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Calibrating Importance

Sermon
Life Injections
Connecting Scripture to the Human Experience
... they had argued with one another who was the greatest...

A look into who or what is important.

......

Three young boys from a rather prestigious school were arguing as to whose father was the most important. The first boy said, "My dad is the ambassador to the United Nations, and when people see him they say, 'Your Excellency.' " The second boy said, "My dad is a prince, and when people see him, they say, 'Your Highness.' " The third boy said, "That's nothing. My dad weighs 450 pounds, and when people see him they say, 'O my God!' "

I've just humorously described one of many indicators that are used to measure importance. Society has established criteria for one to be designated as important and those indicators are derived from that criteria. The problem, however, is that it often misses the mark. All too often society leaves out of the criteria certain things that need to be taken into account when it comes to defining who is truly important.

Historian Howard Zinn talks about the fact that history does us a disservice because it tends to highlight headline-makers, and it fails to properly credit all the little people who, in essence, gave birth to the headlines.

For example, Abraham Lincoln is recognized as the one who ended slavery in this country. Although that may be so, if we look at the Emancipation Proclamation, the truth of the matter is that, prior to that proclamation, many people put their lives on the line to call attention to the evil of slavery. Many people were humiliated, harassed, and silenced because they dared attack an institution that provided considerable profit for many an influential person. Many a slave was killed because he dared to protest his indentured status. There would have been no Emancipation Proclamation if it were not for them and countless others who made no headlines, who received no credit, who will never make a history book, but who were vitally important in furthering the abolition of slavery.

The same can be said for all the other important causes, laws, and changes that have ended an evil or have promoted something that has helped create a better and more humane society. There will always be some person or persons who will be singled out as the most important, as the one who spearheaded the movement. But the truth of the matter is that they were no more important than were all the little people without whom there would be no movement.

A famous concert organist was giving a recital. It was back in the days before electricity, and the organ needed to be hand-pumped in order to produce sound. While the music was being played, there was a young fellow hidden behind the screen who pumped away with all the strength he had. During the intermission, the organist was standing in the wings and the young fellow, a small boy, came up to him and declared, "Aren't we great?" Rather sharply the organist retorted, "What do you mean, we?" The boy sheepishly went away. After the intermission, the organist sat down once again at the keys and not a sound came. He pressed again and still not a sound. Then the young boy poked his head around the screen and asked with a gleam in his eye, "Now, who's we?"

People may be recognized as important, of great worth, of great prestige, but they are no more important than all the little people, the boy or the girl, the man or the woman, who may not have pushed the pedals of the organ, but who somehow made it possible for them to rise to their prestigious position and carry out the work that they do.

Although society may measure importance by who is making the headlines, who is receiving the kudos and plaudits of the world at large, the reality is that countless others are as important and sometimes more important, although they are never recognized, they are never cited, and they never receive the acclaim they deserve.

Then there's the matter of being important, but not really standing for anything important. There is a true story about a man who parked his car in front of a supermarket. When he returned, he found the front of his car smashed and no sign of the offender's car. His heart sank until he noticed a scrap of paper tucked under the windshield wiper. Opening it he found this message: "As I'm writing this note to you, there are at least sixteen people watching me. They think I'm obviously giving you my name and address. Well, I'm not." The moral of the story is that very often the obvious is not the actual.

There are many people deemed important: professional football players, rock stars, entertainers, heads of state, movie stars, CEOs, bank presidents. Obviously they're important, but are they actually important? Are they doing anything that will have a long-term effect on the quality of life in the community in which they live? Are they doing anything as far as the state of the world is concerned? Will there be less poverty, less racism, less violence? Will they ever be remembered for having done something that has made this land of ours a better place in which to live? It seems to me that in computing one's importance we need to make a distinction between the obvious and the actual, between being important and doing important things. We have a lot of important people around today whom the generations that follow will find hardly important at all.

There are also those whose importance can't be denied but who have achieved their importance at the cost of their integrity. There's a great scene in the play and the movie A Man for All Seasons. Sir Thomas More is being tried for treason unjustly and illegally. One of the main witnesses testifying against him is an old proteg‚ and a former friend. This man, Richard Rich, has agreed to lie about More's behavior and character and, in return, the King has made him the Prince of Wales.

As he walked past More sporting all the status symbols of his new regal position, Sir Thomas admonished his betrayer about the cost of his newfound importance. "For Wales?" he said. "Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the entire world, but for Wales?"

And how often has that been the case for people who have gained importance. They've clawed and scraped their way to the top. They've achieved the prestige, the status, they've always wanted. But it has come at the cost of their integrity; it has come at the cost of their humanity; it has come at the cost of their very soul.

Lee Atwater held a very important position. He was head of the Republican Party and was considered a campaign manager par excellence. He spearheaded the campaign that brought George Bush to the presidency in 1989. He was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly afterwards. In the memoirs that he wrote shortly before he died, he made mention of the fact that he acquired more wealth, more power, more prestige than anyone could imagine. But with death staring him in the eye, he wished now that he had spent more time with his family. He wished now that he had spent more time with his friends. He wished that the time and energy he spent to achieve importance had been put toward those things that were really important.

When it comes to calibrating importance, we often tend to miscalculate. We designate certain people as important and we forget all the little people who are equally important if not more important than the ones getting the headlines. We designate certain people as important, but what qualifies them as important will never be judged or seen as such by the generations that follow ours. We designate certain people as important but we don't take into consideration the price they paid for their importance.

It is this whole question of calibration that Jesus addresses in today's Gospel. He catches the disciples arguing among themselves as to who is most important. In an effort to set them straight, he gathers them together and tells them that if anyone wishes to remain first he or she must remain the last one of all and the servant of all. In essence, he is telling them that, contrary to the way that society calibrates importance, if they really want to be important, they must give of themselves for the sake of others. They won't make headlines, they won't make millions, they won't command power, but their importance will go without question.

There is a story of a woman who had been used to every luxury and to immense respect. She had obviously achieved a great deal of status and importance. She died, and when she arrived in heaven an angel was sent to conduct her to her new home. They passed many a lovely mansion and the woman thought that each one must be the one allotted to her. When they passed through the main streets, they came to the outskirts where the houses were much smaller. At the very fringe, they came to a house that was little more than a shack. "This is your house," said the angel. "What!" said the woman. "That! I cannot live in that!" "I am sorry," said the angel, "but that is all we could build for you with the materials you sent up."

When all is said and done, it is not the status one receives in this world that matters. It is the status one receives in the next life that counts. It is not the materials we've accumulated here that are going to speak to our importance and our rank. The materials we send off to God and to the generations that follow will ultimately mark our importance. The mansions here do not matter. The mansions up there are the ones that count.

When we give of ourselves for the sake of others, when we do things that will be of service to humankind, when we put out so that others will enjoy a better life, we may not be deemed important by society but we'll live with the peace of mind that we've done good work. We'll live knowing that we haven't compromised our integrity or our soul just to be important. We'll live knowing that although people may not consider us as important as the rock star or the football player, at least we've done important things. We'll live with the satisfaction of knowing that, although someone else will get the credit for the grand noble deed, he couldn't have done it without our help.

When it comes to calibrating importance, follow the criteria of today's Gospel. Forego the mansion here for a place far greater in the world beyond this one.

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