Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Last week, during our centering prayer group, we talked about those rare times in our lives when we have been welcomed fully by another; those rare times where time wasn’t a factor, and where open-hearted, open-ended presence led to intimacy and connection and the kind of life that lurks under the surface of our day to day world all the time but is only rarely dipped into by most of us. It made me think of the men and women of the homeless community I used to work with in Boston. They taught me pretty much everything I know about being a human and a Christian in this world, I have to admit. But most essentially, and before anything else, they taught me about the necessity of letting drop the brain clutter we busier, more ‘successful’ folks carry around with us wherever we go, in order to make room for each other in the moment, for the moment, with no ulterior motive or purpose.
It was strange and disorienting at first for volunteers and interns in the MANNA community to realize the depth of the power these people our world sees as powerless nonetheless possessed. But it was indisputable too. There was a depth of life among those the world wrote off as the least among us that was rare – an openness. Especially among the most marginalized in the community, the folks who were particularly frail, or vulnerable, there was a power to draw the rest of us out of ourselves that felt – and feels – quite literally, divine.
Imagine my surprise then, when I found the Gospel story for today reflecting on exactly these questions of power and powerlessness, of success and failure, of what greatness really is and can be. The disciples are arguing with one another about ‘who was the greatest.” The text tells us and I thought: Right. Exactly. That is the very thing that so often gets in the way for us busy and accomplished types – the very thing that people who are, for one reason or another, firmly stuck at the bottom of the ladder are not concerned with – the very thing that – in its absence – liberates.
I looked it up in the dictionary, just to make sure I knew what it meant, and this is what I found. “Greatness: Eminent; distinguished; grand; chief over others; markedly superior; remarkably skilled. An outstandingly superior or skillful person.”
Wow! Who of us haven’t wanted to be at least some of these things, at least some of the time? It’s the way of the world, after all, and the way we have been trained, and it has come to seem natural – simply human — to want to be recognized as effective, as powerful, as a leader in our field, as an innovator, a go-getter, a star.
And yet, here we are, gathered together again on a Sunday morning, to learn more about a God who chose not to augment, but to shed, the power and real greatness of Godliness – immortality, omnipotence omnipresence — in favor of the finite and vulnerable powerlessness of humankind. What does that do to our notion of what it means to be great?
Or how about this: having taken on the weakness of humankind, this God – our God, the creator of the universe and all that is in it — lived not as the first, or the best, or the greatest human on earth, but as the last and the servant of all….Think of it:
Born to a poor and displaced family in a dusty, out-of-the-way corner of the world, the incarnate God was raised in an unremarkable village, lived his life in obscurity for three decades. He finally emerges to be baptized by a penniless and unaffiliated mystic in the middle of nowhere and then spends just three years walking around, making time for everyone he met, sleeping wherever he was offered a place. He made no money, opened no business, planted no churches, wrote no books, built nothing, secured nothing, and protected nothing – except his fidelity to the one he called father, and to all of his father’s people whoever they were: rich and poor, revered and despised, sane and unwell — those who loved him, and those who tricked him and trapped him and trumped up charges against him and finally had him killed in the most obscure and shameful way it was possible to be killed back then.
Such a strange biography for God – don’t you think? I mean, if you’d never heard it before. It’s almost incomprehensible – almost unacceptable — this complete lack of anything ‘great’ in the singular life of God made human among us. Except….
…Except through all this lack of greatness, something everlasting was born among us, and then shared, and then spread — and this was love. Love as it looks when its human. Love that isn’t ‘great’ but rather small, love that doesn’t lead but rather serves, love that is, in the words from our reading from the Book of Wisdom today “willing to yield, full of mercy… without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy….”
The truth is, I think, that a lot of the time our drive to be ‘great’ in the ways of the world gets in the way of this love, or at least blocks it from view. Hurrying around from place to place, we have meetings to make and opinions to share, and while we may well, some of us, be successful and clever and bright, we are too often too busy, too full of our own thoughts and plans and worries and obligations, to either give or receive with much freedom at all the truth of our essence which is our need not for stature, or success, or even for recognition in the end – but for love.
Our need for love – both given and received.
This is God’s currency. And this currency which comes from God (and which is expressed through every action and word of our God’s otherwise humble life) seems to be known most deeply in, by and through the ones who are uninhibited by the search for power and prestige. Servants, and children, and poor people of every kind who, as Jesus says elsewhere, are the blessed ones — not only the inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven, but also, mysteriously, the engine of it too, igniting, through their very powerlessness, the stuff of God’s kingdom in the hearts of the rest of us without any conscious effort or will so to do.
And this brings me back again to the rag-tag people of the MANNA community at the Cathedral in Boston – and particularly to member of that community I’ll call Diane….
Diane was about 70 years old and she required a fair deal of care. She lived with her mother, then her sister, then her niece, and she spent a lot of time with us too, at the Cathedral, where people knew her and loved her and watched out for her. Diane loved to dance and to laugh and to eat foods of all kinds. She was fascinated by the textures of fabric, and loved the feel of human skin against her fingers. Often this meant she reached out and touched strangers and friends alike, which was dangerous for her, especially out on the street, but it was hard to help her stop.
Diane also loved the details of things: if you said you were going on vacation, she needed to know how you were getting there. If you said by plane, she would ask what kind of plane, and then what airline, and what time you left, and what time you arrived. During communion, Diane always needed ‘two pieces of bread’ one for each hand. She absolutely could not stand wine, and once, when she drank from the chalice with wine, instead of the chalice with grape juice that we always offered, she gagged and choked and coughed and spluttered for a full five minutes with eyes as wide as a new born bird.
This was Diane. It was simply who she was, and she led us all into life, one by one. One Sunday morning, for example, two visitors came to church — young men, handsome and fresh. A greeter helped settle them in and when Diane saw them, she got up and kind of bopped her way across the sanctuary in the middle of the first reading and then sat herself down right next to them, rocking back and forth gently in her chair as she did, humming to herself, happy to have found such a good spot to be. A moment later she did what she often did – she put her right hand on the skin of this stranger’s left knee and then settled in, entirely at home. I was up at the front, and could see the young man startle a little at this. So, as invisibly as possible, I mimed his removing of her hand from his leg and replacing it on her own lap. With his eyes, he reassured me that he was fine, and he did as I suggested, gently placing Diane’s hand back on her own lap. Filled with gratitude for his generosity and kindness, I then motioned that, if he liked, he could offer Diane his hand, and he willingly did this too – opening his palm to this woman who was a stranger to him, and then gently closing it again around hers, so that there the two of them were – one young, one elderly; one white, one African American; one a visitor, the other a long-term member of our community, joined together palm to palm, beaming, both of them.
And there they sat, right up until they had to stand for communion, and then again straight away afterwards, two strangers, hand in hand, at peace – and in love. And I remember thinking: ‘this is church.’ Right? Church brought to life by the kind of greatness Jesus talks about today, which is the greatness of God with us, the greatness of the ‘last of all’, which was revealed and released that day through Diane to the young man, and then – because I think this is simply how it works – through the young man back to Diane again: an endless stream of love that filled them both and then spread out to the rest of us and is now – years later — being carried on to you all – at least in part.
This, to my mind, is at least one of the things Jesus meant by his words for us today: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus tells us “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”