Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 24)

Text: Mark 10:43b-45
“If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people.”

Upside down

I’m sure most of you have either read or at least have heard of Lewis Carrol’s book Alice in Wonderland.   Walt Disney made an animated version in 1951 and the 2010 movie version won all sorts of awards and earned over a billion dollars.

Everything is back to front in the place Alice visits.  There is a talking White Rabbit with a pocket watch but is always running late,
the Queen of Hearts who does nothing to live up to her name and is always saying “Off with her head!” 
Then there is the rude Mad Hatter who is always rebuking Alice for her rudeness.  

Alice in Wonderland is a story that certainly engages our imagination as we try to imagine what it was like for Alice to make sense of the back to front upside down world in which she found herself.

Let’s use our imagination.  We aren’t going to imagine what it’s like to be in Wonderland and meet White Rabbits or Mad Hatters but pretend to be something much more ordinary – a common fly.  Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be able to walk upside down on the ceiling like a fly?  We are comfortable walking upside down, in fact, to us this isn’t upside down at all.  Walking on the ceiling is so normal that anyone who isn’t walking upside down is regarded as just a little bit strange.  Flies have been living that way for millions of years.  We like it this way – it’s the normal thing for flies to do. 

Then along comes a Jew, black hair and beard and dark eyes.  He has a strange way of walking; like down-side up (which is upside down to us)?

He calls out to us (on the ceiling), “Hey you up there.  Don’t you feel a bit stupid living upside down like you are?”

And we all say, “No way.  We like it this way.  In fact, we’re not upside down at all; you are the one who is upside down, or downside up to be more accurate.  Doesn’t it worry you that you are the only person who is walking that way?  Why don’t you join the rest of us here on the ceiling?”

“Are you kidding”, answers the Jew with the dark eyes and black beard. “I haven’t come to copy your ways.  I have come to save you and to show you a new way of living.”

“What makes you think we need saving?” comes the reply from one of our fellow flies on the ceiling.  “And who are you to tell us that we need a new way of living?  Our forefathers, who buzzed around the ears of Abraham’s camel, lived like this.  Who are you to tell us that we need to turn our lives downside up, you inverted screwball? 

We’re not perfect, but we’re nice flies and we do a pretty good job at being the best flies we can.  What we do has worked in the past and it’s the best option we have of dealing with life in our world in the present, even if you think it’s upside down”.

No matter how much the Jew with the dark eyes and black beard tries to convince the flies that there is a better way, the angrier the flies become, and even start to threaten the Jew, “Leave us alone’, they say.  “Do you think you’re smarter than us flies?  We don’t need your help”.

Then suddenly in an amazing way the man with the black beard does a somersault and lands upside down on the ceiling among the flies.  In fact, he looks like a fly and some of the flies refuse to believe that this is the same person who a moment ago was downside up. 

“Don’t jump to any conclusions”, the now upside down Jew says.  “I’m not here to agree with you but to take a look at the world through your eyes again.  And as I do this it just affirms to me again that this view of yours is all wrong.  Your values, your goals, your attitudes, your spirituality is all upside down.  I want to show you a new way, a better way.  It might seem to be upside down to you, but really it is the right way round.  It’s the way things are meant to be between you and your Creator and between you and one another.  I am the Way and the Truth and Life.  I will turn your world upside down.  It’s the only way.”

The flies glare at him with millions of eyes, flex all six biceps, laugh at this strange fly and his back to front ideas.

But there are a few, about a dozen men and a few women, who are drawn to this downside up Jewish-fly.  Two of them Johnnie and Jimmy come to him one day and ask a carefully rehearsed question, “Teacher, we want you to do us a favour.  When you do inherit this new world, this kingdom you talk about, could we please be at the coronation and sit up there on the dais with you – one at your right hand and one at your left?”

The Teacher says, “You know how it is in this upside down world of yours.  Everyone is happy to squash anyone who gets in the way in order to get ahead.  It’s a bug eat bug world.  Well it’s certainly not like that in my new world.  If anyone in my kingdom wants to be great, they must to get their hands dirty and serve other people.  If you want to be in the running for the citizen of the year, you must be happy to be a lowly servant.  For I have come with one mission to this crazy, inverted world.  I have come to you, not to be waited on by you, but to serve you and to give my life as a ransom to rescue many”.

And with that the larger mob loses interest.  The smaller group head down road following the Jew-fly who loves those who cause him so much pain, to a cross where the Jew-fly with the black beard and the dark eyes dies serving even those who hate him – which is all so back to front. 

I hope I didn’t lose you in all that talk about flies and being upside down and downside up.  It’s Alice in Wonderland language where everything that would seem normal is all back to front and strange. But the point is made that everything about Jesus is so upside down. 
Beginning with his birth when he is announced as God coming to earth via the womb of a young girl, born in a stable, poor, in danger, a refugee from powerful and wicked rulers – that is such an upside down way for the almighty and everlasting God, who has armies of angels at hand and the power of the universe at his fingertips, to enter the world.
His life is simple – a wandering teacher, mixing with the lowliest and poorest, the diseased and the outcast, speaking a simple message of love for God and one another and living out that message in everything he did – so unlike the Son of God, the Messiah that had been expected by the people of God.  No, this back to front wandering rabbi can’t be the Messiah.
His death on a Roman cross – so cruel, so humiliating, so shameful, so painful and yet he was so innocent.  This was such a difficult thing to understand even for those who were the closest to him. The Messiah on a cross – that is so wrong.

And then there are all those strange sayings of Jesus.
“The greatest one among you must be your servant. Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great” (Matt 23:11-12).
“Those who want to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it” (Matt 8:35).
“If anyone of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if anyone wants to be first, you must be the slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).

Jesus is back to front and upside down.  He does this to highlight that the ways of the Kingdom of God are not the same as that of the rest of the world.  Jesus defines greatness in such a different way – he uses words like love, humility, service, kindness, meekness, mercy, servants, slave, losing one’s life, and says that anyone who has these attributes is considered great in God's Kingdom. 

Because of the love of Christ for us and the love of Christ reflected in us attitudes, behaviours and values are changed.  What is great in God's kingdom are often different to what is considered great in the world. 
It might be considered great in the world to put down those who want to achieve, or ridicule people who are different,
but greatness in God's Kingdom is to show kindness and offer help and encourage them to get ahead.
It might be considered great in the world to unkindly criticise others and gossip about them but in God's Kingdom greatness means to defend others, speak well of others and be supportive.
It might be considered great in the world to ignore the poor and look after your own needs first, avoid the pleas of others for help even though we could well afford to give assistance but in God's Kingdom greatness means to give food to the poor, a cup of water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and clothe the naked (see Matt 25:31-46).

When Jesus spoke of what makes a person great in the God's eyes he spoke of being a servant, a slave even, and connected the task of the disciple to the service he offered to all humanity which came at a price.  He said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people”.

Following the upside down ways of Jesus is not easy.  They are challenging. They will make us rethink our values and the ways our culture and society influence our thinking and behaviour.  Jesus’ upside down ways will make us feel terrible guilty as we realise how we have fallen into going down the easy path, followed popular trends, done the “in thing” rather than taken the harder path of humility and service to others. 

It’s just when we are being hard on ourselves for getting it all wrong when God’s upside down love beams down on us.  We call it grace.  We fail.  We think greatness is all about us.  We ignore the people God gives us to serve.  We let God down and what does God do?  He loves us.  He doesn’t seek revenge, an eye for an eye, but loves us, forgives us and embraces us as his children for whom Jesus has died. 

Thank God for his grace that turns everything upside down!

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
21st October 2012

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