the greatest humility just as Jesus did when he set the little child among the disciples . We should all be more caring and serve others just as Christ did when he walked this earth, he did not think himself great.
Over the last 6 years Victoria has been a faithful spiritual leader as well as a faithful servant to this benefice, she has guided us and been with us through some testing times especially during the darkest times of the pandemic, next week when the service will be at St. Mark’s we will have an opportunity to thank God for her leadership and her humility, but if you can’t make it in person then send a prayer of thanks to God. In the name of Christ Amen.