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Sunday, September 23, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Being Great

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 121
Mark 9:30–37

Jesus didn’t say that whoever welcomes a child does the work of the faithful. Or serves God well. Or gets brownie points. Whoever welcomes the child welcomes Jesus. And thereby welcomes God. Opens up the doors wide as wide can be and asks God to be at home.

Kate Munnik, “The Messy Table”


Why are you working so hard? What drives you? What are you trying so hard to achieve? When you say you are trying to get ahead or get to the top, what does that mean? What is ahead or at the top? These are some of the questions that this particular Markan passage prompts in preacher Brian McLaren (asermonforeverysunday.com, 2015). This passage also causes McLaren to wonder if at the same time that many of us are always trying to get on the escalator to ride it up, Jesus is always getting on the escalator to ride it down. Putting it another way, says McLaren, sometimes we disciples are solely intent on climbing the ladder of success while Jesus has always been solely intent on descending the ladder of service.

We see this tension in our scripture for today. As you remember from last week, Jesus has already told the disciples once that he was going to be betrayed, suffer, and be killed, then in three days be raised. But as you recall, Peter and the others stopped listening at the “be killed” part, because that outcome did not fit with their plans. They were not on board with what felt like defeat, rejection, or the cross. Jesus tried to help them understand some of the reasons why it needed to be that way, but the disciples were just not ready to hear that kind of news, not yet.

So Jesus gives them a little more time, even taking a few of them up on to the mountain, as we learn in the beginning of this ninth chapter. Perhaps Jesus hoped that on the mountaintop the disciples might hear the divine affirmation that Jesus was who he said he was—the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Messiah, God’s Love Made Flesh. And I am sure Jesus hoped that after they heard that divine affirmation, the disciples would start to trust more deeply that Jesus was doing what he felt was faithful to do.

But alas, if those disciples felt any surge of trust and confidence up on the mountain, the surge apparently disappeared once they headed back down, because here we go again. Jesus tells them a second time what he will undergo in order to be true to his calling as the Messiah. He will be betrayed, suffer, and be killed. And once again the disciples are not able to comprehend or affirm what he is saying to them.

This time, though, Peter keeps his mouth shut, and they just argue amongst themselves. But just what exactly do they argue about? Immediately after hearing how Jesus, in order to be faithful as the Messiah, was going to actively choose to not return evil for evil; to actively choose to not use violence against violence; to actively choose to refuse using hate to battle hate, what reaction does Jesus’ counter-testimony evoke in the disciples? They start arguing with each other about who was going to be the greatest disciple ever. Jesus is talking about the suffering and death he was going to undergo in order to show the world the depth of God’s love, and his disciples react to his teaching by arguing about greatness and what that meant and how they were going to outdo each other and climb to the top of the discipleship heap.

Greatness. Great. It is a word that gets a lot of play these days but not just in these days. From Muhammad Ali’s signature boast that “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was” to the 2016 political slogan “Make America Great Again,” (David Lose, “In the Meantime,” www.davidlose.net, a blog that inspired much of this sermon), this idea of greatness has not gone away or faded one bit since the disciples themselves argued about it. What does greatness mean, we always seem to be asking. What makes something or someone great?

The disciples seemed to hold to the sense of greatness many of us hold. To be great means to rise above, to be stronger, to be better, to be the one who gets ahead and climbs to the top. When we use “great” as an adjective, the dictionary says we mean an ability, quality, or eminence considerably above the normal or average. “Greatness, we assume,” says David Lose, “implies power, accomplishment, fame, wealth, and all the other things that allow you to do things, to influence people, to make things go your way.” That is typically what being great means to us, and I am sure the disciples felt the same way.

Otherwise they would not have been so quiet when Jesus called them out about it. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asked them once they arrived at their destination. Yet not one of them would fess up as to why they had been arguing. That tells us the disciples knew deep down that even as they were all jostling to be the first one on the escalator going up, Jesus was still riding that escalator going down, emptying himself, as it says in Philippians 2. Their silence indicates the disciples knew full well that their desire to climb the ladder of success was in direct tension with Jesus’ desire to descend the ladder of service. If they had been unaware that they held a dissonant perspective on greatness than the one Jesus held, they would have been honest with him. But they weren’t. Rather, they chose to keep their desire for greatness to themselves.

But Jesus, being Jesus, knew. He knew the disciples longed to finally be those at the top, ahead of the pack, considerably above what was normal or average. They wanted to be great—perhaps for the first time or just great again—and that desire was undoubtedly a motivating factor in why they were following him. They hoped that a commitment to discipleship, to being followers of Jesus, might finally get them the power, the security, and the success for which they had always longed. Their desire reminds me of a prayer my friend Dr. Gary Charles once heard at a public prayer meeting: “O God,” the person prayed, “we know that you bless us with success and prosperity whenever we follow you.” “Really?” my friend wondered when the prayer ended. Are success and prosperity what Jesus promises? Success and prosperity? Becoming great?

That sounds so different from “The Son of Man will be betrayed, will suffer and be killed, and then on the third day, be raised. So take up your cross and follow me.” It seems to me, just as it seemed to my preacher friend, that Jesus proclaims almost the exact opposite of the rather popular idea that discipleship, that following Jesus, is a strategy for success, for greatness, for getting ahead or to the top.

In the face of their silence Jesus tells the disciples exactly that: “Whoever wants to be first, to be great or even the greatest, must be last of all, servant of all.” And then, to further illustrate his point that being great as one of his followers was not what those disciples thought it was, Jesus enacted a parable. He took a child in his arms, someone who apparently was lingering on the edges of the gathering inside that house in Capernaum; someone who was not expected to be in the room with the important adults; someone who, while loved by his parents, was considered socially insignificant, completely powerless, vulnerable, the exact opposite of “great.”

That one is the one Jesus sought out and brought into his embrace. In my mind’s eye, he does that all in silence, letting the disciples see what they might see in that embrace, hoping it might startle them into deeper comprehension of just how upside down and inside out their lives were going to become as his disciples. Then after a moment of silence, Jesus gave his act words: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” In other words, “You want to be great? This is what it means to be great,” as he intentionally embraces one who has no power, no status, no measure of success, no way to repay the kindness.

In response to Jesus’ action and words, seminary president David Lose writes, though

it may sound as crazy to us as it did to those original disciples, what if Jesus is right? . . . What if we imagined that greatness wasn’t about power and wealth and fame and all the rest, but instead we measured greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in [if that were our understanding of what it meant to be great]? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service? If there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to be last so that others could go first? If there were reality TV shows that followed people around as they tried to help as many people as possible? What kind of world would we live in [if those things happened]? (“In the Meantime,” www.davidlose.net)

A pretty great world, don’t you think?

Lose goes on to write that this vision of greatness Jesus demonstrates is, without a doubt, a vision for congregational life. It is a vision of vulnerable service that is meant to influence how we, as a congregation, think about what makes us a great church.

Are we intent on following Jesus down the ladder of service rather than following others up the ladder of success? Are we more concerned with being great as defined by our culture than we are with being compassionate as defined by Jesus? Are we more focused on being the best church around, the biggest church around, the one that everyone talks about, the measuring stick of what ecclesiastical success looks like? Or are we more focused on being a church who is willing to risk status and stature in order to be generous or in order to be more reflective of all the diversity in God’s beloved community, which could drive some folks to leave? I am sure you can think of other implications for our collective life. How does Jesus’ upending way of defining greatness change our understanding or vision of what it means to be a great church?

But lest we stay safely at this communal level, it also applies more personally too. “How are we doing,” Lose asks, each one of us, “with measuring our success, our greatness, not by what we take in but by what we give away; not by the influence we wield but by the service we offer; not by accumulating more but by sharing what we already have; not by being first but by being eager to work hard in order to see others move ahead?” In our daily lives, are we being great as defined by our world or by Jesus?

On Friday, Google had on its home page a whole piece about Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. They were honoring the fact that it had been fifty-one years since the very first filming of that children’s television show. I actually like to call Mr. Rogers “Reverend Rogers,” since he was an ordained Presbyterian minister called to be an evangelist to television, a specialized ministry that was pretty far out there in the 1960s for Pittsburgh Presbytery. Google’s decision to highlight the show sent me to watch the movie that just came out about Reverend Rogers and his work.

As I watched, I was struck by how Mr. Rogers, through his absolute care and devotion to honoring children, the most vulnerable people in the world, was being great in the way Jesus demonstrated. His primary concern, the burning passion that ran throughout his whole life, revolved around wanting to make sure that each and every child who came into this world knew they were loved and had inherent value.

While Reverend Rogers’ focus on “you are special” was later critiqued as a reason why my generation is apparently more narcissistic and coddled than other generations (not true, by the way), the fact is that his passion for that proclamation “you are special” came directly from his Christian faith. He was convinced that, because of who God was in Jesus, every single person was already great simply because every single person is a beloved child of God. You do not have to do anything spectacular in order to be loved, Rogers stated. That sure sounds a whole lot like Jesus in this passage.

Furthermore, as Rogers became older, he became more outspoken about his vision of how our country could be great, a vision based again on his Christian faith. In the late ’90s Rogers proclaimed, “Let’s take the gauntlet and make goodness attractive in this so-called next millennium. Down to earth actual goodness. People caring for each other in a myriad of ways rather than people knocking each other off all the time. What changes the world? The only thing that changes the world is when someone gets the idea that love can abound and can be shared” (Fred Rogers in the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 2018). You want to be great? Jesus asks. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Mr. Rogers lived out that kind of greatness throughout his life.

He also took another cue from the one he called Savior and brother. Whenever he ended a public speaking engagement, he would say something like this: “From the time you were very little, you have had people who smiled you into smiling, talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.” And then Mr. Rogers would invite them into the spiritual discipline of gratitude. I will reframe this work today as he invited them into the act of reimagining how we think of greatness. And this is how we are going to end our sermon. Mr. Rogers always gave his listeners time to do this exercise and we will do the same.

So let us close our sermon about greatness with Reverend Rogers’ invitation: “Now, think about someone who has helped you along the way. Let’s just take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here. Some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. They are the people who, deep down, you know they always wanted what was best for you. They always cared about you beyond measure and encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Bring that person to mind.”

That right there is what greatness in the eyes of God is all about. So we end where we began: Why are you working so hard? What’s driving you? What are you trying so hard to achieve? Who are you letting define what being great means? Amen.