“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35
I went to look for the bookshop during the summer, it was the only one in the town. It had closed, the space it had occupied had been replaced by a discount store. Perhaps there were not sufficient readers in the town for it to survive; perhaps its smallness worked against it in times when people are looking for big stores and big mark downs on published prices; but, perhaps also, the bookseller had not helped the business.
Some ten years ago, a while after Ted Hughes’ death in October 1998, I had gone to the shop to look for poem by Hughes. I could not remember the title, but it asked the question, ”what is stronger than death?” It had been read on the BBC on the day Hughes had died. There were various books of Hughes’ poetry on the shelves, but no sign of the poem I was looking for. I went to the counter and asked if the bookseller had any idea of where I might find the poem.
He walked over to the shelf and started looking through the Hughes books. “This is not going to be very productive, I’ve just done that”, I thought. Trying to assist a search that proved fruitless, I said, “I think it was written after Sylvia Plath’s suicide”.
“Ah” he said, “she was the one who was doolally”.
It seemed extraordinary that a bookseller of all people could dismiss in such terms one of the greatest writers of her generation. It was also one of those moments that pulled one up sharply. If this was how an internationally-known writer is dealt with thirty years after her death by someone one might have expected to be sympathetic, then there was no prospect of ordinary people being remembered for anything.
Human humility is a hard lesson. Our society tells us to strive to succeed; to work hard; to get on; to make something of ourselves; yet ultimately it is all of no avail: we are not remembered for anything, not even as being doolally.
Jesus goes to the heart of the problem in his conversation with his disciples in the Gospel reading. The disciples had been arguing about which of them was going to get on; which was going to be successful, be of standing in the community, be well known, be a person others recognized in the street. Given their background in Galilee, their exchanges were probably robust. They probably called each other doolally and other things as well.
When they reach Capernaum, they are confronted with reality. “What were you arguing about on the road?” asks Jesus. They feel silly and embarrassed about their argument. Their ambitions seem petty and trivial when they are faced with Jesus.
What was Jesus’ mood? Anger, frustration, disappointment? He sits down. Is he feeling tired and weary with this obtuse group of followers or does he want time to emphasise what he is going to say? He calls his friends to gather around and listen, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Watch what happens next. “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”.
Children were not regarded then as they are now. Before Victorian times, children were simply people who had not reached adulthood. They were economically unproductive; they were too small for military service; they had few of the skills necessary to help run a house—they were simply unimportant, yet, for Jesus, they are the most important.
For centuries, the church has tried to avoid this fundamental piece of Jesus’ of Jesus’ teaching. Welcome the children because they are the ones with the right perspective on their own importance. They know there is always someone greater and bigger and more powerful than them; the vanity of adults is not an option. Welcome the children because children are the ones with the right perspective on time. A year away, a month away, these terms are meaningless when you are young, everything might have changed by then; life is for living here and now.. Welcome the children because their perception of God has not been clouded over by adult notions.
The church has lost sight of this Jesus; sometimes it has forgotten completely the things Jesus said.
Sitting there Jesus has emphasised, even laboured, what he says to the disciples. He wishes to leave no room for misunderstanding. Reflecting on the church today, he must wonder if church leaders take the slightest notice of what he said.
The little child set amongst the disciples had no sense of ambition, no desire for gain and success, none of the vanity that so possessed its elders. The child’s perspective was the right one because it is the real one. Ultimately, all human ambition and fame are wiped out because every life comes to an end.
I found the Ted Hughes poem for which I was searching; it’s in a collection called Crow. It talks about being stronger than death, but the death is one particular death. The character lives on after a single death, he is not stronger than death itself.
No matter how much we have, no matter how far we go, no matter how important we become, no matter who is the greatest, there is no avoiding one single reality, that this life comes to an end. The only person who is stronger than death is Jesus.
Only the child standing in the middle of the circle has the wisdom to see things as they are. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Being the last, being the servant, means seeing life in perspective; it means seeing the end of life, and being able to see beyond that end.
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church at 9 am on Sunday, 20th September