Sermons from St Faith's     


Top Dog or Underdog?
Fr Dennis Smith, October 21st, 2012

Most of us here this morning will probably never have had the honour or distinction of being head-hunted for a job, but these days it’s very much the fashion. Gone are the days when senior executive posts were filled via adverts in the top people’s papers. These days we turn to the specialists, whose job it is – for a price – to seek out just the right candidate. And it’s not an easy process. There are batteries of tests to determine psychological fitness; past performance is carefully investigated. The potential leaders are incisively questioned about their abilities, relationships with colleagues, their approaches to problems.

Now we may never be part of such an interviewing panel, but if we were, before choosing the potential new king-pin, what if we should throw in a few slightly different questions: What’s the name of the man or woman who cleans your office? How many children does your caretaker have? How much do you know about the waiters in your favourite restaurant? And we could disqualify those who couldn’t answer, because we would like to live in a world where those who lead do so from a clear understanding of, and respect for, those whose lives are affected by their decisions. And just as important, a world where those who make the big decisions realize that their ideas are fruitless unless put into effect by those who clean the floors, change the bedpans and fix the plumbing.

Of course to expect the great and good, or even us less great and less good, to really take notice of those who serve us in so many different ways, is a tough call in a society where many of us can quote the intimate details of the lives of celebrities we will never meet, but inhabit a wilderness community, bereft of relationships with neighbours, colleagues and the host of people who labour to make our lives bearable.

But time to turn to our story from Mark’s Gospel which we heard a few minutes ago; a story typical of his retelling of Jesus’ ministry. Mark’s readers have come to know that there’s no mistake, no failing that they can fall into, worse than those of one or other of the first disciples.

So it is that here, confronted with Jesus’ reaffirmation that he is going to Jerusalem not to be welcomed and crowned but to be killed and to return from the dead, brothers James and John decide that the moment has come to make their move. “Listen”, they say, “when all the dust has settled and you take power, we want to be your two top enforcers.” Can’t you almost hear Jesus sigh?

Weeks, months, years on the road preaching that the Kingdom of God isn’t like earthly kingdoms, telling everyone that the last will be first, the meek shall inherit the earth – and what’s the result? The disciples are still bickering about who will be the most important.

Everyone wants to be the top dog, so it seems. And yet we know that God loves the underdog. If Jesus it to be believed, in the coming Kingdom all our ideas of who is great and who is unimportant will be turned on their heads. People who build their lives around simple acts of goodness without seeking reward will be revealed to be head and shoulders higher in stature than leaders and celebrities of all kinds, including the Christian variety.

True greatness comes when we allow God to work in and through and with us – when we work God’s works in the same way that Jesus showed: lifting up the downtrodden, bringing relief to the suffering, comfort to the distressed. Whatever we do, however insignificant it may seem, out of love for our neighbours near and far – God is in that act, and where God is, there is greatness beyond imagination. And we cannot reflect upon today’s Gospel without taking account of what Jesus says in it about the role of suffering. “Can you drink from the same cup as me?” he asks the two self-appointed candidates for greatness. “Yes we can”, they reply, confidently. “Then you will”.

God does them the courtesy of taking them at their word – but you have to wonder how they felt about that glib undertaking when they saw just what a bitter cup Jesus was to drink.  We are skirting the edge of a mystery here – the relationship between true greatness and suffering. It’s something to do with matching up two truths: an uncomfortable match but true nonetheless.

The first truth we’ve already seen, that God is in every act of unselfish kindness, every time we connect in love with the need of another. And the second truth is that in a suffering world, it’s often only those who have themselves suffered who can truly make that connection.

In times of suffering and tragedy many people say “I understand how you feel”, but something inside us knows that however well-meaning, it isn’t true. And then we hear the voice of the one who says “I have been where you are” and we know that here is a voice that can reach us. There are times in life when no amount of sympathy from those who have not been to the depths themselves will help. We need to feel the touch of one who has suffered like us before we can find the way back. That’s true of human beings and it’s true of God, who earned on the Cross the right to speak to us in the moment of our deepest suffering. So James and John will be given their chance for greatness, even if they don’t understand at that moment what it will cost. And we know that many others, people who would never have chosen that path for themselves, have endured tragedy and turned it into the opportunity to reach out to, to connect with, others who suffer.

That is the mystery – tragedy can destroy a person and yet it can also be a path to true greatness. Those who set out to make themselves great in the Kingdom are usually setting themselves up for failure. Great servants of God usually only arrive at that state after a long journey – and the very greatest don’t even realize that they’ve arrived. Set out to be great and the first spiritual banana skin we slip on will so humiliate that it will probably be the end of our journey.

But God honours those who set out to be useful rather than great. Any of us can share a drink, serve a cup of tea, clean up the mess or find some time to listen for the sake of the love of God and of our neighbour. We can do that little caring act that makes a difference. And I suspect that other  people, who find it difficult to talk to us when we are full of our own spiritual importance, might find us easier to take, easier to talk to, easier to listen to if we approach them as God’s bar-staff, God’s caretakers, God’s cleaners and God’s listeners – you know, the people who really make the Kingdom of  God happen.

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