Greatest of All Is Servant of All

Mark 9:33-37

Greatest of All Is Servant of All

October 22, 2017


          We pledge to support the ministries of the church by our service.  So last Sunday I asked you, “Why do you serve?”  Here are just a handful of your wonderful responses.  You can read more on the bulletin board down the art hallway.

          --The greatest number of responses had to do with God telling us and calling us to serve:

  1. Jesus said God’s greatest commandment is to love one another.  Serving others is a demonstration of following this commandment.
  2. God called me.  I responded at age 9.  I’ve enjoyed serving.

          --Another group of responses had to do with the satisfaction we get out of serving:

  1. Feels Good!
  2. Serving reduces my depression.
  3. Serving is my love language.  It gives me joy in my heart.

          --Many cards echoed this theme:

  1. Because others have been there for me and I want to pay it forward.
  2. People in the community where I grew up made sure I had clothes.


          --Several people noted that serving is loving more than just people:

  1. It is part of my faith journey.  To serve others is to serve God.

          --For many people, the reason to serve is as simple helping people:

  1. Because others need help.
  2. To see the joy in their hearts.

          --Serving is part of our witness to the love of Christ:

  1. I want others to know there are caring, inclusive people at Maple Grove.

     --And finally there was this one-of-a-kind card I want to share:

  1. This is a difficult question as in recent years aging, health and financial challenges have closed many of the ways I formerly served.  I work on this in my prayer and meditation time—have to redefine for me what service means. 


Who is the greatest?  That's what the disciples were talking about one day.  Peter probably started it, saying something about being the only disciple who'd ever walked on water. "I'm the greatest," he bragged.  But James and John took offense: "Hey, we were up there with Jesus when he met with Moses and Elijah; "Jesus always picks us for special things.  Our mother thinks we're the greatest."  "Oh yeah?" Matthew chimed in.  "I was a tax collector.  I know people; I've got connections you fisherman can only dream about."  "You’re all dreaming," Judas said.  "Jesus trusted me to be the treasurer.  I'm the greatest."1

And on it went, until Jesus asked them, "Hey, what are you guys talking about?" All of a sudden it got quiet.  Everyone looked down at their sandals.  Because Jesus had just been telling them that he was on his way to lay down his life, to suffer and die.  And they were arguing about which of them was the greatest.

Yeah, their conversation may have been a little misguided.  Maybe it wasn't the best time for that particular discussion.  But it is an important question:  Who is the greatest?  What makes someone great?  What do you mean if you say, "Wow, my parents—they were great people?"  If you want your kids to be great people, what kind of life would you model for them?  What is greatness?

In their usual clueless way, that's what the disciples were debating that day.  And then Jesus entered the debate.  Or rather, Jesus ended the debate.  He gives them a new measuring stick for greatness.  "You want to see greatness?" he asks them.  Here's greatness:  and he holds up a little child.  You need to know that in the ancient world, children were not regarded the they are today.  They were the least-valued members of society.  Children had no rights.  They contributed nothing to the family.  They were always at the mercy of others.  Here's greatness, Jesus says.  And he holds up the weakest, most vulnerable person there was. 

The measuring stick for greatness that Jesus gives them has two elements:

  1. If you want to be first, he says, take the last place and serve everyone else.  What is greatness?  Greatness is serving.
  2. And if you want to be great, he says, welcome a child--welcome the weakest, neediest people around you.  Greatness is caring for the vulnerable and excluded. 


This was, and remains, a difficult lesson. For one of my classes in seminary, I had to do an in-depth analysis of the congregation I was part of.  We had to look at mission and vision statements, outline the leadership structure, describe the worship and music.  And then there was this question: Name and tell about several “important” people in the congregation. So I started writing.  Well, there’s Rex, of course—he’s the pastor.  And there’s Jim, who was Director of Public Health for the state of Georgia.  And there’s Joe, a downtown property developer who helped bring the Olympics to Atlanta. 

And suddenly I noticed what I was doing.  I was using the wrong measuring stick for greatness.  Not that there was anything wrong with Rex and Jim and Joe—wonderful guys.  But I started my list again, asking myself who was great in terms of serving, who was great in terms of welcoming the vulnerable and excluded. Well, there was “Veronica,” a developmentally delayed adult who was always on the verge of being homeless and who despite the church’s best efforts had lost her baby to foster care.  But she always sat by the front door and greeted people with an infectious smile and brought people from housing projects to church with her.  And there was “Hugh,” a part-time taxi driver who never learned to read, but who came early every Sunday to set up tables and chairs and stayed late to clean up when everyone else had gone home. And there was the guy whom came up for worship from the homeless shelter and sat by himself in the back row and wouldn’t talk to anyone no matter how hard we tried.  But his presence made it look and feel more welcoming for other homeless people to come to worship and many holy relationships were formed. 

What does it mean to be great?  It means, Jesus said, serving others.  It means welcoming the weakest and neediest among us.  It means Veronica, and Hugh, and our homeless friend in the back row.


Now the world says that to be great is to be able to get your own way, right?  To have enough money or talent or power that you can throw your weight around, to get other people to do what you want.  And sometimes these worldly standards of greatness infiltrate the church.  We get to thinking that to be great in the church is to have influence and power, to be able to get one’s own way.  So we have to keep holding up Jesus’ greatness measuring stick:  that to be great is serving others, that greatness is welcoming the vulnerable and excluded. We have to keep reminding ourselves.

But sometimes—thank God!--just the opposite happens.  Sometimes Jesus’ standard of greatness infiltrates the world.  How many of you saw the article in Monday’s Dispatch about the OSU football players who took advantage of their off week to visit cancer patients at the James?   They visited a man who had been battling multiple myeloma for 14 years, after being told he had no more than 3 years to live.  “That’s one of those things,” J.T. Barrett said, “it’s bigger than football"2

Here’s how I imagine it.  When those players get to the pearly gates some day, St. Peter will ask them about their lives.  They’ll say, “We all played football for THE Ohio State University!” 

“Well, that’s nice,” St. Peter will say with a yawn.

“And I,” Barrett will add, “was a record-setting quarterback.”

“Yeah, that’s nice too, I guess.”

“And sometimes,” a defensive tackle will add, “we used to go visit people with cancer at the hospital.”

“Really?”  St. Peter will say, suddenly interested.  “Now that is great stuff!” 


Here is Jesus’ measuring stick for greatness:

  1. If you want to be first, he says, take the last place and serve everyone else.  Greatness is serving others.
  2. And if you want to be great, welcome a child. Greatness is caring for the vulnerable and excluded. 

Take that measuring stick with you today.  Look around, hold it up.  See what it tells you about who is truly great.  And if you dare, hold it ups and see what it says about your own greatness. 


Toward the back of your bulletin today, you’ll find a list of things to do, many of them fairly small, humble things:  ushering, moving books from the church library, hanging banners, gardening, serving food at CRC or Manna Café or on Thanksgiving Day or here on Sunday mornings, cleaning the kitchen.  The intro to this list asks, “Looking for an opportunity to serve?”  But given Jesus’ measuring stick, a better title might be “Opportunities for Greatness.” 

What does it mean to be great?  Take Jesus’ measuring stick with you: Greatness is serving others, Jesus said.  And welcoming the vulnerable and excluded. 


1 See Judith M. Gundry-Volf, "Mark 9:33-37," Interpretation (January 1999), 57-58.

2  Accessed Oct. 20, 2017.

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