A Sermon about Greatness

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
23 September 2018 + Lectionary 25B (Pentecost 18)
Mark 9.30-37

This week, I’ve had two sermons to write. That’s a lot of work — so you’re going to help me finish writing this morning’s sermon. Yes, this is one of those sermons. I’m going to ask you to participate.

I want you to think of someone who has been a role model, or a hero, or a mentor, to you. What was it about that person that made them great for you? What about that person made an impression on you that made you look up to them?

With one or two other people, take a few minutes now to share with each other about that person in your life. Who has been your role model, or hero, or mentor? What about that person made them great for you?

After a few minutes, I’ll call us back together with the sound of the bell.

From the sound of conversation, it sounds like we have more than a few role models, heroes, and mentors in our lives that made an impression on us — professors or teachers, work supervisors or colleagues, family members, close friends, pastors or other church leaders. If we had the time to share, I’d love to hear why each of those people you named were great for you.

The question of greatness takes center stage in our gospel reading today. On the way to Capernaum, the disciples are arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Later, at home, Jesus offers a valuable lesson about greatness that we’ve heard before: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Or said another way, in a another gospel: The last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20.16)

Jesus’s lesson here sounds simple enough, but it’s one of those verses so often cited, one of those biblical phrases so often uttered, it’s easy to lose clarity of what it’s actually saying.

Indeed, the idea of being last is so counterintuitive, so countercultural, so opposed to everything we’re conditioned to believe and to do. We have solid ideas of what it means to be the greatest — measured by how much money we make, how many academic degrees we have, what kind of car we drive, what neighborhood we live in, the people we know, how many “likes” and “retweets” our social media posts get. Perhaps most timely of all: Ask one political party what it means to make something great, and another will tell you it already is or has always been great. It’s not difficult to see why the concept of greatness is so divisive, so dangerous, so relevant.

The disciples are afraid to answer Jesus’s question about what they were talking about because the disciples are afraid that Jesus will upend and dismantle their culturally-conditioned notions and perceptions of greatness. As it turns out, their fear is well-founded because that’s exactly what Jesus does.

Think back to last week’s gospel reading: Jesus asks his disciples, casually, “Who do people say that I am?” They offer some answers: John the Baptist? Elijah? One of the prophets?

And then he turns the question on them: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter (oh, Peter…), quick as always to try to give the right, most impressive, greatest answer: “You are the Messiah, the great deliverer who will vanquish all our enemies, free us from the tyranny of the Romans, and restore our rightful status as the greatest nation!”

Do you remember Jesus’s response? “Get behind me, Satan!” Yikes. That seems like a harsh way of telling Peter he’s wrong, but it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

Peter’s idea of a great Messiah had been woefully misguided. Jesus has already told his disciples plainly the kind of Messiah he is. He will take up his cross, undergo great suffering, rejection, and even death. He will give up his life for the sake of others. He will be last of all and servant of all. He will be betrayed into human hands and they will kill him… but he will rise again.

Jesus gives us a model of what it means to be great, far from our preconceptions of what it means to be great. By becoming human, by willingly becoming part of our frail and flawed existence, God shows us that being great has to do with solidarity with those who are oppressed, with relationship with the least of these, with love for all creation.

Greatness is not determined by how much money we make, how many degrees we have, what we drive, where we live, or anything else. To return again to my very favorite biblical commentator Karoline Lewis: “Greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. By service and sacrifice. By humility and honor. By truthfulness and faithfulness… [and] we are called to embody this kind of greatness, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born out of love.”

I’d be willing to bet that the examples you gave at the beginning of this sermon have to do with this kind of greatness. We look up to people, to our mentors, to those who have had the most influence on our lives, for the way they live that guides the way we live.

We have the ultimate model of this kind of greatness in Jesus — the Creator of all who becomes as one of his creatures, the Master and Lord of all who becomes a servant of all — showing us the way of love in self-emptying servanthood, pouring out his life, giving us his very body and blood, for the sake of our life. For it is in dying that Christ destroys death, and it is only by dying that Christ rises to new life and indeed raises even us to new life.

Thanks be to God.

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