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Turning Greatness into Goodness

A sermon on Mark 10:35-45

I would like to start my sermon by asking you to turn in your bulletins to the prayer of the day. The prayer of the day is a resource of our denomination. It is meant to give us words to help us lift up to God our desire that the gospel lessons we hear in worship will take root in our lives.

Today’s prayer is probably the best sermon I could offer on today’s reading, so I want to invite you all to pray it again with me right now. (Please join me in prayer)

Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness for all the peoples of the earth. Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

“You turn your greatness into goodness for all the peoples of the earth.” That is one of the most simple and beautiful expressions of the gospel that I have ever heard. The recognition that the way God reaches out to us, and to all people, is through goodness, rather than through greatness.

God certainly has the option to engage us from greatness, from a position of power and glory – to demand our worship and obedience simply because God… is God! The creator of the universe! The source of all life and power. But in Jesus God reveals a very different way of approaching us. An approach that is about setting aside glory, in order to seek our good… in order to serve our needs. In the midst of a world with a lot of need, God reaches toward all people with the will to care and to heal. That is what characterizes God’s kingdom way.

In looking at today’s gospel story, it’s pretty obvious that the disciples haven’t yet started walking in that way. This story is about correcting James and John for wanting to focus not on goodness for the sake of others, but on greatness… their own greatness. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mark 10:37). We don’t have a lot of cultural references for this kind of seating-chart-honor-system, but essentially what they are saying is “Other than you, we want to be the most honored people at your party.”

It’s such a self-serving and outlandish request that it’s easy for us to just roll our eyes and shake our heads, assuming that we would never ask for such a thing.

But, I wonder. Are we really immune to the desire for greatness?

We might not be as obvious as James and John, but in our achievement-oriented culture it’s hard to reject the assumption that it’s good to be on top. To win. Or at least to be “better” than whoever we most like to despise. And therein lies the shadow side of the desire for greatness, as James and John reveal – an orientation toward elevation and power-over. Set us above the others, they request. Say that we are better.

But Jesus reminds us where that leads. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them…” (Mark 10:42).

Jesus’ witness makes it clear that lording it over is the OPPOSITE of God’s ways of working. God’s way of working is not about rising above. At least, not in that way. Jesus rises above by being raised up on a cross.

But that’s exactly what James and John did NOT want to talk about. Their request for preferential seating was an attempt to deflect Jesus from talking about his own death. The verses that come right before today’s reading are Jesus’s third and final prediction of his coming execution, and – in keeping with the pattern of the first two predictions – the disciples respond by trying to claim power.

After the first prediction, Peter claims authority by rebuking Jesus. (Mark 8:32)

After the second prediction, the disciples argue about who is greatest. (Mark 9:33-37)

And this time, James and John ask for the place of honor.

Each time that Jesus reveals what he is about to undergo, his followers reject his words in favor of a position of control; in favor of claims to their own greatness that reassure them of their power in the face of fear.

The desire for greatness is often a response to fear. An attempt to protect ourselves against our own vulnerability. But God turns greatness into goodness, and that looks like choosing vulnerability. Choosing to open up to needs that will demand a self-giving response and become, in Jesus’ words a “slave of all.”

It means setting aside the safety of being better, or stronger, or more important than the one who is suffering.

It means affirming that the needs of others truly, essentially matter in ways that will never allow us to ignore them.

It means giving of ourselves in a way that grows our faith, because it rejects the power of fear to close us off to the needs of others.

The world is FULL of needs that the gospel will not let us ignore… but since today is World Hunger Sunday, it seems fitting to consider how this gospel calls us to respond to the realities of hunger in our world. Now, at this point, I could start spouting data about the number of people around the world who experience hunger and poverty; or the percentage of children in America for whom food is a question, not a guarantee. That information is on the resource sheets on the tables in the narthex, and I hope you will take a look at it during coffee hour.

But the call of this gospel is not to care because of how big the problem is. It’s a call to servanthood to each individual. A call to caring for the needs of ALL. And that means seeking solutions that will meet the needs of ALL.

Not just the people we can afford to help without too much sacrifice.

And not just the people who deserve our help. Because that framing assumes that there are people who “deserves” to go hungry.

At last May’s Synod Assembly attendees were asked to write our answers to the question: “why do you care about hunger?” Our own Heather Nilsen offered this response (which was quoted in the weekly Synod e-mail last Wednesday[1]): “No one should be shamed for needing food. Everyone deserves healthy, good food that meets their needs.”

No one should be shamed… Everyone deserves food.

No person’s hunger is less important than ours. So, if someone is hungry, then it’s OUR problem. Collectively. Because hunger is not inevitable. There is enough food in the world. We thrown millions of tons away. We could find solutions to hunger if we made it a priority. Today after worship we will have a chance to call our nation’s leaders to make ending hunger a priority, by participating in Bread for the World’s Offering of Letters.

Now, it’s up to you whether you participate. Advocacy is not the only way to make hunger a priority, and not everyone agrees on how to end hunger. The gospel does not proscribe specific advocacy asks.

But the gospel does call us to make ourselves vulnerable to the need; to never blame the hurting for their pain so that we can feel comfortable walking away.

Jesus made himself vulnerable to the needs of the world. And he calls us to follow him.

It’s the calling that we spoke back to God in the second half of our prayer of the day: “Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will.” That is our prayer and our challenge - to be willing servants of God’s kingdom. That’s where we learn what both goodness AND greatness look like.

Rev. Amy Reumann – the director of advocacy for the ELCA – explains it this way:

In Jesus’ kingdom, greatness is achieved by stopping to attend to the wounds of those around you and by addressing the hunger and hurts of our world. And when faith moves into action alongside those who are hungry or hurting, then we already are by Jesus’ side. To be with him in his glory, we open ourselves to his path of service, justice, compassion and love beyond measure.”[2]

James and John wanted to be by Jesus’ side to protect them from their vulnerability. But being by Jesus’s side means means choosing vulnerability, because it means being in service to those in need. It is a deeply vulnerable place. It is also the place that we are closest to God.

And when we are there, ironically, we discover what greatness really is, because we discover how much we have to give.

To remind you of that, I want to close my sermon by offering you a benediction. This benediction was originally written for a class of graduating seminarians, but it applies to all members of God’s church who are called to go and serve.

“Because the world is poor and starving, go with bread.

Because the world is filled with fear, go with courage.

Because the world is in despair, go with hope.

Because the world is living lies, go with truth.

Because the world is sick with sorrow, go with joy.

Because the world is weary of wars, go with peace.

Because the world is seldom fair, go with justice.

Because the world is under judgment, go with mercy.

Because the world will die without it, go with love.”[3]

Thanks be to God.

[1] Jersey Jottings, Oct. 17, 2018.

[2] Bread for the World Sunday 2018, Lectionary Study on Mark 10:35-45

[3] Benediction originally given by Dr. Hal Warheim to a graduating seminary class from Louisville Seminary.

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