Updated: Oct 13, 2021
By Joan Kessler
Mark 9: 30-37
This passage from Mark has left me with more questions than answers this morning. I have been asking myself this week what is greatness and why does it matter? What if we just put that concept aside…if greatness ceased to be relevant how would our world look?
Would there still be politicians running for office? Would medical research still be done, leading to a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s? Would an athlete still devote years of their life to training to be the fastest human on the planet and shatter the 100m record?
Is greatness tangible? Can I hold it my hand and say yes, look everyone…this is it! This is greatness! Who decides the scale, the quantity, the quality of this adjective? What wars have been fought in the pursuit of greatness and ambition? What leaders do we remember that thought they could make their nations great again?
This morning we hear Jesus’ words that the last shall be first and the servant of all. Being last and being a servant… We are part of a culture and ways of the world that doesn’t want to look to the end of the line but the front. That’s where the beautiful, the important, the successful people are found.
“What were you arguing about along the way?” Jesus asks them. “But they were silent for they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” The silence is his answer. Jesus isn’t concerned with his own ego and perceptions of power and greatness, but he asks the question out of concern for his friends and the worry that they may be getting caught up in delusions of grandeur as they go down this road. Jesus brings them back to their reality, to life on the ground. His good question invites their further reflection on what it means to be great. It’s our question too as we consider the state of our world, our leadership in the midst of a pandemic…the difficulties for any leader to gauge the movements and activities of a virus and the stress and anxiety this tremendous burden is for those who must make decisions to ensure public health is managed in safe and effective ways.
What does it mean and look like for you and me to be great today, in our families, in our circle of friends, our workplaces? For Jesus, his answer to our question is setting a child before us and inviting us to remember ones such as these…the child in Jesus’ time was a symbol of vulnerability, powerlessness and dependency. The child in the ancient world had no voice, no status, no value. Jesus defined greatness as the practice of welcoming those who are disenfranchised and left on the margins of a power-hungry world that revolves around wealth and prominence. We achieve and know greatness when we share our time, our talents, and our treasures with those who have nothing to share with us.
Jesus’ teaching was difficult to hear because it was countercultural and went against societal norms…two millennia later, his words about the last shall be first and the servant of all are still difficult for us to approach. To be the last at anything is not what we aspire to…it’s not what we go to school for, work and save towards. We want to keep moving forward and hope our children will fare better than we did. Greatness is not found in what we have accomplished and gained for ourselves but by what we have done in the service of others. Jesus is not saying that one cannot strive for greatness. But he is asking that its understanding be reframed, paying attention to the least in our midst.
There are so many great ones all around us. Healthcare workers, who show up to their shifts to provide medical care for everyone without judgment; fire fighters who left families behind for weeks on end to do the dangerous work of protecting property and forestry resources. The volunteers who don’t count the hours spent around our church, in the thrift store, preparing music for Sundays, maintaining our church property, inside and out. We are surrounded by greatness.
Maybe I’ve found the answer to all my opening questions this morning. I think gratitude and thanksgiving is an impetus that leads to the service of others. I am grateful for the tailgate picnic last Saturday, I’m still thinking about the wonderful time together that was…I’m grateful for opportunity of building a Community Fridge on our church property and the shape it has taken seemingly overnight…it is now a structure with wiring and two doors…it is going to be a reality very soon and this is a great moment for us as a congregation and wider community.
The last shall be first and a servant of all, Jesus remind us. It is not about the achievement that makes these things great but the quality that arises within us when we become our better selves serving others. It feels great! And it happens in very simple and mundane ways. Greatness often goes unnoticed and unnamed, but there it is. It is always a choice before us…to be last…to serve one another. May it be so. Amen.