Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Greatest Among You


When was the last time you overheard (or participated in) a childish argument over who was the best? From years ago, I recall knock-down, drag-out fights with cousins over whose dad was the strongest, the smartest, the richest. I remember disputes with friends over whose football team was better--a debate that had nothing to do with the team's current record and everything to do with the child's blind devotion. I shudder to think about how important having the best grade or getting the most recognition was for me as a grade-school student. So often our humanness is drawn out in comparisons.

My children already know the standard argument strategy that appeals to their peers. "But mom!" they cry, "Susan's mom lets her have it." Comparisons start very early, and they mean everything. What I hope my children don't realize is that they matter to grownups like me as well. When my child points out that her friend is being treated, rewarded, provided for better than what I am giving to my daughter, it gives me pause. I try to hide that from her, of course, or else life would soon become unbearable, but I certainly don't want to be the parent whose child is anywhere but the top.

I don't think it's an accident that the diciples show us the very same sort of debate and conflict over comparisons in their own relationships. In today's gospel lesson (Luke 22:24-30), we read that "a dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest." It's a silly thing for the disciples to argue over, of course. What do you mean "which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest?" Were they competing for Jesus' favor? Were they looking for preferential treatment in the kingdom as we read in some other gospel accounts? Did they want the nicer accommodation during their travels? Were they trying to avoid the unpleasant chores necessary for their common life? I don't really know exactly what they were arguing over, but I do know exactly what that sort of argument feels like. It's not quite as plain as "I'm better than you are," but it comes pretty close to that.

Jesus rebukes them for their vanity. He compares their striving to that of the Gentiles--those whose kings "lord it over them." But he goes further than that. "The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves," Jesus explained. "I am among you as one who serves." To those who know the whole gospel story, his words evoke images of washing the disciples' feet, of submitting himself to the authorities, of dying for their sakes. Jesus' life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection testify to a new expression of greatness--one that lauds humility and celebrates servanthood. It is the principle upon which the church is founded, but it's one that is hard to embrace.

At General Convention, I am surrounded by those who give of themselves for the sake of the others. Many of them are wearing red aprons--volunteers who are here for two weeks to help out with just about everything. They are pages, guides, runners, cleaners, hosts, servers, and drivers. Many of them have come from far away, paying their own expenses to serve at this Convention. There are others, too. There are janitors and cooks and security personnel. They staff the hotels, restaurants, and shops. There are alternates and spouses and legislative aides who are here to support others but rarely get credit for it. Deputies and bishops, too, are here to serve the church, but our service isn't particularly humble. We would do ourselves and our church well to observe the servanthood of those around us and attempt to follow their example.

All of us--from the proudest to the most humble--are called to go even further. Jesus didn't only kneel down and take the role of the servant by washing his disciples' feet. He gave up everything for them, and we must likewise give everything up, too. In the church, there can arise a competitive humility that undermines the principle of sacrifice. "Let me get that door for you," one deputy might say to another. "No, no," the other replies, "let me get that for you." And five minutes later both are still gesturing to each other insisting that the other deputy go first. It's a silly example, but there are plenty of more subtle instances of people showing off how humble they are. Unlike children, we are more likely to debate just how much we give to our ministries or how many challenges we have endured for the sake of the church. The only way to break through to genuine humility is to die with Jesus and let him put to death the pride within us.

When you're hanging on the cross, there isn't really much more you can give, is there? We must seek that place--not in mock service or pretend sacrifice but in real, substantial, nothing-left-to-give humility. We must allow the example of Jesus to guide us. We must center ourselves on his humility. We must ask God to grant us a servant's heart. We must beg him to take away all that we have so that we can have no more to give. As Jesus said to his disciples, that is what it means to eat and drink with him in the kingdom. Let it be so for us and for the whole church.


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