Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
October 21, 2018
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
In a famous sermon delivered over 50 years ago, perhaps the second most famous sermon he preached, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about an alternative way of life, one devoted to service of others rather than personal success and achievement. The sermon was entitled, “The Drum Major Instinct.” Whenever I hear or read this sermon I remember a story of a young man’s experience being a drum major during the big homecoming parade at this school. The band was making their way down Main Street. The drum major was dressed in his spiffy, new uniform, controlling all of those who followed him, attracting the eye and admiration of each and every parade watcher. His adrenaline was flowing and his steps were extra high and effortless and he enjoyed this experience that he dreamed of- his moment in the sun. All the drum major could think about was how wonderful the band was, how wonderful the parade was, and how wonderful he was. Suddenly, about halfway through the parade, a voice called from the crowd. “Hey drum major! It looks like you’ve lost your band! The horrified drum major turned around to peek. Sure enough, his entire marching band was almost a block behind. He was so caught up in the moment of glory and in the enjoyment of his leadership that he forgot to keep track of everyone behind him.
Muhammad Ali was famous for shouting out the line, “I am the greatest!” When asked why he did this Ali once said, “I said that I was the greatest even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
In May of 1991, Rickey Henderson ran his way into baseball’s record book by stealing third base and breaking Lou Brock’s record for most career stolen bases. The steal set off a five minute celebration for the sport’s new record holder. Henderson immediately pulled up the base from the ground, held it over his head and pumped his fist in celebration. Brock who was there watching, left the stands to come onto the field to congratulate Henderson. When finally given the microphone Henderson said this, “Lou Brock was a symbol of great base stealing. But today, I am the greatest of all time.”
There is nothing wrong with being great. If I were to ask each of you what you are great at doing, I am sure that you would be able to tell me at least one thing. Everyone is great at something. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be the very best you can be. But there is a difference between being great and have the need to be the greatest.
Karoline Lewis writes that “we lack a certain sense of self-reflective capacity to evaluate just how great we are. As a result, we should be suspicious of those who insist on their own greatness, who seem confident in their ability to adjudicate the criteria of greatness and apply it to themselves.” Lewis adds that we don’t have to look far these days to find leaders who regularly tout their tenures as the best ever, the greatest ever. Most of us regularly evaluate ourselves by the world’s standards of greatness, with categories that are usually yoked to wealth, control, status, influence, and power. Even within the church was measure ourselves by standards of greatness. When we speak of successful churches, we usually start talking about attendance or membership or money or programs or comments on the preaching. None of us it seems, in any of our endeavors, imagines themselves to be successful by being the least. No one wants to be recognized as the one with the least power, least influence, and least possessions.
There is an acronym that is going in popularity, first in the field of sports, then entertainment, and now I have seen it in politics and business. G.O.A.T. Greatest of all time. We want to be the G.O.A.T. We want to be the first to recognize and acknowledge and align ourselves with the G.O.A.T.
After a very successful ministry in Galilee, Jesus and his disciples were finally on their way to the big time in Jerusalem. There was talk that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, perhaps the G.O.A.T. Certainly he was something special in God’s eyes. Yet for the third time on the trip, Jesus warned his disciples about the kind of reception they might experience in the Holy City. To their surprise, he didn’t speak of ticker tape parades or banquets, or awards, or appearances on late night television shows. He talked instead of suffering and sacrifice and service.
His disciples, giddy with the success of miracles and healing, and completely sold on Jesus being the G.O.A.T. of God, would not listen to such talk. Competition and empire building and ego-tripping were in the air as they walked along. James and John were particularly guilty. They argued about who would sit at the right and left hand of the G.O.A.T. in the Kingdom of God. They were debating about who had the best credentials. They were worried about which disciple Jesus liked best. Who was the greatest? Would any of them be the G.O.A.T. also? All of that cross talk of Jesus had not yet registered.
Upon hearing the conversation, Jesus sat the disciples down and began to lecture them. “Is it glory that you really want? Do you want to know how to be great? You will get there in a way that you do not expect. Glory will not come through success and power. It will be achieved through service and sacrifice. True greatness is God’s eyes comes when you are first concerned about the needs of others.
Alice McKenzie writes that the disciples from Mark’s gospel, from which we read today’s story, should be more accurately labeled as the “duh-ciples.” She says that they should have had their own reality show called “Stupid Disciple Tricks.” They never seem to get Jesus’ teachings. They defined greatness by the standards of the world and they seek to present themselves to others as the G.O.A.T. They lifted up a theology of glory. They saw themselves holding up the first place trophy. They demanded the best seats in the house. They sent the hungry people away. They ordered people bringing small children to Jesus to back off. They failed to understand what Jesus was saying. Knowing that they didn’t understand, they were afraid to ask. When asked by Jesus about what they were thinking, they fell silent. Their hearts were hardened. They seemed to operate with little faith.
Lamar Williamson Jr., in his commentary on the gospel of Mark, writes that these words of Jesus, spoken to his disciples, are a challenge to “our modern complacency and apathy.” Modern Christians tend to hear the gospel as a “no-risk” offer that helps us stay on the straight and narrow. Some follow the instruction of a so-called “prosperity gospel.” Others pick and choose the teachings of Scripture to support their own beliefs and behaviors and to help them judge the beliefs and behaviors of others. Williamson says that the teachings of Jesus are about more than just getting our lives together and certainly more than finding greatness. The gospel may be disruptive at times, requiring a “costly pouring out of one’s life for another, whether it be an aging parent, a difficult spouse, a special child, another member of the Christian fellowship who has unusual needs or any person whose situation elicits neighborly service at personal cost.” These words of Jesus about service and sacrifice speak of dying to oneself to bring true life. They define greatness in a way that challenges our worldview and even the values engrained deep within us. Yet we need to hear those words as if they were addressed directly to us. Will we follow all the way to Jerusalem, and the cross, and the rising again?
Richard Carl Hoefler tells of a time in a far off country where a king had twin sons. One was strong and handsome. The other was intelligent and wise. As the ruler grew old, everyone speculated about which son the king would choose as his successor, the strong son or the wise son. In the land, the sign of kingship was a royal ring. Just before the king died, he had a copy of the royal ring made and presented both rings to his twin sons. The chief advisors to the king asked him, “How shall we know which son wears the authentic royal ring?” The king answered, “You shall know because the chosen one will reveal his right to rule by his self-giving service to the people.”
Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among us you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” As we consider our greatness as disciples, as followers of Jesus, as a church, as the body of Christ- let us humble ourselves and strengthen our desire to serve as Jesus taught. We are called to embody greatness as Jesus lived so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born from love.