Sermon + Sunday, September 23, 2018
Pastor Nathan Pipho + Trinity, Worcester

Lectionary 25B … Jeremiah 11:18-20; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Watch here (minute 26:10)

In the name of Jesus. AMEN.

What makes someone the greatest?

If we were talking about the greatest quarterback of all time, we might talk about the number of Super Bowl wins, or the number of passing yards, touchdown passes, or interceptions the quarterback has.

If we were talking about the greatest coach of all time, again, we might talk about similar metrics – number of Championships won, number of games won, perhaps the number of games coached.

If we were considering the greatest teacher that we had in our lives, we might consider the number of valuable life lessons learned from that teacher, or the extra time the teacher took to make sure we were learning, perhaps the number of lessons beyond the classroom that the teacher offered.

What makes someone the greatest?

What criteria do you think the disciples used as they argued among themselves who was the greatest? That’s what we hear in today’s gospel reading.  If indeed the disciples were arguing among themselves who was the greatest among them – what criteria do you think they used?

How did they measure greatness? Number of healings they performed?  The number of demons cast out? Were they tallying up a personal Win/Loss record against the forces of evil? Maybe they were counting up the number of right answers they had when Jesus asked a question? The number of hours they spent listening to Jesus and applying his instructions to their lives? Maybe they were trying to decide who Jesus trusted the mos or gave the most important assignments to.

Now, before we think the disciples foolish for arguing about such things, if we’re honest, we must confess that disciples today also argue in similar ways: we had 140 people in church, while they only had 70, so we must be twice as great as that other church? They had 12 kids come forward for the children’s sermon, while we only had 3, so they must be better than us on that one.  We started this program and that program, we have this going on and that going on, while that church sits empty during the week, so we must be a better church than that one.

The truth, is, there is a natural human tendency to construct a hierarchy and consider who is better and who is worse. We do it throughout our lives: that restaurant is the best one in Worcester, that movie, that show, that song is the best one of all time.

The disciples intuitively knew, however, that there was is a right time & place and wrong time & place to ask that question. They must have known, that even as they argued about greatness, that they really shouldn’t be asking that question about discipleship.  The disciples argued privately, they didn’t want Jesus to hear, and when he asked them what they had been talking about – they were quiet –they knew they had been caught.

I love Jesus’s response to the disciples. The way I read his response, is that he blew up their question. In a way, his response put the disciples in a ROUND room and then told them that greatness would be found by standing in the CORNER.

In his homily on Wednesday Night, Pastor Cliff suggested there might have been times Jesus offered teachings with a wry smile on his face. That we often overlook the way humor might have been part of Jesus’s ministry. I don’t know that Jesus was being humorous here, but consider the possibility that Jesus sat back and watched his disciples tumble over this teaching …

“Ok, in order to be first, we need to be last.  So let’s be last, in order to be first. But wait, if we are first by being last, don’t we need to be last again? So be last in order to be first, which you really don’t want to be, you want to be last, because you really want to be first …”

The point is this … from a faith perspective, “Greatness” is NOT the game to play. Considering one’s greatness in comparison to others is a game that is not won because it allows players to remain inward focused – curved in on themselves – to put it in Lutheran terms. It acknowledges the reality that even humility and servanthood can be used as trophies in the game of greatness.  “I must be a bit better than others because of all the good things I do …”

Our second reading today, gives the origin for where discussions of greatness come from.  They do not arise from faith, but rather as James points out: from unspiritual and devilish places, places of envy and selfish ambition leading to disorder and wickedness.

There was, however, a serious and important point in the teaching Jesus offered his disciples. The point is this:  welcome and service. Instead of asking “Who is the greatest?” Jesus invited them, and invites us, to ask, “Who are we called to serve?” Instead of asking, “How am I better than everyone else?” we are invited to ask, “How am I serving everyone else?”

After Jesus instructed his disciples to be servants of all, he then picked up a child and put it among them and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me …” It is not about greatness and hierarchy that we are called to be focused on, it is questions of WELCOME and SERVING the least among us.

The point Jesus was making, was that Jesus didn’t want his followers focusing on a self-proclaimed hierarchy where some are deemed better than others … Jesus invited his disciples to lower themselves into costly and loving service. Jesus wanted his disciples NOT to focus on themselves, but to focus on relationship with those who could never repay them.

We, as followers of Jesus today, are invited to relationships of service – especially serving those with great need. If the game of greatness must be played – than greatness is found in our relationships with the most vulnerable and needy among us.

Greatness is found in our feeding the hungry, housing the homeless,caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner, and welcoming the stranger.

Greatness is found in our clear, unequivocal, and intentional welcome of children in our worship – in a caring and friendly environment where children are allowed to be children and where their parents are supported and encouraged.

Greatness is found in the members of this congregation walking today in the Worcester County “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” (pictured above in this post’s featured photo).  Our walkers reminded us that God’s call to welcome children – is a call to welcome God’s children of all ages – even the oldest among us.  This morning at our 8:00am service we blessed our walkers and prayed for them, and we gave thanks that they surpassed their fundraising goal of $2,000.

One area where greatness is not found … greatness is not found in the decision to cut off $25 million in funding for the health network in Palestine that includes Augusta Victoria Hospital. Regardless of your views on Middle East Politics – that is funding already approved by Congress for serving the sick, our President has decided to withhold that funding.

More information will be in the October Trinity News and in the Sunday Bulletin next week, but Bishop James Hazelwood wrote this about the situation: “Regardless of one’s political affiliation, I believe that as people of faith we must put the welfare of people, especially the most vulnerable, above politics.  Therefore, I ask you to join me in asking the White House and congressional leaders to reinstate funding for East Jerusalem Hospitals.

Greatness does not cut off funding for the sick in order to play politics. In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, greatness visits the sick. For when we visit the visit, according to Matthew 25, we visit Christ himself.

Friends in Christ, the Good News today, is that true greatness, was proclaimed on the cross in the death of Jesus Christ. There on the cross was our Savior, who entered into human suffering and pain to give us the promise of God who bears with us in all things. There on the cross, was our Savior who though in the form of God, did not regard equality as something to be grasped, but emptied himself for our sake. There on the cross was the greatness costly service and sacrifice bringing life to the world.

As disciples, joined to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we turn from and resist conversations about greatness. Instead, we surrender our lives to Christ. The more we are joined to Christ in faith – the more Christ’s greatness fills us – the more we will find ourselves bowing down in humility and costly service to those in need around us.

May the Holy Spirit grant you the faith to yield to Christ. May the Holy Spirit grant you the faith to resist hierarchies and comparisons that place people on top of others. May the Holy Spirit fill you with the presence of Christ – so that in welcome and service, you may be the healing presence of Christ in the world.

Amen. Thanks be to God!