“Employee of the Month”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Our Job Description: Change the World”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
September 23, 2018
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.”
I have been challenging us all to think about our life’s work as Christians. This morning I want to challenge you to think about how to win the “employee of the month” award as a Christian. I have said our “job description” is to change the world. Simple, right? But like most things the difficult part is the details. Change the world into what? Change the world, how? Those are two of the main questions we have to answer.
The first question – change the world into what – is basically, “change the world into the Kingdom of God.” Or, to be more accurate, instead of Kingdom of God, the Reign or God. Our job is to change the world to reflect the way God intends it to be. Sure there are varying ideas about that and we can get way down a rabbit hole about a lot of details like how to take communion, or if the only songs God likes are hymns written before the 1700’s. But I want to keep it simple and keep us focused on things that matter, and this passage of Scripture “cuts to the chase,” as they say. It gets to the point. Let’s look at it a bit and then see how we put it into practice.
Jesus and the disciples are on the move again. Jesus didn’t stay in one place for very long. Seems like he was always going to the next place on his list. This time it is Capernaum. This is kind of a home base for them because it is where Peter’s house is and where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. But they get there and Jesus is aware the disciples have been discussing something and he asks them about it. The Scripture says they were reluctant to tell Jesus what they were talking about because they were arguing about or discussing who was the greatest. You can almost imagine the scene. Jesus is standing there and the disciples, like sheepish fifth grade boys are looking down, embarrassed, kicking the dirt and saying, “Nuttin’. We wasn’t talkin’ ‘bout nuttin’.” But then they admit that they were talking about greatness.
Now greatness is a hot topic, even today. Muhammad Ali famously proclaimed he was “the Greatest.” Many sportswriters have proclaimed Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England NFL Patriots as “the GOAT.” That stands for the “Greatest Of All Time.” The most recent national election included the campaign slogan about making our nation “great” again. So this question of greatness isn’t just a First Century Palestinian philosophical debate. Perhaps the disciples were claiming the title for themselves. We can imagine all the ways they might have campaigned for the title. Of course, we assume they were voting for themselves rather than for each other. We don’t know but it seems a safe assumption.
What defines greatness? We normally assume greatness is based on power, accomplishment, fame, wealth, and such. These are things that influence people, to make things go your way. But that’s not what Jesus says. Instead, says greatness in God’s Reign is defined by how we welcome the most vulnerable. He flips the conversations totally from power and profit and personal privilege to serving others. And to make his point he takes a child and places her in their midst and says, “If you welcome someone like this child, you welcome me.”
This is a rather startling statement about what defines greatness. There aren’t many children who have power, fame, wealth, or accomplishment. Maybe a few child actors, yes, or children of famous, powerful, or wealthy parents, but in general children are not able to do much for anyone. So in fact, what Jesus is telling us is that when we welcome the most vulnerable, the least “useful,” the most costly people in the world, when we serve their needs, we are the greatest in God’s eyes.
Do I have to list all the ways this is the exact opposite of what we do in our world today? If we acted on the notion that treating the most vulnerable as if they were Jesus himself would we allow children to go hungry in the richest nation that ever was on the face of the earth? Would we allow children to go to school and not learn to read and yet graduate them out to failure? Even worse, would we allow people who have mental health issues to buy guns at gun shows with no checks, no limits, and then go into our schools and shoot up our children? Would we allow children to go without health care because their parents can’t pay for it? Every one of those children IS Jesus. That’s what Jesus is telling us and when we don’t “welcome” them by caring for them as the most sacred of gifts then we are failing at our jobs. You can’t win “employee of the month that way!”
Jesus never defined greatness by profit margins, executive salaries that are 1000 times what workers get, or by locking up immigrant children in cages and prisons that cost more per night than a luxury hotel in Manhattan, New York. I hear things today, claimed in the name of Jesus that horrify me. A man in North Carolina insisting that God is a White Nationalist so why should anyone criticize him for being one? Billy Graham’s son again and again saying the most ridiculous things, in the name of God. Priests saying they don’t know if raping children is a crime so they didn’t know they had to report it. That isn’t greatness.
When Jesus challenges us to the kind of greatness that means serving, loving, and protecting the most vulnerable among us, the most helpless he is certainly defining our congregational life. We do a pretty great job of doing all we can do take care of the most vulnerable, and the most in need of compassion out in our community. You all are pretty great at that. Your support of Micah’s Backpack, Family Promise, supporting the work of ICARE that provides Neighborhood Accountability Boards to give teens a second chance instead of a prison record are all examples of caring for the most vulnerable. I give you all “employee of the month” certificates for that. I would give all of you the special parking space in our lot, but that probably wouldn’t be what Jesus means for us to do, so, sorry!
Certainly this is a vision for our congregational life. But it also applies more personally. How are we doing, that is, with measuring our success, our greatness, not by what we take in but by what we give away, not by the influence we wield but by the service we offer, not by accumulating more but by sharing what we already have, not by being first but by being eager to work hard in order to see others move ahead?
Andrew Greeley tells a parable that reminds us that we often act childish, but that is not what Jesus meant when he said to welcome others as if they were Jesus himself. He says, “Once upon a time a CEO of a large and important corporation promoted two of his brightest young executives for rapid promotion because they were so creative and so intelligent and so hard working. Everyone knew, including the executives whom he had passed over, that one or the other of these men would be the next CEO. One was named president of the company and the other the Vice CEO. They had been close friends for twenty years and their combined talents and dedication had been responsible for the rapid growth of the firm. However, once it became clear to both of them that only one could win the prize, they began to try to undercut one another. Their friendship ended. Their wives stopped speaking to one another (though they had been friends too). The other executives enjoyed the rivalry and plotted how they could undercut both of them. Now the big problem was that the two stopped cooperating with one another and that cooperation had been the key to firms success. Sales fell off, a little bit and then a lot. Wall Street, as you can imagine, didn’t like that at all. Two months before the CEO was to retire, the board of directors intervened and fired him. Then they brought in a new CEO from another company. Everyone said that if the two crown princes had only cooperated a little more, they both would have won. Two children, an analyst said, could have run that company, it was so successful, but those childish adults couldn’t.”
Rev. David Lose [ davidlose.net, 9/17/18 ] asks, “what if we imagined that greatness wasn’t about power and wealth and fame and all the rest, but instead we measured greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service? If there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to be last so that others could go first? If there were reality TV shows that followed people around as they tried to help as many people as possible?
When I was a child I learned the table prayer “God is great, God is good …” and you know the rest. Yet God did not come to us in power, might, and glory, but in weakness, humanness, and mortality. God is Almighty, omnipotent, etc – yes, but, God chose to show us that the way of Christ was one in which,
though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name
that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ( Phil. 2-7ff )
If we want America to be great, how about following that example? If we want our city to be great, how about we use that measuring stick? If we want to live a great life, what about choosing Christ’s way to greatness? I think if we do we will receive much more than an “employee of the month” certificate. The truth is, the Reign of God is far greater than any other definition of greatness. And working to bring that reality into our world is our true job description. AMEN.