Jesus Christ’s preference often seems to be for the last and least in our society. Jesus himself chooses place himself on the cross, the last place anyone would want to be. From Jesus we learn the value of placing ourselves last and least in the world.
Vicar Neal Cannon, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 25, year B; texts: Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8b, Jeremiah 11:18-20
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Something you should know about me, your new vicar, is that I am very competitive person. I hate to lose. Growing up, my brother and I would play basketball against each other in the driveway at home. It always started friendly, but on more than one occasion ended with a black eye, or some bruised ribs. I’d like to think that as an adult I’ve got this under control. But then I start playing cribbage against my wife … and I start seeing myself fall farther and farther behind on the board … and my blood starts to boil, and I get a little bit quiet. At least when I lose to her, only my ego is bruised. Maybe you can relate.
I’ve known people in my life that aren’t like this. My Mom, for example would tell me after my basketball games in high school that she rooted for a tie because she didn’t want the other team to feel bad. Which of course, just made me more angry when I lost.
And I always thought that was a bit extreme, but Jesus in our story today takes this to a whole other level. He says, if you want to be first, you must be last. I think as Christians, we think we get it. We’ve heard it before. Serve your neighbor, welcome the stranger … yeah, yeah, vicar, we know.
But if we really think about how that’s lived out in our lives … I think we’ll realize that we don’t actually agree with Jesus all the time … because being in last is the worst! You don’t want to be last in line for tickets, nobody wants to get picked last, and you’ve probably heard the phrase, “nice guys finish last …” Come on… Jesus. Get with the program.
So what is with Jesus’ fascination with being last?
The Old Testament text and the Psalm don’t seem very helpful at first to answering why Jesus chooses to be last. In fact, Jeremiah and the Psalmist want to defeat their enemies, they want to win. “Let me see your vengeance,” says Jeremiah, “in your faithfulness, destroy them,” says the Psalmist. “Yikes!” says the Vicar, “how am I supposed to preach on that?”
Sometimes it seems like the God of the Old Testament has nothing to do with Jesus … until we look a little closer.
For our Old Testament lesson today, we are thrown into Jeremiah today and we’re in the middle of a story. You see, Jeremiah was being persecuted for telling his people the truth, he was telling the people that God was angry. The people were creating idols of wood and stone and jewels, and as Jeremiah tells us earlier in his book, people were sacrificing their children to these idols.
No wonder God was angry… and Jeremiah was angry too.
And in response to Jeremiah telling Israel that God is angry and they need to change their ways, the people plan on killing Jeremiah. So Jeremiah says to God, “God, I want your justice visited upon them! All I did was tell them the truth, I told them what you told me and now they want to kill me!” And God says, “You’re right. They’re wicked, they have evil hearts, something drastic must be done.”
But then something interesting happens in the following chapter. Jeremiah asks God why do bad things happen to good people like me? And, why do bad people flourish while the righteous die? If God is “just” then good people would be winning and bad people would be losing. It’s that simple. Right?
And God’s reply is a bit cryptic. God agrees that the people are doing evil deeds and that must stop, but God also says that Israel is the beloved of God’s heart and God’s heritage. It’s like God’s mourning their loss, not celebrating a victory. God even implies that things will get worse for Jeremiah when his people are suffering.
So who’s the winner here? It seems like the people are going to suffer, and Jeremiah is going to suffer, and God is going to suffer along with them.
And at this point … the winner in me just wants to yell, “God, you just won! Why are you putting your head down?” You beat the bad guys! It’s like God can’t stand it when anyone loses.
What’s more, later in Jeremiah God says, I will remember their sins no more. But here’s the problem. If God doesn’t remember what they did, how can they be punished? How do we know who the righteous and unrighteous are if God makes, everybody righteous? Who’s the winner, and who’s the loser here? Jeremiah and our Psalmist get what winning is all about. They are eager for God to strike down their enemies. Why isn’t God?
This got me thinking, I wonder if we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe the question isn’t, whose winning, and whose losing, or why do bad things happen to good people. Maybe the question we need to ask is, what does winning look like to God?
God helps us when he says to Abraham all the nations on Earth will be blessed by your offspring. He doesn’t say, all your children will be blessed by what you’ve done. He doesn’t even say that his country will be blessed by his offspring. No. He says that the whole world will be blessed. And I wonder, is that what winning looks like to God? That everyone is blessed?
Then we of course have to ask, what does losing look like to God?
In the Beatitudes, God blesses all the losers. I don’t mean to say this glibly, but seriously, God blesses those who we might consider to have lost. God blesses those who mourn, or those who have lost a loved one. Jesus says the meek will inherit the Earth: since when have the meek won anything? Don’t the meek get steamrolled by Donald Trump on The Apprentice? Yet our God says they are blessed.
At another point in the New Testament, Jesus tells us a parable us a parable of a Shepherd watching over his Flock. And Jesus tells us that when one sheep wanders away from the Flock, that the Shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the one …
It seems to me that God can’t stand it if even one person loses.
God is telling us something. God hates it when anyone loses. So much so that when we have lost, or that we are lost, that God will find us, and bless us even in our darkest hour.
I think our New Testament and Gospel readings today give us some more clues as to what winning looks like to God. Our text from James says, “17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
I find this statement to be fascinating for our lives today. Think about this, how often are we really willing to yield? How often can we put aside an argument or a fight and really listen to what the other person is saying and care about our enemy in spite of our differences.
This is not about being right or wrong, this is about giving up the fight for the sake of loving the person in front of you. This summer I was a chaplain at Good Samaritan in Minneapolis, and my job was basically to go from room to room and visit with residents, all of whom had extreme mental and/or physical illness. One of the first things they taught us and one of the things I had the hardest time learning, was to put aside your own opinions and beliefs and quit trying to fix people. You see it is easy to give people answers. Eat better, quit smoking, pray more … but our job was to sit with people, and listen to them, and share with them what they were going through.
And I think that is what James was talking about here. He’s asking if we can put ourselves aside, if we’re willing to yield to people for love’s sake and the sake of the gospel. So when James says that God’s wisdom is “without prejudice” he means that true wisdom that comes from God shows mercy and compassion to another without any regard for that person’s status, what they’ve done, or even for the person’s moral character. God shows compassion, to his friends and his enemies, to the people that we want to lose, and to the people we hope will win.
So finally we come to our Gospel lesson today and we find Jesus again telling his disciples that he will be killed and in three days he will rise again. And the disciples don’t get this. Dying on the cross is equivalent to losing their battle. They can’t lose. The good guys just started winning. The blind can see, the deaf can hear, and the word is being proclaimed! How could Jesus lose now, just when it seems victory is in hand? And as if they wanted to prove to Jesus that they didn’t get it, they start arguing with each other about which of them is the best. So he says something that seems backwards. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
What the disciples don’t understand, and what we still struggle with today, is how Christ’s loss becomes the world’s gain. Because when you choose to lose, it destroys our me vs. you world view, and creates a world about us, and we don’t know what that looks like.
And he picks up a little kid, and by the way, kids are in the lowest place in ancient Jewish society below even servants and slaves, and he says, “whenever we welcome a child, whenever we feed the hungry, whenever we speak up for the marginalized, whenever we love our enemy, whenever we welcome whoever is last and least important in our eyes, we welcome God.”
Today, I hope we consider that winning and losing is not what God is about. And even if we’re in the right and we are the good guys, like Jeremiah and the Psalmist were, it shouldn’t be about me verses you it should be about us. You see, I think for Jesus and for God, it is not enough for a few people to win. It’s not a real victory for God and Christ unless everybody wins. Because the cross that Jesus takes up is about forgiveness, and love, and mercy. It is for the healing of the world.
Thanks be to God.