On Alternate Paths to Greatness
September 19, 2021
Psalm 1: 1-3: Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
Mark 9: 33-37: Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
American minister Robert Fulghum wrote a best-selling book in 1986 titled All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I thought for sure by now some teacher of young children would have written a book titled All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Teaching Kindergarten, but according to the internet, there is no such book. The classroom, and particularly, the school playground are stages where the full spectrum between good and evil are enacted, Monday through Friday, every week of the school year.
In my experience, children are so beautifully transparent; they are quick to offend and yet, thankfully, so quick to forgive. One thing that, as a teacher, took me years to learn is that when a child has the experience of being wronged by another, I might as well just stop whatever else is happening at that moment and address it, straight on. Whatever math or reading lesson that may seem paramount is really not; children can not learn if they are experiencing inner turmoil, and chances are, if one child is having unresolved feelings, there is at least one more who is part of that dynamic, perhaps two or three or four more.
I could not tell you how many times I’ve had to stop what we were doing, dim the lights, call the children into a circle and have a little sharing session about just what did happen during recess. Sometimes this involved pulling in children from other classes to help resolve the issue. And yes, the “lesson” just had to wait; there were more important things to be learned at that moment, like how to express one’s hurt and disappointment, like what a relief it is to admit a mistake in a safe environment, and what it feels like to offer forgiveness, or receive it. Left unresolved, acts of unkindness and hurtful feelings get passed around faster than a hot potato. I can remember in my own household the first time I noticed this dynamic. I harshly chastised my oldest son for a poor decision he had made and within minutes of him going downstairs where his siblings were, the fighting and crying was out of control. My anger and accusations and disappointment was getting passed down the line through the children, as if emotions actually obey Newton’s first law of motion that states, “once an object is set in motion, the object will remain in motion until it strikes another object.” I think it’s more than just physical objects that obey the most fundamental laws of physics.
In our scriptures today, as Jesus takes the small child into his lap, he deliberately calls his disciples over to him, just as any teacher will gather students and impress upon them the levity of what is about to happen. Jesus wants them to hear this message clearly, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…and welcomes the one who sent me.” What we do to one affects another and another and ultimately, God.
We are well aware that we do not operate in a vacuum; we are well aware how our positivity and our enthusiasm and our love are absolutely contagious. It is all too easy to forget that the converse is also true. Negativity, pessimism, and unkind comments also spread like a deadly virus, pulling us down into places with walls so steep and slippery it’s difficult to climb out. Psalm 1 gives us a much-needed foothold and surely it was not by accident that the psalm chosen to appear first in the book is the one that says, “…do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers…delight in the Lord, on his law…meditate day and night.”
The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, once set in motion will remain in motion until they strike another, so we must take care, Friends, with what we set in motion.
With the strains and stresses of our modern world, our vigilance is even more challenged, especially in a culture where scoffing and insulting has become like a game, a spectator sport, even, as evidenced by prime time television. John Knox, one of the writers for The Interpreter’s Bible, says, “We live in a competitive order.” Yes, we do. And the quest to be on top, first in line, and on the winning team was apparently really important to Jesus’s disciples, as well.
Like any teacher, Jesus can tell there is something going on among his disciples so he asks them point blank, “What were you arguing about?” I wonder which of them was brave enough to admit they were arguing over who among them is the greatest. Jesus’s response, according to John Knox, “reveals Jesus as the great revolutionist, for here is one of the greatest overturnings in all history.” “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
Every single one of us here can think of people we most admire and chances are it is, at least in part, due to their ethic of service. And I trust that as we look within, we can access memories of pure gratification when we extended ourselves in service to others. I’d like to take a broader perspective here and look at how Jesus’s revolutionary message, as counter cultural today as it was then, is gaining ground.
Google the apparent oxymoron “servant leader” and the search engine leads us to the name Robert Greenleaf. Lovely name, isn’t it? Greenleaf was born in 1904 and after college he went to work for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, known today as AT&T. He spent 40 years researching “…management, development and education. He experienced a growing suspicion that the power-centered authoritarian leadership style so prominent in US institutions was not working.” Greenleaf took early retirement and founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Publication of an essay he wrote in 1970 is credited with launching a movement based on a sharing of power and a priority on employees needs over profit. Greenleaf proposed that the most effective leader is one who serves the employees because it will be the innovation arising from the employees that can make the organization truly great. To find out if a business model qualifies under Servant Leadership, Greenleaf has the following advice: “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”
Now I would not be so bold as to say what Jesus would think about this model, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
In all fairness, we should extend the credit of this model as far back as we can, which takes us to a time before Jesus, some 500 years before his birth, when the writings in the ancient Chinese manuscript, the Tao Te Ching, reflected the same message.
“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.
The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed,
All the people say, “We have achieved it!”
So the ancient Chinese knew it in 500 BCE, Jesus knew it in 33AD, Robert Greenleaf promoted it in the 1970’s and now businesses large and small are signing on to become B Corporations. B Corporations “are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” There are over a thousand certified B corporations that include Cabot Creamery, Ben and Jerry’s, Patagonia, Etsy and Dansko. What follows is the 6-sentence-long B corporation Declaration of Interdependence:
“We envision a global economy that uses business as a force for good. This economy is comprised of a new type of corporation- the B Corporation- which is purpose-driven and creates benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. As B Corporations and leaders of this emerging economy, we believe:
That we must be the change we seek in the world.
That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered.
That, through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.
To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.”
In closing, I just want to appreciate the enduring nature of words and the messages they carry. In the last 20 minutes we have heard, in many words, the tracing of an alternative path to greatness over a period of 2500 years. This alternative path to greatness requires an acknowledgement that we are all connected, for better or worse. This alternative path to greatness is lighted by the presence of those who have found that commitment to a higher purpose is just as important as profit. The alternative path to greatness has been walked by many people, including Jesus Christ, in whose service to the least among us made him a shining light that leads us on. So be it. Amen.
God of All, in the stillness of this place I pray that each one of us feels safe enough to reach farther, deeper in whatever direction leads us closer to your divine presence. In the words of your prophets we have been assured that your love lives within us, yet at times you feel so far away. In those times, Lord, help us to ask ourselves if we are actually the ones that distance ourselves from you. Then help us to find our way back home to the place where you are all that is. From that place, we find strength for the living of our lives and for helping those among us that are struggling. For those coping with illness, God, please comfort them. And for those facing death, grant them peace. In all we face in our everyday lives, help us remember the power of prayer. This we ask in Jesus’s name, who gave us the words to this beloved prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with this 3000 year old blessing from the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 6: “The Lord bless you and keep you.The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.” Amen.