Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 29, 2013
Do you know what an outlier is? An outlier is someone who is at the edge. In the middle you have the masses. At the extremes are the outliers. Today we’re talking about the ones who are at the high end of the scale. The ones who have achieved success. The cream of the crop.
In many ways our country is built on the idea of success. Making your way to the top is viewed as laudable. Those who excel in their field are extolled. Someone who has achieved what no one else has is revered. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of this. Striving to be the best you can be is a good thing. Looking up to those who are at the pinnacle of success can be a great motivation for achieving success yourself.
The thing about success, though, is that we tend to look at the outliers for how we view success. When a person is a true outlier, not in the middle like most of us; truly great at what they do, not just good like most of us; at the top, not somewhere down here like most of us, we tend to look at who the outlier is and what he has done to achieve his success. We tend not to factor in all that is completely out of the control of the outlier. We tend to think that the person who is successful is successful because of what she has done, not because there were a whole series of events or factors that fell into place for them.
If you take two people of equal intelligence or ability and put one in a situation where there is ample opportunity for the person to hone his skills and put the other one in a situation where there is not opportunity for that at all, which one is likely to succeed? Even though those who are successful generally have achieved a lot through their hard work, dedication, and accomplishments, it is equally true that there have been a lot of people and other factors that have played a role in that person’s success.
Our culture prizes individual success. Perhaps we need to recognize more the role we all play in others’ lives. Think of all the factors involved in the star athlete’s success. The head coach, the assistant coaches, the teammates, the parents, the athletic facilities the athlete makes use of, the money spent in providing for all the resources at his disposal, and on and on. If he achieves success, it is by no means because he has done it on his own.
Even more so in our culture, this is what we ought to learn in the Church. Who we are, what we have, what we look to, is anything but what we alone can achieve. In the Church, success is even more important than it is in society, although this success is very different from what we normally think of as success. Too often we think of success in the Church in the same way we do in society. And this is not a new thing either. And it’s not even something that is exclusive to our American society.
This is the question the disciples ask Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Top CEOs would love this kind of initiative. If I can find out who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, then I can set out to overtake him. I can learn how to be like him and be succcessful myself. Who is the greatest in God’s Kingdom? When you find out, you can look to that person, who she is, what kind of person she is, what she has done, and then you know what it takes to be the greatest. Guess where all the focus in this is? On the individual.
This question by the disciples is a devastating commentary on us as Christians. We are to be humble. We are to serve. We are not to see ourselves as better than others. We are to be lowly. But the disciples show their true colors. Will you and I be able to see our true colors? Will we be able to see ourselves for what we are, that we want to achieve our success and we want it to be due to us? That, far from being content with how God places us in His Kingdom, we want to achieve a higher status, be ranked as greater in the Kingdom of God than others?
To the question the disciples asked, there was an answer. To put Jesus’ answer in terms of our opening illustration, in the way the world views things, we are to be outliers. Not so much in the sense that we as Christians are to be the cream of the crop, reaching the pinnacle of success, but rather in the sense of being at the edge. Whereas the world is a mass of humanity in the middle, we Christians are to be out of the norm. We are to be outliers.
As an exhibit Jesus puts before the disciples a child. Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? The one who is as a child. The one who is not a self-made person, but rather is entrusted solely to the care of his parents. The one who doesn’t seek success of her own power or desire, but rather rejoices in the success she has been given through many factors that are out of her control.
This gives us perspective to understand the meaning of this day, the festival of St. Michael and All Angels. We don’t talk about angels much. We don’t think about them much. This is not really a bad thing. Angels are far more important than we probably realize. But there are many things we don’t think about or talk about much that are really important. Often these things are what keep us going so that we can simply live and carry out the work God has called us to do. Your heart is essential to your life and yet you don’t think about it all the time. The engine of your car is vital to getting you where you need to go, but you don’t spend all your time thinking about it. The life you have and living it out is what you ought to be focusing on, not your heart pumping out blood to your veins. Using your car to get you where you need to be is more important than pondering the importance of your car’s engine.
Angels fit into this category. They are spiritual beings, so you can’t see them. They operate outside of time and space, so you’re not aware of their workings. Perhaps most important, they are servants of God, so they don’t really want you focusing on them. Their job is to protect you. Their job is to use the Gospel to defeat your enemy, Satan. Their work is to serve you so that you may be the recipient of what God has accomplished in the Gospel.
The disciples’ question of who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is lacking in something. It is lacking in the true greatness of God. When we think of success, we think of being the best, or at least being better than most. We think of success as achieving something or accomplishing something. With God it’s just the opposite. There is no success we can achieve. Born into sin, we are already defeated. Living in this fallen world, we are constantly attacked by Satan, our sworn enemy. The reading from Revelation warns us of him: “the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, you have no chance in this fight. You are born in sin and attacked mercilessly by the devil. You continue in your sin every day. You will achieve nothing but the condemnation you deserve.
But St. Michael the archangel has shown you the way out. It is by the blood of the Lamb. It is by the word of the testimony. Michael conquered Satan, as the reading from Revelation shows. He did it not by his own power, but by the blood of the Lamb. He did it by the word of the testimony. That word is the Gospel. There is only one testimony given in the New Testament, and it is the testimony that the one who shed His blood is the one who rose from the grave. What Jesus accomplished on the cross is what brought Satan his defeat.
Michael is an archangel. He is powerful. But he didn’t fight against Satan of his own power. He used a little thing called the Gospel. And this brings us back full circle to Jesus’ answer to the disciples. What is it about the child that He said to the disciples, you must become as a child in order to be great? What it is about the child is that the child is dependent. The child must be entrusted completely to his parents. A child simply trusts his parents and knows they will take care of him.
God in fact brings you success. It is not of this world. You may never be rich or powerful. You may never gain fame or honor. But God is successful. He achieved salvation for you on Calvary. He gained the victory by conquering the grave. He sent Michael to cast out Satan, by the blood of the Lamb and the Word of the testimony. This is truly the Gospel of success, what God has accomplished for you so that you may live as His child, and in humility and joy carry out what He has called you to be and do. Amen.