Faith Lilac Way Lutheran
What is greatness?
Last week, Pastor Pam asked “Who do you say Jesus is?” In our gospel reading for today, I would say Jesus is one who re-orients, one who challenges the systems and understandings of society.
After the disciples have been arguing about who is the greatest, Jesus reorients them. He tells them what greatness really is. He reorients them from a worldly view of greatness to greatness in the kingdom of God. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus says. Servanthood is pretty different from what the disciples were arguing about.
In showing them what greatness really is, he also challenges the norms of society. He tells them "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
We tend to see children as curious, innocent, imaginative -- but in Jesus’ time, children were near the bottom rungs of the social ladder, and they certainly had the lowest status in the household. It’s almost like they weren’t fully human. So when he’s telling the disciples to welcome children, he’s telling them to welcome the most vulnerable and overlooked people in their community. To welcome the sick, the poor, the foreigner.
I can’t imagine the disciples were feeling too proud of themselves in this moment. It says they were silent when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about. I think they were probably embarrassed, maybe even ashamed. After all, they’ve been with Jesus for some time now -- they’ve seen his ministry and heard his teachings. They know he is about service and healing and being with those who’ve been cast out. They should know what’s important in the kingdom of God. And yet the disciples are still wasting time arguing about which one of them is better than another. We might wonder how they’re seriously still stuck with that kind of concern, after everything they’ve learned from Jesus.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the disciples. Have you had profound experiences of God and yet still wonder if he’s really there? Do you know who Jesus is and what Jesus is about, and yet still have a hard time following him? We share this human reality with the disciples. We know what’s important, but we miss the mark sometimes.
Another thing we share with disciples is that our society also defines greatness in ways that are really different from how Jesus describes it. Wealth is one example.
Think of how we admire celebrities or how we nod approvingly at someone dressed in a sharp suit. Now think of how we turn up noses at those begging on the streets or someone who’s shown up in our neighborhood wearing ragged clothes, a little smelly and unkempt.
We don’t know any of these people’s stories -- the ragged person showing up could have just escaped a really hard life, for example -- and yet we make assumptions about their worth. In both the disciples’ time and ours, the appearance of wealth is a marker of success, of greatness.
Another marker of greatness was simply being born in the right family with the right gender. In Jesus’ time and ours, you don’t have to have done anything but be born to be afforded certain privileges.
For example, if you were the firstborn male in an established Roman family, you had several things going for you -- you were the first born, you were a male, you had resources, you were Roman … all of these things meant you were “greater” than many others.
In our context, if you’re a white, able-bodied, male in a family of white U.S. citizens, those characteristics will make you greater than a brown, disabled female in an immigrant family. We all have characteristics we didn’t choose that benefit or disadvantage us in society.
And even if you’re the wealthiest, healthiest, most American man ever -- well, we all age and we all have the potential to lose our mental and physical faculties -- which will then send us spiraling down the mountain of greatness. How our world sees greatness turns life into a competition, into a show.
These societal definitions of greatness are shallow. They’re often unfair. And sometimes they’re fleeting. But the kind of greatness Jesus shows us, and what is great in the kingdom of God, is deep, accessible, and everlasting. Anyone can be a servant. Anyone can welcome the child, the sick, the poor, the stranger. Our capacities to serve and welcome may differ from person person, but no one is incapable of this kind of love.
There’s a video that went around online a few years ago that I think demonstrates this kind of greatness. In the video, there are two women, Gladys and Naomi. Both appear to be in their 80s or so. But these two women have very different circumstances. Gladys has been living with Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade, and she is virtually non-verbal. Naomi is in good health and is sound of mind and speech.
Some people might think Gladys isn’t quite human anymore -- just like we said about those children in Jesus’ time. Some people might think she’s not quite human because she can’t do things that most people can do -- like speak understandably, walk, bathe herself. But Naomi knows better.
She sees a person, a living, breathing soul. Naomi welcomes Gladys in her life, and she serves Gladys by trying to make a connection. She holds Gladys’s hands, notices the tear on her face, rubs her cheeks lovingly, and believes there can be communication.
Then Naomi starts to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” knowing that it would be a familiar song in Gladys’s life. Gladys begins to tap her hand to the rhythm of the song, and Naomi matches the speed of the song to the speed of Gladys’ tapping. Eventually, Gladys joins in a few words of singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” when Naomi sings it. As the video goes on, Naomi continues to be a comforting presence and remains in connection with Gladys.
I think Naomi exemplifies greatness here. She is looking after someone who is often forgotten by the world. She is welcoming someone extremely vulnerable. And she doesn’t expect that Gladys will communicate every time, but she believes it’s worth a try. And I think Gladys is great as well -- she’s also giving the gift of connection to Naomi, even if she isn’t fully aware.
This kind of greatness is far more powerful and meaningful than having more money than you can spend, or enjoying privileges granted to you by an unjust world.
But even if you enjoy certain privileges or possess astounding wealth, this doesn’t mean you can’t participate in the kind of greatness Jesus shows us. One example of this is Dikembe Mutombo. He is a Congolese man who played in the NBA for many years, even making it into the hall of fame.
He certainly made a large sum of money.
Many people in his position have easily squandered that kind of money away, spending it recklessly on themselves. However, Dikembe uses the wealth granted to him to help others in his home country. The point isn’t that having wealth is bad or sinful -- the point is that if you do have it, you have a responsibility to use it wisely and lovingly, just like any other gift or talent you may possess.
The mission statement of his foundation says,
“The Dikembe Mutombo Foundation is dedicated to improving the health, education and quality of life for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Foundation strives to accomplish this goal through an emphasis on primary health care and disease prevention, the promotion of health policy, health research and increased access to health care education for the people of the Congo.” (http://www.dmf.org/mission-statement.html)
“In the Congo there is currently civil war and they have been entangled in violence since 1996. This conflict has been the world’s bloodiest since World War I. The country’s education, healthcare, and legal and road systems are in shambles.” (http://worldwithoutgenocide.org/genocides-and-conflicts/congo)
Dikembe has worked with others to help people in his country gain needed access to medical care and health care education, and in the future is working to improve general education for children. He’s using his resources to serve.
While playing professional basketball -- and being an exceptional player in the NBA at that -- is quite an achievement, this is not what makes Dikembe great. His greatness is in his service to some of the most vulnerable and overlooked people in our world.
Whether through larger-scale acts like Dikembe or one-on-one acts like Naomi and Gladys, this service and welcoming are what counts as greatness in the kingdom of God.
And just like the disciples needed reorienting, we do, too. We can never be reminded enough of what life is really about, what greatness really is. We can never be reminded enough that it is the content of our character and actions that determines who we are.
There are all kinds of pressures to be a certain way, to have certain things. There are all kinds of unjust markers of greatness that our society proclaims. But listen instead to Jesus’ proclamation: be a servant of all, and welcome those cast aside -- this is true greatness. Amen.