“Not a Competition”


Pentecost 17

September 20, 2015

 

Text: Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Psalm 1: Proverbs 31:10-31

         

          Jesus and his disciples were traveling through Galilee, and as they traveled, Jesus was teaching them. He was again telling them that he was going to be delivered into human hands, killed, and then would rise after three days. Last Sunday we read that when Jesus started talking like this, Peter scolded him. Jesus then sharply warned Peter that he was getting in the way of God’s purposes.

          Apparently the disciples got the message. This time when Jesus again started talking like that, we are told they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, and were afraid to ask him. So they did the same thing we often do when we find ourselves confronted with an uncomfortable discussion topic—they changed the subject. Soon they were arguing. When they reached the house where they were staying in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they were arguing about. They were too embarrassed to answer, for they were arguing about which of them was the greatest, and they already knew Jesus was not going to be amused. Jesus reminded them that whoever wants to be greatest must be least of all and servant of all.

          What James said in his letter is consistent with what Jesus said: “Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil.” Consistent with Jesus, James taught that being a follower of Jesus meant being a humble servant. Arguing with one another about who is the greatest is not an act of humble servanthood, but an act of jealousy and selfish ambition. Sounds a lot like politics, doesn’t it?

          Now I am not going to even start talking about any of the people who are already running for President of the United States. That there is jealousy and selfish ambition involved in that kind of situation is all too obvious. But what about jealousy and selfish ambition in our lives, and in the church?

          Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as church politics. There are those in the church who with selfish ambition pursue higher positions in the hierarchy. I confess that there have been times when I have been among them—although I have never actually gotten anywhere with selfish ambition because I am inept at playing politics. I refuse to brown-nose; I don’t make it a practice to cultivate friendships with people in high places—the friends I have who are in high places were already friends before that was the case. At any rate, maybe it’s just as well. If I was seeking advancement for the wrong reason, to inflate my ego, I should have not been advanced.

But what is selfish ambition anyway? It seems to me that the selfish pursuit of becoming greater than others, whether in church or society, is fundamentally a matter of competition. It becomes a contest that one either wins or loses. People will go to great lengths to win, spending mass quantities of money, using ethically questionable tactics, and investing a great deal of time and energy in the effort.

It is often very tempting to look upon other churches, especially those not of our denomination, as the “competition”. This is especially true in situations where a certain other church is offering a ministry or program that draws a lot of people in their direction, including people from one’s own congregation. I know that sometimes I feel jealous when that happens in a setting where I am. In those situations I find two temptations:

  • The first temptation is offer a competing program to try to bring some of our people back. In my experience, this almost never works. Those attractive programs tend to require a church of a certain size, a certain level of resources, a certain theological bent, and/or a certain set of spiritual gifts. Because every congregation is different, a program that works very well in one congregation often does not work well in another.
  • The second temptation is to diss the other church, to accuse them of “sheep stealing”, to try to find things wrong with it to use as talking points against them, and to avoid being in relationship with them.

          Other churches are not the “competition”. We all seek to live out the love of God in Jesus Christ in the world in our varying ways. It is not our job to try to get a leg up on another church. There are enough people in our community who need to know God’s love in Jesus Christ to keep all the churches in the area busy.

We know there was competition among Jesus’ disciples. Remember the story where James and John ask Jesus for the privilege of sitting at his right and left hands when he came into his kingdom? One Gospel says that James and John even got their mother involved by having her approach Jesus about this matter. In addition, we know that Peter, James, and John were Jesus’ closest confidants among the Twelve. I imagine the other nine harbored some jealousy on that account.

This type of competitive spirit is not of God. In fact, James describes it as “from the earth, natural, and demonic. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil.” Further, when we compete to satisfy the cravings at war in our own lives, it leads to conflict and disputes. People often want different things. I have to be careful, because I know that when I don’t get my way, I am capable of being a real jerk and causing great harm.

Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and servant of all.” Instead of competing to be top dog, we are invited to accept the position of bottom dog, seeking to serve God and neighbor rather than be high and mighty. To illustrate this point, Jesus brought a child into the group, embraced him, and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”

Now to most of us the idea that children are important is pretty obvious. We live in a society where much of life revolves around children. Family time is centered on children’s activities. Some parents become so involved in their children’s lives that they are referred to as “helicopter parents”, always hovering nearby to come to the child’s rescue. Some commentators are telling us that this actually is unhealthy—it prevents children from developing the self-reliance they need to function on their own as adults.

The world Jesus lived in was not child-centered. It was adult-centered. Children were loved, but not fussed over the way they are today. Children were considered less important than adults. Remember the other Bible story of Jesus and the children? When parents came wanting Jesus to bless their children, the disciples tried to shoo them away. The disciples weren’t trying to be nasty--they were simply exhibiting the common attitude that children were less important and not worth Jesus’ time. It was Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” And then he welcomed and blessed them.

We are invited to emulate God’s wisdom, which is pure, peaceful, gentle, obedient, merciful, filled with good actions, fair, and genuine. It is a wisdom that welcomes the least and the littlest, not just the highest and mightiest. It is not necessary to compete for this wisdom; it is available to all who draw near to God. This wisdom helps us become like well-watered trees which are fruitful in producing what God wants. It helps us become like the competent woman described in Proverbs who not only works diligently to manage the household and the family’s business, but also chooses to serve others, extending her hand generously to the poor and needy. She is not interested in competing for fleeting things like beauty and charm. She knows that one who honors the Lord is truly worthy of praise.

Let us live according to God’s wisdom, not competing to be the greatest, but working together to love and serve all people, especially the least, the last, and the lost.

                                                                   Amen.

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