You are Great!
18th Sunday after Pentecost; September 23rd, 2018
Text: Mark 9:30-37
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to visit the home of one of our members. From the street I sensed immediately that it was her house – the front yard was filled with beautiful flowers, particularly dahlias; I have never seen dahlias that tall – as tall as I am, nor with blossoms as large as the palm of my hand. Her back yard was filled with various vegetables and herbs. I soon realized that she grows them not for her own use: she grows food for others. She provides fresh food for newcomers to Canada and often shares food with her neighbours. She invites people into her home for tea, coffee and delicious food. For them she is a mother and grandma in Canada. They feel at home in her house. Nowadays she is busy preparing food for our International Fall Fair. You will have already guessed who she is. Yes, Yulien. You are great!
Last week we thought about some images of Christ as expressed through the lectionary readings. In the gospel reading, we heard how Jesus challenged Peter’s image of Christ as a “superman.” Peter believed that the Christ would be a strong warrior who would defeat all kinds of power and evil. Peter’s image of Christ was based on that of physical and magical power. However, Jesus said, “God’s power is the power of love.” And Jesus invited the people, including Peter to “Follow Me.”
On the road of learning and life together, Jesus frequently spoke of the kin-dom of God (the family of God). Jesus very often said that the kin-dom, though “great” could be compared to something very tiny. For example, it is like “a grain of mustard seed.” Now, mustard grew like a weed, wild by the side of the road and it grew tall, taller than me; thus, the kin-dom, while something great, is also like a weed. The kin-dom is also compared to something impure: it is like a woman, (at that time people associated women with impurity), a woman putting leaven, (people also thought leaven was impure) into flour. The kin-dom is also for children, who in that time and place in the world, were nobodies, of no value; thus, the kin-dom is for nobodies. The followers of Jesus thought the Kingdom, something great, was somewhere else, but Jesus said it is among you, inside you, not outside you.
Today Jesus invites us to think about something great, the kin-dom, and asks us who is the greatest. When you think about something great what images come to your mind? You may be thinking of the man who often wears a bright red hat emblazoned with the words “Make America Great Again.” According to this man’s idea, greatness is measured byhow much power, prestige, wealth, or extreme ability someone possesses. We may also be thinking of sports stars, entertainers or business moguls; even some politicians are seen as representing the epitome of greatness. In our consumer society, greatness is measured by size or price. Bigger is better when it comes to houses, vehicles or big-screen televisions. More power, more prestige, more importance. Our popular sense of greatness sounds much like that of Peter’s we read about last week.
Not one of us, however, wants to be considered worthless, nothing or a nobody. We all want to be considered worthy. We may desire to be “someone” and to do “something.” This was also the disciples’ desire. So on the way to follow Jesus, the disciples argued with one another about who was the greatest. “I’m the greatest and you are not. No, I’m the best, not you.”
This argument is still going on in our own time. For example, think about the compulsive competitiveness we often see around us, the rude treatment of others, the failure to affirm the gifts of another person, and our attitudes of ingratitude; we often value people according to their role in helping us achieve our own level of greatness. To be the greatest is one of our common social norms and conventional wisdom. To want to be the greatest is a matter of morality, isn’t it? It is a matter of theology too. In this current world we face much tension, argument, and conflict about valuing ourselves and others.
Today Jesus invites us to think about greatness from a different perspective. In contrast to our current ideas about greatness, Jesus says to the disciples that greatness in the kin-dom or in the reign of God is about reaching out to include and welcome others, especially those you might normally overlook. To illustrate that, Jesus chooses to be in solidarity with one such child. As we were reminded of earlier, in Jesus’ time, children were nobodies. They were not important, not valued as human beings. They were worthless and beyond consideration. However, the teaching of Jesus shakes the disciples’ idea of greatness and turns it upside down. His teaching challenges the disciples and the people to reshape the idea and image of greatness.
Jesus says, “‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mark 9:35-37). In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. said,“This is our new definition of greatness. 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 know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.” Through accepting and welcoming and serving, we can all be great.
In this municipal election season, many candidates claim to be the one true public servant, indicating that their greatness is not derived from their position of power over others, but in the way that they serve those they are called to lead. O that it were so! Today’s scripture gives us an important guideline for the election. Who will best welcome the nobodies in our community to participate in the public arena and better serve all the people?
A biblical understanding of greatness, the very model of the way Christ portrayed the greatness of God, is in servanthood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:36). Such a measuring of greatness runs contrary to popular notion and to conventional wisdom, but it is the way of Christ, of Jesus’ disciples and of Christ’s church. As followers of Jesus, we believe that service is what makes one great in the eyes of God. Thanks be to God who shows us how to be great. Amen.