Sermon: Proper 24 RCL B – “Greatness”

No podcast this week… Preacher done lost his voice!


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A graduate of Harvard with his MBA was enjoying a vacation with his family in a small coastal Mexican village. As he walked the piers, a fisherman docked.  He had caught several large yellowfin tuna.  The MBA complimented the man on the fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”

The MBA asked why he didn’t stay at it longer and catch even more so that he could sell some, but the fishermen responded that he had enough to meet the needs of his family. The MBA didn’t quite get this attitude, so asked the fisherman what he did with the rest of his day.

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my friends.  I have a full and busy life.”

The Harvard MBA was flummoxed. “Look,” he said. “I can help you.”

“How?”

“It starts with a bigger boat and more hours, but over time, you will have quite a business.” Over the next several minutes, the MBA outlines to the fisherman how he can go from a few fish a day, to a fleet of fishing trawlers all along the Mexican coast, shipping his catch all over the world. He concluded by saying, “We’re talking millions.”

“How long would this all take?”

“Fifteen… twenty years.”

“Then what?”

“Well there’s the best part, isn’t it. Then you’ll be able to relax. Sleep late, play with the children, take siestas, stroll in the village at night….”

It is clearly not true in all cultures, but in our western culture, there are many signs that point to a person’s success or—in the terms of our Gospel reading—greatness, which include items that we generally associate with it: the fancy car, big house, nice clothes. All signs that we have “made it” or at least signs that we are prepared to go into some serious debt trying to create the illusion that we are great. We work hard to be great, to increase our status in the eyes of others.

The marketing world, those who create all the slick ads, are keenly aware of desire for this elevated status, so they play to it and give us catch slogans like: “Just do it.” “Your only limit is you.” “Don’t call it a dream, call it a plan.” “Go hard or go home.” Well, I found my slogan a few weeks ago and it has been kicking me in the tail ever since: “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” That’s a bit too long to print on a T-shirt, but it is stuck in my head. It sounds like something Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar might say, and it they had, it would be pushing us along the same lines of success as the world would have us pursue. However, it was said by Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI), so I’m guessing “Screamin’” Joe Ratzinger—as we referred to him in seminary—had something else in mind.

It should be noted that those who know a great deal more about translating German tell us that Benedict never said this, maybe something close. But, given the simplicity with which he has led his life, it seems that this was his intention. “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” So if this isn’t a motivational ad to try and persuade you to go out and buy Rolex, what is he getting at?

Believe it or not, in our reading of the Gospel of Mark, we are nearing the end. Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus’ arrival will be what we consider the triumphant entry, what we celebrate on Palm Sunday. Jesus has already predicted his death three times, but James and John’s question to him in today’s reading demonstrates to us that neither they nor anyone else understands what is about to take place. They are thinking perhaps it will be a rough go for awhile as they battle against the Romans and kick them out, but afterwards: Glory. Greatness . . . and they want a good seat.

What they have failed to understand is that Jesus’ glory, his greatness, is not going to arrive with a military and political victory, but with a cross. What did Isaiah say?

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

And a few verses later:

Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong…

Why?

Because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.

The glory, the greatness of Christ arrived when he was lifted up on the cross. James and John wanted to be the ones who were at Jesus’ left and right when he was raised up in his glory, but Jesus said, “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And to whom was that “honor” of being on either side of Jesus prepared? “It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified [Jesus].  The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” Jesus’ greatness was not a marble throne or a shimmering crown or servants serving His every whim. His greatness was a splintered tree and a crown of sharp thorns and soldiers feeding Him vinegar and waiting for Him to die. This was greatness, and neither James nor John ever expected this. The cross, the place where he drew all of humankind to himself by taking on their sin, that they… that we, might have eternal life through him. The idea that we might receive worldly greatness because of this act is appalling to many. Teresa of Avila wrote:

“Why must we want so many blessings and delights and so much endless glory all at the cost of the good Jesus? Shall we not at least weep with the daughters of Jerusalem since we do not … help Him carry His cross? How can we enjoy along with pleasures and pastimes what he won for us at the cost of so much blood? It’s impossible! And do we think that … we can imitate Him in the contempt He suffered so that we might reign forever? Such a road leads nowhere; it’s the wrong, wrong road; we will never arrive by it.”

James and John wanted to sit on the left and right of Jesus, but they wanted to be sitting on finely cushioned chairs with servants and pages running their errands, yet the throne of Jesus was the cross, so to be at his left and right they had to join him there, crucified with him. Suffering with him there. Dying with him there, so that they might rise with him.

“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” There comes a point when we need to change our vocabulary. We can often be like James and John wanting to be with Jesus and wanting greatness. But “serving” and “greatness” are not the same thing. In order to be with Jesus here in this life, we must be willing to serve, to set aside ourselves, our desires. We must know that we must look at the suffering and hold the broken.

In the next life, in the eternal Kingdom, we will receive our reward, but in this life, we were not made for cushioned chairs and servants, we were made to be servants and slaves, each day, at the right and left hand of Jesus, crucified with him. Not seeking our own glory and greatness, but seeking his and his alone.

We succeed in this greatness by bringing all that we do under his Lordship. No matter how great or small the person, menial or great the task; we serve them, we perform it as though we were serving Jesus, as though it were for Him, because it is for him. St. Paul says to the Colossians, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.”

“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” You were made to serve the Lord.

Let us pray:
Dearest Lord,
teach us to be generous;
teach us to serve You as You deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward
save that of knowing we are doing Your Will.
Amen.

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