Being Great (September 23, 2018)
What makes a person great?
It’s a hot topic these days, especially in politics, where politicians spend much of their time telling us just how great they are, and how wonderful their policies are.
Honestly, it often reminds me of kids in the sandbox …
… which isn’t such a bad thing, considering that Jesus takes a child as a model for greatness. Actually, Jesus goes further than that. Let’s look at this gospel reading carefully.
Last week, Jesus asked us, “Who do you say I am?” He invited us to follow the Christ in the way of the cross, to deny ourselves, and to take up our cross as we follow.
Today, we read the second time when Jesus says the same thing. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days later he will rise again.”
Notice something about what Jesus says. He’s not going to Jerusalem to die. He’s going there knowing that he will be killed. He will be executed by the authorities, Judean and Roman leaders who have decided to execute Jesus because he’s a threat.
Mark never says that Jesus came to “die for us”. Many Christians say that Jesus came to be a substitute for us, that Jesus died in our place as the perfect sinless man to satisfy God’s demand of righteousness. The technical name for that is “substitutionary atonement”.
But Mark never says that. In Mark, Jesus invites us to participate in his mission, to walk the way of the cross with him, to deny ourselves, and to follow. And, as we follow, people may be hostile towards us. Let’s call it “participatory atonement”.
We take up our cross and follow Jesus faithfully. We do what is right and faithful, we live by God’s gospel purposes, and we participate in the work of Jesus in the world. We become co–workers with God in “God’s great cleanup project in the world”, to use Dom Crossan’s lovely phrase.
But the 12 “didn’t know what he was talking about, and they were afraid to ask him about it.”
They didn’t get it.
Honestly, neither do modern–day disciples. We don’t get it. We want to walk in the way of glory, not the way of the cross. We want victory, not suffering. We want holiness, but without a cost.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his faith near the end of World War 2, talks about “cheap grace”. We want God’s love without the hard work of following God’s lead. We want God’s forgiveness without the hard work of confession and reconciliation. We want God’s grace without working in God’s great cleanup project.
For all of us … for you and me … this way is hard. G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” We want to avoid it … but we can’t.
We have made a commitment to live in such a way that we honour God’s gospel purposes.
Mother Teresa had the following words painted on the wall of the home for children she ran in Calcutta:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you. Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway.
It’s a difficult way.
But it’s not impossible. We work at it day by day. So, beside Chesterton and Mother Teresa, I want to put Leonard Cohen’s words:
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering; there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
We continue to work at God’s gospel purposes. We continue to walk in the way with Jesus. Faithfulness doesn’t mean being perfect. It means keeping on keeping on. One step after another.
That’s what we promise in our 1st and 2nd baptismal promises: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” and we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” And then, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” And again, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.”
The second promise is that when we mess up … and trust me, we will … we repent and return to God. Part of what that means is that we stop beating ourselves up. We let it go, and we return to God, who wraps us in an embrace, strengthens and encourages us, and sets us on the way again.
Repenting is not just feeling really really sorry. It’s about letting it go, giving it to God, and getting back to work at God’s mission in the world.
And then we find out that the 12 were discussing which one of them was the greatest. After all this teaching about denying ourselves and following Jesus … So Jesus repeats it: “the first will be last, and the last first.”
He takes a child in his arms — “when you welcome one of these, you welcome me; when you welcome me, you welcome God.”
These days, we think of children as being wonderful and innocent beings, full of energy, ready to try almost anything — well, except vegetables. And we think that Jesus says we should be like them.
But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here.
In those days, children had no rights at all. None. A father could put a newborn outside to starve to death if he had wanted a boy and got a girl, or if the baby seemed weak or handicapped. Children existed for the benefit of their fathers, and if they had no benefit, they could be thrown out or killed with impunity.
When Jesus says to us that when we welcome God when we welcome a child, it means that we see God in the most vulnerable. This is Mark’s way of saying that we see God in the least of these our brothers and sisters.
God comes to us in weakness and vulnerability, and we keep lifting our eyes to the high and mighty and powerful. And the high and mighty and powerful think they are great. And the 12 argue about which one of them is the greatest.
They’ve got it all wrong.
Being great is found in service. Being great is found in love. Being great is found in caring for those who are on the bottom. Being great is found in not competing and arguing about getting what we deserve.
Being great is found as we deny ourselves. Being great is found as we take up our cross. Being great is found as we follow Jesus on the way of the cross faithfully. Being great is learning to see God in the weakest and most vulnerable.
Part of the reason this was is so difficult is that it runs counter to all that we learn from society. Society tells us we’re great according to what we accomplish. Society tells us we’re great if we look gooooood. Society tells us we’re great if we’re wealthy and we’ve got lots of stuff.
And Jesus just says, “Oh no, no no. That’s not how it works.”
In the light of all this, my hope and prayer is that we at Christ Church learn to be great.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
September 23, 2018 (18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25)
James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a
Proverbs 31: 10–31