SERMON 9-23-18 Pentecost 18B St. Monica’s Episcopal Church
Let’s make Church great again
Do you remember when Saturday morning television cartoons were interrupted by cereal commercials? One of my favorites was Tony the Tiger and his Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Of course, we all know Frosted Flakes were are nothing more than bland Kellogg’s Corn Flakes with a sugary frosted coating. Frosted Flakes, despite Tony the Tiger’s exuberant support, really were not that GRReeeat!
I am afraid like overrated breakfast cereals today, we are all a little obsessed with greatness. There is a lot of talk about greatness on social media, just look at all the wonderful lives we all lead through our Facebook timelines. Just turn on any national news channel or political commentary television show, and you will hear a lot about “Making things Great!”
The problem with our pursuit of greatness is this, “who actually defines what it means to be great.” How do you even measure greatness and by what standard do we use? If not careful, in our pursuit for greatness in the church and in our Christian journey, we can lose sight of our purpose, our mission, our core values, and even our faith. When greatness alone becomes our motivation, we shift from the pursuit of God’s mission and we settle for a pursuit of power, wealth, grandeur, and influence, we are mixed up about greatness “Jesus style.” Jesus’ first disciples fell into the trap of misguided greatness, because their hearts were seeking personal grandeur, power, influence, and the accolades of their peers.
Greatness among the apostles
Jesus had his face turned toward Jerusalem and that was where his little band of followers were headed. He knew what awaited him there, not a throne and royal court, but betrayal, trial, a cross, and death. Then, despite Jesus telling them of his future, the A-Team disciples accompanying him were arguing with each other about who was the greatest. It must have sounded like a school yard scuffle with each one saying, “Dude I walked on water.” One might have responded, “Yeah, you sank too, but I get to carry the money.” Another said, “Yeah, well I had 25 people in my Sunday school class in the Decapolis, when he sent us out two by two.” Like kids jockeying for position, the search for greatness for them was like a bad episode of “Survivor.”
Jesus overheard their maneuvering and rather than wacking them on the heads, he did something absolutely incredible. He picked up a child and gently taught the disciples saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” At first, we may think, “well isn’t that just sweet,” he wanted them and us to have childlike faith, but that is not what Jesus was teaching them and us. You must understand the context of that event in Jesus’ culture, and then you will understand why that act was so profound.
Today, we honor our children, protect our children, and hold them in the highest regard, but that was not the case back then. “According to the institution oí patria potestas (a common and accepted practice in that culture) children had no legal rights. A father had the right brutally to punish, sell, pawn, expose, and even kill his own child. Newborns could be exposed—abandoned in a public place—where they would generally either die or be picked up by strangers and raised for profit as slaves, prostitutes, or beggars.”(4)
Jesus picked up a meaningless and worthless child (in his day) and taught his disciples two critical lessons about greatness. First, he told the disciples that greatness was found in identifying with and becoming just like the lowest of the low of society and in this case, children. Next, he did what only women would have done in first century Palestine; care for children. Jesus demonstrated Kingdom greatness when he picked up the child up, held her close to himself, and nurtured her gently and lovingly. In other words, Jesus taught them and us that we are only great when are humbled and not puffed up, when are values and motivations are focused on others, and we are great only when we care for those, for whom society would most likely abandon. Churches should always heed Jesus teaching, and assess their greatness, not by a measuring stick of worldly success, but by greatness, Jesus style.
Greatness gone awry
Have you ever been to a church that touts their incredible and enormous campuses and other edifices? They sometimes measure the success of their mission by how many people are in the pews, or how professional their programs are presented, or by using any number of worldly criteria. The problem is that when the church is only interested in measurable worldly success, she begins seeking the world’s greatness and not God’s. The Apostle James touched on this when he spoke of being double-minded. In other words, double-mindedness is when we become “literally, of two souls, one following the wisdom of the world and the other following the wisdom of God.“ (1) The Body of Christ’s purpose and actions must be measured against the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of the world.
Just like Jesus’ disciples two thousand years ago, the church can become confused about greatness. “Greatness, we assume, implies power, accomplishment, fame, wealth, and all the other things that allow you to do things, to influence people, to make things go your way.” (3) According to Jesus’ mandate, greatness is found in caring for the least of these, and greatness is not found in power, accomplishment, fame, or wealth. If the Church’s mission is to “bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” then seeking worldly greatness may mean that our measuring sticks of success are being held up against the wrong criteria.
“What if we measured our greatness (as God does) by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in?”(3) Greatness in mission would look very different and our focus would be very different, if our purpose and motivations were evaluated against God’s criteria, in everything we do.
We must evaluate our corporate and individual lives against the criteria of “are we loving God and loving our neighbor?” Maybe the greatness we seek is already present, already a part of who we are, because greatness is found in the DNA of the community itself, in what brought her into being in the first place; which is to change the world and bring grace into the community around her.
Greatness Jesus style
Greatness Jesus style has nothing to do with huge Sunday attendance, nor the number of filled seats, nor the grandeur of our programs, nor the size of our campus. Don’t get me wrong, all of those things often are the results of laser focus on the core mission, which is to bring others to know Christ and to be in Christian community. However, if we pursue greatness in wordly things first, over God’s mission, if that is our starting point and our motivation and our primary goal, and if we lose sight of why the church exists in the first place, then we are no better than those confused disciples of Jesus, back in the day, when they were arguing like school kids over who is the greatest.
Greatness Jesus style happens when God’s people measure their mission effectiveness by the number of lives being changed by the work they do for God. Greatness Jesus style happens, when we bring Christ to others outside the four walls, by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with them not merely by our advocacy, but by our love and care, both through word and deed, and that’s what we do now!
My sisters and brothers, St. Monica’s is already great! We are a church whose greatness manifests from our relationships and works of service. We are so much more than just bland, soggy flakes of self-absorption, coated with a sugary false persona of mission. St. Monica’s has not lost sight of her mission, because we work to serve the least, lost, and lonely around us, and those already within our midst; but there is much more work to do.
So, as long as we remain laser focused on our primary purpose, as long as we measure the effectiveness of our mission against the criteria of transformed lives for Christ, then this church will continue in greatness Jesus style. What do you think others will say about St. Monica’s in 5, 10, 15, and 20 years from now? Well, I believe as long as we remain faithful to God’s mission, as long as we care for the least, lost, and lonely of the neighborhoods around us, and as long as lives are transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ, then others will say, as Tony the Tiger says, “They’re GRReeeat!”
(1) https://processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/the-eighteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-proper-20-23-september-2018/ by Jeanyne Slettom
(3) http://www.davidlose.net/2018/09/pentecost-18-b-a-different-kind-of-greatness/ by David Lose
(4) Gundry-Volf, Judith M. “Mark 9:33-37.” Interpretation, vol. 53, no. 1, Jan. 1999, pp. 57-61.