Second Sundy of Lent
Radical Renovation: A Peculiar Way of Greatness*
Mark 9:33-37; Mark 10:35-45
*I am indebted in my Lenten preaching preparations to the book Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life by James A. Harnish.
Take a quiz with me this morning. Which American has the greatest # of Olympic medals? (Michael Phelps with 14) Who is the greatest American boxer of all time? (Mohammed Ali – often known as “The Greatest”) Who is the greatest golfer? (Tiger Woods – likely surpassed Jack Nicklaus for that title) Who is the greatest scientist of this past century? (Albert Einstein)Who was the greatest American president? (Abraham Lincoln)
The list of the “greats” and “greatests” goes on and on. So how do you get to be on the list? What makes Einstein and Woods and Lincoln rise to the top? How do we determine “greatness” in America? And what does it mean to be on quest to be the greatest?
It’s not a new question. Nor has Christianity over the centuries been void of the self-serving pursuit of greatness. Take, for example, the disciples in the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel.
Chapter 9 opens with a mountain top experience. Jesus takes Peter, James & John up a mountain. Why these three? We are not sure. While they are up there, an amazing thing happens. Jesus is transformed before their eyes and Moses and Elijah appear for a moment. Then it is all gone.
It is important for the gospel to move off the mountain and toward Jerusalem. After a little healing experience with Jesus, we get the idea that there is a walking classroom of disciples. Jesus is teaching them about the radical renovation that needs to be accomplished. He talks about how the Messiah must suffer and die. But somewhere in the back of the classroom, or while the teacher is gathering his thoughts for the next lesson, the disciples are arguing. When the classroom comes to Capernaum, the teacher asks, "Um, back there, I could tell you were arguing. What was that about?" Like children caught for their trouble, they say nothing. They were arguing about who was the greatest, and somehow, instinctively, they know it wasn’t right. When confronted, they are silent, the same way all the children are silent when the parent asks, "Who broke the lamp?"
The opportunity for the next lesson for the travelling classroom is here. Today’s topic: Greatness. So Jesus sits them all down for the lesson. This isn’t, right now, a lesson for the crowd. This is a lesson for the disciples, the followers. “So you want first place?” Jesus asks. Then take the last place. Be the servant of all."
Lesson taught, lesson learned, right? Well, we are talking about the disciples. To our great relief, they don’t always get it. In the 10th chapter of Mark, Jesus is teaching again about the Messiah suffering and dying. Jesus even offers more details of what that suffering and death will look like. By now the disciples should understand the radical renovation God intends in his life and theirs. But it is just not so!
James and John are a bold pair. They remember the mountain top experience from earlier. They remember being chosen from among the 12 for this special experience. In that confidence, they walk right up to Jesus. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask you," they tell Jesus. I love how Jesus humors them. “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. They request the seats of honor – on Jesus’ right and left. “Do you know what you are asking?” Jesus inquires. “Are you able?”
Remember that faithful old hymn? It has always been one of my favorites.
"Yea," the sturdy dreamers answered,
I have always sung it with gusto. The hymn begs from us a whole hearted response. "Yes, Lord we are able!" But do we know what we sing about? Do we understand that a yes involves a radical renovation? Do we understand that a yes means a willingness to go to the cross with Jesus? Are you able to do that? At least when we sing the hymn, we are always able! But what about in life?
Look ahead to the 15th chapter of Mark’s gospel. There the disciples will witness what it means to be given the seats of honor on Jesus’ right and left. The scripture reads: And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Seats of honor and greatness have nothing to do with power and prestige. Jesus said that they have everything to do with serving. That’s Jesus peculiar way to greatness.
What does our world consider great? Well, if we are talking Donald Trump on his show Celebrity Apprentice, then greatness is making the most money. That's the person or team that always wins. If we are talking the Oscars, then you are great when your peers think you were the best actor or musician or whatever the category was. If we are talking the Hall of Fame – weather football or baseball or another sport - you are the greatest when you were dominate player at your position for the era in which you played. Greatness in our world is defined as the accumulation of wealth, successfulness, beauty, domination.
And then there’s Captain Sullenberger. Jesus would call him great. Successfully landing his commercial airliner on the Hudson River made him a hero. Quick thinking, the right speed and angle, and the hand of God prevented the plane from breaking apart on impact. But that’s not what made Sullenberger great in Jesus’ eyes. It’s what Sullenberger did as the plane was sinking into the Hudson. Sullenberger calming, but quickly urged people off the plane. And when he thought that everyone was off the plane, he walked the it twice more from end to end, checking to be sure no one else was on board. Then he got himself off the plane. If you want to be first, you must be last.
Then there’s Dave. Dave was the team leader of the first ever swing team at Mountain Tennessee Outreach Project. He was in charge of the six of us staff. He had all the power and authority over us. I remember him gathering us one night for worship while we were yet training for our positions. He lead us to the corner of one of the bunk rooms. There was barely enough space for the six of us to sit on the floor. He read to us from John's gosepl. Then he reachedunderneath one of the bunks, and pulled out his stashed items for worship: a basin, a pitcher of water, and a towel. Without a word he proceed, one by one, to wash our feet. Silently, he poured the water over my feet. Silently, and with a look of Christian love, he wiped them dry. The greatest among you must be your servant.
Then there’s "Jim". Jim and "Vivian" had been married for years by the time I met them. Very early on I understood Vivian’s battle with dementia, but you had to look very carefully to see it. Jim would walk with Vivian to church, hand in hand. If you didn’t know that she needed the guidance, they just looked totally in love. Jim would open the hymnal for Vivian. His arm was always around her providing security. And when they would come for communion, Jim would reach out his hand first to demonstrate the art of intinction so Vivian could mimick. And when that didn’t work anymore, he served her the communion himself. Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
If you want to become follower of Jesus, then a radical renovation of your life must begin. You must set aside the pursuit of the accumulation of wealth, of success, of beauty, of domination. You must learn this peculiar way of greatness. You must be last. You must be servant. You must serve all. This is not optional for the very religious, or suggested to the struggling followers. The language Jesus uses is strong on purpose. If we want to follow Jesus, we must learn to serve.
Are you able?
Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor