Mark 9: 30-37


In our competitive world, I have heard it said more than once that if you do not win, you are the first loser. Football teams, dance squads, singers in competition, and especially politicians work very hard to win. Being first is important in our society.  I was amused on one occasion when Mary Ann and I were getting out of our car to walk toward the door of the restaurant, that out of the corner of my eye I could see another couple, she even with a walker, start moving amazingly fast to get to the door first! They were walking slowly and then, the race was on!  Being first matters in scholastics; and being first mattered in our nations’ race to the moon. But what about manners; do people still let ladies go first, or do people let someone who is elderly go first? Today we listen to Jesus himself as he reinterprets worldly logic.

Sometimes people who are last, who literally “miss the boat,” are the fortunate ones instead of the winners.

The conductor Arturo Toscanini was set to return to Europe aboard the Lusitania when his season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera ended. Instead, he cut his concert schedule short and left a week earlier, apparently aboard an Italian liner.

Toscanini, at the time, was in his late 40s. He lived for another four decades, until his death at age 89, in 1957.


Broadway composer Jerome Kern, then just 30 years old, supposedly planned to sail on the Lusitania with the producer Charles Frohman, but he overslept when his alarm clock didn’t go off, and he missed the ship. The makers of the 1946 MGM musical biopic of Kern’s life, Till the Clouds Roll By, apparently didn’t consider that sufficiently dramatic, so the movie has Kern (played by Robert Walker) racing to the pier in a taxi and arriving just as the ship starts to pull away.

Kern lived for another three decades and wrote the music for such classics of the American songbook as “Ol’ Man River,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”

He died in 1945 at the age of 60 of a cerebral hemorrhage.


William Morris

The founder and namesake of what’s said to be the world’s oldest and largest talent agency, William Morris, born Zelman Moses, not only missed the Lusitania’s last voyage in 1915 but also the Titanic’s first and only attempt to cross the Atlantic three years earlier.

In both cases, Morris had booked passage but canceled at the last minute to attend to other matters, according to The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business by Frank Rose (1995).  William Morris died of a heart attack in 1932, while playing pinochle.


More recently, this past summer a woman named Tia Coleman told her tragic tale of losing 9 family members in the Duck Boat that sank in July on a Branson, Missouri lake. All 11 of them were booked on a different departure time, but she literally missed that boat by arriving at the wrong departure location. Her ticket were changed to sail on the ill-fated 6:30 sailing. Only she and her 13-year-old nephew survived.


Those were some fortunate examples of being last, or late, and one very tragic example. In June of 1999 our Body, Mind, & Soul ministry was conducting health screenings. The nurse, Janet Conners, passed out the consent forms to participate. I held back, allowing others to get their screening first. They ran out of permission slips just when they got to me. “That’s alright, I don’t need one,” I said to Janet. “Oh Rev. Sumner,” she responded, “You are their leader! You need to do this too! I have another form in my car and I’ll go and get it.” That day I was the only one they screened that had a problem. That day they discovered I had diabetes. Being last and an alert nurse giving me a screening too let me get an early start treating a manageable disease.


When we think about others first and ourselves last, we are in Jesus’ arena. Could you believe his own disciples were talking amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest? There it is in Mark 9: 34. That was when he got the attention of his followers by saying: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all.” That is a message that turns the world’s message on its ear.  I know, for example, that some persons who end up being addicted to alcohol, or narcotics, or gambling, or food get better when, according to the Big Book used in 12-step programs, they hit their “Personal bottom.” They say to others, and to their Higher Power, that they are helpless to control their addictions without others holding them accountable. And so these 12-Step meetings, of which we have several meeting in our facilities, are not run by a leader. No one is first, or at the top. They have a convener. And each person becomes a follower of a new plan for his or her life. What a difference: to think of others first.  Lives change for the better when people do that.  We have a Twelve-Step small book in our church library. Our librarian looked it over as I asked her to check it out to me for this message. She said, “You know, I learned there is a lot of Christianity in that book!” Yes. Yes there is.


How might you make one change, or two changes in your life, to think about others more; to cheer them on as they make their way through life? We hear a lot about success stories. How often do we hear about the unsung heroes who make a difference?  How different would the world look if more people followed this lesson from Jesus, or the Twelve-Step principles?


I will not forget that in September of 2000 I learned another story of the last being first: A humble and intimidated swimmer named Eric Moussambani from Equatorial New Guinea won the hearts of the world. In his outdated, poorly fitting swimsuit, he swam to win in one of the slowest times on record because his competitors fouled out in the 2000 Summer Olympics. He trained for just nine months in a hotel swimming pool! He had never seen an Olympic-sized pool. It overwhelmed him! He was interviewed about his goal before the race: “To survive and not drown” was his answer!  The last became first and after his struggling finish, the Speedo company presented him with a new swimsuit! And an Orlando swim center also invited him to train at their facility instead of in a hotel pool! Wow.


Church pastors, teachers, and members, on our best days, try to model servant ministry. We are not perfect at it. “There are different gifts, but it is the same spirit who gives them.” Jesus modeled servant ministry by girding himself with a towel and washing the feet of disciples, cleaning them of dirt and mud.  In seminary one of my professors required us to read a little paperback by Herbert H. Farmer called “Servant of the Word.” His advice to upcoming preachers as I recall it: “Remember, you are not the light; your task is to let Christ’s light shine from the Word of God.” If we truly follow what Jesus modeled today, more of us could be people who think of others first.  Ironically it was no Christian, but an ancient Greek playwright named Sophocles who said this: “I’d rather fail by honor than succeed by fraud.” May any desire to be first in the world slip aside as we seek to let the servant Christ shine through us.


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 September 23, 2018