Mark 10.35 The Law - of Greatness

The Law: of Greatness
Mark 10:35-45
Can I confess something to you this morning? It isn’t the kind of confession that will require a call to the
bishop or to the legal authorities because of a violation of legal or professional standards. It is not
something a Catholic priest might hear as a parishioner runs down a list of possible sins while kneeling in
a confessional. And it is not one of those confessions that are intended to engender familiarity, like “I
confess I once snuck 21 items through the ‘20 items of less’ lane.”
Instead, what I want to confess is considered by some to be un-American. I confess that I am not a fan
of inspirational speakers who urge people to find their greatness. I confess that I am not a fan of awards
and designations that lift up the biggest, the ‘best-est,’ the greatest. I confess that I think these
speakers and awards are agents of sin, and I believe they should not be part of the church.
I am not saying this as someone who has never won an award, or has never been considered the best at
something. I can run down a list of awards that I have either won or earned – in school, in the
community, and in the church. Yet, for about 25 years now, I have not wanted to be great – at least, not
what the world considers great.
The world is very clear about greatness. There is an understanding of greatness that we hold in
common. It is reflected in the words of William Shakespeare, who wrote: “Be not afraid of greatness.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
It is such a common understanding that we can make fun of it. The late comedian Robin Williams
quipped, “Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. Some get it as a graduation gift.” Greatness is
thought of in terms of power, money, and connections.
We know what is expected in order to be considered great. Steve Maraboli, in his book
“Unapologetically You,” wrote a typical call to greatness. “Rise to the challenge of bringing your dreams
to life! Do not be discouraged by resistance, be nourished by it. Success is the experience of rising to the
level of your true greatness.”
That is how America embraces greatness. And there are a lot of people who think the church needs this
same spirit, this same desire, for greatness. Many of the church growth consultants advocate an
approach that will, to borrow a politician’s slogan, “Make the Church Great Again.”
But there is also a part of the church which resists the world’s understanding of greatness. A few weeks
ago, Pope Francis mentioned Thomas Merton as an American source of wisdom. Most people had never
heard of Thomas Merton before then. We can be excused if we missed the musings of a Trappist monk,
living under a vow of silence, who lived in Gethsemani, Kentucky in the 1960’s.
I have a few of Merton’s books, since he wrote a lot about prayer. What he wrote is that prayer is less
about technique, and more about our relationship with God, and how this has an effect on our
relationships with others. It is not surprising, then, that someone writing about prayer had something to
say about greatness.
In his book, “No Man is an Island,” Merton wrote, “Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we
cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is
illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the
being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves.”
That sounds like something a monk would say, safe within the confines of a monastery. But what about
in the real world, where life can be hard and choices can be tough to make? Another person Pope
Francis mentioned had this to say about greatness. “Not everybody can be famous but everybody can
be great, because greatness is determined by service.” That was Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that
about the same time as when Merton was writing.
But if you really want to know how I feel about greatness, you have to go back a few centuries. I read a
lot of John Wesley when I was working on my doctor of ministry degree. I read all of his pamphlets, all
of his books, and as much of his correspondence to others that I could. I even prayed his prayers, to try
and experience his spiritual formation.
The theme of John’s prayers for Tuesday is humility. All Christians know that we are supposed to believe
in humility. Jesus told us over and over again to be humble, to serve others and not ourselves. That is
even part of our reading for today.
But in practice, most of us are suspicious of humility. Particularly in America, where we also believe in
greatness, we tend to see humility as weakness. We tend to see it as not caring enough. We tend to
see it as an obstacle to becoming great.
So, if we want to be Christians, and we also want to be great, we substitute humility with modesty. We
just have to be modest about our greatness, so that it looks like we are humble. But that isn’t Christ-like
I have a friend who tried the “modesty as humility” trick concerning his sermons. Whenever someone
would compliment him on his sermon, he would reply, “I don’t deserve the credit. The credit belongs to
the Holy Spirit working through me.” It sounds modest, even deferential. It got exposed for what it
was, however, when the person replied, “The sermon was good, but it wasn’t Holy Spirit good.”
I could be wrong about modesty not being the same thing as humility. But then, I would pray these
words with John:
Save me from either desiring or seeking the honor that is only human.
Convince me that the words of praise, when they are smoother than oil,
are like swords attacking my spirit.
Give me to dread them more than the poison of snakes,
or the pestilence that walks in darkness.
And when these cords of pride, these snares of death, do overtake me,
let me find no pleasure in them,
but enable me to instantly flee to you,
my only true pleasure,
and enable me to cry out to God from my bones,
only you are worthy to be praised!
Only then shall I be safe from those who would lead me into sin.
It is really hard to want the trappings of greatness, if you believe it might lead you into the kind of sinful
pride which is opposed to humility. But maybe, John was just being dramatic, in the way that some
preachers today can be dramatic – especially when they want to increase the sales of their published
book of prayers.
But then we have the evening prayer:
Let me never speak any word that may tend to my own praise,
unless the good of my neighbor requires it.
And even then, let me be aware, that in order to help another,
I wound my own soul.
Let my ears and my heart be closed to the praise
that comes from those set only on human things,
and let me refuse to hear the words of the Charmer,
no matter how sweetly this evil is presented.
Give me a dread of undue applause,
in whatever form, from wherever it may come.
I know that many persons stronger in the faith than I
have lost their life with you, slain by praise.
O deliver my soul from this snare of hell;
neither let me spread it for the feet of others.
Keep me from being responsible for the spiritual death of others,
who would learn of sinful pride from me.
It is really hard to ask people to focus on their own greatness, when you pray that seeking greatness is a
“snare of death and hell.” Against the background of these prayers, as well as the teachings of Jesus, to
pursue and encourage greatness would reveal our failure to trust God to work great things through us.
It would reveal our lack of faith that God can do good through us unless we are good enough. It leads to
the heresy that God needs us more than we need God.
Going on to perfection in love, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, is in many ways opposed to going on to
greatness in this world. This struggle with greatness is nothing new, of course. We see it in our reading
for today.
It is just a few days before the crucifixion of Jesus. The disciples have seen Jesus work, and they have
heard him teach, since the beginning of this ministry. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, for
at least two years, the disciples have been learning about what it means to be great in the kingdom of
God. Over and over again, in words and deeds, Jesus proclaimed that true greatness, the greatness of
God’s love for us, is revealed in our humble service to others.
And still, we find James and John wanting Jesus to give them the evidence of greatness, the proof that
they are the best of the best, by assigning to them the seats of glory on the right and left hands of Jesus.
And when the others hear about this request, they are upset with James and John. They are upset,
because they wanted those positions for themselves.
A few years ago, I led a devotional on humility for a church council meeting. These were the servant
leaders of the congregation. I had known them to be easy to work with, willing to set aside their egos in
order to work together for the greater good. I started the devotion by saying, “There is something I can
do better than anyone else in this room.”
You would have thought I had just insulted their parentage, their intelligence, their children, and their
loyalty to God and country. Postures became defensive, eyes glared, and you could hear a pin drop. It
was clear that they didn’t think I was better than all of them at anything. I was the “James and John” to
the rest of the disciples. I had to tell them they didn’t want to be better than me at this one thing,
which is my ability to produce too much cholesterol, before I could continue the devotional.
Their reaction shows just how hard it is for us to practice true humility. Like so many Christians today,
when we scratch at the surface of our humility, we end up bleeding our desire to be great. And it will
stay that way until we confess that the only true greatness in our life is the love of God revealed in Jesus
Christ. It will stay that way until we confess our unworthiness before God, and our dependence on God
for our life together and our salvation. It will stay this way until we place our confidence in the Holy
Spirit, instead of in ourselves and our own abilities.
You may be great in your field of work, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it might even be
how God is calling you to help bring in the kingdom of God for the glory of Christ. Be a great teacher,
nurse, doctor, plumber, researcher, grandmother, or whatever it is you are called to do. But for true
greatness before God, we need to be humble, serving others in the name and for the sake of Jesus
Christ. In the end, there is only one greatness we can claim in faith – the greatness of Jesus Christ, who
“came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Normally, this is when I would ask you to stand to sing the next hymn. But first, I want you to make a
confession. I want you to stand (or to raise your hands, if standing is a challenge) only if you are a great
Christian, as Jesus defines greatness. I want you to remain seated, unless you can affirm one of these
ways to greatness with God.
If you have ever served the children – whether it was Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, Kids Hope,
nursery volunteer, Children’s Church, Christmas programs, Easter egg hunts, providing rides to Sagrada –
I want you to stand, for you are great in God’s kingdom. If you have ever served someone visiting the
church by helping them find a seat, a bulletin, the bathrooms, the coffee pot, the office, the pastor – I
want you to stand, for you are great in God’s kingdom. If you have served the church by helping to
serve a meal, washed dishes, cleaned the tables, took out the trash – for a funeral, a church dinner, a
church picnic, a UMW meeting, a youth meeting – I want you to stand, for you are great in God’s
kingdom. If you have served by doing something that needed to be done that would make our
community a little nicer, easier, cleaner, or friendlier, but never said anything about it, I want you to
stand, for you are great in God’s kingdom.
Now, we can faithfully sing UMH 163 “Ask Ye What Great Think I Know.”