The Path to True Greatness

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October 21, 2018. Pastor Stephanie talks about her recent trip to Georgia, and reminds us that the path to true greatness is not having the places of honor, but rather living lives of service in gratitude to God. And that we are also invited to take that path.


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I’m really, really happy to be back with you this morning after a rather busy week of travel. It was certainly eventful, and I’d love to tell you more about it as time goes on. In fact, I could pretty much guarantee you’ll be hearing some illustrations and examples of some of the experiences that we had, over time.


I don’t expect you to know all the details of the arrangements that were made when I accepted your council’s invitation to serve as your resident interim pastor, but there were already several items on my calendar for my previous church calling. And the last one was checked off this week. You provided me the time off to do this, but the finances were paid by Christ’s Church in St. Peter’s for Phil and me to use our remaining continuing education monies from our time at that church. You see, several months ago we became aware of a retreat that was only going to be held this past week. And so we applied those monies toward that, as we had planned to do a deep dive into some civil rights sites and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Along with 28 others, we participated in a retreat process that took place from Sunday through Wednesday. It was a very, very moving experience.


So naturally, we were exposed to many of the writings and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The very last sermon he delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on February 4th, 1968 — two months before he was killed in Memphis, I noticed — was on the same gospel passage we have today. And the message as he entitled it was “The Drum Major Instinct.” In it, he described the desire that each of us has to be significant, which often means we want to stand out. We want to be in front. We want to be noticed and recognized for our achievements. You know, like the drum major of your high school band or college marching band. Apologies to any one of you who might have been a drum major or majorette, because I’m not putting them down. Just saying that that is a role in which a person stands out. That person has a responsible position and gets noticed by all. But we all have a natural instinct to want to be a standout. What child does not have a big dream of being someone special? A tremendously talented singer perhaps, or a world-class athlete, or maybe a leader throughout the country or world who is going to make peace and harmony for people. Even as we grow older, we realize that we probably aren’t going to be quite as outstanding as our youthful ambitions would have told us. But we still want to see ourselves as being great at something or another.


That is the drum major instinct. And that is how Dr. Martin Luther King depicted this very gospel reading we have before us today. Jesus’ disciples James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had some pretty strong drum major instincts too. At least one brother didn’t try in this place to outdo the other. That undoubtedly, in my experience, probably showed up somewhere else in their lives. After all, I have four siblings myself. I helped to raise three sons and usually there’s some jockeying for position among siblings as to which one will be a little bit ahead of another. Perhaps you don’t know anything about that, but many of us do. But here, James and John approached Jesus for a favor. They each want to be in positions of honor next to Jesus — one on each side, equal really — but each side of Jesus when he is glorified.


Now, the desire to be great isn’t really bad in and of itself. We just don’t always know what it means to be great until we spend some time, a lot of it in fact, in the school of Jesus’ teaching. Notice how Jesus does not chastise them for their request. Instead, he merely tells them that they don’t know what they’re asking for. They think, since they put in all this time of walking down the dusty roads and interacting with people with all kinds of needs, that they’re now ready for positions of authority. But Jesus redirects the entire conversation. “No,” he tells them, and the rest of the disciples who are now indignant that they’ve heard what James and John have requested. Perhaps they wish they had asked first so they might be considered for these places of honor. But Jesus is really saying let’s have a little lesson here on what it means to be great. I’ll quote again from the gospel. “You know that among the Gentiles, those whom they recognized as their rulers Lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants. But it is not so among you. But whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”


If this sounds like a radical reorientation, imagine what it sounded like to James and John and the other disciples. They have already identified Jesus as the Messiah. They know he has power and authority like no one they have ever experienced. This talk of being a servant makes absolutely no sense to them. Think about it. It’s about as counterintuitive as we experience when we’ve been playing basketball, if you will, and we know we’re doing great because we’re racking up lots of points with our superior shots that we are making. And then suddenly we find out that this game of life that we’re supposed to be playing is more like another game. It’s more like golf, where the object is to get the lowest score possible. Or, it’s probably more like playing card games with people who decide to switch games halfway through the evening, from one where you needed to accumulate points to win, to another game where you’d better try ways to give away your high value cards, because now you’re going for the lowest score. It is a little disconcerting at first. You can imagine the disciples’ thoughts. “What, Jesus? How can this be greatest? Being the lowest, the servant, the slave? That’s not winning.” And you don’t have any leverage in order to do something really great from bottom up.


Last week’s gospel reading included a scene with Jesus looking with sadness at the rich young ruler who thought he was playing the game well, according to God’s values. (And he was, as far as keeping the commandments went.) He was doing well in terms of society’s values too, accumulating wealth and possessions and security for himself. But when Jesus told him that the object was to offload all of that stuff so he could gain what was really important, he just could not adjust to that way of thinking. At least at that point in his life, we are told he walked away.


Well, we have heard more than we can bear these past few years about Making America Great Again. I have heard the laments of so many of you as you reflect on that rhetoric and the ramifications of it, and I share those with you. That phrase and ideology is anything but great for the least, the oppressed, the less abled, the poor, the refugee. Whatever measures have been promoted that this brand of so-called greatness values has actually degraded an experience of seeking the common good, and has made things worse for most people. Instead it’s pomposity and glee at taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Well, there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus was well acquainted with such ruthlessness and lack of concern for the poor, the orphans, the widows, the marginalized, and the social outcast. “It is not to be so among you,” he says. “These are the very ones to whom we will give ourselves in service.”


“Sorry, James and John,” we can imagine him saying. “I don’t need people to sit in the honored seats, but I do need people to come and to bend down low enough to see what I see, to hear the cries that I hear, to touch the wounds that I notice, to listen to the lonely to whom I want to be near. It’s hard to become aware of these things from high and lofty positions, but you will see what I will show you. You will touch and heal and bless people along with me.” No one really wants to hear that the path to true greatness goes right to the heart of going the opposite direction of building oneself up as great. It’s about seeing where one can lift one another in actuality. It is about focusing so strongly on service to others that caring for needs beyond ourselves becomes more important to us.


I said last week was an eventful one for us. Last Sunday at this time, we were sitting in the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia listening to a 93-year-old man teaching Sunday School, as he does about twice a month. This man is a person who has negotiated peace in the Middle East (at least partial), who has worked to enable people to have access to fair elections in various countries, who has worked tirelessly to eradicate Guinea worms to relieve suffering for thousands and thousands of people, who has helped to build only God knows how many Habitat for Humanity homes over the years, and oh yes, he did get to live in the White House and serve as the leader of the free world from 1977 to 1981. Former President Jimmy Carter now lives in the same home that he and Rosalynn built in Plains in the 1970s. Somewhere along the way, in the school of Jesus’ teaching, Jimmy and Rosalynn have discovered that the path to true greatness is not having the places of honor, but rather living lives of service in gratitude to God.


We are also invited to take that path. I see many of you traveling that path so very well. But we all need reminders that, contrary to the messages our culture sends us, it is the only path that leads to greatness in God’s eyes. Thanks be to God for these reminders. And let us sing a song that will also remind us about the importance of serving one another.


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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, MAGA, National Lynching Memorial