True Greatness

+ A sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) / Proper 24B / Ordinary 29B at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 21, 2018 +

Text: Mark 10:32-45

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many of us received something special in the mail this week.
It’s always an exciting day in our house when we receive our ballots – especially this year with how important this election is. IMG_0434.jpg
Maybe you feel a similar excitement.
Perhaps it’s an excitement about participating in the political process – making our voices heard.
Or perhaps it’s more of an excitement about the impending end to a blistering campaign cycle and all the attack ads.
Though it does seem that the traditional election cycles are becoming less and less relevant in our modern political system. Because we hear almost constantly why one politician thinks that they would be better than another.
Or why one political party should be in power rather than the opposition.
We hear campaign speeches about restoring our greatness and slogans about putting our country first.
And the unspoken subtext is that we as Americans deserve to be at the top, that we should be in a position of power and prestige and leadership over the other countries of the world.
All while the politicians who make those promises so often seek their own power and prestige.
As those who seek positions intended to be for public service all too often seek a seat of honor and their own glorification.

And while it’s easy to scorn politicians for this, we see this same instinct all around us.
The desire to be the greatest, to be number one.
Sports are based on this drive to be the best – like how the Red Sox and the Dodgers will start their battle this week to claim the title of world champion of baseball.
Or an ever-present debate on which athlete is the greatest of all time.
We see this in our economic system where companies seek to best their competition and maximize their profits as employees vie for promotion and larger salaries.
Or the many TV shows based on finding the best singer or chef or ninja warrior.
We see it in our own lives – a desire to be the best, to be on top, to be better than someone else, to know our place in the world.
It’s something that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “drum major instinct – a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”


Clearly this is not a recent phenomenon, but one that stretches throughout human history.
From the ancient Olympics to wars between nations to the building of the wonders of the world.
And today we see it in James and John.
We just heard how they pulled Jesus aside and asked him that they be placed first among their fellow disciples – that Jesus give them the positions of glory and honor in his coming kingdom.
You see, Jesus and the disciples were nearly to Jerusalem – the seat of power and authority.
And I am guessing that James and John figured that Jesus’ kingdom was going to be inaugurated soon – that Jesus would declare his kingdom when they came to the capital city – so they wanted to claim the best seats right beside Jesus – at his right and left – before their fellow disciples did.

Now we may expect that Jesus would rebuke these two, condemn them for being opportunistic, selfish, and hungry for power.
We may expect Jesus to criticize our own desire to be first and great and mighty.
But that’s not what he does.
He looks at his two friends, James and John, and he looks at us and says, ‘You want to be great? That’s wonderful – but you need to know what you’re signing up for.’
He reminds us that this kingdom he is inaugurating is not the one we expect.
That his kingdom is not like the one they will encounter in Jerusalem or really any that we have ever known.
Jesus tells them that in his reign, rulers do not lord their position over people, but are humble.
In his reign, leaders are not tyrants, but servants.
And that his coronation won’t have grand speeches or fanfare or niceties, but will include mocking and spitting and flogging and ultimately his execution.
That those who will be at his right and his left when Jesus shows his glory will be the bandits that are crucified on either side of him.

You see, Jesus isn’t rejecting our drive to be the best.
He isn’t saying we shouldn’t try to be first.
But he is saying that, just like the rest of the world, he is turning our understanding of what that means on its head.
He is telling us that in his coming reign, the last will be first and the greatest will be the servant of all.
That now glory is about giving rather than accumulating wealth.
That now leaders have to put others before themselves.
And this is just what Jesus has modeled for us all along – Jesus who was ordained by God and spent his life caring for the outcast, healing the sick, and serving the poor.
This same Jesus is now acclaimed as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – not because his ministry brought him glory as this world knows it, but because his life of love and service transformed the way we understand greatness and his ministry exemplified greatness in God’s new reign.

Or as Dr. King put it,

“If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that [the one] who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And…the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition…it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

fan-or-followerHow much different would our world be if we operated with Jesus’ understanding of greatness?
How much different would it be if we sought to be first in love and best in giving and greatest in serving?
How much different would it be if corporations focused less on their own profit than they did about the public gain?
How much different would it be if our politicians truly cared about public service with a heart full of grace and proclaimed America last and servant of all?
And while I admit that sports would be much less fun to watch if the players kept scoring for the other team, I believe that if our society moved towards Jesus’ model of greatness generated by love and service, then together we could glimpse the glory of God’s perfect reign.

This week, you members and regular visitors of Holy Cross hopefully received another exciting piece of mail.
A letter from me thanking you for your continued generosity, commitment to service, and the many things that make this congregation great.
I also invited you to consider ways that we can become even greater – not just by an increase in worship attendance, though I think we all would love to have more people here – but by listening to see where Christ is leading us next.
To consider together where Christ is inviting us to be even better by expanding our welcome, by extending our reach, and by increasing our generosity.
By being better servants to each other and to our neighbors.
Because in this new reign that Jesus is bringing, greatness is not about having the most members or the best programming or the largest building, but it is about following our servant leader and model our collective life after his own ministry.
It’s about partnering with Christ to create the kingdom where greatness is not defined by receiving honor, glory, and riches, but as the giving of time, talent, and treasure.
About living lives full of service, grace, and love until the world is made new.

“Swimming Upstream” by Kirk & Barb Nelson

Now we know that this is not an easy transformation to make.
Sometimes it feels like we’re salmon swimming upstream in a society focused on being the best in the old way – through wealth and power and fame.
Jesus’ model is so counter to our culture that, like the disciples, we may need more reminding and help along the way.
But thankfully we have this place to gather as a community, to listen to Jesus teach us and model greatness for us, and to re-center ourselves to live with hearts full of grace and souls generated by love so we can live lives of service.
We have this table where Christ invites us to a feast where status doesn’t matter and no one is first, but all are invited for refreshment and sustenance as our lives are transformed to be bold and generous servants.
We have this reminder that we are not alone in the work, but are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have committed themselves to the cause.
And most of all we know that Christ is with us, helping us see the life he calls us to, walking with us on the way, and guiding our minds to true greatness.
So we as servants of the servant can live lives of grace and love, serving all people in Christ’s name.


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