Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 24th September 2006
“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”. Mark 9:30
Jesus’ words to his disciples always trouble me—what does it mean to be the last? What does it mean to be the servant of all? I have seen what it can mean, and that is what troubles me. It stirs memories of past times.
One Sunday evening in 1991 I went to a wake. It was a hot and sticky evening an I was 8,000 miles from home. We travelled in an old jeep along rough roads through a darkness that was only broken by lights from the occasional shanty town or sugar plantation.
It was the Philippine island of Negros and I was going to the wake of Narciso Pico, a 43 year old pries of the Philippine Independent Church who had been shot dead.
The previous Thursday morning he had been at a café drinking coffee with friends. After finishing his coffee he went to get on his motor bike to go to a monthly clergy meeting. As he was trying to start the motor bike, two men walked up and shot him repeatedly. Narciso Pico was left lying in the street and the gunmen sped off on his motor cycle. The gunmen were suspected of being linked to the Philippines armed forces.
Standing beside Narciso Pico’s coffin was a strange experience. I had never met the man, I had only been on the island three days, and yet there were people looking at me expectantly. Ramon Tiples, the bishop, said, “You must go and tell the people outside about this”.
Narciso Pico had lived in the knowledge that he might face such a death. He knew that his efforts to be the servant of all, to care for the poorest of people were attracting the attention of those who wanted no change in the country. Being servant of all meant speaking for the poor, for the homeless, for those who received no justice. Pico believed that being servant of all demanded these things and that if anything happened to him, hadn’t the same happened to Jesus? A priest at the wake said that those who lived by the Gospel could expect such things to happen.
Negros in 1991 was a frightening place. The previous day we had visited a small farming village. The village was controlled by a group of soldiers. They didn’t wear uniforms—most were dressed in T-shirts and jeans– they wore hand grenades attached to their belts and carried machine guns.
By mid-afternoon they were all completely drunk. They demanded identification and I gave them one of my parish calling cards. I had no idea what they made of it, our interpreter didn’t pass on their comments, but in a show of bravado I patted one of them on the back and said that if he was ever in Downpatrick to be sure to call for a cup of tea. I have no idea what he thought I was saying, but he smiled and answered me with great enthusiasm.
What did it mean to be the least, to be the servant of all in situations like this one? Travelling out to the wake, I thought to myself, “what if one of those nutters gets drunk and decides to shoot us?” I could see a small paragraph appearing in the newspapers at home saying that the Philippine government had apologised to the British government for the deaths of two British visitors at the hands of a renegade gunman.
I was frightened, and all I was doing was travelling through the island. How did people like Narciso Pico have the courage not only to live among these gangsters, but seek to be the servant of all, to speak for those who had no voice?
Perhaps it’s matter of faith. I am quite happy to sing hymns like “Take up thy cross” and “Will you come and follow me?”, but when it comes to a life to back the words, that’s a different matter. I don’t think my Christianity would extend to being servant of all. To speak for the poor and the suffering, knowing that to do so would probably cost me my life, would probably be a step too far. Being a Christian in Ireland is OK– there aren’t too many risks and there are very few dangers.
Narciso Pico knew what it meant to live by the Gospel. When he read that Jesus expected his followers to be the last and to be the servant of all, he accepted that being a Christian meant that he was to care for the poor, it meant speaking out against a corrupt government and against the gangsters who called themselves soldiers. Narciso Pico had a wife and family; he had a home; he had a parish to care for, but his first priority was to be a servant, whatever being the very last meant, he was prepared to accept it.
Pico lived his life in constant danger, those who stood alongside him might easily have shared his fate. Attending his church would have been dangerous, yet his church was full. His funeral did not take place until nine days after he died because his remains were taken from place to place to allow thousands to pay their last respects.
To be the very last, to be the servant of all—Narciso Pico understood what Jesus meant.
For years afterwards I had a newspaper cutting reporting Narciso Pico’s death pinned to the noticeboard in my study. It was pinned there as a reminder of what Jesus’ call could mean. It was a daily reminder of what the Gospel could cost and a daily challenge to think about being a Christian.
“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”. Jesus’ words should make us think.