Sunday, October 18, 2015

True Greatness

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 18, 2015

Year B, Proper 24: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

True Greatness
            One of the fun parts of teaching at St. Peter’s Prep for a couple of weeks at the start of the school year was that I got to be around for the visit of Pope Francis to the United States.
            To say that much of the administration, faculty, and at least some of the students of this Jesuit school, were excited about the visit of the first Jesuit pope would be an understatement.
            People had their picture taken with a life-size Pope Francis cut-out that was set up in the school lobby.
            The school put up banners on the buildings welcoming the pope, knowing that he’d never see them.
            Students made a video that was shown to the whole school. There was an essay contest. The entire school watched the pope’s address to the United Nations. And members of the community traveled to Manhattan and Philadelphia just to get a glimpse of the pope.
            It was truly Pope-mania!
            It was interesting to be there and to some extent get caught up in the excitement but also be a little removed from it – able to study it and him, a little.
            And what strikes me about Pope Francis is that he has a remarkable ability to teach through example.           
            Right from the start of his pontificate, he’s rejected the trappings of his office. Right after his election, he insisted on riding back to the hotel on the bus with other cardinals, insisted on paying his own hotel bill, insisted on carrying his own bag, and insisted living not in a palace but in two rooms.
            He’s had a homeless shelter opened right there in the Vatican.
            He’s a master at the symbolic gesture. On Maundy Thursday instead of washing the feet of twelve priests as was the custom, he’s gone to prison, washing the feet of inmates, including women and Muslims.
            And, during his U.S. visit, he preached some of the best sermons I’ve ever seen by rejecting the usual limousine or a Suburban SUV and instead being driven around in a little, fuel-efficient, Fiat.
            He preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever seen when after he addressed Congress he declined to have lunch with congressmen and senators and instead dined with some of the many homeless people in our nation’s capital city.
            There’s a danger of idolizing the Pope – he’s the first to admit that he’s a sinner like all of us – but, really, what he does so effectively and brilliantly through his example is remind the Church, remind all of us, of one Jesus’ central teachings:
            True greatness comes from serving others.
            And, it’s a lesson that we need to learn over and over.
            And, actually, it was a lesson that Jesus’ first disciples seemed to have needed to learn over and over.             
            You may remember a couple of weeks ago we heard the story of Jesus predicting what was going to happen to happen to him – what’s called a Passion Prediction.
            Jesus and he friends are walking along the road when he tells the disciples that he will be arrested and killed and rise again on the third day.
            We’re told the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about – that seems a little too convenient to me – and so they ignore the Lord and instead argue among themselves about which disciple is greatest.
            Later, when Jesus asks them what they were talking about on the way, they wisely remain silent.
            You’d think the disciples would have learned their lesson, but no.
            Today, we’re told that the sons of Zebedee, the brothers James and John, say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
            They’re getting off to a pretty bad start but Jesus plays along and says, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
            And then these brother disciples, part of Jesus’ inner circle, ask a question that shows that they still don’t get it.
            “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
            Earlier the disciples had argued with each other who was the greatest here and now. This time, James and John set their sights higher angling for the top spots in the next life or when Jesus returns in glory.
            You’d think having traveled around with Jesus, having heard him teach, having heard him criticize the religious authorities for being concerned with prestige and image, you’d think that the disciples would have understood that this was not a good question.
            Yet, James and John, and all of the disciples lived in a society that was very concerned with status – with the pecking order, with one’s position in the community.
            So, since James and John now belonged to a new community - the Jesus community – naturally enough, they wanted to know where they stood and where they would stand.
            The other disciples are ticked off by James and John’s question – probably because they wanted the top spots themselves – so this provides Jesus with the opportunity, yet again, to teach about true greatness for those who follow Jesus.
            Jesus says, “...whoever wishes to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
            And then Jesus offers himself as an example of this servant greatness. He says,  “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
            True greatness comes from serving others.
            It’s a lesson that the disciples don’t really begin to understand until Jesus’ Passion predictions come true.
            True greatness comes from serving others.
            It’s a lesson that the disciples don’t really begin to understand until Jesus, the Son of God, allows himself to be arrested, beaten and killed – allows this to happen so we can see what love and true greatness look like – allows this to happen to bring God and us back together again.
            True greatness comes from serving others.
            It’s a lesson that we seem to need to learn over and over again, too.
            It’s a lesson we seem to need to learn over and over again because the world offers a very different vision of greatness – a fake greatness that’s marked by piling up as much wealth, as much stuff, as possible – a fake greatness that looks at the poor and calls them losers rather than God’s beloved.
            Just like the first disciples we live in a society that’s very concerned with status, with the pecking order, with our position in the community.
            Fortunately, over and over, God sends us reminders that true greatness comes from serving others.
            There’s Pope Francis, shunning the trappings of his position, zipping around in his little car, breaking bread with the homeless.
            And, there are the truly great people here at St. Paul’s who preach some of the best sermons I ever get to see by always remembering to bring food for the poor, by sitting with people in coffee hour you might rather not sit with, by staying to clean the dishes, by calling those who are suffering, sometimes calling every day.
            You truly great people who preach some of the best sermons I ever get to see by working so hard not for yourselves but for your children and grandchildren, by denying yourselves pleasure and comfort so that you can give so much to your families, your communities, and yes, your church.
            And, most of all, there’s Jesus who stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, showing us all that true greatness comes from serving others.
            It’s a lesson that James and John and the other first disciples needed to learn – a lesson that we need to learn – over and over again.