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I Can Do It Better!
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Photo: Byron Moore
A kid was entertaining himself one day with that classic old game of tossing a baseball up in the air and then hitting it. And he was waxing eloquent to himself on what a great hitter he was. “There’s nobody like me! I can hit anything. Ain’t nobody can get me out.” He lobbed the ball up and took a mighty swing. Whiff. “That’s okay. Strike one is all. I’m the greatest hitter in the world! The fans in the stands are screaming for me. Stevie! Stevie! Stevie!” Whiff. Even now, the rhetoric continued. “No problem, baby. Greatest hitter in the world. Game Seven, the World Series, bottom of the ninth, fans on their feet . . .” Whiff.

There was just the slightest reality-check pause. He needed a paradigm shift of some kind. Suddenly the kid picked up the elusive baseball, looked at it, and a great big smile crossed his face. “I’m the greatest pitcher in the world. Untouchable! There’s nobody like me . . .”

There’s a disturbing little story in the book of Mark, chapter nine, which speaks volumes to anyone in God’s family who has ever been in an argument. Jesus and His twelve disciples were hiking from Galilee to Capernaum, and for some reason the disciples kind of hung back; they walked fifty yards behind Jesus in Maxwell Smart’s infamous “Cone of Silence.” They were talking about something they didn’t want Him to hear. That’s really brilliant, by the way—trying to hide something from Jesus.

When they got to the house they were going to be staying in, Jesus did something He often seems to do; He asked them a question He already knew the answer to. Something along the line of, “Cain, where’s your brother?”

In this episode, He asks them: “By the way, what were you guys talking about all the way over here?” In fact, “What were you arguing about?” Either Jesus was using His divine prescient knowledge, or their voices had increased in intensity and volume to the point where it was obviously some contentious issue.

Well, the men began to shuffle their feet in the dust and to look at their watches or out the window to see if any planes were going by. The Bible says, “They kept quiet.” In the King James: “They held their peace.” And the fact was that they had burned up this entire expedition arguing about one simple question: Which of them was the greatest?

That seems to us like an odd argument, maybe. I don’t remember ever sitting in our fellowship hall and having that be the point of discussion: who’s the greatest person at this table? Most of us, when we were kids, sometimes got into wrestling matches, and if you pinned someone to the ground, you wouldn’t let him up until he stated for the record: “You are greater than I.” I used to have Sabbath-afternoon wrestling competitions with my children, and of course, it was easy to beat them when they were six and I was 40. But it seems like a strange, dysfunctional thing to openly talk about with your friends: I’m better than you are.

Now, in the case of the disciples, they were probably discussing with an eye toward the question of which of them should have the greatest position in this earthly government, this Jesus cabinet they were so sure was about to be inaugurated. But the fact was, they were talking about greatest positions because each one thought he was the greatest. Their opinions of self were the source of every conflict.

And we all know how Jesus sat the guys down, called a little kid in, and said to them: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” In other words, if you think you’re great, that’s proof that you really aren’t.

Think about the Bible stories where tensions and disagreements have come because people thought they were superior. Absalom and David. Esau and Jacob. David and his brothers. Joseph and his brothers. The established converts in the Christian church versus the newcomers who were thinking of joining.

Jesus clearly teaches that we need to turn this kind of thinking on its head. “The first shall be last.” “Put others before yourself.” “Do unto others.” But in fact, the quiet unstated idea of—I am the greatest—is always hiding in the shadows of our spiritual soul.

There’s a classic story out there, and unfortunately, this is one of the rare ones the Internet can’t back up as being fully reliable. Almost always, I can search out and verify a story’s validity, and this time I couldn’t seem to do that. So I’m going to give it to you with that caveat. If it’s an urban legend, then it’s a well-meaning one.

Many years ago, as the story goes, an elegantly dressed woman got out of her automobile (or it might even have been a carriage) outside a four-star hotel, struggling with her finery and parasol. Standing by the hotel’s front entrance, she saw a nicely dressed man of African-American heritage, so she immediately yodeled over to him: “Oh, boy! Boy! Come here.” She gestured rather impatiently, and the man immediately walked over.

“Yes, ma’am?”
   
And she went: “Help me with my bags.” She pointed at a couple of large suitcases.

Without any protest, he gave a little bow and said: “Yes, ma’am. Certainly.” He picked up the two bags, carried them into the lobby and set them down at the front desk. This snooty lady came bustling up behind him, adjusting her flowery hat and trying to keep her pet poodles in line. And she said to him: “Thank you.” Reaching into her jeweled handbag, she pulled out three silver dimes. “Here you are.” You can tell this story happened a long time ago.

But this quiet gentleman shook his head. “No, ma’am, that’s all right,” he said, and he walked away.

But the story wasn’t over. Moments later someone who had seen this aborted thirty-cent transaction came over to the brassy lady. “Don’t you know who that was?” he scolded her. “Lady, you just made Booker T. Washington carry your suitcases!”

Now again—this story might be apocryphal. But in case it’s true, what just happened here? This woman made some assumptions. She was arriving at this nice hotel; he was just standing there. She was a high-rolling guest; he was obviously an employee. She wore the skin tone of the privileged upper crust; the color of his skin probably indicated that his parents had been slaves and he was still part of the servant caste of society. This dark-skinned man was either going to carry her bags or cook her dinner. All these things seemed obvious, and it seemed equally obvious that she could think to herself: “I am greater than you.” So by all the math that she was aware of, her giving him thirty cents for carrying her bags in . . . well, that was just about right.

But the story still isn’t over. To her credit, this woman, now that she knew the score, felt terrible. How could she have been so insensitive? She was very chagrined and embarrassed. She was willing to learn a lesson and admit she had been wrong. So she sought out the famous Dr. Booker T. Washington, who had an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College, who was one of the leading black educators in the country, a guiding light at Tuskegee Institute, an honored guest in the White House, first African-American ever to be on a postage stamp. Of course, he was staying at the hotel, probably in the presidential suite. But when she tried to offer him a stuttering apology, he graciously shook his head and gave her a warm smile. “That’s perfectly all right,” he said. And now get this: “I enjoy helping my friends.”

Again, I don’t know if this story is true, but it is entirely consistent with everything else we know about this great American. He was a man who responded to abuse and discrimination and the unstated putdown of “Boy! Boy! Here’s three dimes. Get the bags” . . . by calling this woman a friend.

That’s a very nice anecdote, true or not—and it reminds us that most of the time, grace and gentle answers are not how we handle potential fights in the parking lot of the hotel. Or of the church. We’ve been saying in this sermon series: we live in a world of conflict, and have the added dilemma of often liking it that way. We enjoy the tumult of division, of having “our” side and “their” side. It’s almost fun to be insulted, because then you can be mad and nurse your anger.

Here is the premise suggested in God’s Word and addressed so wisely by Jesus. Very often, conflict comes, not only because we don’t agree with the other person, but because we feel so superior to them. That woman in the fancy dress and pink umbrella saw this unassuming man with the dark skin standing at the front door of the hotel. He must be a doorman. He must be making 45 cents an hour. He must be the kind of person who would be obsequiously glad to get her three shiny dimes. Being called “boy” and getting ordered around would be a small price to pay in exchange for thirty cents.

But now look at it from Booker T. Washington’s point of view. He was a famous, leading thinker, a man who had shaped public opinion and been Teddy Roosevelt’s guest in Washington, D.C. In terms of intellect and achievement, he was many stratospheres above this racially foolish woman with her tacky clothes. But instead of pointing out to her how he was so superior, he simply said: “I enjoy helping my friends.” Even this red-faced woman who hadn’t yet had the privilege of learning all things about the human race was potentially his friend. And Washington’s quiet, diplomatic answer honored God’s kingdom.

I want to take us to the book of Romans this morning, where we find a gentle reminder of this very principle. There’s so much tension in our world today, and a dose of heaven-sent humility would go such a long way toward reducing it. Here’s what Paul writes in chapter 12, verse 10: Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. And this is nice in the King James: In honor preferring one another. In Genesis 13 Abraham said to his nephew, Lot: “Go ahead. You take the prime real estate. You take the green valley; you take the fertile soil and the suburban neighborhood with plumbing and cable TV wires already strung in from the Sodom Satellite Network. I’ll take this thorny, hilly spot over here. It’s all right.” The man who clearly was greater in every respect was willing to be treated as though he were the inferior partner. Out of the abundance of God’s blessings in his life, and out of an ongoing security in his relationship with that faithfully providing God, he was safely able to go second.

We’ve been pulling bits and pieces from different Bible versions and paraphrases. Notice here what it says in The Message: Practice playing second fiddle.

Have you ever competed for the highest “chair” in an academy orchestra? I know what it means to play second fiddle; in fact, I know what it’s like to play last fiddle. Instead of being first chair, they used to put my chair behind the curtain, or, if possible, clear in another room and I’d see the conductor over closed-circuit TV. I’ve been told more than once that the quieter my playing, the better . . . until I was essentially “bow-synching.” But I also know the slightly sinful joy of moving up from third chair to second, from second to first. Of getting the highest score on a test. Of wanting to be valedictorian. Of wanting your child to be valedictorian. Of wanting your grandchild to be the prettiest baby in the worldwide Adventist Church. Of wanting my house to be as big, square-foot-wise, as the church member who just bought one last month. Of wanting to own a new such-and-such-model car because all of my friends have them now. But how many battles could be averted if we would only be willing to sit in that second chair in the orchestra and let somebody else be “better”? Even if in our hearts we know they aren’t better, can we go along and let them sit in the first seat?

A web site by a Paul Gear makes some interesting points about conflict among God’s people. Philippians 2:4 is a good verse for that discussion: Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Here’s his comment about that: “Selfish ambition is the attitude of wanting to make it to the top—wanting to be better than everyone else.” Now get this. “Conceit is the attitude of thinking you already are better than everyone else. God’s prescription for the unity of His people is humility. Humility is described here as treating others as our superiors, or considering others as better than ourselves.”

But what should we do about this? We don’t consider others as better. We think we are better. Our parents have told us so; our little man inside has told us so. Lucifer has told us so. It’s built in to think that we’re better than others; that’s a natural human defense mechanism.

In his recent book, American Theocracy, economic and political analyst Kevin Phillips suggests that America is facing real turmoil over the fact that millions of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians wake up each morning, thinking to themselves: “We’re right. What we have convictions about . . . is right. What we know is truth. What we believe is correct. The goals we have are worthy. AND—they should all be implemented. This nation will be better off, and our non-believing neighbors will be better off, if our superior views find their way to Congress and are blessed by the Supreme Court.”

And even if you and I aren’t part of the Religious Right, we all have this inner sense of spiritual superiority. The beliefs we’ve carved out are right and good, and better than what is preached in the church across the street or even by that other Adventist church that is somewhat removed from us on the spectrum of spirituality.

That’s where the gospel of Jesus is a great blessing. We’re all equal at the foot of the Cross, and if we go there in our meditating, we realize that. The Bible is a great help here, because it teaches us over and over that others have equal value to God, that our prideful opinions are erroneous, that bragging is an offense to heaven. The Church is a wonderful resource in this matter, because we can see the gifts and talents and portfolios of others who are doing things for the Lord that we can’t accomplish. Week by week I come to this place and I discover other people doing things that I’m not very good at. Administrative skills I haven’t got; musical abilities I haven’t got; medical knowledge and expertise I haven’t got; financial acumen I haven’t got. If your eyes are open at all, being in a church should make all of us feel both valued and humble.

In Romans 12, there’s a eye-opening observation made by Paul in verse 3: "By the grace given me,” he writes, “I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” And then immediately, he launches into a brilliant description of what we call the Body of Christ. Many members, one body. Many body parts, one body. Many unique functions, one body. Many and varied talents, one body. You can do this well; I can do that well. One body. You have a long string of talents; someone else may only look like they have one. One body. You like this kind of praise music; I prefer something else. One body. You have a certain conviction about the 1260 days in Revelation 12 or the presence of the prophetic gift in the church in these last days; someone else doesn’t see those views that way. One body.

This Paul Gear goes on to point out that the Bible just never once extols the importance of self-esteem. “This is never regarded as a virtue in Scripture,” he writes. “In fact, it is just the opposite: self-esteem will only get in the way of the body of Christ. Christ asks the members of His body to esteem others as better than themselves.”

And the wise, balanced person deliberately takes this view. I mentioned how Dr. Ben Carson, brilliant brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins, sometimes encountered people who didn’t know he was a renowned M.D. There were lab techs who kind of said to this skinny black kid in surgical greens, “Oh, boy! Boy! Take this to the front desk. Here are three dimes for your trouble.” He encountered that. In Newsweek, the “My Turn” column was recently written by a black female doctor named Mana Lumumba-Kasonga. Her essay was entitled “My Black Skin Makes My White Coat Vanish.” In years of practice, nobody will believe she’s a doctor. They keep sneaking peeks at her lab coat name tag. Even after treating some people, they ask her: “When’s the doctor getting here?” There were actually black patients who said, “No, give me a real doctor. I don’t want you.”

Back to Ben Carson, though—even though he was so much smarter than all the nurses, and probably making eight times as much, he carefully cultivated the attitude of valuing them. Some of these people had years of experience; he was kind of new. They knew hospital procedures; he was still having to feel his way along the maze of corridors. In his autobiography, Think Big, he writes this confession: “Because of their practical experience”—sometimes 25 or 30 years’ worth—“in observing and working with patients, they could teach me things. And they did.” Then he wisely adds this P.S. “There isn’t anybody in the world who isn’t worth something.”

Dale Carnegie, in his bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who says this: “Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn from him.”

By the way, Jesus doesn’t just encourage this attitude of humility because it will unleash the Church’s power and influence. He also nudges us away from self-esteem for our own sakes. Our own happiness and well-being is at stake if we fall into the dead-end trap of competing with others. There will always be a pastor out there with a bigger church than I’ve got; there will always be a professional with a bigger house than you’ve got. To feel good by comparing up and down the scale of affluence is always going to be a temporary high, like cocaine.

Speaking of drugs, it’s just slowly coming out why a certain San Francisco baseball slugger got himself into steroids. In May of 1998, the San Francisco Giants went to St. Louis for a three-game series, and a lean, trim, athletic, base-stealing player named Barry Bonds had to watch as “Big Mac,” Mark McGwire, got headline after headline. After a terrible players’ strike three years earlier, fans around the world now were transfixed as McGwire and Sammy Sosa were suddenly socking homers out of ballparks everywhere and chasing Roger Maris’ record.

Now, in the ‘98 season, Bonds ended up with a sparkling .303 batting average, 37 home runs, on the All-Star team for the eighth time. He was in the middle of a lucrative $44 million, six-year baseball contract. He had more of this world’s goods than anyone sitting here today could possibly fathom. But all the headlines went to McGwire. The Cardinals came to the Bay Area to play in Bonds’ home town, and the media crush for McGwire was so frenzied they had to put crowd-control guide ropes around home plate when he took batting practice. Bonds saw the ropes, asked, “What’s this?” and just about exploded when he found out it was to control McGwire-mania. “Not in my house,” he said, adding a few expletives and threatening to tear the ropes down himself. Shortly after that he began his own destructive steroid descent into hell.

Today his life is basically ruined. He’s exposed as a cheat. When he finally hit homer #756 and passed up Hank Aaron, fans outside of the Bay Area turned away in disdain and spoke about asterisks next to the “record.” His going into the Hall of Fame is definitely in jeopardy. The river of steroids has made him abusive, misshapen, covered with acne, bald, and impotent. And all because someone else was getting headlines he thought should come to him.

Jesus says to us, “I want to set you free from that. I want to release My Church from the conflicts and the turmoil and the theological debates that all stem from the idea that Person A is better or smarter or more biblically astute than Person B.” C. S. Lewis has a wonderful line in his book, Mere Christianity, from the chapter entitled, very simply: “The Great Sin”—meaning, pride. Here it is: “If you really get into any kind of touch with [God] you will, in fact, be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once gotten rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are.” And he concludes that escaping from that vicious cycle, that Wall Street rat race of house competition and vehicle competition and job competition, is like a cold drink of water to a thirsty traveler.

Often some of you stay by in the afternoon and help us with one mission charity or another. Someone comes through our doors seeking help, and ends up next to you. And you might find yourself visiting with someone who, on paper, doesn’t have your resumé. You will likely have a better education, better job, and—obviously—a better-stocked pantry in your home.

I want you to do two things, as a spiritual exercise. First of all, I want you to connect with that person. Find a way to personally say to them: “It’s so good to have you here. It’s an honor to have you trust us this way. You’re important to our church family.”

And then, secondly: just stop and realize something. That person is your superior in some way. They have survived hardships you might not have endured. They may have street smarts that you lack. They have coped with difficulties that might knock you flat on your face. Out of perhaps meager resources, they, too, have been generous in their community. Jesus and His disciples once watched rich millionaires give big gifts that scarcely made a dent in their pile of CDs and IRAs. Then a widow from the local food bank pantry crept in and put in her last two cents. Jesus had some very kind words to say about who was spiritually “great” that day in the temple.

So try to get the antenna of Jesus out and get a grateful sense of how you are sitting in the presence of this special, gifted person. Someone who comes in this afternoon might someday be one of the highest of leaders, worship champions, when we get into God’s kingdom. Some of our white-collar professions aren’t even going to be needed when we get to the New Jerusalem; I have it on good authority that all doctors, dentists, nurses, psychologists, and lawyers are going to be immediately unemployed upon our arrival in that Better Land. But people who have learned to care for others, who have shared cups of cold water, who have ridden a bus to get an A.A. degree at the community college, who have tutored kids in after-school programs . . . they may be generals and Cabinet officials in God’s eternal government, while your pastor is a humble and happy foot soldier.
   
And if any of us struggle with the fact of superior skills—if you have the highest IQ in the room and know it—then you do what Jesus did. On that Thursday night in the Upper Room, He was better. He knew it; they all knew it. He was God. He was their Master. He was their Leader. They called Him Lord, and they were right in calling Him Lord. But when it came time to wash feet, Jesus went ahead and did the humble thing. Even as a King, He acted the part of a servant.
   
Chuck Colson used to be a big shot in Washington. His office was next to Nixon’s; he rode on Air Force One. He shaped policies that impacted the nation and the world. Then he went to jail for being a Watergate conspirator. As a brand new Christian there, he found out that he was actually a pretty ordinary guy, and that some of the quiet believers in the next cell over had a strength of character he could only stand back in awe and praise God for.

And he wrote later these humbling words: “It’s kind of hard to wash someone else’s feet . . . when you’re up on your own pedestal.” Shall we pray?

Lord, we’re in Your house today as a beautiful mosaic of talents and ideas. We bring different skills, different financial backgrounds, different passions and theological ideas to this holy place at the foot of the Cross. Please help us to see Calvary as the great leveler; help us to see our fellow believers as wonderfully diverse, equally valuable parts of one glorious and global Body. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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