Sermon on Mark 9: 30-37
It’s fair to suppose that over the last few weeks many a pulpit has pulsated to the sound of preachers straining to draw lessons and analogies of one sort or another from the Olympics. I’m perhaps a bit late on the scene but this morning I too will reflect a little on our experience of the Olympics in the light of our Gospel reading.
Now, I love sport. I just can’t help it, it’s part of who I am and how I was brought up. And I loved the Olympics. I loved the velodrome, I loved Mo Farah winning the 10,000 meters and then the 5,000 metres. But there were a couple of things that did worry me.
Firstly, there was that medals table. And let me say straight off that I was as interested as anybody in how far up the table Team GB found themselves. But I had to keep on telling myself: this isn’t important. Finishing high up in the table doesn’t make Britain a better place to live in. It doesn’t make Britons better people than those from other countries.
All it means really is that we have a very generous National Lottery that gives lots of money to athletes so they can concentrate on their training and preparation. The medals table is fundamentally meaningless. Well, that was one worry I had.
The other was that the athletes, charming and reasonably level-headed as most of them seemed to be, were allowing their lives to be totally dominated by what seemed to me to be a basically egotistical enterprise.
I’m all for self-discipline and focus – I wish I had more of those things myself. But dedicating the best of your life to running or cycling or swimming a split second faster than somebody else – well, it didn’t seem quite in perspective.
That may all sound a bit self-righteous on my part – and probably it is – as if I didn’t and don’t have an ego myself.
Well, let me confess this: even at my advanced age many’s the time I have scored, in my day-dreaming imagination, the winning goal in the last minute of some tightly contested cup final at Wembley.
And many’s the time I’ve scored the winning runs in a closely contested Ashes test – usually it’s a six back over the bowler’s head into the highest tier of the pavilion at Lord’s.
Many of us, especially when we’re young, but not only when we’re young, dream of being top dog or being part of a group that’s top dog. And it’s probably true that when we’re young, our worth needs to be affirmed in whatever way we can find. We can be a little too purist about condemning the ego out of hand.
But life in the last analysis isn’t about being top dog. It just isn’t.
One of my favourite events in the Olympics was in the velodrome, part of the Omnium, a sort of pentathlon for cyclists. The bit that especially intrigued me was called the elimination race. The contestants cycle round the track and every two laps the person who is last has to drop out. The winner is the last person still cycling.
It seemed a bit like a metaphor for life as we so often live it. The person who is last is eliminated from the action and has to exist in some kind of limbo.The world does not regard being last as in any way desirable.
Now, we’ve no reason to suppose that sport played an important role in the life of Jesus – or indeed any role whatsoever – but he does talk quite a lot about being first and about being last. And he turns the tables upside down. The way Jesus thinks isn’t the way the world thinks.
Being last is good. Being first is bad. Well, of course, there’s an element of pure paradox here that is meant to grab our attention. It’s a rhetorical device, not to be taken too literally. What is to be taken literally is Jesus’ insistence on the importance of acts of service to others.
Now, I’m sure Jesus too was all in favour of self-discipline and focus but for him life isn’t any sort of competition. He’s simply not interested in who is top dog in the social merry-go-round. Our self-discipline and focus are to be concentrated on an attitude of service.
I heard a sermon at another church a couple of weeks ago. It was one of those aforementioned ones about the Olympics. In fact this one was about the Paralympics.
The previous Friday the preacher and his family had been to the Olympic stadium. For him the highlight of the night was a heat for the 5,000 metres. The participants were all wheelchair users and it soon became apparent that one of them wasn’t able to keep up with the rest and he gradually fell further and further behind.
As the athletes went past lap after lap they all got applauded and cheered but the one who was last got cheered the loudest. By the end of the race he was about three quarters of a lap behind the others but when he finished it was he who got the loudest cheer of the night.
Well, for a start that story, the fact that the spectators responded in that way, should make us far more proud to be British than finishing high up in the medals table. But more importantly, it reflects something of the kingdomof God. The last in some way shall be first.
Imagine, not that it was the spectators in the Olympic stadium who were cheering – imagine it was the saints in heaven who were cheering that athlete home. And imagine they were cheering because he was the last of all and the servant of all, as Jesus puts it in our reading.
But in the end it’s not any kind of competition. It’s nonsense striving to be first. And neither do we strive to be last in a contorted attempt actually to be first. We’re not participating in some kind of reverse Olympics.
Our job is to realise who we are – that none of us are a big deal in the scheme of things, that spending our lives in a vain attempt to satisfy a voracious ego is simply misplaced. Our job is to realise that we are loved by God and capable of loving God in return – and capable of loving other human beings.
So, it transpires, though it may not look like it sometimes, that we are a big deal in the scheme of things. We can in some sense be first – along with everyone else. We may seem insignificant from a certain perspective – but from a true perspective we are significant – infinitely so. And we make that significance a full reality when love and service embody who we are.