True Greatness = Nurturing Service

Mark 9:30-37
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Every Sunday Jean Smith goes to eat lunch with my mom and brother. Every Christmas morning when I was growing up, when the family was just rising to enjoy Christmas breakfast and gift-giving, usually still in our pajamas, Jean would walk in uninvited but expected. She’d demand that we pose for every possible grouping of people while she snapped pictures. When we would see her in church on Sundays, she would hug us, not letting go. She’d beg us to come visit her. If we visited her, she would plead with us not to leave. If there was threat of a thunder storm, she would call, hoping to spend the night with us, even though we always said “no”.

The Faison Presbyterian Church has been Jean’s family for more than sixty years. Jean turned 80 recently and lives now in an ALF, so she’s not free to arrive unexpectedly anymore. But every Sunday she worships there and has her favorite meal of the week with my mom and brother. Being a friend to Jean is rarely a rewarding experience. She is a bottomless pit of neediness. Whatever you do is not enough. She is a difficult, childlike, self-absorbed person. My mother complains a lot about Jean, but in her sixty years of service to Jean’s need for love, she’s taught me about the greatness of humble service to the vulnerable. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach the disciples in our story from Mark.

Hear the word of the Lord:

On the way to Jerusalem, the place of his death, Jesus tells his disciples. “I am going to die.” Most human beings are not very adept at handling messages like that. Most change the subject or make insensitive comments, denying the pain of the one who said it. Jesus is graphic but they don’t understand. He says he’s going to be betrayed and killed, and raised from the dead. But the disciples are clueless and don’t even seem to have the inclination to figure out what in the world he’s talking about.

On to Capernaum they go, that’s lower Galilee, and on with regular life – jockeying for positions of importance. The disciples arguing over who is greatest are no different from middle schoolers choosing where to sit in the lunchroom and who to talk to on the way home from school. It’s all about the power of popularity. No different than high schoolers comparing their grades or flauting their physical prowess. They are no different from pastors comparing how many people they have in worship, teachers comparing their class’ test scores with other teachers, business people comparing net gains in their company’s value, and parents comparing their children’s excellence in extra-curricular activities. We all want to know how we measure up against others. Who is the greatest?

Magazines and websites are filled with the people we consider the greatest in sports and entertainment. They are there for a season, then replaced by another star. And while we idolize these stars, we seem just as interested in exposing their weaknesses as in admiring their strength. And Jesus says, “What are you talking about?” And we say, “Oh nothing” but we spend all kinds of time competing for greatness, and watching other flaunt their greatness. Have I said
how much I hate the chest-pounding arrogance of college and professional athletes? We spend hours measuring the greatness of celebrities with our pop idol votes and reality shows when we should be thinking of the greatness of people like Jeremy Gilley, whom Tricia told us about in the children’s sermon. We should be studying scripture, praying, and working to build in ourselves a compassionate, serving spirit. We should practice that service with those closest to us, as well as those far away.

Human beings are naturally competitive but Jesus wants to challenge us to think about greatness in different ways. The greatest is the loser, the last one, the one who serves the others best. These are not just the underdogs who rise to the top like the unranked Washington beating USC and the unattractive Susan Broyles with her amazing voice. No, the last and the servants do not necessarily ever get the attention of a Mother Teresa for their efforts. The greatest is the one who welcomes and embraces the weak ones, the ones who cannot move a person up to higher places on the power ladder.

Children rarely lived to age five in Jesus’ day. They were seen as vulnerable and expendable. They were last of all in social standing. They were not outcast, but almost non-persons. Until they reached adulthood, quite a feat when there were not antibiotics, they were not worth much. But Jesus shocked his twelve male disciples by saying that greatness is in welcoming children, the ones they might naturally ignore. Whoever welcomes these insignificant little people, welcomes me, and not just me, but the one who sent me. This reminds us of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. There Jesus says when we feed the hungry and visit the prisoner we do it to him. Greatness is serving those whom nobody deems worthy of our time and energy.

I think it is great that we have a dad serving as nursery coordinator and that he added the senior high boys to the rota. At Peace we can make a difference by teaching teens that greatness is in serving others, not in being served. We can make a tremendous difference in the lives of children and youth by taking them seriously and building authentic relationships with them, as we already are doing. By modeling humble service.

In Richard’s season of unemployment, he has taken over every area of service in our household from cleaning to cooking to laundry to assisting the kids with their schedules, all this while picking up more church work as a volunteer. I realized this week I was beginning to take him for granted. I was beginning to have an attitude, thinking that I, the busier one, was more important than he who was supporting me in everything. And just when I needed it, this scripture knocked me into my place. How could I be so blind, so ungrateful?

Whether we are using power to establish our own value or measuring other people by values of power, Jesus is challenging us to live in a new way. True greatness is not the use of power for anything except humble, nurturing service. “True greatness is to be like Jesus, a truly powerful person, who knew that his value was in doing the will of God and demonstrating the love of God, a lowly path to the cross. He is a king, but wearing a crown of thorns. He is the Christ, but broken on the cross.” (William Loader) He feeds us with his broken body and transforms us in his lowly, weak yet great, mysterious power.

When Jesus says the greatest position is to be the slave (9:35; 10:43,44), that is a shocking contrast to both his and our way of thinking. The use of the Greek word ‘diakonos’ as well as ‘doulos’, both words for slaves, helps us to see that the focus is not just the status of ‘slave’, but also the function of ‘serving’. Greatness is choosing to be a loving and serving person toward marginal people, people whom the world denies. Mark 10:45 makes that clear: ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many’. (Loader)

I want to close with a story of a truly great man. He was in a hurry at the doctor’s office one day. The nurse noticed the older gentleman man was agitated. When she came to take his blood, she asked him if he was okay. He said, “Oh, I’m fine. I just need to make it on time to my daily appointment.” She said, ‘What’s that?” He said, “My wife has Alzheimer’s and I have lunch with her every day.” When the nurse inquired about the Alzheimer’s she learned that the man’s wife has no idea who he is. So she said to him, “Sir, if she doesn’t know you, why do you worry about getting there on time?” He said, “I go to take care of her. She may not know who I am, but I know who she is, and that’s all that matters.”

Oh that we all would live as servants like that, serving because it is the right thing, serving because it is the loving thing, serving because we want to shape our lives in the pattern of the sacrificial servant love of Jesus Christ our Lord, who says to every creature in the world, “You may not who I am, but I know who you are, and I’ll be there to take care of you every day, whether you know it or not.”