The Reformed Church of Locust Valley
Epiphany II January 20, 2002
“Playing Second Fiddle”
What’s wrong with second place?
First place is worth fighting for, isn’t it? Don’t we want our kids to be all they can be? to be the best, achieve the most, get the highest grades, get into the best schools, live in the best neighborhoods?
What’s wrong with that after all?
Most of you heard the story about Thomas Junta. Thomas Junta was a 44-year-old truck driver, who was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Massachusetts for killing his son’s hockey coach, Michael Costin by smashing his face on he ice of the hockey rink during a disagreement. The event was seen by many boys on the team, because the dispute was during a practice, not even an actual game. Charles McGrath, writing about the incident says, “In my experience both as a coach and as a spectator, hockey parents are even worse that Little League parents who seem meek by comparison.” This author tells of a fight he witnessed rink-side as two hockey moms’s literally pummeled each other in a dispute about a game. (NY Times Mag. 1/20/02)
So there! First place is worth fighting for, isn’t it?
This incident is bizarre, and deaths involving irate parents at sporting events are rare. But parental anger isn’t.
Parents want their kids to win. I wonder how much sportsmanship is taught today? Some of the members of our church coach sports for young people. I know these people and they are good, and I imagine that they try hard to get all kids involved, and help the boys and girls hone their skills and do their best and learn how to play fair. But that isn’t easy with some parents who seem to have nothing but a killer instinct, as if to say, “My child must win at all costs.”
My daughter is 10. Ten years old, mind you. She’s a fifth grader. That means she has seven years to go till she graduates from High School. Eight years if you count the fifth grade. A few weeks ago she came home and told us about an activity her classmate is going to be involved in so she can go to Harvard Law School when she finishes with the locust Valley Central School District. Ten years old. Harvard Law School. Now, is this because she has a burning passion for justice? No, it is because she knows successful lawyers make lots of money. Ten years old.
Gotta be first. Gotta be rich.
Now, she didn’t figure this all out on her own.
I’m afraid our culture is way off course.
Again, not our young people. I was amazed and impressed as were many of you at the creativity of young people in finding ways to relieve the suffering after September 11th. I think in many ways, young people today are more aware and more caring than other generations. Say what you want about mall rats and valley girls, our children have a spirit that runs deep. You need only look at the teen agers in this church.
But they are the counter culture – our church kids. This culture wants to grab hold of them and use them up in the endless cycle of acquiring.
Jesus came to make people rich. The Bible even says that. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich (Gk. PLOUSIOS), yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty, you might become rich (I Cor. 8:9)” The Greek word means is “fullness.” The root is “to flow.” It can mean fullness of goods, but here it means spiritual fullness. It means a flowing in of incredible spiritual riches – or as we know from our childhood memory work, “My cup runneth over.”
It is more important to have a cup running over with the Spirit of the Lord than a coffee running over with gold.
The person with the most things – the person with the most first place ribbons, the person who is first chair first, is not necessary life’s most successful person.
I guess the greatest second fiddle of all time is John the Baptist.
I’m going to tell you something about John that many of you don’t know. John the Baptist had disciples. He had people who followed him just like the disciples we know so well followed Jesus.
They were devoted to their master, John, but they faced a crisis. When Jesus came along, John, “Here’s the guy I was telling you about. Leave me and follow him.”
People don’t like change. Try changing something in the church and watch what happens. I met a new church start pastor once and said, “I envy you, no traditions, no prejudices to overcome, no people saying, “We never did it that way before.” He laughed and said, “Fred, I’ve got news for you. It takes about one hour to make a tradition. If in the school building we’re renting I ask the people to change the way we set up chairs last week they fly into a tizzy. It’s human nature.
Imagine you’ve left your home to follow this peculiar man John the Baptist. All your friends and family at first teased you. Then as they realized you were serious about this they made fun of you. When they saw you packing your bag they got frantic and begged you not to go. “Look at him! He doesn’t even dress right. He doesn’t wear a robe, he wears a shabby camel hair coat (not Brooks Brothers, mind you), he need work on his teeth, when was the last time he shaved? So you’ve given up every shred of respectability to devote yourself to this guy, who one day points at a young man and says, “You know what I’ve been telling you all these years, how God was sending someone else whose shoes I am not worthy to shine? See that guy? That’s him. Follow him. Well, they didn’t bargain for this. They didn’t know this Jesus from a hole in the ground. And how could he be better than John anyway? But Jesus stands there that day watching. The men shuffle over to him, looking at their sandals. “What do you seek?” asks Jesus. “”Um,” they reply, “we were just wondering where you live?”
They left John and followed Jesus.
And Jesus would later say this about John: “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he (Lk. 7:28).”
If you’re like me, you have a great respect for John the Baptist. He was an amazing prophet. But Jesus said that you are better than John the Baptist. Who is? You are!
How can that be? Well you know someone John didn’t know. The crucified and risen Christ. So even if you are the very least person in the whole church – the whole worldwide association of believers – you are grater than John the Baptist. Now that’s something!
But that’s only because of Jesus.
And that’s what we learn from John.
We learn from John how to point.
When a man goes hunting for grouse or pheasants, the best thing he can take with him is a dog. A dog trained to point. Pointers can smell and hear the game and they point towards it and the hunter knows where the bird is and can make the kill.
We Christians are the dogs of the world!
Our job is to point the hunters to the quarry – Jesus Christ. The hunters of course are the seekers of truth. The hunters are those on a quest for justice or peace. The hunters are sometimes broken sinners whose lives are being flushed down the toilet. The hunters are sometimes brokenhearted people. They all need God. John pointed people to them. So are we to.
Arturo Toscannini, the great conductor of orchestras once said, “It isn’t so hard to find a virtuoso pianist or violinist. There are always people who are seeking that place of honor. If you want great music, you have to find people who want to excel playing second violin. The other places make the orchestra.”
Second fiddle. The world needs great second fiddles.
I wonder what would have happened if someone had told Thomas Junta that he would be giving his son something better if he had taught him the value of playing on the team, or doing his best, or learning to play his position the best he could. No one can say for sure, but Michael Costin might be alive today. And maybe that hockey team would be the most spirited group of boys in the United States wearing skates and jerseys. I don’t know for sure. But I do know this, that there is something more important then being the best hockey player, or the best violinist, or the best mutual fund manager, or the best known lawyer in Cambridge.
It is more important that God is alive in you.
We are losing the Sabbath folks. It is being used for sports, ballet, play practices, shopping, you name it. It seems that our culture is saying there are things more important than feeding the soul. Well, there are not. “Remember the Sabbath,” says the Lord, “to keep it holy.”
We are the people who put God first in our lives. We are struggling with letting go control of ourselves to give control to God. It is a hard thing to do. If you think it is easy, you’re not trying. We are reading CS Lewis in our Wednesday night adult study sessions. Lewis doesn’t soft-soap the thing. He doesn’t water it down. he tells it like it is – “fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”
This past year I’ve had two funerals where the families asked me to read the Serenity Prayer. The Serenity Prayer is what is read at AA meetings. “Are you sure you want me to read that?” I asked. “Yes, please.” And I did. And invited the congregation to say it if anyone knew it. The room shook with the voices saying it with conviction: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change….courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” Those reciting the prayer were proud. They had relinquished their lives to a higher power, confessing from the bottom of their hearts that alone, they stand helpless before their addiction. Proud – and joyful – and standing tall, because someone had pointed them to salvation – literally bringing them back to life from death.
You and I stand in second place. We’ll never get higher. Because Jesus is in first place. Our job is to point to him. To be witnesses. (Acts 1:8)
Jesus, as a younger man had in his hands a saw, a hammer, a wood chisel, a drill, a plane to shape wood. He gave them up and took in his hands, men – James and John and Thomas and Peter, and women, Salome and Mary to shape human beings.
It’s okay to play second fiddle, when first chair first is Jesus Christ.
Fred D. Mueller