Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
While I was on sabbatical, my dad and I went fishing in northern Montana. We caught some huge trout! And we fell into some deep conversations. As you may know, my dad is a physician—a rheumatologist to be precise, and a pretty good one they say. We are neck and neck for top billing on Google under the name “Doyt Conn.” (It’s a competitive category.)
One of the conversations we got into was about considering our jobs as service. I’m a priest, he’s a doctor; you can see how that might have happened. He said he always thought of his career as his service. I can understand that, especially lately, since I’ve been wearing my collar regularly.
I was on Capitol Hill the other day, walking to my car. I saw the Orkin Man going up to a house, and I called out, “You keeping the place clean?” He yelled back, “I sure am.” I continued down the street and heard him yell after me, “Are you saving any souls?”
Occasionally, and only when I am wearing my collar I might add, I’m stopped by people on the street who ask me to bless them. Since Jesus taught us that we are servants of all, I do so, and its feels pretty good.
This is the lesson we learn from the Gospel today: that we are “servants to all.” It is a statement that comes at the end of a longer sentence, which reads, “Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant to all,” which takes us back to my conversation with my dad.
The question we asked ourselves is, “Is our occupation really in service of Jesus, or is it a convenient cover to preserve the walls of our own kingdom?” That is a question I frequently wrestle with. This week it presented itself under the guise of self-preservation. The question being, “What does self-preservation look like in the Kingdom of God?”
The Old Testament reading today tells us what it doesn’t look like. If you like, you can open your bulletin and let your eyes skip across the Wisdom of Solomon passage. It is powerful and maybe familiar. It is to me. The question I wonder when reading it is, “Do we live our lives mostly as if there is a God? Or do we live our lives mostly as if there is no God?” This is a variation on the question, “Is our occupation really in the service of Jesus,
or is it a convenient cover for the preservation of our own kingdom?” This would be our priority, of course, if there is no God.
I do believe in God; and yet, the question remains: “Do I (we) live as if we believe in God?” The premise of the Wisdom of Solomon, at least in these passages, is that there is no God, and there is nothing when we die.
Our life is smoke. And so, it states, if there is nothing when we die, we better have fun now. So, drink good wine. Wear aromatic perfume. Adorn yourself and your homes in the finest clothes and furniture. And put a wreath of flowers on your head.
The law supporting this lifestyle, as articulated in the passage is, “Let our might be our right, for what is weak proves to be useless.” And so the logic goes. Disregard the old, the widow, and the poor; they will die before us anyway. Why use the resources? That is the logic in the Wisdom of Solomon. It was written 2,000 years ago, just before the birth of Jesus, but in some ways it sounds entirely contemporary.
My mind goes to the woman I referenced in my sermon last Sunday. You may remember the Hungarian camerawoman who tripped the man carrying his child. Well, it turns out she also kicked a little girl. She got fired, but went on the radio to defend her behavior. She said she was in a panic during the confusion. She said that she is a mother and “not the kind of person who does this kind of thing.” As I heard her I thought, “Actually you’re just the kind of person that does this kind of thing.” It is in the unguarded moments that our character is most clearly revealed.
Ms. Lazlo is her name, and she is probably a Christian, but her first instinct wasn’t the Kingdom of God, it was to preserve the walls of her kingdom, and the walls of her community. I can’t judge her too harshly because that is a deep, deep instinct. Certainly it is within me. Yet Jesus calls us to transcend this impulse, and he presents to us the means by which to do so. It is called resurrection!
Today we find Jesus with his disciples in Capernaum. They just arrived there, and on the way had been talking—actually arguing—about self-preservation. It seems this dust-up occurred as the disciples were coming to terms with Jesus’ anticipated death in Jerusalem. That wasn’t the plan, at least their plan. The Messiah was supposed to be about conquest not crucifixion, and they were discussing what to do. Clearly their leader did not care about self-preservation.
The text says they were arguing over who was the “greatest.” In Greek the word for “greatest” is meizon, which can also be translated as “elder.” In other words, with Jesus slipping off the rails, someone had to take over power, and they were trying to decide who that would be.
When Jesus asked what they were talking about, they were silent. Of course they were silent. But Jesus knew these guys, so he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant to all.” He pushes the point further by saying, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
This is how Jesus articulates self-preservation in the Kingdom of God, “Whoever welcomes one such child (or old person, or ill person, or poor person, or weak person, or widow or orphan) in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”
Jesus taught the disciples about self-preservation in the Kingdom of God.
He knew what they were talking about in Capernaum. We hear it in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9. But they didn’t get it. And when he went to the cross they ran. They scattered. They hid. They cowered. They self- preserved.
So they were completely caught off guard when Jesus came back resurrected. Everything changed! The resurrection turned the world upside down. It flipped on its head the idea that “might makes right,” and replaced it with “the first will be last and the last will be first,” and “the old, the weak, the orphan, the poor, and the widow will be served by all.” This is what happens when we come to terms with the perpetual presence of God. This is what happens when we own the power of resurrection. The transcendence of Jesus lifts us beyond the limited instincts of our own self-preservation.
Self-preservation is no longer bound by the edge of death. It’s reformulated into an eternal pattern of service to others, through Jesus, for God. And this can happen in so many ways, in as many ways as there are configurations of relationship. If someone is next to you or even near to you, you can serve them. No occupation is exempt from being an “occupation of service.”
You may remember the story of the wandering wise man who comes across two men cutting stone in a quarry. He asks, “What are you doing?” One said, “Getting a paycheck so I can retire.” The other said, “Building a cathedral.”
And the question remains: Are we seeking the One who sent Jesus, or are we preserving the walls of our own kingdom? And sometimes, if you’re like me, the line isn’t clear. Even when I’m standing on a street corner giving a blessing to a complete stranger; even then, I wonder who is first, and who is last. Especially when the act feels like a garland upon my head.
We have all had moments like that, when our good works have felt like a ring of flowers upon our heads; like a gift that is greater to us than the person we are seeking to help. And in these moments maybe we are first or maybe we are last. God only knows.
All I know is that Jesus gave us the pattern for self-preservation in the Kingdom of God: Be of service to others, through Jesus, for God. “For whoever welcomes one such child or old person, or ill person, or poor person, or weak person, or widow, or orphan in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”