Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 23, 2012

2012.09.23 “So You Want to be Great?” – Mark 9: 30 – 37

Central United Methodist Church

So You Want to be Great?

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 9: 30 – 37

September 23, 2012


          “Leaving there, they went through Galilee. Jesus didn’t want anyone to know their whereabouts, for he wanted to teach his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.” They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?”

The silence was deafening — they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.

He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.”

He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me — God who sent me.” – Mark 9: 30 – 37, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.

Like many of you, part of my morning ritual is to check the news of the day.

Only a few decades ago, that news used to come in the form of a daily newspaper that landed with a thud in the driveway. Now, for most of America and perhaps many of you, it most often comes with the click of a button on the TV remote. I’ll admit we’re odd, but in our house we don’t watch much TV, including the news, and especially not in the morning. It’s too loud, and I don’t like how they present it, too superficial with too little substance.

For some of us, especially those of us who feel that way about TV, we get our news from the internet. I have about eight tabs in my browser that I scan daily, reading in depth the articles that attract my attention or interest. I start locally, and go globally. I scan the West Chicago News and Daily Herald, to see what disasters my fireman friends may have dealt with, and then the Skokie Review, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and some days, the Guardian, which used to be known as the Manchester Guardian, a British newspaper.  I must admit I find it a great advantage over print; first of all I couldn’t afford all those in paper, nor would I have the time to turn through them, plus, I find that with the variety of resources available on the internet offer much more perspective, news and information. I become the editor, not someone else deciding what I need to know.

Why do I read it? To be informed and to keep up with what’s going on in the world. And, as a preacher, who must stand up and talk each week, preferably with both relevance and substance. I am a believer in what German theologian Karl Barth once said, that the preacher should preach with newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other.  I hope my preaching reflects that.

What do I read? As much news of substance as I can, not only to learn what has happened, but why and what it means. I like political commentary, and I also like science and health news.  I confess I stand in awe of most of the reporting of the New York Times and the Washington Post, my two favorites, for the depth of the articles they provide, about everything.

What do I not read?  Articles about celebrities, like the latest trouble Lindsay Lohan has gotten into, or Kim Kardashian’s latest wardrobe malfunction (well, OK, I read that sometimes.)  Let’s face it, that kind of stuff is not really news, but it sells newspapers, in a way that news about the Arab Spring never will.  After all, that’s the bind newspapers are in these days. How to pay for reporting, even if it means resorting to fluff.

In one way or the other, I expect you follow the news in some manner also. The reason I mention it, is because in many ways what the global information age tells us, is that what’s really important, is happening elsewhere. That the people we read about, the President and George Romney, the leaders and politicians, the celebrities and sports stars, they are the GREAT people, the newsmakers. As for us, we are the spectators on the sidelines. It’s easy to get the feeling that what we do, and who we are, don’t count for much. It’s the “trickle down” theory of greatness. They are somebody; we are nobody.

If you – like me – sometimes feel that way, do I have a story for you!

It is the story about Jesus, in this morning’s Gospel. After Jesus’ successful mission tour through Galilee – preaching, teaching, and healing – which we have heard about for most of the summer, last Sunday we heard Jesus make to his disciples his first passion prediction: “It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive.”  The disciples found this so shocking that Peter, acting out what they all felt, took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, telling him it would never happen.  Jesus in turn, had to rebuke Peter, about how God works in the world:

“If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself and take up his cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8: 34 – 35)

Because his first passion prediction went right over their heads, today’s gospel begins with Jesus telling them a second time: “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.”

Most tellingly, it says: “They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it.”  They were afraid to ask him about it? Were they afraid he would yell at them? Were they afraid people would think they were stupid?  Were they embarrassed that they didn’t understand?  Or were they afraid, should they ask, they would not like the answer they would receive?

In truth, we have more sympathy for them than scorn, and frankly that’s why I think Mark presented them in this way, that generations of Jesus’ disciples such as us, might empathize ever after.

Because there are times in life, when we do have questions we are afraid to ask.

A child hears his parents engage in a bitter argument. The child may think, but is afraid to ask, “Are you going to get a divorce?”

A wife finds a husband to be distant. A distance has crept into their relationship that was not there before. Both of them are wondering, “Do you still love me? but are afraid to ask.”

A doctor enters the room.  In his hands is a folder containing the results from a biopsy of a lump in a breast, or a spot on a lung or liver.  “Is it cancer?” “How long do I have?”  We are afraid to ask.

An elderly parent has reached the point where they forget simple things. A pan left on the stove boils dry and begins to smoke before being discovered.  Or they have become frail and unsteady on their feet, and are in danger of a serious, life-threatening fall. “Dad, Mom, how much longer can you continue to live alone?”  We may be afraid to ask.

Oddly enough, sometimes the unasked questions are ones we should ask ourselves: “If I died today, what would happen to my family?” “Who would sort out the stuff of my life?”

In the course of life, such questions and more arise.  Sometimes they are the elephant in the room we refuse to acknowledge. But, sometimes, they are so personal, so full of life-changing implications, that they remain unasked, unvoiced, even when they should be.

Truth be told, most of us have similar questions about faith and God as well. If we were granted an interview with God, I’m pretty sure we all have a list of questions we’d like to ask. I sometimes think the difference between genuine religious seekers and spectators is just this, whether or not we are willing to ask the hard questions, not all of which have answers.  And some have answers we may not want to hear. Those are the ones we most need to ask, for those are the ones that can be life-changing.

Whether it was for such reasons or reasons unknown, Jesus’ disciples did not ask him about what they did not understand. It was not to be the only period of silence in that conversation.

The next would come when Jesus had a question of them, which he was NOT afraid to ask. “What were you talking about on the road?” I like how Eugene Peterson, in The Message, renders their response: “The silence was deafening – they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.” Maybe like who had the biggest churches, with the most worshippers in the most services; who had the largest annual budget and paid 100% of their apportionment; who drove a Mercedes or a BMW?

Who was the greatest? They didn’t get it, did they; just as we still sometimes don’t get it. Maybe that’s what happens when we fail to ask big questions and address big issues, we turn to petty and trivial matters instead, and turn on each other, not establishing God’s kingdom, but kingdoms over each other.

Jesus’ first disciples, all Jewish, saw him as a Messiah who would come in power and glory, and that was a false illusion they would not give up easily. Jesus tried over and again to get across to them that he was a Messiah who had come as a servant, who would give himself for others, even through his death on a cross. What’s more, he calls all his disciples to follow him in this way of being in the world, as servant to all. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.”

To make his point, you might say that Jesus gave the first children’s sermon, literally:

“He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me — God who sent me.” (Mark 9:36 – 37)

You want to be great? You don’t have to run for office, participate in the Olympics, or even be a celebrity.  Embrace one child, the last and least, and in embracing that child, you embrace God. That, said Jesus, that’s true greatness. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “No one stands so tall as when they stoop to help a child.”

So, day by day, as we read or view the news as spectators in the cult of celebrity, when we are tempted to think that the only GREAT people and the only GREAT deeds done are the people we read about in newspapers or on the internet or see on TV, we are misled. Because all it takes to be great in the kingdom of God is to care for as little as one small child. True greatness comes not from being high and mighty, but from being a servant, to the last and least. I do believe that places it within all our reach.

Someone I consider great was a celebrated member of the Greatest Generation, Major Richard “Dick” Winters, who died January 2nd, 2011 at the age of 92.  Major Winters was a United States Army officer, who commanded Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, during WWII, the celebrated Band of Brothers. Winters parachuted into Normandy in the early hours of D-Day, fought across France, into the Netherlands, then Belgium (including the Battle of the Bulge), and eventually into Germany.

For his actions leading an assault at Brecourt Manor in Normandy, which took out a battery of German howitzers that were shelling Utah Beach, and thus saving countless lives, Winters was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. To the end of his days, many believed that for his actions he should have received the Medal of Honor.

After the war, all Winters wanted to do was lead a peaceful life, first working in business and then selling farm products.  He raised a family and lived a long life, finally dying peacefully in an assisted living facility after suffering from Parkinson’s Disease for many years. After he died, he insisted on a private, unannounced funeral service.

     Despite the many accolades he received, to the end he remained humble about his service. During the interview segment
of Band of Brothers, Winters quoted a passage from a letter he received from Sergeant Mike Ranney: “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said, ‘No . . . but I served in a company of heroes.”




We understand; we may feel the same way. We may not have fought in a war like Major Winters, done anything to be a decorated hero, or for that matter anything which most people associate with greatness. But in terms of Jesus’ definition, that the greatest are those who selflessly serve others, we have known them, companies of heroes: our mother and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, day care workers, teachers, caretakers, volunteers, Scout leaders, church people, all those who served others and us – humbly, selflessly.

May we live according to their example, and as Jesus taught us by his words and his life, as servant of all.  Amen.



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