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Top Dog

Ordinary Sunday 29: 21st October, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Our dog, Plato, when out for a walk in the park, will take on other dogs twice his size! He might be small, but he has a big sense of what he can achieve. Smaller dogs are usually OK, as long as they sniff according to protocol. But when our Toy-Poodle-cross meets a Labrador or even an Alsation, it is not pretty. Instinct kicks in. Who is the top dog?

And, frankly, we humans are not much different. Your elected representatives and I have spent the past few days with hundreds of others at the Melbourne Diocesan Synod. Each year Synod is a study in top-dog behaviour. We spent most of our time this year listening to the legal top-dogs in the Diocese, who took us through such joys as the Melbourne Anglican Trust Corporation Bill and the Melbourne Anglican Trust Corporation (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018; and the Archbishop in Council Bill 2018 as well as the Archbishop in Council (Transitional Provisions, Consequential Amendments and Repeal) Bill 2018. Important, yes, but not particularly enlivening.

Then finally, on Saturday afternoon, many of us were primed to debate a long-awaited motion moved by Archdeacon Craig D'Alton concerning a form of blessing for civil marriages, when another synod member successfully moved a counter motion, based on an obscure Standing Order that even the President had to look up, and the debate was closed down; the "shut up and sit down" clause if you like. It was quite a dog fight!

This sort of behaviour is of course as old as the hills. In today's gospel reading there is the same top-dog behaviour going on among our Lord's disciples: "James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, 'Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.' And Jesus said to them, 'What is it you want me to do for you?' And they said to him, 'Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.'"

James and John want to be top dog, and Jesus explains that it is not quite as easy as that. It is a quiet conversation to one side, but when word gets out the other disciples are furious, so Jesus calls them all together: "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

James and John are the easy targets, as are the synod members who love to hear their own voice during the debates, or those who score political points at the expense of others. But before condemning them too quickly, I think it is important to acknowledge for a moment the fact that we all have this top-dog instinct in one form or another. It is part of our make-up as human beings.

Sigmund Freud made waves last century when he argued that our behaviour is driven by sexual impulses. Then Alfred Adler countered this with a theory that placed the quest for recognition at the heart of what drives us. He termed this as "striving for superiority" building on Friederich Nietzsche's earlier idea of the "will to power".

From our earliest years we cry for our mother's attention, over our siblings or other domestic competitors. When we go to school the scramble to be top-dog continues; there we call it "play-ground politics". As adults the playing fields expand exponentially, but we take this same dynamic with us; and the church is no different, whether it be Synod or the Annual Meeting of our parish or the Hospitality Committee.

In itself our natural striving for superiority is not a bad thing. We need good leaders to get things done. But as with all primal drives it can go wrong. Those in power can abuse power. Those not in power can do shameful destructive things to undermine the authority of leaders they disagree with. I think we are seeing this play out in the ugly dog-fights of Federal politics at the moment.

And let's take a look at ourselves critically too. How do we act towards one another? In this era, when so many churches are struggling for survival, business-as-usual is almost impossible. In his visit to Melbourne a few years ago, theologian Stanley Hauerwas said: "I'm not too worried about the shrinking church. We are just getting leaner and meaner."

Martin Luther King gave a sermon on today's gospel passage at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968, just two months before he was assassinated. Reflecting on Jesus' response to the ambitious James and John, who wanted to sit at his right and left in glory, King said:

What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It's very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, "You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?"

But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

What a great message for us at St Peter's today, as we prepare for our Annual Meeting next month, as we struggle to balance our budget, as we face the challenging reality of being Anglo-Catholic Christians in world that increasingly doesn't care.

St Paul knew a fair bit about this too, as he wrote to the small struggling churches he had planted: "Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour" (Romans 12:9-10); and elsewhere, "let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another" (Hebrews 10:24-5).

Let's compete in acts of charity and compassion; as Christians we are truly top dog when we selflessly serve one another and are servants to those in need; the superiority we should be striving for is the will to love.

Thanks be to God.

Primary References:

  • Martin Luther King, "The Drum Major Instinct" — sermon
  • Journal Psyche, "Alfred Adler's Personality Theory and Personality Types"


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