One of the giants of the 20th century was Albert Schweitzer. In his first 30 years he accomplished more in several fields than most people can pull off in a lifetime. He wrote one book in theology, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which changed the whole course of biblical studies and still influences research today. He was a gifted musician and a concert organist. He also became an authority on organ building, was an interpreter of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, and wrote Bach’s definitive biography. He was a philosopher whose “reverence for life” increasingly speaks to our world beset with violence and environmental degradation. And he was a physician of considerable ability.
Schweitzer decided early in life that he would study theology, philosophy, music, and medicine and teach in these areas until he reached the age of 30. He then would devote his life to serving humankind. So in 1913, he left the fame and potential fortune he would have enjoyed in Europe for Lambarene in French Equatorial Africa (today’s Gabon). He was asked by many friends and colleagues–in fact, he was asked by some of the most brilliant professors in the most prominent universities of Europe why he would do such a thing–to leave a promising and already enviable career behind to work with some of the poorest people on God’s earth. His response took their breath away. He said simply, “Because Jesus wants me to.”
So for the rest of his life he labored serving God’s children with a healing hand and a loving heart. His first consulting room at Lambarene was a chicken coop. But through his tireless efforts that chicken coop became a large hospital where thousands upon thousands of Africans were treated every year.
In 1952, Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize. The cash award was $33,000. He used that money to expand the hospital and to establish a leper colony. Of course, that was just a drop in the bucket compared to what it took to operate the hospital over the years. So periodically Schweitzer would return to Europe and give organ concerts for the Paris Bach Society. These concerts would be offered all over Europe, and people flocked to them in droves. The proceeds, of course, went to buy needed medicines and supplies for the hospital back in Lambarene.
On one occasion Schweitzer was scheduled to give a concert in a small city in France. Although the city was small, the population decided to welcome Schweitzer with pomp and fanfare. Dignitaries from the city and from Paris were on hand to share in the event. Bands had practiced for weeks to provide music fitting for this talented master of the organ. The town was sparkling clean and the train station and platform where the train would stop was decorated impressively with flowers, flags, streamers, and men and women in their finest attire.
At long last the train pulled into the station, the band started its well-rehearsed music, the dignitaries lined themselves up, vying for position while onlookers craned their necks to catch a glimpse of this living saint. One by one the passengers disembarked from their first class accommodations, and when the last passenger had stepped onto the platform, there was still no Albert Schweitzer. Puzzlement turned into concern and then to anxiety. What had happened to their hero? And who was going to play at tonight’s concert? The band stopped its playing–the dignitaries rechecked the schedule they had received from the Paris Bach Society–the mayor questioned the porter. Everything was in an uproar until someone glanced down the train and saw Schweitzer coming from one of the second class cars carrying his own simple luggage. The who’s who of that part of Europe rushed to meet Schweitzer, and the mayor asked with a hint of irritation in his voice, “Herr Dr. Schweitzer, why on earth did you come second class?” To which Schweitzer replied, “Because there was no third class.” And then Schweitzer apologized for any inconvenience he might have caused and for how he might have spoiled their big plans for his arrival. But he explained how much medicine he could buy for his beloved hospital with the difference between a first and second class ticket. And everyone realized even more how great the man was who stood before them.
On this Palm Sunday I want us to reflect on our lectionary reading for today. In Philippians 2 Paul says that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and suffering even death on a cross.” Paul is telling us that God chose to have the divine self bussed into this ghetto of a world we have made. And God chose to go third class. God came in a Palestinian peasant — a carpenter who had no credentials, no wealth, no education, no rights according to Roman law, and no significance in the eyes of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. He was a Jewish peasant who was placed in a feed trough at birth, who by his own admission had no place to lay his head in adulthood, and was laid in another man’s tomb in death. As an infant he was part of a refugee family as his parents fled to Egypt to escape a king’s wrath. As a grownup he was despised and rejected by his own, and the manner of his death was reserved for the most violent and horrible of criminals. God came into this world third class–perhaps fourth class–and embraced our existence in all its vulnerability from the inside out. Jesus said that he came to serve, not to be served and to give his life for many.
Schweitzer took the model of Jesus seriously–far more seriously than I ever have or perhaps ever will. Jesus is our ultimate model, but there are many proximate models closer to us in time from whom we can also learn the mind and heart of Christ. So, what might we learn from this modern saint?
1.Schweitzer came into that French city second class. Why? Because there was no third class. He modeled the downward mobility/the living simply needed in our world so that others might simply live while also being sensitive to what the world can sustain. His “reverence for life” commitment is so relevant for our day. Schweitzer’s life was full, joyful, and blessed with holy purpose. He understood the wisdom of “enough.” In a world of hunger, poverty, and especially ecological disaster, his reverence for all life could serve as a healing and hopeful paradigm for our day both individually and as a global community. Do we believe Jesus was right when he said that life does not consist in the abundance of things? Are we willing to follow him into second, third, and fourth class as we share with a hurting world? This world might just be saved by our second class living.
2. I am still struck by those words of explanation Schweitzer gave when asked why he would chuck his career in Europe and go off to a chicken coop in equatorial Africa: “Because Jesus wants me to.” He left it all behind because he wanted to follow Jesus. He wanted his life to be given to Christ through service to others. We have been given the precious gift of life on this earth. Some of us will have more years than others. But it is never a question of quantity–it’s always a question of quality. Schweitzer’s example challenges us to ask, “What does Jesus want me to do with my life?” With our resources/our careers/our time/our energy/our talents/our passions? Have we ever really asked that question? And do we have the courage and desire to search for an answer? Can you imagine how this church, this community, this world would change if all of the members of our little congregation took that question seriously? And what does it say about us as Christians if we don’t take that question seriously?
Schweitzer ended his seminal work entitled The Quest of the Historical Jesus with these often-quoted words:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.
In other words, the only way any of us will ever know Jesus is to follow him as we seek his will for our little lives. But we had better watch where we seek him, for we will not likely find him in first class.