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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was a typical scene on the school playground. Three young boys were bragging about whose father was greatest. The quarrel switched quickly to who their fathers knew. The first boy started the debate by claiming his father knew the mayor. He was soon topped by the second boy who said, “That’s nothing. My dad knows the governor.” The stakes were pretty high, when the pastor’s son chimed in. “So what! My dad knows God.” The boys were duly impressed. Unfortunately, my own personal story would be more reminiscent of the father of the second-grade girl who wrote in a school essay that he was her own personal hero. When he discovered this essay in her backpack, he was deeply flattered, and so he asked her, “Dear, why did you pick me?” Innocently, and nonchalantly she replied, “Because, I couldn’t spell Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Yes, the world loves to celebrate those who are great.
Just as importantly, we like to be affirmed and honored for our own greatness. We like to be lifted up in front of others for the qualities and achievements that we believe are great. So you’re a little anxious at your wedding, when your best man begins, “I’m not used to public speaking, I only found out today that a toastmaster isn’t actually a kitchen appliance,” or, “If you can’t hear me at the back, the silence at the front should assure you that you haven’t missed out on anything.” Yes, we want to be acknowledged for our gifts, in humorous and serious ways. So, it’s painful, when your friends don’t know what you really do for work. And it’s even more painful, when your spouse doesn’t know what you do. In a small way, we all want to be great and be affirmed for our greatness.
In this morning’s gospel, we read of Jesus’ own disciples debating and boasting who was greatest. Someone might argue that the disciples had a positive self-image, but Jesus was clear in his teaching that their problem was not their lack of a positive self-image. No, their problem was that were thinking too much about themselves and too little about others. Surprisingly, Jesus did not walk away from, nor did he leave them to their own thoughts. Instead, Jesus sought to redirect their course. They were taught not to be selfish or conceited, but to be humble and to prefer others over ourselves. That is how Jesus treats us. Our sense of value or worth comes from an understanding that it is God who loves us, values us and showers us freely with undeserved favor.
You see, nowhere does Jesus criticize a person for pursuing true greatness or true significance. Jesus doesn’t condemn the quest for greatness and to be a hero. Indeed, it is my belief that God has created you to be great and to be significant—and he desires for you to come to the end of your life and to feel that your time and energy were well spent and well invested. But it is true, you may need to redirect your focus.
So my friends, if you would like to be a hero in the innocent eyes of your loved ones, and in the eyes of this world, let me share with you the words of counsel, Jesus offered his disciples. First, “Prepare to be last,” and second, “Welcome the children.” Go ahead and pursue it, he says. Be great. Be a hero. But beware the path is down, not up.
Let us begin with Jesus first word. “Prepare to be last.” Jesus sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus doesn’t say that greatness is wrong, but he does say that it can be misguided. You see, many people in this world define greatness by how they appear. We are convinced that greatness is seen in the clubs we belong to, the cars that we drive, the square footage of our homes, and the vacations that we take. Far too often our longing for greatness has been corrupted by a desire not to be great, but to be known as great, and our longing for greatness is nothing more than being viewed as someone greater than another. This is not the greatness God has destined for you.
Even pastors can fall into these bad habits. It’s called the dark side- the altar ego. Pastoral greatness is measured by how many people attend services, or how many books you have written, the number of degrees you hold or the size of your salary. For pastors, the true measure of greatness should be to what degree he or she has demonstrated a heartfelt desire to serve others?
But it’s not just for pastors who are called to live courageous and heroic lives. It is an invitation to you as well, for you and your home. The research of Russian-American psychologist Dr. Urie Brofenbrenner showed the disconnect of how much time fathers shared with their children. The fathers were asked to estimate how much time they spent playing and interacting with their children. Estimates averaged from fifteen to twenty minutes per day. Microphones were then attached to the fathers and the results were astounding: The time the average father spent with a child was thirty-seven seconds a day. Perhaps that was the cartoonist’s inspiration who drew a comic of a young boy standing next to his father’s recliner. The father was engrossed in the sports page, while the impatient boy pounded the leather of his baseball glove. Finally the energetic little guy said, “Play me or trade me!”
Even the advertising agents of Madison Avenue have gotten the message. In an ad for Quorum cologne, a man in a pin-striped suit was shown carrying a baby in a back pack over his shoulder instead of a briefcase with the caption reading, “Success is knowing which appointments to keep.”
My friends, Jesus teaches that true greatness is not wanting to be first while others are second and third and fourth, but true greatness is your willingness to be last so that others may be first. So if you want to be great in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of your own family, “Prepare to be last. If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
Let us now turn to the heart of Jesus’s teaching. Before Jesus offered his second word of counsel, he took a child and put him in the circle of apostles, and said, “Welcome the child.” To God, children are always a major concern. God’s loving heart is always reaching out to touch and bless his little children. But as poignant as this lesson may be- “Welcoming the children” isn’t simply about the proper care of your children, of your sons and daughters. Jesus was illustrating that the disciples must be servants to all- including the nameless children around the world. And indeed there are many.
Why is “Welcoming the Children” true greatness? Simply said, there is no political payback in serving children: that can’t vote. They don’t give speeches or write opinions about how great you are. They don’t make a big deal out of the fact that you pour your life out for them. In fact they pretty much take you for granted that you will take care of them. And so, children prove, more clearly than any other people, whether you are truly great or not–whether you live to serve or live to be praised. For it is in this serving that we experience something wonderful…we experience and encounter the presence of God. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me and whoever receives me receives not me but the One who sent me.”
As the Church we are invited and called to live heroic lives of greatness, for all of God’s forgotten, neglected and despised people. This past week, I spent time in Chicago as a part of a German Lutheran- ELCA Consultation to discuss common challenges. Overwhelmingly the presentations focused on the issues relating to the 2015 exodus of nearly a million refugees from the war-torn areas of Syria and the Middle East and entering into Germany. It has been a challenge culturally, economically and politically. But never did the German church question its reasons in welcoming and offering safe harbor to refugees. They simply turned back to those years of World War II, when many forgot and abandoned their call. Martin Niemoller, one of the courageous German pastors of World War II, said it best, “In Germany, the Nazis first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. They came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. They came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me.” In the Church we must confront our desire simply to appear great and instead to be and do great things.
My friends, it is in this downward descent that we discover our own true hope. Christ himself is great, not simply because he appears great- but because he does great things for you. Jesus is great, not simply because he is honored and praised, but he is great because he welcomes you and hears your cry. Jesus is there in those moments when your life is tottering on the edge. He is there when your supervisor closes the door of your office to explain to you the necessity of downsizing. He is there when the doctor informs you that the lump you have discovered while showering was cancerous. He is there when the county sheriff stops by your home to inform you that your son had been killed in a motorcycle accident. He is there offering his strength and power. And that is ultimately, your hope. For in those painful dark moments, when you are most alone, he is building you up to be great again and to do great things. And in those heavy moments when it seems no one else can help, he is welcoming you and all your burdens, to set you free. All this he does because he is truly great and good.
My friends, the world loves a hero. Whether young or old, we love to identify with those who are great. God is calling you to be that person. He is calling you to live a great and courageous and faithful life for the sake of all his beloved children. “For Whoever would be great among you, must be your servant.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.