“Out of Order”
September 23, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup
Have you ever been waiting in line for something, and then someone cuts in front of you? What is your reaction? It likely depends on what you’re waiting for, where you are in the line, and how long you’ve been waiting. On a good day, perhaps you’ll just assume they must have some important reason they need to get ahead, maybe you’ll make a comment to those around you, but it really doesn’t bother you too much. But on a bad day, this seems like a great injustice and you might decide to confront the person cutting in line by saying something about fairness and manners and explaining how long you’ve been in line.
Friday was an international day of line waiting: it was the day the new iPhone 5 came out. There are websites dedicated to telling people how best to wait in line for an Apple product. They talk about strategies of finding delis that will deliver to you in line, figuring out the weather reports, deciding how long your particular location will require you to wait. At the Apple flagship store in New York City, people camped out for four days, waiting to get the new iPhone.
In our culture there is a shared understanding of how a line works. Those who get there first, are first in line. Those who arrive last are last in line. Anyone who disturbs this pattern incurs the wrath of all the fellow line dwellers, and in the case of such an intense line like those awaiting Apple products, they might also be dealt with by Apple employees or security officers. Can you imagine the chaos that would take place if someone walked up, moments before those Apple store doors opened in New York City, and cut in front of someone who had been waiting for several days. Surely it would not be tolerated. What if the person managing the line had just read our New Testament passage today and decided, “the first should be last, and the last should be first.” Can you imagine what sort of reaction that would receive? I would be afraid for that person’s life.
This desire for fairness and order is familiar to the disciples in our New Testament passage today. These are the people who have been beside Jesus throughout his ministry. They’ve been in charge of crowd management, loaves and fish distribution, and likely figuring out the logistics of where this band of travelers would stay each night they were out on the road. In the line of proximity to Jesus, they were the very first. So surely they would be considered the greatest of Jesus’ followers. Right?
Jesus has no patience for queues, no desire for hierarchy. Our New Testament passage today shows a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Right before this conversation Jesus had been teaching his disciples that he would die and then rise again after three days. The disciples didn’t understand what that meant and were afraid to ask. They travel on and as they are traveling they break into an argument. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks what their argument was about. They don’t respond. I imagine them standing there sheepishly, perhaps shrugging and kicking the ground at their feet. Our text tells us on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus knows this already and sets about showing the pointlessness of this argument.
I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in frustration because we are told that Jesus was about to die for our sins. Jesus was about to make all equal, turn the world upside down, and the very people who were supposed to be the ones helping to build this new Kingdom, were busy arguing about who among them was greater. They were arguing about who was the best. Jesus didn’t care about the best. In fact, he gathers the disciples together and tells 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.”
I think I have an idea of why in the midst of this argumentative group, Jesus would bring a child into the conversation. Children have a way of shifting the focus. A few months ago I went to the zoo with some family, including my cousin’s son, Anders, who was two and a half at the time. While we adults were walking relatively methodically from one exhibit to the next, Anders would look at one exhibit, see what he wanted to see, and then see something somewhere else point excitedly and run towards it. We kept trying to ask him what his favorite animal was, but his mom, my cousin’s wife told us, “he doesn’t really understand ‘favorite’ yet.”
When we were experiencing the zoo through adult eyes, we thought in terms of order and preference. Anders thought in terms of delight. He didn’t have a favorite, and actually, seemed as equally content to check out the construction equipment working on an animal habitat as the animals themselves. I think Anders has a pretty good idea of what the Kingdom of God looks like.
When our passage tells us to welcome children into the church, we are also welcoming this sort of energy and even this sort of disregard for the order we would like to place on things.
Jesus’ command to welcome children is not a purely literal statement. We are also to consider the metaphorical implications in our time. Children in the first century world were regarded as not having any status. With low life expectancy for infants and no marketable skills, children were not considered full people until they could somehow profit that community. While these days we make special effort for Sunday school classes, W.O.W., and conformation, the kids of Jesus’ time were not given the same consideration. They simply didn’t count. This is why in some familiar narratives such as the feeding of the five thousand, we are told how many men were present, but then we are told “not including women and children.” That phrase has always bothered me. “Not including women and children.” But it also makes me think of those stories hiding just under the surface in those texts. Of those people who are working their way into a community that doesn’t even count them in their numbers. Who are the people in our world that are simply “not included”? Who are the people who are determined “unprofitable,” by worldly standards? These are the people that Christ calls us to welcome.
When we’ve been lined up in the queue of people who show up each Sunday, engage in daily prayer, and seek God’s truth in scripture, it might be easy to feel like we deserve more of God, more of a personal relationship, more of salvation. The reality is there is nothing we can do to be more of a Christian or to earn more proximity to Christ. This is a lesson that Jesus’ disciples had to learn over and over again.
Matthew 20:20-28 gives us another account of the disciple’s desire for preferential treatment:
“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to [Jesus] with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus will not grant passes to the front of the line, not even for his disciples who were arguably most faithful. While the Gentiles use their sense of hierarchy to manipulate the people into obedience, Jesus refuses to work that way. He tells them that only God grants greatness, and greatness only comes through humility and service. The very act of asking for a space beside Jesus in the Kingdom is an act of arrogance that displaces them from God given greatness.
Everyone who was lined up on Friday to buy an iPhone will get one. Surely some farther back in the line missed those that were in stock and had to order one for another day, but eventually, they will get one. And it will be the same product that that very first person in line received. It’s all the same product.
Though a personal relationship with God is infinitely more important than an iPhone (even if some in our culture might think otherwise), it is true that a personal relationship with God is accessible to all. Unlike an iPhone, this personal relationship cannot be sought by waiting in line, or by paying someone else to wait for you. Whether you have been a Christian your entire life or just for a few days, you are still privy to the same grace.
This Friday not all people were in line just to get themselves an iPhone, some were using the iPhone lines as an opportunity for profit. It’s estimated that at least 200 people in line in New York City were paid to hold a spot in line for someone else. In Sydney, Australia the first twenty people in line were actually people paid to wear t-shirts advertising for various businesses.
Others used these lines as an opportunity to raise support and awareness. In London, a man had one of the front seats for sale in order to raise money for cancer research. In Sydney another line formed next to that of the Apple store, calling themselves a “mock queue.” This line was a “food line,” to draw awareness to how many people in the world are waiting not for technology, but for food. Here we can see a man with a sign that reads, “What does desperation really look like? Show your support and join the mock food queue.”
Being close to Jesus Christ, won’t make you receive more grace, but it does open up opportunities for you to bring others to Christ. Jesus tells us, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
How do you use your place to welcome others to Christ? Who will you place in front of yourself in this “line”? May we not be so concerned with our own order or place, but concern ourselves with the uplifting of all people. Amen.