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Pentecost 18B Sermon
Mark 9: 30-37
23, 2018


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Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

It appears that the notion of greatness has been around for a long time, at least since the time of Jesus. In our Gospel reading today when Jesus asks his disciples what they have been talking about, they clam up. Their silence betrays their embarrassment as we discover that they were arguing over who was the greatest.

I am not sure where this argument comes from. Just before this walk to Capernaum, Jesus tells them for a second time that he will be betrayed into human hands, killed and will rise again. In between the two passion predictions (as they are called) he was transfigured on a tall mountain, glowing white between the figures of Moses and Elijah. If they were truly tuning into Jesus’ life, they would be discussing what kind of Messiah Jesus is. After all, it really does appear like they are receiving mixed signals. But alas, instead they are arguing about greatness.
The question of greatness has not gone away since then. Muhammed Ali had his signature, “I am the greatest!” motto. People argue whether LaBron is a greater basketball player than Michael. And we still struggle with the whole, “Making America Great Again” slogan which has been proclaimed from our president beginning with the campaigns in 2016. What constitutes greatness? Often greatness is expressed in terms of money, victories or measurable accomplishments. I wonder what arguments the disciples were using to defend their own greatness. Maybe Peter, James and John had proclaimed that since they witnessed the transfiguration, they must be special, great in God’s sight. Maybe some of the others recount conversations that Jesus had with them leading them to believe that he loved them more than the others. While we don’t know the content of their argument, we do know that Jesus is not impressed … and he tells them so: “Whoever wants to be first – that is, greatest – must be last and servant of all.” It may not be as sharp a rebuke as Jesus offered Peter last week when he called him Satan, it most likely still stung.

To me, the silence of the disciples comes from confusion on two levels – first of all, there is confusion over this new idea. Admit it, we don’t normally define greatness in terms of how lowly or servant-like a person is. We all assume that greatness assumes power, accomplishment, fame, wealth and all of the other things that are so attractive to us. Jesus not only flips that notion upside down, but he scoops up a little child in order to drive his point home. Whoever welcomes a child like this – an utterly dependent, vulnerable, powerless being – and cares for them can be counted as being great. It must have blown their mind.

Then I can imagine (because I would be doing it in their shoes) that if they could grasp this new definition of greatness as being true, they must have been struggling with the question of if there was any way that each of them could reflect this kind of greatness in their lives! Can I truly live up to these expectations, or will my own desires, which seem to line up more with the definition of greatness for the world, get in my way? I ask this same question every day.

What if we stopped looking at all of the hindrances to this kind of greatness, and embraced the love of Jesus that this calls us to share with the most dependent, vulnerable and helpless among us? What if Jesus is right? What if greatness isn’t about power, wealth, fame and all the rest, but instead is measured by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, love and serve others? What kind of world would we live in? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service regardless of the question of if someone deserves it or not? What if there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to finish last in order that others could be first? If there were a reality TV show that followed people around as they tried to help as many people as possible? What if we as a nation tried as hard to help the lowest of low all around the world instead of increasing our Gross National Product more each year than the last? What kind of a world would we live in then?

Well, I think it would be a pretty GREAT world! It seems crazy because it is utterly counter-cultural to imagine that true greatness lies in service by sacrificing being first in order that others might know God’s love. I saw a quote this week that rings true with this point: Jesus on the cross is the epitome of letting go of any kind of privilege that he had, including his divinity.

This last week in the Columbus Dispatch there was an article about a 40 year old man named Patrick Kaufman who died following a 10 month long battle with Stage IV Melanoma. Patrick has a degree in theology from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and otherwise would not be a person of any significance to the city of Columbus … except that when the people of Franklinton were inside, seeking relief from the beating sun or shelter from the driving rain, Paul was working tirelessly to bring healthy food to the hungriest among them by digging in the dirt and caring for the community’s urban garden. Paul was a well-known advocate for the Franklinton community. His wife Karen said, “He was the most dedicated and passionate person you could find who wanted to help the poor, homeless and people in need. He always had a project to help someone because he was determined to make this earth a better place for the next generation.” Patrick’s involvement grew from a small urban community garden to directing Franklinton Farms – two acres of scattered plots which produced thousands of pounds of vegetables a year. Eventually he would also direct a food and hunger initiative as well. In terms of greatness of our community, he may not have the name recognition like a Wexner, Hayes, Schiller or Wolfe – not me, but the ones with a Park named after them. But I venture to say that in God’s eyes, Patrick Kaufman is first in greatness among those and other people, because he put those who most often come in last first, and thus was lifted up by God himself.

Emerick DiPietro, welcome to this crazy Christian family. We will be watching you, rooting for you, praying for you in all that you do. How great will you be? Maybe you will play football in the ‘Shoe, or own a multimillion dollar corporation! Or maybe you will be truly great and welcome the most vulnerable into God’s kingdom by your life. I recently read someone who said that there are three short prayers that pretty much sum up the Christian life, especially as we consider Jesus’ teaching on greatness. The first is a response to Jesus’ counter-cultural command that the first must be last and that true greatness lies in service. That prayer is a simple, “Lord help us!” The second comes when we fall short of Jesus’ ideals for greatness and give in to insecurity and fear and look out for ourselves first: “Lord, have mercy.” And finally, when we realize that even as we fall short, yet Jesus still gave up his divinity to died for us, still lives for us, still loves us more than anything, we pray, “Thanks be to God!”

Jesus does not give up on his disciples, and Jesus will never give up on you, Emerick. Jesus offers all of us a different vision of greatness that can lead us to imagine and work toward a whole different world. Lord help us! Lord have mercy! Thanks be to God! Amen.