Sermon for 17th Sunday after Trinity, 23 September 2018
This follows the Gospel of Mark 9: 30-37
Promotion is a funny thing in the Church of England.
I learnt all about this when I was a Bishops chaplain – there is a list of those likely to be preferred. I was never on it. I am very unlikely to be on it now.
Some people love the idea of being promoted within the church. Some because they really feel called to it – others because they want to be important. It can get competitive. These days people aren’t just appointed they are interviewed for senior jobs in the church.
In the gospel, the disciples have been arguing. They have been arguing about which of them is the greatest. This is still a popular argument among adults in our own day. We invest ourselves heavily in this argument. Usually it is not so obvious as it is with these disciples. The argument is generally conducted indirectly, communicated through symbols such as who has the biggest income, the fanciest car, the largest house. Like these disciples of Jesus, and some clergy, today's adults are very often concerned with who is the greatest.
These disciples are honest enough to discuss it directly as they walk together down the road. But they are ashamed when Jesus asks what they were arguing about. They fall uncharacteristically silent, and they don’t tell him. But he knows exactly what's going on.
Jesus equates greatness with servanthood. This was a challenging notion then and still is.
Jesus also presents them with a child, as a symbol, an example. He says that welcoming such a child amounts to welcoming him and his Father in heaven who sent him.
Jesus’ world did not value children highly. They were often seen as an encumbrance until they could earn money to bring into the household. To compare God with a kid just in from the playground would have upset the assumptions of people in that world.
We may look back and condemn the attitudes of that day but we live in a world where all too often children are not valued highly. They may be valued in your family and mine, but that is because they are wanted. Many children do not even get the chance at life because they are not wanted, and others are badly treated or neglected. We can’t claim that our world today is much safer for children. And the church of all institutions should be a safe place for children. That is why it is such a scandal and so disgusting when they are harmed.
This is an opportune moment to draw your attention to the child protection officer of this church – her mobile phone number is in the porch. She is there to advise us on any issues that might come up.
Back to Jesus. By presenting them with a child and then saying that welcoming such a child amounts to welcoming him and his Father in heaven, Jesus teaches us that we need to rethink what we see as important. We need to give importance to important things, not just powerful things.
Often the important things and people do not shout for attention. We need to look with the eyes of faith to recognise them.
They are not always the same as the most obvious things.
The disciples are missing the point by trying to work out who is the greatest. But humility has to be at the heart of our lives. Humility is often misunderstood. Guess who said these words:
“I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
Muhammad Ali was many things but humble probably wasn't’t one of them!
William Temple a previous Archbishop of Canterbury once said:
"Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself one way or the other at all."
The disciples have missed this – because they are thinking about themselves – not about the people they are called to serve. This is why Jesus is quite abrupt with them and shocks them by his reference to the child.
So where does all this leave us?
Well, in the difficult position of living for others. Of not pushing ourselves or our loved ones forward to gain importance in the world’s eyes. Of having the eyes to see who really is important. We may have to pay respect to those in power, those who have power over us, but they don’t have to be that important in our minds.
Perhaps its the bereaved, the poor, the friendless, the lonely and the confused who should be more important to us? Perhaps like the little child with Jesus, the overlooked of our society need us to concentrate on them. As we do this we will probably be really concentrating on God.
One story to finish. At a reception honouring the musician Sir Robert Mayer on his 100th birthday, the elderly British socialite Lady Diana Cooper fell into conversation with a friendly woman who seemed to know her well.
Lady Diana's poor eyesight stopped her from recognising her fellow guest. But as she peered more closely at the magnificent diamonds she realised she was talking to the Queen!
Distraught with embarrassment, Lady Cooper curtsied and stammered, "Ma'am, oh, ma'am, I'm sorry ma'am. I didn't recognizer you without your crown!"
The Queen replied:
"It was so much Sir Robert's evening, that I decided to leave it behind."
Father Matthew BUCHAN