Scripture: Mark 10:35-45
I just love the conversation Jesus and his disciples are having in this passage.
First of all, what a bold thing for James and John to say to Jesus. “Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” You can almost see Jesus arching an eyebrow and saying, “Uh huh? Go on.”
“Jesus,” they say, “we want to sit at your right and your left hand, respectively, in your kingdom.”
This is especially rich because they are on their way to Jerusalem for the last time with Jesus. In fact, right before this conversation, Jesus has taken his disciples aside and said to them, “This is what’s going to happen. We’re going to go to Jerusalem, and I’m going to be handed over and arrested and sentenced to death, and then they’re going to kill me, and then I’m going to rise again.”
You can imagine that this was followed by a brief moment of silence as those words sunk in, but a moment later, the disciples’ somber eyes brightened and they said, “Hey Jesus, dibs on the seat next to you!”
“Do you really think you have what it takes?” Jesus asks them.
“Yes!” they say.
“OH GOOD,” says Jesus, “I’m glad to hear that, because you’re going to go through a lot on my behalf. Also, no, you can’t sit by me.”
Then of course the other disciples catch wind of what is going on, and they get mad, because they would have called dibs too, if they knew that dibs were being called. James and John, always thinking they’re so great. But of course, all of them are missing the point. It’s comedy gold.
“You’re thinking about it all wrong,” Jesus tells the group, as the comedy transitions to teachable moment. I like to imagine he has to yell this over their arguing, and they get silent again. “I don’t care about the seating chart in the Kingdom of God. You all want to be great? Try being a servant.”
They just wanted to be great.
I thought about starting out today by asking you all what it means to be great. But we just heard the answer. It’s also printed in big letters on the cover of your bulletin. So I think you’d probably get it right. Maybe a more useful exercise would be to try to think back to how we might have answered that question out of context, on a random Tuesday morning when we haven’t just read this Scripture.
Even then, probably most of us still wouldn’t say the obvious wrong answers, like having a lot of money makes you great, or being very popular and influential makes you great. Most of us don’t like rich, powerful people who aren’t nice to anyone (Donald Trump’s approval rating notwithstanding.) Being successful? Does that make you great? I guess it depends on what it is you’re successful at.
I suppose if you had asked me this question on a random Tuesday morning I might have said something like, people who are great are people with a lot of power and resources that they use for great good. The kind of people who change the world.
Last spring I read about a girl who went to my high school who had just been accepted into all eight Ivy League schools, which I, by the way, was not. By the time she graduated she had founded a national organization to encourage girls to get involved in math and science programs. She also had apparently developed some app that could recognize the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and correctly identify it 96% of the time. It’s easy to read something like that and be like, oh man, what am I even doing with my life? It’s also easy to read it and think, that’s the kind of girl who is going to be great someday. Maybe she already is.
When I read that, what greatness meant to me was the ability to make a tangible difference in the world for good.
But as much as that girl sounds amazing and as much as I’m glad that there are people who make a real difference in this world for good, that’s also not quite what Jesus said. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
And I know that answer. I know it on Sunday, but maybe not on a random Tuesday morning. It’s the kind of thing where we can know what Jesus says true greatness is, and still not really believe it.
Because when we talk about the “greats,” we’re still so often talking about gifted athletes, brilliant thinkers, renowned composers, people who have made or are making history in good ways. But that’s not quite what Jesus said.
We say, “Some people are born great, some people achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” and we are thinking of good leaders, people with authority who make the right decisions in crucial times. And that’s also not quite what Jesus said.
Jesus says, I don’t care about the seating chart. I don’t care about the Ivy League, or the Hall of Fame, or the Nobel Prize, or the New York Times Bestseller List. The Gentiles care about those things—the rest of the world cares about those things—but that’s not the way it will be with you.
If you’re going to follow me, Jesus says, you’re going to have to stop striving for status altogether. Do you think you can do that?
It’s funny how when Jesus asks James and John if they can drink the cup he is about to drink, they say proudly, “We are able!” But when he puts it that way, maybe they’re not so sure. They can accept danger and sacrifice—as long as it makes them great. But then again, the rest of the world has some respect for martyrs and heroes. Less so for servants.
Even we would sometimes rather tell the story of Jesus’ heroic death and miraculous triumph over it rather than the time he spent slumming it with the people no one else wanted to hang out with, but those things all go together in a life given completely for others.
I came across one example of greatness when Jon and I went on vacation to Hawaii earlier this year. I went to Hawaii purely to enjoy the beach and the scenery, no real spiritual goals in mind, but it ended up being almost like a pilgrimage for me, because it was in Hawaii that I learned about a priest named Father Damien. You might know his story—I had only ever vaguely heard of him.
Jon and I stayed on the island of Molokai, which is the least built-up of the Hawaiian islands. On its north side, the island has some of the highest sea cliffs in the world. Below those cliffs, there’s a flat peninsula called Kalaupapa that juts out into rough waters. These two features made it the ideal place for a leper colony in the late 1800s. It was too hard to climb up one way and too dangerous to escape the other. It was a time when leprosy was ravaging Hawaii, and people who got the disease were shipped to Kalaupapa to finish out their lives in quarantine.
People could live for years in the leper colony of Kalaupapa, and with no system of authority in place and inhabitants with no hope for the future, it became a place full of alcoholism, gambling, abuse, and general lawlessness. One thing the colony did not have was a priest.
Father Damien de Veuster was a young priest from Belgium who had been sent to Hawaii as a missionary and spent several years making the rounds of the Big Island. When his bishop asked for volunteers to serve the settlement at Kalaupapa, Damien volunteered. It was only supposed to be for a few months, and then another volunteer would take over—the bishop knew that to send one person there would be a death sentence for them. So Damien went, but when his time came to leave, he asked to stay. By that time, he couldn’t leave his people.
For sixteen years, from 1873 to 1889, Father Damien ministered, enforced the law, built churches, houses, a hospital, and a school, cleaned the wounds of his leprous parishioners and cared for them as they died. Eventually, as fear grew, he wasn’t even allowed to return to Honolulu for confession. He was as isolated as everyone else.
The inevitable end to that story is that eleven years in, Father Damien contracted leprosy himself, and he died the same slow, painful, disfiguring death that those around him died. Father Damien, who I had barely heard of, became a hero to me for the way he served the people who no one literally wanted to touch—both in life, and in death. Like Jesus. That was a great man.
The imperfect part of this story, I guess, is that Father Damien did achieve fame during his life for his heroism, and he is now, in fact, Saint Damien. There was some earthly glory to be found in this hard, dangerous, unglamorous life of service. But it was a pretty high cost, and it was never guaranteed.
I think back to Jesus’ conversation with James and John and how they wanted to share in Jesus’ glory without sharing in his suffering. They can’t do that: resurrection only comes through death. But in this case, Jesus also didn’t promise that if they were able to share in his suffering, that they’d earn those prize seats in the kingdom of heaven. He simply asked them to drink the cup he drank. They wanted glory without the cross; Jesus gives them the cross and asks them to find glory right there, in that splintered wood.
Closer to home, I read a story about someone who had nothing in common with Father Damien. He wasn’t a Belgian priest from the late 1800s, he’s a contemporary African-American NFL star. His name is Jason Brown. In 2009, he signed a five year, $37 million dollar contract with the St. Louis Rams. He was the highest paid center in the NFL.
In 2013, four years and $25 million into that contract, Brown left the NFL and bought a farm. He learned how to farm by watching YouTube tutorials. His agent told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life. “No, I’m not,” he said.
Today, he and his wife Tay use their 1000 acres to grow sweet potatoes and other vegetables and donate them to local food pantries.
One reporter asked him: If you’re doing this for God—God cares about the NFL, right? Lots of people pray to God out there on the field.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of people praying out there,” Brown said. “But when I think about a life of greatness, I think about a life of service.”
I’m glad that Jason Brown got some publicity for quitting football in order to feed people. For one thing, it’s great to hear some good news once in a while, and for another, that way I can pass his story on. But most truly great people will never get their name in a newspaper, much less be canonized as a saint. Most truly great people probably live wholly uncelebrated lives. Maybe you know some. A single mother who sacrifices for her family. A teacher who devotes her life to helping children get a good start. The grocery bagger who greets every customer with a smile. The child who makes friends with the kid no one will play with at recess. The homeless man who shares his meal with someone else in need. There is little earthly glory in those things, but it’s possible that they mean even more to Jesus than the billionaire who gives lots of money to charity, or the politician who enacts good and fair laws.
The good news is that if we want to be great—and who among us doesn’t?—God sets a pretty low bar.
You don’t have to be a genius. You don’t have to win friends and influence people. You don’t have to make history.
All you have to do is live a life oriented toward others.
That’s not to say it’s easy. It may very well involve sacrifice. People may tell you you’re making the biggest mistake of your life. But in the end, they’re not the ones who get to measure. It’s not easy, but it does mean greatness is something we can all stop striving for. We can stop competing with others, and start giving our lives for others, day by day.
If you want to be great, our culture says, make a bunch of money and give some of it to charity.
If you want to be great, our culture says, be the best at what you do.
If you want to be great, our culture says, change the world.
“If you want to be great,” Mother Theresa once said, “pick up a broom and sweep the floor.”