The following is the text of Deacon Pat Hessel’s homily as preached at Holy Trinity Parish on October 20-21, 2018 (29th Sunday in Ordinary Time):
Two ladies were sitting in the doctor’s waiting room. One of the ladies lent her pen to the other. The lady who lent her pen wrote the following:
“They seem a bit behind in here today,” the lady with my pen says, as she nods toward the nurses striding through the doors. “You here to see Dr. Reid too?” she asks me in a raspy whisper.
I tell her I’m just here to get my blood tested, and I return her smile and lean forward to lay the magazine on the table.
“I’m here for a check-up,” she says as she slips the lid on the pen, the greying light in her eyes as she looks up at me. “Cancer,” she says. I nod, hoping my eyes speak the ache in my heart for her.
She continues: “You know what? Dr. Reid said the last time I was in here, that in our human bodies, the cells that only benefit themselves are known as cancer.” It’s like the whole waiting room had gone dead quiet.
“I think about that a lot. ‘The cells that only benefit themselves are known as cancer.’” She pats her bag. “Thanks again for the pen, dear.”
I swallow and falter. I can’t hear anything but the ringing of her words. How had I never known that cancer is the cells that only take for themselves? Cancer is what refuses to die to self.
Quite an interesting way to think about cancer. Yet, it makes sense. Cancer cells multiply in an uncontrolled way, and if not effectively treated, can cause the death of all the other cells in the body. They look out only for themselves.
In our Gospel today, James and John were very much focused on themselves. They told Jesus that they wanted to be in the most favoured positions when Jesus came into his glory. That meant that they would be above the others. They would be the winners and, by definition, the others would lose.
The other apostles were angry with James and John. But were they angry because they knew that James and John were making a very selfish request, or were they angry because they actually wanted to be the first ones to ask Jesus for this favour? It seems to me that the others also shared the visions of glory that James and John wanted for themselves, because, in response, Jesus called all of them together. He taught all of them that true greatness rests not in power and authority, but in service to others. Jesus knew that, like the cancer cells, James’ and John’s desire for self-importance would be to the detriment of the Gospel message.
I spoke a couple of weeks ago about competition and envy. It seems that’s what the apostles had fallen into. And Jesus, again, told them that they had it wrong. Each of them should have been focused on helping each other – not competing with each other. They should have been concerned about the people who would hear the Gospel from them, not their status as favoured disciples. Their importance rested in their willingness to serve others. If they didn’t understand that, they would have been like the cancer cells – destroying the body of believers, rather than building it up by serving it.
But we’re conditioned to put ourselves first. Just a simple example. The other day I was going into Tim Hortons. There was another guy walking to the door, just behind me. I held the door open for him, but I made sure I got in first. I was happy to hold the door open – behind me – but I didn’t want him to get in front of me in the line-up. My luck he would have been making the Timmy’s run for the whole work crew – six different kinds of coffee, then doughnuts, muffins, sandwiches. I didn’t want to have to wait for that. In fact, he probably just bought a coffee for himself and left.
Have you ever passed up that perfect parking space, right in front of the store, so that maybe the next person could have an easier time of it? Yeah, me either.
And then I think about those door-crasher deals on Black Friday, when the stores open at 5:00 am and people push and shove each other so they can get one of those few low-priced items before anyone else?
Now, these are silly examples, but I think they capture our mindset. We want the best for ourselves, and in general that’s okay. But what we often don’t think about is that what benefits us is sometimes to the detriment of others.
Now I got to the door at Tim Hortons at least a second or two before that other guy. It was only fair that I should be ahead of him in line. You saw that perfect parking spot first, it was only fair that you took it. You waited outside Best Buy for three hours. It’s only fair that you get that big-screen TV at a bargain price.
Certainly, there are times when, for practical reasons, we have to put ourselves first. And I’m not suggesting that you should go and stand for hours opening the door at Tim Hortons, and only get in line when there’s no one else coming. That would be silly – especially if it was 30 below. The examples are meant to challenge the prevailing mindset: the mindset that says “me first.” And that mindset can affect our lives and the lives of others in ways that are far more important that standing in line or getting a parking spot. When we think only of ourselves, we become like the cancer cells, and cancer cells hurt the whole body.
Jesus was talking about a different kind of mindset: a way of thinking and acting that puts other people first. And, for the most part, that’s just not the way our society thinks.
Jesus taught his disciples a lot of things. His disciples saw him preach to the people, heal the people. Jesus didn’t do those things to make himself important. He did them out of compassion, and as a way of preparing his disciples for positions of leadership when he was no longer around. You remember when he told them, as he approached his death, that he must leave so that the Holy Spirit could come to them. His purpose was not to make himself indispensable, but to prepare them for the important work of spreading the Gospel when he was gone.
Jesus is calling us to a higher way of being in the world. Jesus, who had all the resources of heaven and earth at his command, chose to lead by serving. He became higher by going lower.
You’d think that one of the places where we would be most likely see the “me first” mindset among people in positions of leadership would be in the business world. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal was titled: “The best bosses are humble bosses.” Their use of the word humble was very similar to the concept of servant leadership that Jesus spoke about in the Gospel today. I’ll read a brief quote: “Humility is a core quality of leaders who inspire close teamwork, rapid learning, and high performance in their teams. Humble people tend to be aware of their own weaknesses, eager to improve themselves, appreciative of others’ strengths, and focused on goals beyond their own self-interest.” “Focused on goals beyond their own self-interest.”
Jesus acted always in the interest of others, and he challenged James and John: “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” His brand of leadership – leadership through service – involved suffering. Suffering could mean just waiting a little longer in the line at Timmy’s, or it could mean sacrificing your very life – as Jesus did.
A life of service necessarily involves sacrifice. But for those who really understand what Jesus was saying today, each sacrifice is a joy. A joy, not because we like to make our lives difficult. A joy, because with each sacrifice we can make someone else’s life better.
Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
He calls each of us to do the same.