Sermon Archives

Sunday, October 18, 2015
The 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Mark 10:43-44
In Search of Greatness

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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. (Mark 10:43-44)

Every fall, countless athletes take the field in search of greatness.  From high school stardom, gridiron domination and World Series Champion, fall is a time when great athletes are made.  Of course, it’s not just athletes who aspire for such greatness; whole schools and entire cities galvanize around their respective squads, as one vast, devoted team seeking not only victory, but to claim greatness in relation to their peers and rivals.

Now, the desire to achieve such greatness is nothing new – in fact, one could argue that the desire to be great at whatever it is that we value is among the most human of our desires.  To see this desire expressed in antiquity we need look no further than the The Illiad, as Homer tells the great tragedy resulting from Hera’s desire to be the most beautiful woman of all. 

Interestingly, today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that the desire to be the greatest is not only nothing new, but something endemic even to the Christian community.  James and John, already clearly within Jesus’ close inner circle, boldly – brazenly, some would say – ask to sit, at Jesus’ right hand and left, in his glory.  They are not content with being in the inner circle; they want to be the inner circle themselves.  Realizing that, even within this devoted band of fellow disciples, there will, naturally, be a hierarchy – a ranking of greatness, if you will, they make a bold move for the two top seats.  They aspire to a level of greatness among the disciples that not all can share. 

Perhaps what’s most striking about this exchange, however, is not how braze James and John are in the request of Jesus, but that Jesus does not rebuke them in the least for their aspiration.  While the other ten become angry with James and John, Jesus appears to harbor no anger at all.  If anything, there might even be a touch of compassion in voice as he begins, “you do not know what you are asking.”  Yet, unlike the many other times where Jesus expresses outright anger or at least weariness at the disciples continued failure to grasp his identity and mission, Jesus offers neither reproach nor rebuke to James and John, as if to remind them, and us, that the desire to be great is neither inherently wrong nor un-faithful. 

The critical question, however, is, great at what? 

This is the question that Jesus drives home as he reminds his disciples that greatness amongst the rulers of this world is not greatness in the eyes of God.  The greatest among first century Gentiles used their power and influence as tyrants to do good primarily for themselves – what good did fall to others through their patronage and action was not of primary concern.  Such benefits were a happy consequence, but not a primary motivation.

This, however, is not greatness as Jesus sees it.  Greatness in the new kingdom established by God, was not merely, nor even primarily, for the benefit of the great themselves.  No, in this Kingdom, greatness was first, and foremost, for the benefit of others.

In this brief exchange, Jesus redefines greatness for his community of disciples – for you and me even today.  Greatness in this kingdom is reserved for those who serve.  There is no expectation of beauty or wealth, intelligence or strength; the only capacity needed is a generosity of love for another.  In God’s Kingdom, all those things for which we humans so naturally strive are pushed to the side so that our care for one another may take primary place within our hearts and within our lives. 

While the object of our pursuit may differ from that of the athlete, the comparison remains immensely helpful.  Anyone who has attempted to master any skill, let alone one who has attempted to become the greatest at it, will note that there are certain keys to success.

For one, there is the simple capacity.  Take throwing a ball.  Not everyone possesses the same natural ability or capacity to throw a ball, but even those of us who are good at it, likely do not possess the same natural capacity that greatest inherently possess.  Take almost any skill – athletic or artistic or scientific for that matter – and we will note that the very greatest among us possess some natural capacity that others simply do not possess.  So, what is this natural capacity that Christian service demands – fortunately, it is neither strength nor intellect; it is neither agility or an artistic eye or ear.   The capacity for Christian service begins with the simple capacity to love; the ability to appreciate and value something other than one’s self.  There is no secret skill needed – just a heart to care.  We all qualify!

But, as any great athlete or artist will tell you, greatness is more than sheer talent or capacity.  Ultimately, the greatest athletes and artists are not born, but made.  The skill they possess is shaped and developed over years – decades even – of practice and refinement.  Hours spent on the field or bench, practicing into the dark hours of the night, have honed a natural talent into a refined skill that few will ever possess. 

The same is true of Christian service.  While we possess the natural capacity to love, the refined skill that generates love for another, especially for a stranger and even more an enemy, demands our attention and practice.  And this is what we are here for – this is fundamentally why the Church exists – to refine the human heart for love and, ultimately, for service not simply for those dear to us, but for all.  We gather within these walls to encounter again the very model of this love, Jesus.  Week in and week out, we encounter the story of Jesus life and death, in order that we might see what this love to which we aspire is actually life. 

But it is not enough to just hear again the stories of Jesus’ life – we gather here as well to encounter Jesus’ love through one another.  The Christian community is a practice field of sorts, a place to learn how to love – both by experience the love of others, but also by risking love ourselves.  We are here not only to hear of and receive God’s great mercy and forgiveness for us, but to practice mercy and forgiveness with one another such that the practice becomes a habit in our daily lives.  (Michigan fans take note!)  We are here, if you will, not only to hear of God’s great love for us, and to receive it within our body and soul, but to practice God’s great love with one another such that the practice of love becomes a habit of love in our lives, for this is the place where our hearts are shaped and our love is developed.

Ultimately, however, the community cannot develop such greatness of love and service, any more than a parent can develop the greatness inherent within a child.  In the end, it is the individual who must commit herself to the hours of practice and self-discipline.  So, too, for us; each of us makes our own commitment to learn the path of Christ.  We must make the personal commitment to learn and practice our faith, so that the practice of faith, the practice of love and service for, becomes not merely a learned practice, but an ingrained habit of life.

In the end, the greatness to which we aspire is ours to achieve.  We, the community of Christ Church, are here to help.