God’s No Pecking Zone

Philippians 2:3-8

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Dear Friends in Christ,

I don’t know about you, but when I look back on my childhood years, sometimes I’m amazed that I even survived them because my buddies and I did some pretty dangerous and now I would classify them as stupid things.  From BB gun wars to climbing to the tops of trees to jumping off garage roofs to walking on thin ice, literally, and falling through, as happened to me one time, to almost getting hit by a train as we crossed a trestle.  The list goes on and on.

But one of the dumbest things that I ever allowed myself to get talked into was a game that my older brother and a couple of older neighborhood guys invented.  They called it “Douglas Runs Through.”  Some of you have heard me talk about it before, but a lot of you haven’t. Basically, it amounted to me being at one end of our churchyard and them being at the other end.  I would take off running toward them and try to run through them kind of like a football player on a kickoff return.  Only keep in mind, they were much bigger and stronger than I was.  So the odds of me actually making it past them were slim to none.  But even back then I loved a challenge.  So I’d take off running and they’d eventually grab my skinny frame and toss me to the ground like an old rag doll and pile on top of me, forcing all the air out of my lungs.  Boy, was that fun!

Well, I got to thinking about that game recently and I was struck by an interesting observation.  The game always featured me trying to run through everyone else.  It was never called “Steve Runs Through,” Steve being the name of my older brother, or “Bill Runs Through” or “Ed Runs Through,” those being the names of my neighborhood buddies.  It was always “Douglas Runs Through.”  And why was that?  The answer to that question can be summarized in two words: pecking order.

We have Norwegian naturalists to thank for that term.  They’re the ones who observed this type of behavior taking place in the barnyard among chickens.  They claimed that in the social order of chickens, there is what they called an alpha chicken who does most of the pecking and there is what they called an omega chicken, who what?  Gets picked on and pecked on.  And all the other chickens fall somewhere in between.

When I was a child, because I was usually the youngest and smallest in the neighborhood gang, I was like the omega chicken.  I was the one who typically got pecked on.  Hence the game “Douglas Runs Through.”

Now pecking orders can be found just about everywhere.  You’ll find them in schools.  You’ll find them in businesses and corporations.  You might even find them in families.  And to a certain extent, pecking orders can be helpful.  They tell us who does what and what is expected of each person.  They provide a sense of clarification as to where the buck stops and where responsibility starts.  The problem with pecking orders is not so much the order they provide, but what?  The pecking.  The name-calling, the criticism, the I’m-more-important-than-you attitude that they foster.  Just ask the shortest kid in the class or the minority family in the neighborhood or the new guy at the construction site.  You see, it’s one thing to be tackled and thrown to the ground like a rag doll in a childhood game like Douglas Runs Through. But it’s a totally different thing to have it happen in life.  And for that reason, Jesus sternly prohibits pecking orders, especially in the church.  He declares that the church is to be a “No Pecking Zone.”  This really comes out in our text for today where the Apostle Paul writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility regard one another as more important than yourselves.”

Now those are strong words, aren’t they? “Do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit.”  Try keeping that command perfectly for an entire day and you’ll find it next to impossible because of our sinful, selfish, and self-centered nature.  But if you think the words of Paul are strong, how about the words of Jesus?  Let me tell you something. Our Savior had no kind words for those who established the pecking orders of his day, especially in the religious realm.  Listen to how he describes them in Matt. 23: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…Everything they do is done for men to see…they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.”  He’s talking, of course, about the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, and how like proud peacocks they loved to strut their stuff before their fellow man and roost at the top of the spiritual ladder and spread their plumes of robes and titles, resulting in the worst pecking order of all, the pecking order of piety, the pecking order of religious arrogance, the holier-than-thou pecking order.  And Jesus is downright intolerant of that.

In fact, Jesus offers a most unusual solution to the pecking orders that sometimes occur in the church.  You know what it is?  Flip flop the pecking order.  Or to put it another way, GO DOWN, NOT UP.  God desires his church to be a place where everybody is trying to outdo one another in humility and servanthood.  That’s what our text is talking about when it says that we are to consider one another as more important than ourselves.

Now I realize that’s not always easy to do.  For example, one person who’s been in the church for 30 years may look at a person who just recently joined and say, “You mean I’m supposed to consider that person as more important than I am after all I’ve done for the church?”  Or one member who gives a lot of money to the church may look at another member who is not able to give very much, and he could very easily think, “Am I not more important than that other person?”  It’s not always easy to follow through on this principle in our everyday lives.

Especially if you’re ministering to somebody like Carl.  Carl was a member of one of my former congregations.  He was a great guy.  The day after I was installed he was the first to call me and ask if he could take me around to show me where people in the congregation lived.  But a few years later Carl was diagnosed with lung cancer.  It was terminal and as he slowly wasted away in his bed at home, I regularly visited him, trying to bolster his faith by sharing God’s Word with him and praying with him.  His wife, Edith, was usually in the room with us.  But then came the day when she wasn’t there and Carl began to gag and cough until finally he threw up the most horrible looking black stuff I’d ever seen.  And believe me, at that point I wanted to say, “Wait a minute.  They didn’t teach us at the seminary that we might have to clean up messes like this.  I am, after all, a man of the cloth who has been called to dispense God’s love and grace to those who need it. I don’t recall seeing anywhere in my call document that I might have to lower myself to clean up the vomit of a dying parishioner.”  That may be what I wanted to say initially, but instead the words of Jesus came to my mind:  “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you do it for me.”  And so I swallowed hard because I don’t have a very strong stomach for things like that and I wiped the vomit from Carl’s face and body – or maybe I should say, I wiped it from Jesus’ face and body.

So when it gets hard to regard others as more important than ourselves, you know what we need to do?  We need to look to the example of Jesus.  For who was greater than he?  Who was higher than he?  Who was more important than he?  And yet notice how Paul describes Jesus in our text:  “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!”

Would you do that, my friends?  Would you humble yourself that much for someone else?  If you were given the opportunity to choose between a spotless, glorious mansion and a grimy, smelly stable, would you choose the stable?  Jesus did.  If you could choose between the worship of lowly shepherds or holy angels, would you choose that of the shepherds?  Jesus did.  If you could hold the universe in the palm of your hand, would you give that up to swim in the womb of a Jewish maiden for 9 months?  Jesus did.  If you were God would you give up that supreme and exalted position to sleep on a bed of straw and allow yourself to be nourished at the breast of a teenage peasant girl and let that same girl diaper you and clothe you?  Jesus did.  If you knew that those you loved would not love you in return, would you love them still?  If you knew that many of those you came to save would not care that you came, would you come anyway?  If you knew that the lips you made would mock you, the mouth you made would spit on you, and the hands you made would crucify you, would you make them still?  Jesus did.

He always considered others more important than himself.  No, let me say that a little differently.  He always considered you more important than himself.  By the way, you might want to remember that the next time your self-image takes a nosedive.  He considered your soul more important than his body, your eternal life more important than his earthly life, your home in heaven more important than his home in heaven so he gave up his home in heaven just so you could have a home in heaven.

Do you get the point, my friends?  The One who urged us to consider others as more important than ourselves didn’t just say that.  He did it.  He lived it.  He set the standard by considering you and me more important than himself.  There never was a time when he said what we sometimes say, “Well, I’ll go this far, I’ll stoop this low, but don’t ask me to go any farther or stoop any lower.  After all, I’ve got my pride, you know.”  Instead, the One who deserved to be at the top of the pecking order voluntarily placed himself at the bottom.

So look at other people through the eyes of Jesus.  See them as he sees them.  Understand that there was never anyone too lowly, too small, too insignificant, too sinful for him to disregard.  Remember when Jesus talked about sparrows?  He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.”  Then a little later he added, “So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  That lets us know that God remembers the small birds of the world.  We, on the other hand, remember the big birds.  The eagles, the hawks, the falcons.  We name our sports teams after those kinds of birds, don’t we?  I mean, wouldn’t it be kind of embarrassing if our high school football team was known as the Salem Sparrows?  Not exactly intimidating, right?  But listen, God notices the sparrows.  And because he does, the woman caught in the act of adultery was given a 2ndchance; the 5-time divorcee at Jacob’s well was given a personal audience with Jesus; the thief on the cross was given Paradise; and the cowardly Simon Peter was given forgiveness and reinstated as a disciple.  No doubt about it.  Jesus was partial to the beat-up and done-in and played-out, and he urges us to be the same.

Now hopefully by this time you’re starting to put all this together.  Hopefully you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “OK, Pastor, let me get this straight.  We’re supposed to regard one another as more important than ourselves.  If I do that with you and you do that with me, and that fellow over there thinks that woman over here is more important than he is and that woman thinks he’s more important than she is, then everybody is going to feel important, right?  But nobody is going to act important.”  Huh!  What do you know?  I believe that’s precisely what God had in mind for his people.