The greatest. Who is the greatest?
It’s a fascinating question.
Which sporting event had the greatest viewing audience ever?
The 2006 FIFA World Cup,
which collectively had 30 billion viewers
between June 9th and July 9th of that year.
Who won the greatest number of Olympic medals? 22 medals.
That record is held by swimmer Michael Phelps
who edged out the 1950s Russian Gymnast Larisa Latynina
with his 18 golds, 2 silvers, and two bronze medals,
finishing his carrier back in 2012.
Who do Americans say was the greatest boxer of all time?
Mohammed Ali. Better known as “The Greatest,” I might add
Who do Americans say was the greatest scientist of the 20th century?
Which singer sold the greatest number of platinum albums?
Elvis Pressley, 52.
Who do Americans say was the greatest American president?
Abraham Lincoln in today’s polls.
What was the greatest baseball game ever played.
The 2014 Royals vs A’s
American League Wild-Card game, no doubt about it.
The list of “greats” and “greatests” goes on and on.
Now: It is one thing to BE the greatest Olympian,
to BE the greatest boxer,
to BE the greatest scientist,
to BE the greatest president.
It is quite another thing to have a need to be great,
to have a need to be number one,
have a need to be a big shot, a need to be better than others.
Ambition is one thing: the desire to do the best you can at your work
to achieve a goal, perhaps THE goal.
But that’s different.
There’s yearning, striving, pushing toward a goal,
and then there is NEEDING to be the greatest.
We all kind of stop at the incredulity of the one who needs
to be THE greatest.
As we’ve been walking through the Gospel of Mark,
we keep hearing this refrain come up again and again:
the greatest disciple.
Of all of them: which one is THE greatest?
Some disciples needed to be number one,
the best of the disciples, better than other disciples.
Some disciples had a NEED be top dog,
religious big shots, da leaders of da pack.
It has been a theme throughout
this section that maybe we’ve been able to ignore,
but here it is again.
It amazes me that some followers of Jesus spent so much time with him,
saw his miracles,
walked along the way,
they walked with Jesus, but still didn’t “get it.”
Today’s text centers around James and John,
two of Jesus’ first disciples,
two brothers, two fishermen,
who didn’t “get it” for quite a while.
Once, just a few chapters earlier,
Jesus invited Peter, James and John to go up on a mountain.
While on that mountain,
the three disciples experienced the transfiguration of Jesus
where Jesus was transformed into the Christ of glory.
Jesus’ face shown like the sun.
Moses and Elijah were there.
It must have been an incredible thing for those disciples.
Peter, James and John were on top of the world—
It was greatest of religious experiences.
Meanwhile, the other nine disciples remained…down there
in the valley
where there was a mentally sick boy
who kept throwing himself into the fire.
The nine others tried to heal the sick kid, but they couldn’t.
Jesus then came down and healed the boy
and upbraided those nine disciples
for their lack of faith and healing power.
Mark’s version of the Transfiguration.
And only a few verses later,
the disciples were walking home to Capernaum.
It was a long walk and there was plenty of time to talk.
And while they were walking along,
the twelve disciples got into an argument
about which disciples were the greatest.
Yes, the disciples were in a heated argument about who was the greatest.
The three, up on the mountain with Jesus.
The nine, down below, struggling to make sense of this poor sick kid.
And Jesus hears the disciples arguing with one another
and Jesus asks them, “What are you guys talking about?”
And there was some initial embarrassment
and no one would look Jesus in the eye or say anything.
They were silent. Why were they silent?
Because they were arguing with each other
about who was the greatest disciple.
I suspect that they were ashamed of their conversation.
Then Jesus said, famously
“If anyone would be first, if anyone would be great,
he must be last of all and servant of all.”
And, you may remember, Jesus took a child up into his arms and said,
“Unless you turn around from your self centered ways
and glory seeking ways
and become like little children,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever humbles himself like this little child is greatest
in the realm of heaven.”
Did the disciples “get it?”
No, I think not.
Just a bit later, we come to the story for today.
Jesus has been teaching about the Realm of God.
He’s been walking, walking, walking toward Jerusalem.
Three different times, he tells them that
he’s walking into some sort of trap, that he will have to die.
And they’re on the way,
and James and John, these two brothers,
approach Jesus again and said,
“Jesus, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Now, I’ve been tossing that sentence around all week.
“Jesus, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
How is that not a selfish and self centered statement?
Jesus, “we want you to do what for us whatever we ask of you?”
But, truth be told,
that’s not all that far off from what I ask of Jesus sometimes.
Jesus, if only I can pass this test
Jesus, if only I can avoid this traffic light
Jesus, if only I can have this deal go through
this raise I need
this illness be lifted
Jesus, do this.
And I’ll never be like that old me again.
So I’m maybe not so harsh on James and John as I might otherwise be.
I get where they’re coming from, in a way
because sometimes I want to make Jesus
into my personal Jesus too. All the time.
But if there’s anything to take from a reading through a gospel,
like the Gospel of Mark
it is that Jesus isn’t ours to shape and mold
into what we want him to be.
This Jesus, this Jesus turns
our presumptions and our needs on their heads
so that we can hear God’s voice more clearly
and maybe, just maybe
get to what we truly need.
So James and John ask Jesus this impossible question,
and Jesus, cutting to the chase, asks: What do you want of me.
And they answer:
“Grant us to sit at your right hand and at your left
when you come again in glory.”
The truth finally came out. James and John, wanted glory.
They wanted power, status, and authority.
They wanted validation.
They wanted all they sacrificed for to come true, to be worth it.
But more than that, they wanted prideful positions
in this new kingdom of God.
They were asking to be Jesus’s lieutenants.
Time and time again, Jesus tells the disciples to stop this sort of thing,
to quit jockeying for position, to cut it out,
to get past the expectation that this work
will lead to riches and rewards and valor.
But they don’t get it.
Jesus said, “Do you know what you are asking?
Are you able to drink from the same cup,
be baptized as I am going to be baptized?”
“Yep,” they replied. “You betcha. Bring it, Jesus.
Lets go back up on that mountain.”
Not understanding that Jesus
was talking about an entirely different sort of life,
that he was talking about what was coming ahead in Jerusalem.
And a sort of hub-hub ensues,
the other ten becoming angry with James and John,
and Jesus stressing, yet again:
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.
Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many.”
They still didn’t get it.
Which goes to prove that you can be a follower of Jesus Christ
and still not “get it.”
Maybe that’s the point:
Eventually, James and John would get it.
They would finally learn the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach them.
The same is true of us.
We too can be followers of Jesus.
Walk with Jesus.
Talk with Jesus.
Hang out with Jesus’ friends
and still not “get it” about being a servant of others.
We can use the right buzz words and go to church
and attend confirmation,
but still not get that basic lesson of life
that Jesus was trying to teach James and John,
and through them: all of us.
The greatest person in God’s sight is a person
who has a heart of humble service towards God and others.
What does it really mean to sit down with Jesus?
James and John, they asked to be seated at Jesus’ left and right,
thinking they meant victorious seats in the regal court of God.
Jesus meant something else entirely.
I don’t think its such a bad thing to want to sit with Jesus,
If we understand correctly that that means,
but how do we do it?
Did you notice, that’s the same question we asked last week,
with the rich young ruler,
who also asked a question similar to this:
how do I gain eternal life?
Maybe this is a deeper question for us, that we can attend to.
What does it really mean to sit down with Jesus?
The good thing is that there are all sorts of ways
to sit with Jesus.
I was reading this week some writing from a friend of mine,
who was talking about a member of his congregation named Bill:
I went down to the hospital the other day and saw Bill Sanders.[i]
Bill Sanders is fighting pancreatic cancer and is losing the battle
and is going home soon to die
under the care of his loving wife and Hospice.
You may not know it,
but Bill was the owner of the Orlando Creek Restaurant for years
and his wife Mary made those
luscious, homemade, red raspberry devonshire pies.
After he had been living with pancreatic cancer and its treatments,
Bill still went down to Mississippi with a mission team
from our congregation to work on devastated homes
that were wrecked by the hurricane Rita and Katrina.
As it turned out, Bill ended up running a kitchen
and feeding 200 –300 volunteer workers per day.
People in our parish remember Bill with his outstretched hands
up in triumph, with a smile lighting up his whole face,
as he fed that mass of volunteers another meal.
Nobody knew that Bill was sick.
Nobody knew that Bill was fighting cancer.
Bill not only went down to Mississippi to rebuild houses only one time;
he went down a second time.
To be with his adult son as they worked on this project together.
Bill, in the eyes of our team who was with him down in Mississippi,
was an inspiration, a source of encouragement,
a mountain of motivation that energized
and touched all who saw Bill in action.
Bill had and still has the heart and hands of a servant.
A servant always has loving heart and working hands. (My friend wrote)
Both the heart and the hands.
Not just the heart of a servant who sees the needs of others.
Not just a heart who feels the pain of those
who lost their homes to hurricanes.
Not just a heart who empathizes
with those who have lost their jobs, income and insurance.
Servants always have good, loving and generous hearts,
but they also have hands to do the dirty work.
Hands that make all the meals.
Hands that clean up the tables.
Hands that do the dishes.
Hands that actually help people in their needs.
Heart and hands.
In the gospel text for today,
Jesus said that whoever is great among you, MUST be a servant.
And I was thinking about the saints in my life,
and I know these people, these servants,
those who respond to Jesus’ call not to be served, but to serve.
And not just people who undergo herculean efforts
to go on mission trips while undergoing chemotherapy,
that’s not the point at all.
But also someone who called you, when you were down
and asked you how your day was
Or someone who shoveled out your driveway
when you were dead tired from staying up all night
with your sick kid
Or that voice that reminds you
that you don’t have to do it all
because you’re not Jesus,
you’re just trying to live like him
and love like him
because he loved you first.
Servants. People rooted in hospitality, generosity, doing for others.
I imagine if you look around this very room
you know servants like that, you see servants like that
many aspire to be servants like that.
Or if you’re visiting with us,
I imagine you know people like that in your own life,
people who simply gave to you, simply shared with you,
simply loved you.
What does it mean to sit with Jesus?
To drink the cup he drinks and share in his baptism?
I think it looks something like that.
May we, those who seek to walk in the way of Jesus
may we celebrate the opportunity to give ourselves away
that others can experience that selfless love of God.
What an awesome thing it would be, to sit like that with Jesus.
[i] Some names and specifics have been changed in this story.
Roots of this sermon credited to the Rev. Mark Ramsey, original citation lost.