Sunday, September 24, 2006

Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven

I think it was an episode of the TV medical series ER that included a scene in which two little boys were engaged in a fierce argument. One of the doctors asked them what they were arguing about, and they said that they were arguing about who would win if Superman and Batman got in a fight. One little boy argued that Superman would certainly win because he was the "man of steel" and is "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound". The other little boy said that Batman would win because he would use kryptonite to disable Superman.

Well, that's the kind of thing that little boys argue about. Older boys (and men) argue about which football, baseball, or basketball team is the greatest, and sometimes they argue about which country is the greatest. We call those latter arguments wars.

It is difficult to imagine grown men having the kind of discussion described in today's reading from Mark. "...when he was in the house, Jesus asked them, 'What were you discussing on the way?' But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest".

Unless we are Muhammad Ali, we don't usually go around chanting, "I'm the greatest", and I think that even Ali said that a little tongue in cheek. No, we aren't usually so open in asserting our superiority over others. But we do have subtle ways of doing it. There is something in human nature that makes us want to let others know that we think we are superior. We call it drive or ambition. It makes some seek political office; it makes others work to become CEO of their company. And others demonstrate that they are ahead of others by amassing wealth or possessions.

Now, there is nothing wrong with ambition per se. There is something healthy in a degree of competition. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to do the best one can in one's job or in athletics or in school.

The problem comes when we start comparing ourselves with others. If on some level we are saying, "I want to show that I am better or stronger or smarter than Sam or Mary", then something is wrong with our competitiveness.

That appears to be why Jesus rebuked his disciples. They had one idea of greatness; Jesus had another. Their idea of greatness seems to have been about having more -- more money, more success, more power. Jesus' idea of greatness seems to have been about giving more. "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise."

Jesus' own life represented a different standard of greatness. And as if that weren't enough, Mark says, "he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me".

True greatness, Jesus seems to be saying, is not in having but in giving. It is not in stepping on others in order to climb the ladder but in being attentive to the needs and concerns of others.

Now, that was really a kind of strange thing to do. Notice that Jesus said nothing about childlike innocence. You are probably more familiar with the way this same story is told in Matthew's gospel. It is Matthew, not Mark, who adds the famous line, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven". Matthew appears to be saying that Jesus was urging his followers to become innocent and pure again, like little children.

But Mark does not include that line, and I prefer Mark's account of this story. Now, don't misunderstand me; I like children (really, I do!!). But children can be remarkably quarrelsome. They can come to blows when they argue about the relative superiority of Batman and Superman. We don't enter the world as innocent, unselfish creatures. We enter the world as selfish creatures and have to learn unselfishness by sharing our toys and cookies with others.

Jesus says that true greatness is found in being a servant. And he showed them what he was talking about by picking up a child. Jesus picked up the child and set him in the midst of the disciples not because he was urging the disciples to become childlike (nor, as pop psychologists of our day might say, to urge them to "get in touch with their inner child"). The child is not the model of greatness; the child and those like the child are the ones we are to serve. The child represents the weak and the helpless, those who cannot take care of themselves.

"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but hiim who sent me".

Service to the weak and the helpless, then, is service to Christ. Receiving children, visiting the sick, praying with the dying, giving food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless -- that is the test of greatness.

I'm not good at it. If I had been among Jesus' disciples, I might not have been openly discussing who was the greatest, but I probably would have been wondering about it and trying to figure out how to get Jesus to notice and praise me.

However, I know that it has been in those moments when I have been the servant rather than the one being served that I have felt the presence of God most strongly.

I remember the Christmas of 1978. I had graduated from Harvard the previous June and still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. My mother was the principal of a rural elementary school, and she asked if I would play the piano for the Christmas program. That was about the last thing I wanted to do. Harvard graduates weren't supposed to play upright pianos in the cafeterias of rural elementary schools. They were supposed to work for large investment firms on Wall St. or for senators in Washington or be trying to make partner in prestigious law firms. But I was playing Christmas carols for school children.

I went with a bad attitude and played sullenly, until the special education students started to sing. "Special ed" is, of course, a euphemism. These are the physically and mentally handicapped children. But in spite of their handicaps, or maybe because of them, these children sang with joy. Christmas really meant something to them. They felt special as they stood on the stage and people listened to them and their parents and relatives beamed with pride. And I felt ashamed that I had been so reluctant to be there and play for an hour or so. And then I started to feel a kind of warmth or contentment, call it the "spirit of Christmas". The presence of God, maybe? But I was glad I was there.

Just after Mother Teresa’s death The New Yorker featured an article by a physician who had worked with her. He concluded by saying, "As for the ending of her own life, I think she would have found something wastful in any sort of mass tribute to mark her death. 'Get on with it', she might have said. 'There is work to do.' She might have said, as she did say to many who visited her, 'Make your life something beautiful for God.'"

And that is a pretty good paraphrase of what Jesus said to the disciples who were discussing which of them was the greatest, and what he might say to those of us worrying about making more money or getting promoted, "Get on with it! There’s work to do. Make your life something beautiful for God".

Thursday, September 14, 2006

When words ARE enough

“Word, words,” sang Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars burning above; if you're in love, show me!” Probably all of us are sympathetic with Eliza Doolittle’s complaint about her suitor’s failure to match deeds with words. Words by themselves seem puny and anemic. Words hardly seem adequate when death and disaster strike. What good are words when terrorists crash airplanes into skyscrapers or a city and tens of thousands of its citizens practically disappear beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico? However, in today’s gospel reading, Peter tells Jesus that he has “the words of eternal life.” What do you suppose these words are, and is there any justification for Peter’s outrageous claim?

Words, both spoken and written, are central to the Christian faith. From the beginning to the end of the Bible words play a central role. In Genesis God speaks the heavens and the earth into existence: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…” The prophets prefaced their oracles by saying, “This is the word of the Lord.” And when the Spirit breathed new life into Jesus’ discouraged followers, the great sign of the Spirit’s visitation was the gift of words: “…they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2.4)

Words are powerful; they can create, and they can destroy. When a couple stand in the presence of God and their family and friends and pledge to love and be faithful to each other, their “I do’s” summon a new world into being. But just as surely, when love dies and a couple who have shared a life together grow distant and hostile, a whole world is destroyed when one spouse says, “I want a divorce.”

Sometimes words take on a life of their own. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, “all men” meant “all free, white, male property owners above a certain age,” but his words accomplished more than he intended or could have imagined. They not only severed the ties between America and England and brought a new nation into existence, they eventually brought freedom and equality to enslaved Africans and women, as well. When Franklin Roosevelt declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” a nation haunted by unemployment and hunger began to regain its confidence. And when Ronald Reagan stood atop the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he was sowing the seeds that would yield a harvest of freedom for the Soviet people and their allies in only a few years.

But of all the words ever spoken, only Jesus’ words are said to be “the words of eternal life.” In teaching his disciples to pray, “Our Father…” Jesus changed the relationship between humanity and God from estrangement to reconciliation. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount radically challenged our belief that life is about gaining, getting, and keeping; rather, he suggested that it is not the winners but the losers on whom God’s favor rests. In the face of death itself, Jesus demonstrated that real power is not in the hands of those who sit in judgment on the innocent and condemn them to death but in the hands of the one who can summon the power to forgive: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Finally, he told us that meaningful life is found not in security but in risking everything for the sake of the gospel: “…those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…”

Jesus’ words are not pious platitudes; rather, they are flares that arc across the night sky, showing us the way across a perilous landscape. His words are food and water in the wilderness. Each of Jesus’ words is a time bomb that may at any minute go off in the midst of the enemy’s fortress.

“To whom shall we go?” Peter asked. There are many places we can go for easier words. The marketplace tells us that “Greed is good” and will not reproach us for filling up our bank accounts while our neighbors are in need. The cult of power and success all around us rewards our innate competitiveness and mocks the gospel’s reminder that the poor are blessed. Rather than dying to self and being raised by God to new life in Christ, the prevailing culture promises us perpetual youth if we will drink this, eat that, or drive the latest model from Detroit.

What is it that gives Jesus’ words such power? He was not the most eloquent rabbi of first century Palestine and far from the most learned. Scholars have demonstrated that he was not even very original; many of Jesus’ sayings are similar to or even the same as some of his contemporaries. I think the explanation for Peter’s claim that Jesus spoke “words of eternal life” can be found at the very first beginning of John’s gospel. “ The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” There was a perfect correspondence between Jesus’ words and his life. When he said, “Blessed are the poor,” he lived out its meaning by sharing his life with the poor. When he prayed “Our Father,” his disciples could believe that God was their Father, too, because of Jesus’ own intense intimacy with God. When he said, “Father, forgive them” to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, his words rang true because he had lived out that forgiveness in his life. And when he died, his disciples finally understood what he had meant by calling on them to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.

His words have eternal significance because they were not just spoken in Palestine long ago, he speaks them to us today. When he blessed the “poor in spirit,” he was blessing us, for we are all poor in spirit. When he prayed “Our Father,” he was inviting us into greater intimacy with God. When he invited his disciples to give up their lives for the sake of the gospel, he was inviting us to let go of our false security and launch out in the great adventure to which God invites us. And when he forgave the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, he was forgiving us, for all of us have stood by and allowed the innocent to be punished.

Jesus’ words are words of eternal life because he is God’s word and his life was the very image of God’s love for us – the poor, the fearful, the estranged, and the bystanders at the cross.

When life falls apart (and eventually, life falls apart for everyone), there is only one to whom we can go, only one whose words are “spirit and life,” only one who has the words of eternal life. As Albert Schweitzer reminded us, “He comes to us as one unknown as of old by the lake-side he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands, and to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.” (Concluding paragraph, The Quest for the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.)