SJF • Proper 20b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And he took a little child and put it among them.
If you’ve ever watched a couple of children playing with their toys you have seen human nature at work — at its best and at its worst. I have seen two children playing, each with his own toy. Then one of them tires of his toy and goes to the toy-box for a different one. Suddenly, the other child completely loses interest in his own toy. The toy the other child has taken is the one he wants, and the only one. Nothing else will satisfy him.
The first child rightly claims, “I had it first!” and the second counters, “But I wanted it.” And so the battle begins, the timeless tug-of-war fed by the desire to possess what someone else has, the need to have what someone else wants.
We put aside many childish things when we grow to maturity, but this tendency to covet what someone else has can stay with us all our lives. The grass is always greener in the neighbor’s yard, so the saying goes. And his wife may be prettier, his salary higher, his car flashier. Oh, there are all sorts of things that we find to be attractive primarily because someone else has them!
And it doesn’t stop with individual people. Whole nations are torn apart in struggles born of envy and desire, the envy of what another nation has, and the desire to possess it, the need to be — or envy — the biggest, the best, the brightest, the richest, the strongest. Imperialism, colonialism, conquest, and sometimes bald tyranny are what you get when a big nation acts like a selfish child, never having enough: a bully snatching up what smaller nations hold.
It is easy to point at the great tyrants of the past, to hold up Nazi Germany as an example of a powerful nation that invaded its neighbors. It is easy to shake my head in dismay over the never-ending squabbles of the English and the Irish, the Israelis and the Palestinians. But as an American,I must confess that my own country, has also shown this fatal weakness, this tendency towards acquisitiveness. You can dress it up in fancy words as they did in the nineteenth century, when they called it “Manifest Destiny” — that is, the doctrine that drove the westward expansion of the United States, because somehow it must be intended that this nation should stretch “from sea to shining sea,” and nobody better get in the way! The economic system built on slavery, the destruction of native cultures and peoples through forced migration or occupation, the fruit of conquest from wars and invasions — the United States has its share of wrongs to repent of!
But, as we learned to our horror on Nine-Eleven, envy and anger work both ways, and weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, can unleash horrors undreamt of a century ago. Saint James spoke truly when he said, “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Envy of the success and power of the United States, envy of the so-called “Christian West” — of all that has been achieved and gained and built — envy and hatred stewed in the hearts and souls of angry malcontents in the two-thirds world, until it boiled over. Small countries we once would have taken no notice of — sometimes not even countries, just a bands of angry, alienated and single-minded extremists — wreak havoc out of all proportion to any rational basis for their anger. This irrational anger isn’t even about gaining anything,
it is only about making those whom they hate suffer: not acquisition, but retaliation; not gain, but vengeance; the irrational hatred that says, I can never have what you have, so I will bring you down. And one child destroys the other’s toy out of envy, saying, If I can’t have it, you won’t either.
This is truly sour, green-eyed envy at its most poisonous. We see it reflected in our reading from Wisdom: the wicked plans of the malicious company, the evil crowd scheming to bring down a good and righteous man just because his goodness exposes their badness; their desire to take advantage of the widow and the weak, because they are unable to protect themselves. + + + What Saint James calls “these cravings that are at war within you” are not always so externally violent, not always so maliciously wicked, but they are always unattractive. Look at the disciples along the road in today’s Gospel: arguing about which of them is the greatest — and doesn’t that sound like something from the schoolyard! Now, at least the disciples are wise enough to be embarrassed about their argument when Jesus asks what they are up to. And Jesus gently corrects them, saying, Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
It doesn’t matter how much territory you possess,
or how many toys are in your toy-box. What matters is having the willingness to serve, the willingness to wait, the willingness to set your own needs aside. What is important is the ability to say, Maybe you do need this more than me — I can wait my turn, I can accept my share when it comes round.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that in children you can see the best and the worst of human nature. I’ve talked about the worst you see in kids: the selfishness, the anger and the envy. But what about the best? After all, that’s what Jesus was talking about, what he intended when he set a child before the disciples, to shame their envy with innocence. Jesus wanted to emphasize the best in children as examples of simplicity and openness, to shame the disciples’ grown-up pride and envy. And I want to do the same to end this sermon, to tell you the true story of a child whose generosity is an example of the kind of transparent generosity that can shine through a child sometimes.
Little Johnny’s sister Mary had fallen ill and needed a blood transfusion. Mary had a very rare blood type, and Johnny was the only possible donor. The doctor approached the ten-year-old boy and explained to him how sick his little sister was, and how she needed blood if she was going to recover. He explained how rare her blood was, and how it was that Johnny had the same kind. The doctor then asked,“Would you be willing to give your blood to Mary?” Johnny’s eyes widened; he paused for a moment, then he swallowed and, knitting his brows said resolutely, “For my sister... sure.” The two children were prepped for the transfusion, Mary looking pale and listless, Johnny healthy and sound. Johnny looked at his sick sister and smiled. Then the nurse inserted the needle in his arm, and his smile faded. He watched his blood flowing through the tube, and looked over at his sister where she lay quietly. Minutes passed as the blood was collected; and as the process was almost complete, Johnny looked up at the doctor, and said, in a brave but shaky voice, “Doctor, when do I die?”
Only then did the doctor understand what Johnny had done, what a momentous decision this child had made. Only then did the doctor understand that this child had been willing to give up his life-blood — all of it — so that his little sister could live. The doctor reached out and touched the brave boy’s head, and said, “That’s all right, Johnny. We’ve taken enough to save your sister. You’ll be all right, too.”(1)
When Jesus calls us to be last of all and servants of all, he is not asking for our deaths, but for our lives. He is asking us to put others first, not to be envious of another’s success, but to rejoice in it. He is asking us not to base our self-worth on the number of toys in our toy-box but on how well we play with our brothers and sisters, how much we share what we have with those who have less. God asks us to turn from selfishness to generosity, from pride to humility. And God asks from us no more than he has given us to give, and he assures us that when we have given what we can with open hands and hearts, that we his children, like little Johnny, will be all right, too.+
Note 1. Based on Robert Coleman’s Written in Blood (Larson Illustrations 25)[^]