Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The notion of greatness can be pretty intimidating. Few of us would ever describing ourselves as great. Especially, if you are shy and stoic Scandinavian. Even the lovable and scruffy comic character, the Viking Hagar the Horrible had problems with greatness. In one episode, Hagar tells his son Hamlet, “If people ask, tell them you’re a Viking,” and the son says adding, “and a Norwegian?” Hagar replies “No, you don’t have to tell them that, it might sound like ‘bragging’.” Dreaming and speaking of greatness, however, shouldn’t be something to be embarrassed about, nor is it even something to shy away from. As Jesus would teach his disciples, it all depends on whether you are pursuing the right form of greatness.
In this morning’s gospel, the disciples are overheard debating and boasting who was greatest. Some might argue that the disciples had an exaggerated sense of self-worth, others might suggest that they though too little about others. Surprisingly, Jesus did not walk away from his disciples, nor did he leave them to their own thoughts.
Nowhere does Jesus criticize a person for pursuing true greatness, nor does he condemn the quest for significance. 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 also true, you may need to redirect your focus. And that is what he needed to share with his own disciples.
So my friends, if you would like to be great 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.”
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. 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 altar ego. Pastoral greatness is measured by how many people attend services, or followers on twitter, how many books you have written, 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? It is what the world calls today servant leadership.
True greatness is about serving and it defines the way we act in relationship to others. True servant leadership, as Jesus models it for us, is not about jockeying for position, nor is it politicking for power. Instead, it is about positioning yourself for the opportunity to serve. Servant leaders following in Jesus’ footsteps, willing avoid the center stage and serve in ways that many times go unnoticed.
For the truly great, no task is too menial or insignificant. But there is something bigger than behavior that distinguishes a servant leader. It is an attitude of how to make others become successful in their work. He or she knows if those around them are successful then there is a good chance they too will experience success. They are wise to want what is best for others.
Nor do truly great servant leaders need to get caught up with getting all the credit. This does not bode well for the needy soul craving attention. The servant leader has put to death the need for self-recognition. The attention and credit can easily flow to others. That is the place where it belongs in lifting up others. You work to be last so that others can be first. So if you want to be great in the eyes of the world, “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 children” isn’t simply about the proper care of your children, of your sons and daughters. Jesus was illustrating that the disciples must take responsibility for the weak, the unimportant and disenfranchised – including the nameless children around the world.
Now 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 op-ed pieces 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 and 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. Yes, silently they know whether you walk the walk or whether it is just talking the talk. Children, especially your own, have an amazing ability to make you feel like the greatest parent in the world, or frustratingly, the least competent.
In his work Twelfth Night, playwright, William Shakespeare tells us not to fear greatness: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” It is an interesting thought. One doesn’t accidentally fall into greatness. Greatness is purposeful. If you become great, it’s because you put in hours and hours of hard work for a purpose. One sacrifices their own desires for what needs to be done. One never achieves greatness by doing less than their very best. To have greatness thrust upon you doesn’t mean you accidentally became great; it means that you were put into a situation that required something from you, some quality that you may not have known that you possess. You may not have ever intentionally decided to become great- you simply decided not to give in to lesser purposes and goals.
My friends, do not be afraid of greatness. If you were born to greatness. Use the gifts wisely that God has given and do not squander them. If you have worked hard and studied hard, and achieved greatness, use those gifts in the service of others. Do not forget why you began that journey. And If greatness is thrust upon you, don’t panic. Greatness can be daunting. But to dare to be great means that you must make a bold decision in spite of fear. So dare. Believe in yourself, and believe in God who has called you this undertaking. He knows you and your potential better that you do. For he created you. Then look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of your faith. Study his ways and example. And when your eye is squarely focused on him, accept the challenge, take a breath and take a step forward. And be great as God has called you to be great. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.