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True Greatness

September 24, 2006 Speaker: Rev. Jack Meehan

Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 9:30–9:37

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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 9:30-37

"True Greatness"

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's closest adviser during much of his presidency was a man named Harry Hopkins. During World War II, when his influence with Roosevelt was at its peak, Hopkins held no official Cabinet position. Moreover, Hopkins' closeness to Roosevelt caused many to regard him as a shadowy, sinister figure. As a result he was a major political liability to the President. A political foe once asked Roosevelt, "Why do you keep Hopkins so close to you? You surely realize that people distrust him and resent his influence." Roosevelt replied, "Someday you may well be sitting here where I am now as President of the United States. And when you are, you'll be looking at that door over there and knowing that practically everybody who walks through it wants something out of you. You'll learn what a lonely job this is, and you'll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins, who asks for nothing except to serve you." Winston Churchill rated Hopkins as one of the half-dozen most powerful men in the world in the early 1940s. And the sole source of Hopkins' power was his willingness to serve.

"True Greatness" is the theme of today's message, and when we think of true greatness we probably think of people like FDR or Winston Churchill-power brokers, movers and shakers, people who have made their mark on the world. But Harry Hopkins? Most of us are thinking, "Harry who? Never heard of him." Jesus defines greatness as something radically different than what most people think of. In the kingdom of God, true greatness means that "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:5). May the Lord's rich blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word, for Jesus' sake.

Again today, as we heard last week, Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die, and that on the third day he will rise again. In Mark's Gospel there are three predictions of the passion which Jesus announces in the course of his ministry. Each prediction is followed by a response in which the disciples demonstrate that they really don't understand what Jesus has told them. Last week, it was Peter. Today, it's all of the disciples, as we read in today's Gospel: "... and when he was in the house he asked them, 'What were you arguing about on the way?' But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest" (Mark 9:33-4). They just don't get it. We wouldn't have, either, if we had been there. Ironically, as Jesus prepares his followers for what lies ahead and the harsh reality of his bloody death on the cross, they're arguing among themselves about who's the greatest! As Jesus announces his own suffering; they argue over who is the "most valuable player." Their understanding of true greatness is so grotesquely out of line, so in violation of all that Jesus is calling them to do, that they need a reality check-and a strong one. Jesus places a child in their midst and tells them, if you want to be great, look at this child.

What is Jesus talking about? The point here is not the child's attitude, but the attitude of others toward the child. Childhood in ancient times was not a pretty picture. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent. Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease and dislocation. In sharp contrast to our own era, children had little status within the community or family. A minor child was on par with a slave. The term "child" could be used as a serious insult. And this now gets us close to the heart of what Jesus was saying and doing. When Jesus placed a child in the midst of those thick-headed disciples, when he even held a child in his arms, it was not that the child was a cute, lovable little tike. Rather, it was precisely that the child was considered undesirable and socially unfit. Children were considered weak and replaceable, powerless and worth little, except to Jesus.

"If you want to be great," Jesus said, "then learn to love and accept those who, like this child, are undesirable, weak, powerless and worth little." Leave behind all of your ambitions, your vain desires, your aspirations for power and glory. "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). Have we indeed learned from those first disciples, who were jockeying for the position of top dog and CEO? Do we understand what it means to forget about self and serve others? I think not. Like those first disciples, we've got a long way to go.

Jesus entered into our world as a servant. He left behind his heavenly glory and power, and became one of us. He lived and died and rose again for us. He came among us to shatter the illusion that true greatness means how many people serve you. By putting aside his greatness as the Son of God, he became a servant, and offering his very life as payment for our sin, has turned the notion of true greatness upside-down. Jesus is both our sacrifice for sin and our model of the godly life. He came to set us free from sin and set us free for service. The only response we can offer to Christ for all he has done for us is to serve one another as he came to serve us. When the great violinist, Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) died, he willed his marvelous violin to the city of Genoa, Italy, the city of his birth, but only on condition that the instrument never be played. It was an unfortunate condition, for it is a peculiarity of wood that as long as it is used and handled, it shows little wear. As soon as it is discarded, it begins to decay. The exquisite, mellow-toned violin has become worm-eaten in its beautiful case, valueless except as a relic. The decaying instrument is a reminder that a life withdrawn from service to others loses its meaning.

May the Lord Jesus who gave himself for us, now also give us willing hearts and minds to see true greatness in being last of all and servant of all. Amen.