Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Everybody loves a hero. Whether young or old, we love to identify with a great winner. It may be a sports team, a political party, and for some, even a lively and growing church. And at no time is this attribute more treasured than when you are the hero- especially with your own children.
It was a typical scene on the playground. The young boys were bragging about whose father was the best. The quarrel switched 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 daddy knows God.” The boys were duly impressed. Unfortunately, my own personal story would be more reminiscent of the second-grade father whose daughter wrote in a school essay that her father was her 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, she replied, “Because, I couldn’t spell Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Yes, the world loves heroes and we love to be those heroes.
In this morning’s gospel, we read of Jesus’ own disciples debating and boasting who was greatest. It was, however, an embarrassing scene. He had just warned them of his own impending suffering and death, and they were caught discussing who should take over when he is gone. And yet, Jesus did not walk away from them when he heard that they were arguing about greatness. Nor did he leave them to their own thoughts. Instead, Jesus sought to redirect their course.
You see, nowhere does Jesus criticize a person for pursuing greatness or importance. Jesus doesn’t condemn the quest to be a hero. Indeed, it is my belief that God has created you to be great and to do important things—and he desires that you would come to the end of your life satisfied that your time and energy were well spent and well invested. But it is true, my friends, you may need to redirect your focus.
If you would like to be a hero in the innocent eyes of your loved ones, and great 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 appearance. We are convinced that greatness is seen in the country clubs and golf courses 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 seen as great.
I’ll admit it is hard to imagine a desiring to be last. Our world view and perspective has been defined by a culture of success. As Daddy Warbucks said to Little Orphan Annie, “It doesn’t matter who you step on ‘on your way up,’ as long as you’re not planning on coming back down again.” Yes, it is such a natural pattern. Even pastors can fall into these bad habits. It’s called – the altar ego. Pastoral greatness is suddenly measured by how many people attend services, or how many books you have written, the number 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 the church and just pastors who have been called to live a courageous and heroic life- it is an invitation to you as well, for you and your home. Unfortunately, some of us fail miserably. The research of Dr. Urie Brofenbrenner showed the dichotomy of how much time fathers think they spend with their children and how much they actually share. 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 average dad-child time was thirty-seven seconds a day. Maybe that is why a cartoonist drew the characterization 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 with me or trade me!”
My friends, Jesus teaches that true greatness is not merely wanting to be seen as 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 a hero and be greatest in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of your own children, “Prepare to be last. If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
Let us now turn again to Jesus’ 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 children.” To God, children are always a major priority. 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, the elderly, the needy, the disenfranchised, the sick and imprisoned.
If the Christian family of faith would set its world-view and perspective, if the Christian Church would follow its Savior, we could conquer poverty, erase malnutrition, eliminate illiteracy, end war and bridge, ethnic, racial and religious gulfs that divide people. Truly, heroic things. But something prevents us from doing that which could do. Time and again we fall short of being heroes.
Why is “Welcoming the Children” true greatness? Simply said, there is no political payback in serving children: they 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 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. But it is in this serving that we experience something wonderful…we experience and encounter the presence of God. As Jesus taught his disciples, “For whoever welcomes one of these, welcome me.”
Everybody loves a hero. So what do you do when you discover that you are pursuing the wrong goals, and that your perspective is misguided, when like the disciples, you realize that you are aspiring for false greatness? My friends, you can change. True heroes, you see, do not stay the course when they are wrong. They are open and willing to be redirected.
In the 1998 New York City Marathon, runner German Silva made a big mistake. One half mile from the finish line he took a wrong turn. When he heard yells from the crowd and saw the looks on their faces, he realized what he had done. He immediately turned around, but the error cost him a crucial fifteen seconds. His only hope for winning now was to sprint to make up for lost distance. Did he have the energy? Could he do it? He later said, “Too much work had gone into this race. I had to fight it out.” He was able to make up the lost distance and finish first in his division, but only because he refused to allow a wrong turn to knock him out of his quest for the prize.
We all make “wrong turns” in life. Sometimes we make them by mistake, sometimes not. A wrong turn might be a bad career decision, a relationship that we thought would bless us but ended badly, or a disastrous financial investment. The important question is not will I still be perceived as great? Or will I still have my portfolio intact, my career, and my family? But rather the question you must ask is, what will I do when I discover my mistake? You could stubbornly continue your direction. You could stop and give up. Or you could, with God’s grace and courage, turn around and move in the right direction. But prepared, in the eyes of the world, the direction may be to be last in a downward, ascent. That is the possibility God offers.
Our Lord Jesus did not walk away from his disciples when he heard that they were arguing about greatness. Nor did he leave them to their own thoughts. But Jesus immediately sat them down and began to teach them again. He sought to redirect their course. Through the reading of Holy Scripture, through the sharing of prayer and in celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we believe that the Church as well, is redirecting our lives and our wills. You see, Jesus longs for you to be a hero.
Everybody loves a hero. Whether young or old, we love to identify with a winner. God is calling you to be that hero. He is calling you to live a great and courageous and faithful life for the sake of all his beloved children, and all his creation. The eyes of the world and the eyes of your own children are watching. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.