I wouldn’t mind being great. I think I could handle it. I’ve got the right temperament for it, I think. I wouldn’t let it go to my head. I certainly wouldn’t start bickering about who’s greater than who. And I wouldn’t be on Twitter constantly shouting about how great my everything is. And I wouldn’t humble brag on Facebook. I’d just keep it to myself. I would be so great that no one would have any idea how great I was. Maybe that’s exactly what’s going on? Maybe I’m the GOAT (the Greatest Of All Time) at hiding how great I am. No one will ever know.
Well, hold on now. What’s so great about that? I mean if I am, in fact, great, and I hide it so successfully that nobody would ever suspect my greatness – how does that do anybody any good? Maybe if I am great, I shouldn’t brag about it, but maybe I should have some sort of drive to DO GREAT in some way, some sort of drive to grow in greatness, and put my greatness – whatever it is – on display so that the world can benefit from it.
It really makes you wonder what greatness is. I mean it can’t just be a scramble to the top to dominate the world, right? But at the same time, you’re going to have to get to the top of something, somehow… And what are you going to do when get up there?
When I was a kid I was a bit of tree climber. OK, I’m being humble. I was the greatest tree climber in my neighborhood. I would go up – WAY UP! – two, three, four stories or more up into maples and oaks and pines, to heights only a kid growing up in the 80s, entirely unsupervised, could get away with.
I climbed with the other neighborhood kids. We had an instinct for it, to challenge ourselves to go as high as possible. And we had an instinct for the competition – to beat one another – to go the highest, to be the strongest, the bravest, the winner, the king of the tree.
But I also really loved to climb trees on my own. Up thirty, forty feet in the air, the whole atmosphere changes. It was breezier up there and quieter than life below – a world apart. And I would cling to the trunk way up there. The trunk felt safe – if I can hold onto the trunk, I won’t fall. There was no one to see. No one to impress. So, it was reasonable to want to stay close to the trunk, but I wanted to climb out further onto those skinny limbs way out in the open air anyway. It wasn’t about competing with anyone else. It was desire, longing. It was bigger than me. But I felt it, in my little heart, that if I went out onto the branch a little further than ever before and hung in the open air without an eye on me, that I would be a little bigger, a little bit more powerful, alittle greater than I had been on the ground.
That desire to dangle out there in the sky exposed – every breath a risk, every tremor a potential tragedy – it was totally and completely – maybe even essentially – human. And it was a desire for some kind of greatness – my greatness, God’s greatness. My greatness and God’s greatness all mixed up together. And I think it was good. And I’m not sure I want to hide it anymore. I think I’d like even to risk going a little further out. And Jesus seems to say, YES: My greatness and your greatness will get all mixed up together, when you become a servant.
Recently my wife, Bonnie Mohan, started binge watching the popular PBS show Downton Abbey. Some of you have seen it, right? And others have probably heard of it? I’ve only caught glimpses of it as I walk past the TV – but it seems to be a historical drama taking place in the early 20th century on a beautiful old British estate. It hasn’t interested me – too much drama, too much romance and relationships, too much talking, not nearly enough aliens, dragons, or zombies for my taste. But I also don’t like the social divide in the show – the Aristocrats live and play upstairs in their sprawling mansion home, the servants live and work downstairs taking care of the people who live upstairs. I don’t find that social arrangement particularly romantic. I don’t like seeing the world divided into the lower class of servants and the upper class of those-who-must-be-served. And so when Jesus tells me that I must be the servant – the servant of all – I don’t like it. You want me to move downstairs? You want me to line up outside as the master motors up in his new automobile? You want me to stand at attention? To be seen and not heard? To fade into the background when I’m not needed?
And the difficulties of being a servant go far beyond Downton Abbey, right? I mean just think of who is expected to be a servant here at the beginning of the 21st century. Aren’t women still expected to serve men more than men are expected to serve women? And don’t race and immigration status play a big role in who is waiting upon whom? And aren’t people in the service industry frequently exploited by their employers? And aren’t domestic workers facing a plague of sexual harassment and assault in an industry that has very few protections? And aren’t the tips that waitstaff depend upon for their living a direct cultural descendent of slavery? Isn’t there a dangerous power imbalance baked right into the system? And, Jesus, are you sure it’s really great to be a servant?
But, of course, there is another kind of servanthood that I’m learning more and more about as I’ve watched friends and family and congregants become parents and raise children. Jesus tells the disciples that if you want to be the greatest you must be the servant of all. Then he illustrates the point. And watch how he does it: he picks up a child from somewhere – maybe the kid falls out of an olive tree or something – and puts him or her before the whole house as an example of one who is powerless, vulnerable, totally dependent on the wisdom, the strength, and the resources of others. Parents and guardians have ALL THE POWER.
And yet, when they do their parenting morally and ethically, no one can really deny that they’re also pretty ill-used servants. A parent’s whole life changes when the kid comes along, and it changes in accord with the needs, the wants, and the demands of that child. Social lives change, careers change, financial futures change. People change houses, change neighborhoods, even the physical body changes, and the heart changes too.
And here we begin to understand the flavor of Jesus’ servanthood – an empowered servanthood, a servanthood in which God’s greatness (and weakness) and human greatness and weakness get all mixed up with one another. Jesus tells the disciples in our translation this morning that when they welcome a child, they welcome God. We had our Greeter Training this afternoon, and we learned that greeters should be friendly – smile, wave, say “Hi!” But this isn’t the depth of welcome Jesus is talking about.
The word in Greek translated as “welcome” in our reading this evening is dechomai. Dechomai can also more archaically, more accurately be translated into English as “to receive.” There’s a difference in degree between welcoming a guest and receiving a guest, right? I mean, if you’ve seen Downton Abbey, you’ve seen what it looks like to receive someone. When you receive somebody you’re paying more attention to them, you’re honoring them by honoring their arrival into your home, into your life. When you receive somebody you have the obligation – sure – but also the power, as the hostess with mostess, to offer your guests what they need.
In this context, receiving a child is more than just saying, “Hey, kid! Welcome! Have fun! Don’t climb too high! Try not to break anything!” Dechomai also means “to pick up.” So when you receive someone, you are literally holding them in your hand. Receiving a child means that you are taking that child within your power, and that you will use your power to serve that child’s needs – to serve that child’s thriving. Do parents make sacrifices? Yeah! But receiving the child, and Jesus’ version of servanthood, is not about serving the other to your detriment. It’s about serving the child from your power for the good of the child, rather than (as happens all too often) using the child or neglecting the child for some personal gain.
Jesus’ servanthood isn’t about making the weak serve the powerful. It isn’t about making the meek serve the great. It isn’t about making the last serve the first. As Jesus so often does, he flips the script. Just like a parent receives their child, the one who serves is powerful. The margins become the center when the margins serve all. The downstairs becomes the greatest so that and all may thrive. Those who use their power to make others serve them are not great and are not powerful. Those who serve, wherever they serve from, serve with power and know true greatness.
I wonder what are we great at? What is Broadway UCC’s claim to greatness? What comes to your mind?
Jesus says that to answer that question, we need to ask ourselves, “Who do we serve?” Who do WE ALL serve? What comes to your mind?
I think Broadway UCC is great. We have a great history. We have a great music program. We have great people. We have great educational opportunities. GREAT. All of the great things we are and do for one another take leadership. Leadership doesn’t mean bragging. Leadership doesn’t even mean being out in front in the spotlight all the time. Leadership means you find a way to scooch your butt a little bit further out on the branch your sitting on. Leadership means that you find a way to serve others. Frequently, the leadership you choose will also be a great joy to you – as Doug’s music leadership is to him, as Richard’s teaching is to him, as Susan’s justice and peace work is to her, as Donna’s work with finances is at least some of the time for her, as standing up here and preaching is at least some of the time for me.
Just take a moment to look around this sanctuary at your church – at the people who make up your church. This is where our greatness begins. It begins right here in service to one another. And as we serve one another we will become braver, stronger, wiser. And will learn, step by step, scooch by careful scooch, to serve more and more of our neighbors.
And won’t that be a beautiful thing to see, church? Our greatness, and our neighbors’ greatness, and God’s greatness all mixed up together in this place. Isn’t that what you’re here for? Isn’t that the greatness you’ve come hoping to find?