Sermon for Sunday, September 19, 2021

We love people who are the greatest, 

those who amaze us 

with their skills and talents, 

Tiger Woods in his heyday

multi-talented superstars

like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Beyoncé, 

or gymnast Simone Biles

who is certainly a GOAT—

greatest of all time—

in gymnastics and 

a courageous crusader

against the abuse of gymnasts. 

We love knowing 

who is the best, the GOAT, 

the greatest. 

After all, hierarchy provides clarity.

In a world where we wonder

if we’re making a difference, 

if we’ll be remembered, 

a world where, secretly, 

most of us have no idea

what we’re doing 

but are trying our best to adult, 

to “fake it ’til we make it,”

well judgment, comparisons, 

lists of the top ten, 

make us feel in control. 

This happens especially

when we’re in crisis. 

How often I’ve seen people

after a tragedy

try to figure out

what happened, 

who’s to blame, 

who’s at fault. 

After a death, 

even as we’re planning the funeral,

it’s not unusual

for families

to fall into arguments, 

finding a scapegoat, 

arguing over wills

and who gets what

because, well, 

that feels a whole lot better

than feeling the grief and sadness, 

than facing that maybe

we don’t know what

is going to come next.

As the great therapist Brené Brown says, 

blame and judgment

are the way we discharge

pain and discomfort. 

In times of confusion and fear, 

blame is one way to discharge pain; 

another is to focus on details 

that don’t really matter. 

Go to any committee or Vestry meeting

where a big problem

without a clear solution

faces the group, 

and I can guarantee

that the discussion 

will focus on minutiae

like why we spent

$200 dollars on something

or what the color 

of the new coffee cups

ought to be.

And you know what?

I get it. 

I get it, 

and I get the disciples today. 

They have heard 

frightening predictions from Jesus, 

which we heard last week, too:

Jesus must suffer, die, and rise again, 

and any who want to follow him

must take up their cross;

if we want to save our lives, 

we’ve got to lose them.

When faced with that,

Peter, ostensibly on behalf

of all the disciples, 

rebukes Jesus—

he, they, don’t want to hear it.

Between then and today, 

Peter, James, and John

have witnessed the transfiguration

of Jesus on the mountaintop, 

heard a voice from the clouds

call him “Beloved”

and been told to listen to him. 

Then, Jesus teaches again

that he is to be betrayed, 

killed, and then rise again

after three days. 

This time, no rebuke, 

no anger, 

just sheer confusion and fear. 

The disciples have been following

the greatest, 

at least they thought

they had been, 

but he keeps teaching

things that are impossible

to understand, 

frightening things, 

things that make no sense at all.

And, so, on the Way—

Remember, that in early Christianity,

this movement of Jesus followers

was called “the Way,”

so Mark might be talking 

to us, too—

on the Way, those who 

are supposed 

to be brave followers of Jesus, 

leading lives where 

they’ve given up everything

to follow him, 

well, those brave followers

are confused, scared, 

and so they do what we

so often do—

they start squabbling, 

picking at each other,

arguing about who is the greatest

among them—

who’s the best disciple,

the bravest, the smartest, 

the best leader, 

who knows?

They focus

on things that just don’t matter; 

also, spoiler alert—

the greatest among them is Jesus.

At any rate, 

they clearly don’t understand

what Jesus is trying to teach, 

where he is leading them, 

how their whole lives

will change, are changing, 

as, if, they follow him.

And, so, Jesus provides more

of his crazy, upside-down wisdom.

Wisdom we’ve heard

so often in scripture

and from the pulpit

that we think we understand it, 

but, frankly, can sound

like pure madness, 

for it surely doesn’t square

with anything that 

the world, our jobs, 

the media, or any self-help book

has to tell us.

The wisdom of the world says:

Work hard and be rewarded.

Optimize your life.

Crush it at work. 

Life is competition; 

resources are limited; 

get yours while you have the chance.

You CAN have it all.

The wisdom of God, 

what Jesus is offering, says:

don’t worry what others think,

be small, 

fear not,

put your faith in the One

who is truly great, 

and you will be great, 

not because of what

YOU do, earn, or accomplish, 

but because you are loved. 

You are great because

you are held

in the grace, mercy, and love of God.

And those who are secure

have no need 

to prove themselves, 

be greater than another, 

need never brag or declare

that they are great. 

For when we know 

our proper place, 

that we are loved;

when we know

that our deepest identity

is as the beloved of God, 

then we can be about

the business of God, 

which is to be last of all, 

servant of all, 

following the model 

of Jesus Christ, 

the one who came

not to be served

but to serve.

The one who came 

to us vulnerable, 

weak, as an infant, 

who hangs out,

not with the powerful and the rich,

but with the poor, the sick, children,

hangs out with those 

who can do nothing 

for him but ruin his reputation:

gentiles, tax collectors, bleeding women.

We can choose

to be great 

by the world’s standards, 

follow the world’s ways

of power and wealth and glory, 

promote ourselves over others

so we can feel better

about ourselves for a moment.

Or we can try the little way, 

the humble way of Christ, 

where being great is to be small, 

to be first is to worry 

about oneself last; 

to be first of all

is to serve all. 

Maybe no one

will notice us then.  

No one, that is, 

except God, 

the one willing 

to become the least—

human, a vulnerable child—

so that we might know God, 

might know that

no matter how 

little or vulnerable we are, 

we are not alone.

We don’t have

to be the greatest

because we are already loved. 

And if we trust 

in the grace of God, 

if we trust in God’s love for us, 

in our identity in God, 

rather than in our own

goodness and righteousness,

then we needn’t be afraid, 

we won’t have to be better than, 

we won’t have to 

declare ourselves great; 

it will be enough 

to be like children

who know that 

the one who IS great

is already gathering us up 

in his arms.