Sermons That Work

Who Here Wants to Be First…, Proper 20 (B) – 1997

September 21, 1997

Who here wants to be first of all?
Who here wants to be powerful?
Who here wants to be a leader?

My guess is that most of us have some ambivalence about answering yes to these questions. Unlike the kindergartners who immediately raise their hands and shout, “Me, me!” when the teacher asks, “Who wants to be first?” most of us are hesitant to claim our desire to be first of all.

Like the disciples of Jesus, we are reluctant to admit that we are even concerned with questions of greatness, much less having aspirations in that regard for ourselves.

Some of us have been taught that it is wrong to want to be first, to want to be powerful. We have learned that we should want to be last, to be powerless, to be servants. We feel guilty for wanting influence. We hold ourselves back from exercising the power we do have. We don’t want to seem immodest, selfish or pushy.

As a society we are critical of those who do aspire to position of leadership. It’s OK for the kindergartners to say they want to be president, but not for most adults. Grown-ups who seek leadership positions are suspect. They must be power-hungry or ego-maniacs. They must want to get rich. We test them, watch them like hawks waiting for them to fall or fail. We belittle them in jokes, cartoons and editorials.

Perhaps one reason we are suspicious of people seeking power is that so many in powerful positions have used that power to hurt others. Along with the “ungodly” described in today’s reading from Wisdom [2: 10-11,] elected officials, corporate heads, union bosses, even church leaders seem to cry:

Let us oppress the righteous poor man,
let us not spare the widow
or regard the grey hairs of the aged
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be

Too often we have seen power used to increase personal wealth, to protect the interests of other powerful people at the expense of the less powerful. As the lies are uncovered and we learn tobacco does cause cancer, U.S. citizens were used as unwitting guinea pigs in nuclear radiation experiments, government officials routinely accepted cash gifts, travel, lodging and campaign support under the table, our suspicion of power grows.

Who wants to be first? Well, no honest person, certainly. You wouldn’t want to be associated with the greedy, the dishonest, and the abusive. Common wisdom has it that even if you are reform-minded, an honest soul out to change the system, you wouldn’t get very far without having to compromise your integrity. You know the saying “Power corrupts.”

Even Jesus seems to agree. At least that is one way to interpret passages like the one in today’s Gospel reading. We shouldn’t want to be leaders, we should aspire to be servants. And we should focus on welcoming other powerless people, (like children), into our community.

But who wants to be last?

Who wants to be powerless? A servant of all? Who wants to grow a community of the disenfranchised, the poor, the weak, the resident alien?

Perhaps here we can be more honest. Very few of us aspire to humbleness. We may not be opposed to starting out on the bottom rung of the ladder, but our aim is to come up a little higher!

And so we are left with a dilemma. How can we reconcile our longing to be powerful, to affect change in our world, with our suspicion that power is bad; that even our longing for power taints us in some way, aligns us with the “ungodly.”

Let us take another look at the Gospel reading for today. Certainly one way to read it is that Jesus does not want his disciples to be “great.” He has just finished telling them for the second time that he is going to be betrayed and killed (Not exactly an image of power and triumph.) And then he discerns that they have been discussing who is the greatest. So he sits them down and tells them greatness is bad. Aspire to be a powerless servant like me.

There is at least one other way to interpret these passages, however. Notice that Jesus does not actually say that greatness is bad. It is the disciples who seem to worry that their discussion was out of line when they decline to confess to Jesus that “they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

Jesus has to intuit that greatness is an issue for the disciples. He knows they are afraid to understand his predictions of his own betrayal and death (and resurrection.) And he senses that they are concerned about who is the greatest; that they are conflicted about their interests and desires concerning their own greatness. And so, taking advantage of this “teachable moment,” he calls them together to talk about it.

He does not say, “Whoever wants to be first is a bad person, is greedy, power-hungry and corrupt.” Rather, he simply offers guidance for anyone who “want to be first.” “Do you really want to be first, to be great? Well to be truly great, here’s what you have to do.” The desire to be first itself seems to be affirmed as natural. Jesus does not even comment on it.

What Jesus does discuss is the paradoxical path to greatness. If you want to be first, you “must be last of all and servant to all.” What can he mean? It is OK to want to be first as long as you never act on that desire? If you want to be first in life, stay very quiet, don’t yell, don’t raise your hand, just walk to the end of the line. Sooner or later the teacher will see how good you are and reward you by sending you to the front of the line.

Then you will be the line leader.

Some women have been taught that what Jesus meant was that they will be rewarded in this life or the next for always serving others first, for disregarding their own needs, even in the face of psychological and physical abuse.

The problem with these interpretations is that they do not take seriously enough the context for the teaching –“Whoever wants to be first.” What if we understood that Jesus was giving advice to leaders in the church- – the twelve and all those to come — who would continue to embody Jesus’ earthly ministry?

If you want to be leaders in the community, to be trusted, to ensure your own ethical standards are not compromised, if you want to be one of the great ones, then you must put your own interests last. There is nothing wrong with wanting your own voice to be heard, just be sure that all others have a voice when you use yours. There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your financial well-being, just be sure that you attend to the financial well-being of the rest of the community first.

Being a good leader, a great leader, must mean being a servant to all — to the poor as well as the rich, to women as well as to men, to Jew as well as to Greek, to children as well as to adults.

And it is a child Jesus uses to illustrate what he means about the exercise of power. A truly great leader, the most powerful one in the community will receive a child, not as a dependent, not as an obligation, but as an equal, as a co-leader. Because, says Jesus, in welcoming anyone, especially the least powerful in the community, in Jesus’ name, you are welcoming Jesus. And whoever welcomes Jesus is welcoming God.

It’s OK to want to be first, to be a leader, to exercise power. And as long as you welcome into your community everyone, as if each one were your savior, you will be one of the Great Ones.

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Christopher Sikkema


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