Trinity 16: True greatness
Mark 9. 30-37
Do you want to be great?
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
‘I am the greatest’ the mantra of Mohammed Ali, some thought it presumptuous, but he really was a very successful boxer. If we are honest that’s how we’ve lived in this very ‘me’ centric culture. That’s what I see happening in much of our world today. ‘To be first we have to be the servant of all’ is probably what most of us were taught when we were growing up. Yes, we probably heard that verse in Sunday school or church and even agreed with it, but then Monday came.
For most of us, I suspect, Monday greatness is about being number one, a winner, a success. It’s about power, control, wealth, fame, reputation, status, and position. Have you ever seen the losing Premier League football team dancing around on Monday morning with a fist in the air shouting, “We’re number two, we’re number two?” Probably not and you probably never will. Can you imagine a political slogan about making Britain last or a servant of other countries? And who wants to be the servant of all anyway? That’s for the poor and uneducated, minorities or foreigners, and those we can get away with paying less than a living wage. At least that’s often how it works today. Being last and servant of all is not what we usually strive for. That’s not the greatness to which we aspire.
If being great, holding the number one position, means being last of all and servant of all, then we have completely misunderstood what greatness is really about. And the disciples don’t understand greatness any more than we do.
“What were you arguing about along the way?” Jesus asked them. Mark tells us “But they were silent for they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” Jesus didn’t get an answer to his question, only an embarrassed silence. It was the silence of having been caught, found out. Jesus wasn’t asking for his sake but for theirs. He seemed to have already known what they were arguing about.
Their argument happened on a public road, out in the open. His question, however, was asked in the privacy and interior space of a house. This was about more than a change in physical location. Jesus was moving the conversation inward. He wasn’t gathering information for himself but inviting the disciples’ self-reflection on what it means to be great. He was presenting the disciples with an image and the reality of their better selves, and he’s doing so for us too.
Jesus was not saying that we should not or cannot be great. Rather, he is asking us to reframe our understanding of greatness.
What does it mean and look like for you and me to be great in today’s world? That’s the question.
Jesus answers that question by taking a little child in his arms, rather like Oliver this morning, and saying to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
We need to be careful here. Jesus does not say that greatness is in being a child and he doesn’t say that greatness is in being childlike. Greatness is in welcoming the child, as we welcome Oliver into our community today.
Now that doesn’t sound too difficult or challenging. Who wouldn’t welcome Oliver? But Jesus isn’t talking about the child. He’s talking about what the child represents. We’ve so romanticised and sentimentalised children and childhood in today’s culture that it can be difficult to understand what Jesus is getting at.
The child is a symbol for something else. The child is a symbol of vulnerability, powerlessness, and dependency. The child in Jesus’ day had no rights, no status, no economic value. The child was a consumer and not a producer. Greatness, Jesus says, is in welcoming and receiving into our arms one like this, regardless of his or her age.
Greatness is found not in what we have accomplished and gained for ourselves but in what we have done and given to “the least of these” (Mt. 25:40), the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned; the symbolic children in each of our lives. Think about a family member or a carer who bathes, changes, and cares for the elderly, the sick, the dying; she or he is a great one. I can’t help but think about the staff of our NHS or Nursing Homes, and how day after day, week after week they invest themselves in the life of others; they are great ones.
Greatness never puts itself in a position of superiority over another. It is not about me, my nation, my tribe, my people, my religion, my politics, my bank account, my house, my job, my accomplishments, my reputation, my status. Our greatness is revealed in our service and care of others regardless of their ability or willingness to pay, repay, or return the favour.
When Jesus talked about loving others even when they don’t love you, doing good to those who do not do good to you, lending without expectation of repayment and inviting to supper those who can’t invite you back, he was describing greatness.
Greatness comes to us when we share with others who have nothing to share with us. Think of the young boy who shared his five loaves and two fish with 5000 people who contributed nothing but their hunger. He was great.
Greatness comes when we forgive someone who has neither asked for our forgiveness nor changed their behaviour. Those who refuse to carry bitterness or envy toward another are great. When we respond to the needs of others, when we refuse thoughts and actions of hatred or prejudice then greatness comes. Our refusal to objectify the opposite sex or to join in jokes about minorities or foreigners is an act of greatness. When we overcome fear, and make room for someone who is different, vulnerable or in need, then we are great.
Greatness is not something to be achieved or earned. It is a quality that comes from within us when we become our better selves. That’s the life Jesus offers us. That’s the life I want to live. I want to be great, don’t you? This kind of greatness happens in the simple, ordinary, and mundane. It often goes unnoticed and unnamed but it’s there. Greatness is always a choice set before us.
You know what day tomorrow is, yes? It’s Monday. Jesus will place Monday’s child before us. And Monday greatness will tempt and call us. But there is another greatness, the greatness of the last and the greatness of the servant of all. What potential lies within Oliver.
The Rev'd Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 19/09/2021