Karl Barth once said that when writing sermons, the preacher should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Doing that is a little dicey with today’s text. When you read Jesus’ statement that “anyone who aspires to greatness must serve the rest,” to which items in the newspaper are you drawn? Does any specific cultural phenomenon come to mind?
Anybody want my job right now? 🙂
The title of today’s sermon is—If any of you had preached today, I’m sure you would have come up with the same title…almost certain of it. Here goes. The title of today’s sermon is: “Making the Church Great Again.” Now you know why the title isn’t in the bulletin. J
We do hear a lot about greatness these days. Regardless of how we might feel about those references, I want to invite us to engage our imaginations for a minute, to peel away any current associations we have with the notion of greatness–and simply be here in this moment, in this place, with these people and our desire as a community to follow Jesus.
As followers of Jesus seeking to act the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name, what can we learn from today’s Gospel story about greatness? How do we make the church great?
After the things that happen in today’s Scripture, James and John, “Sons of Thunder,” might have some ideas. They—along with the other ten disciples—had been following Jesus around for a while, taking in all the teaching, preaching, and healing he’d been doing.
Then one day, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. While they’re up there, in a flash of light, two figures join Jesus–Moses and Elijah. It’s known as the Transfiguration. The experience is so BIG and breathtaking, Peter proposes putting up three shelters, one each for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. At that point, a cloud covers them and in the midst of the cloud God repeats what God said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my child, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Then—Poof!—It’s just the 4 of them again, no Moses, no Elijah, no bright light, no cloud. As they head back down the mountain, Jesus tells the three disciples not to speak of the experience until after he’s risen from the dead.
So…this was a big deal, mysterious, fantastic. Special. For all they didn’t understand about it, it makes sense that James, John, and Peter would have felt special. Jesus asked them–not the other 9–to accompany him for this intense, holy experience. They must have been special, right? Why else would Jesus have asked them to go up the mountain with him?
Following Jesus’ admonition to keep quiet, the 3 did….but they must have kept thinking about it. How could they not? Something like that happens, it’s going to stay in the forefront of your thinking…no matter what the Son of God might be doing or teaching.
By the time we get to today’s passage, James and John can’t hold it in any longer. They ask Jesus to sit at his right hand and his left hand in glory. On the face of it, it seems an odd request…but if they’d been thinking about their mountaintop experience for two whole chapters… To what other conclusion could they have come? They were special. Jesus wanted them with him for that significant event. If anyone could have been considered great, it must have been them, right? And where do the great sit? They sit right next to the greatest.
But Jesus doesn’t get their logic. He doesn’t say, “Yes, my special sons. Come right on up. You know you’re my favorites, right?” Instead, Jesus asks them about…suffering: “Can you endure what I’m about to endure?” They say, “Oh, yeah, sure, no prob! We can do that! Now, about those seats…” That’s when Jesus says, “No can do. That’s above my pay grade.”
That’s the point at which the rest of the disciples start complaining about James and John. “Who do they think they are, anyway?” You get the sense their angst is less indignation over a power grab and more regret that they didn’t think of it first.
Jesus answers all of them with his reflections on true greatness. How does one aspire to greatness in Jesus’ eyes? By serving others. The one who wants to be the greatest of all will be the servant of all.
The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us what James and John thought about Jesus’ response. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say they probably weren’t overjoyed with it.
It’s easy to do, isn’t it? To presume a position of power, to assume our own importance, to feel slighted if we aren’t honored in ways we think we should be. It’s so easy to focus on ourselves and miss everything else that’s happening in the world.
So, what did James and John miss while they were focusing on their own status? They missed the first thing Jesus did as they were coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration — Jesus healing an ill child. They missed it a few verses later when he pulled a child into their midst and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.” We know they missed that because when, just a couple verses later, people bring children to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples try to send the children away. Jesus must have been like, “Did you not hear what I just said about welcoming children?”
James, John, and the other disciples also missed the conversation Jesus had with the rich man, a man who must have been considered great by the world’s standards. They missed Jesus’ point when he told the man to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.
When I say the disciples missed all these things, I’m not saying they weren’t present for those events. What I am suggesting is that focusing on their own status distracted them from seeing what was going on right in front of them. They had a front row seat to everything Jesus was teaching about greatness in God’s kindom…and they were missing it.
And what was Jesus’ lesson about greatness? What will it take to make the church great? Pretty much the opposite of what the world deems as great. Greatness in God’s realm has to do with suffering and service and sacrifice. The truly great are those who serve.
By the early 1980s, Catholic priest Henri Nouwen had achieved a fair amount of status. A professor at Harvard University, he’d written several books and was a highly sought-after speaker. But Henri also was exhausted. Something about the life he was living was not giving him life. Something was off.
About that time, he was invited to serve as chaplain at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario. L’Arche is a series of intentional communities established by Jean Vanier in the 1960s. In these communities, people with significant physical and developmental disabilities live alongside those who care for them.
When he arrived at L’Arche, Henri was assigned to accompany a young man named Adam. Adam was nonverbal, and had epilepsy and Cerebral Palsy. Part of accompanying Adam for Henri, meant waking Adam up at 7:00 a.m. and spending two hours bathing him and dressing him and getting him ready for the day.
When a friend from his former life came to see Henri, he was horrified. How could someone as important as Henri Nouwen spend all his time working with one person, a person with so many profound needs? Wouldn’t Henri’s time be better spent writing and lecturing?
Henri writes: “I didn’t answer my friend’s questions. I didn’t argue or discuss his ‘issues.’ I felt deeply that I had nothing to say that would change my friend’s mind. My daily two hours with Adam were transforming me. In being present to him, I was hearing an inner voice of love beyond all the activities of care. Those two hours were pure gift, a time of contemplation, during which we, together, were touching something of God. With Adam I knew a sacred presence and I ‘saw’ the face of God…My relationship with Adam was giving me new eyes to see and new ears to hear. I was being changed much more than I ever anticipated.” (53-54)
Adam taught Henri that Henri’s greatness lay not in achieving, but in being. Henri writes, “While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that ‘doing things together is more important than doing things alone.’ Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.”
“It took me a long time,” Henri writes, “to see this complete reversal of values, but once I experienced it, it was as if I was walking into completely new spiritual territory…The great paradoxes of the Gospel—that the last will be first, that those who lose their lives will gain them, that the poor are blessed, and that the gentle will inherit the kindom—all became incarnate for me in Adam.” (Adam: God’s Beloved, 44-65)
How do we make the church great? We do it by serving. We do it by acting the least of these into wellbeing. We do it by serving breakfast in Pritchard Park or doing Laundry Love next Sunday. We do it by purchasing Christmas gifts for children through Children First. We make the church great when we pay attention to what’s going on around us. We make the church great when we follow Jesus in service and suffering and sacrifice. We make the church great when we follow the path of love.
What might happen if we follow this way always? What say we try? Sounds like a great idea, don’t you think?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2018
I think that his experiences at L’Arche resonate much more with us because of Nouwen’s fame. We readers, like Henri’s friend, wonder at his choice to make his circle of influence so much smaller than it had been. It’s the magnitude of the change in his life that drives home powerfully the point that service is the ultimate endgame, the highest height. Thanks be to God for Henri Nouwen and his ability to write so poignantly and powerfully.