I’m not sure, but I think that we all believe that we’re better than somebody else. We all know that we’re not supposed to. Maybe we’d all deny it. And some of us may think it’s not true. But I think, deep down …
Here, take this. Remember the TV show MASH? If you’re my age or older, you certainly remember that show about an Army hospital during the Korean War. Well, thanks to a great find at our rummage sale in the spring, I’ve been binge-watching the entire series all summer. Frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t mentioned it in a sermon before.
Anyway, one of the characters on MASH is a doctor named Charles Emerson Winchester III. Winchester is very proud that he graduated from Harvard Medical School, and even prouder that he is a member of a wealthy and important family in Boston. He doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he thinks he is better than everyone else at the camp.
Or take Major Frank Burns, another doctor on MASH who is convinced he is better than just about everyone there because of his rank. He regularly throws his weight around to other officers of lesser rank, and he is positively brutal to the enlisted men. He knows he’s better than they are. Respect for the chain of command is crucial in the military, but it doesn’t need to lead to contempt and cruelty like it did for Frank.
Or take Hawkeye Pierce, in some ways the main character of MASH, a draftee doctor who is not happy at all to be in a war zone. He’s a top-notch surgeon, and incredibly compassionate toward his patients and anyone suffering, but is also very idealistic and pigheaded when he gets upset about something, which happens quite often. He is convinced that he is better than all the generals and others above him, because he believes they’re the ones who caused the pain and suffering of his patients. He also tends to think he’s better than anyone else at the camp who disagrees with him.
And it’s not just them. Here’s the trick. Pretty much all the other characters on MASH think that they’re better than at least somebody. They think they’re better than Winchester, because he can be such a blowhard. They think they’re better than Frank, because he can be such a jerk. And they think they’re better than Hawkeye, because he can be so closed-minded.
Everybody thinks that they’re better than somebody else. And on TV, that makes for great drama. But in real life, it also makes for a lot of drama too. And suffering.
Think about political campaigns. Almost every political campaign is based not on how good a particular candidate is, but on how much of a slimeball their opponent is. Vote for me not because of how good I am on my own; vote for me because I’m so much better than the other one. We all say we hate politics like this, but candidates keep doing it, because it works.
People have thought themselves better than others because of the color of their skin. Or because of their wealth. Or because of their country. Or because of their age. Or because of their gender. Or their religion. Or their political party. Or their education, or lack thereof. Or because they are right-handed – seriously.
And sometimes it’s just funny. Did you know that 90% of people think their driving is above average? Did you know that 90% of parents think their children are above average? I’ll give you a hint – by definition, 50% of people are above average in everything. That’s what average means!
And so on and so forth. The truth is, we all do this. It seems sometimes like it’s built into human nature – we have to compare ourselves to others, and we have to be better than somebody. And even if you say that you don’t do this, then I bet you feel like you’re a little better than those of us who do.
I believe this is what Jesus was talking about in today’s gospel. He wasn’t just giving people advice on how not to be embarrassed in public. He was telling them, stop thinking you’re better than others. Stop aiming for those better seats. Not just because it’ll make your day better. But because God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that. In God’s kingdom, we are all in this together.
There’s a word used in southern Africa called ubuntu. Roughly, it translates to “I am because we are.” The idea is that there is no me without us. By myself I am nothing. I find my meaning and my identity in the relationship I have with other people. And those other people find their identity through their relationship with me. And not in a “let’s compare” relationship, but rather a “we need each other” relationship.
South African Archbishop and writer Desmond Tutu has taken ubuntu, and claimed it as his theology. He says this is how God made us. I am because we are, and we are because God is. We are made to be in community. We are made to share in one another’s lives. We are made to be together. Ubuntu theology was incredibly important in helping South Africa to heal after apartheid ended, instead of entering a spiral of revenge.
And I don’t know about you, but I am tired. I am tired of thinking that I’m better than other people, and other people thinking they’re better than me. I am tired of getting so angry at people on the internet who are wrong. I am tired of believing that our country is going down the drain. I’m just tired of the hatred, the contempt, the feeling of being powerless against people who are lesser than me. I’m just tired of it all. And I need some hope. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just depressed. Maybe I’ve been watching too much MASH. But I need some hope right now. And maybe there’s some hope in ubuntu.
Maybe there’s some hope in the thought that whenever I think of myself as better than someone else, God points to that person and says, “This is my child.” Jesus stands next to that person and says, “This is my brother. This is my sister.” The Holy Spirit looks at me, and says, “This is your brother. This is your sister.” Every single person. No exceptions. I’m no better than any of them. And in fact, I need them.
And maybe there’s also hope that they need me too. I am God’s child too. I am Christ’s brother. I am your brother. You need me, and I need you. Maybe there’s hope there that we are all God’s children, and not just us, but the hundreds of people we will encounter today, the thousands of people we will encounter this year, the billions of people who live in every place on earth. Maybe there’s hope that our job is simply to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. All seven billion neighbors.
Maybe there’s hope for us after all.