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Worship and Sermons
October 21, 2018

“How the Truly Great Get that Way” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, October 21, 2018, Year B / 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – Isaiah 53:4-12 and Psalm 91:9-16  •  Hebrews 5:1-10  •  Mark 10:35-45

THEME:  Become truly great by serving others as Jesus did.

“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” 

Why does this scare the disciples?  Haven’t they been watching Jesus, the humble way he serves others?  How he goes out of his way to serve the least and the lost?

What kind of a disciple would be afraid of that, especially ones who are themselves nowhere near the upper echelon of society?  The short answer is the same kind of disciples who’ve failed to grasp what Jesus has been trying to teach them. 

He’s told them not once, but twice before, what will happen to him in Jerusalem:  suffering, death and resurrection.  

The first time, Peter rebuked Jesus, and Jesus rebuked him. 

The second time, the disciples simply dismissed Jesus and promptly begin arguing about which of them is the greatest.  That time, Jesus sat them down and showed them a little child, the very symbol of powerlessness.

It was a human object lesson.  His point was “Whoever wants to be first has to be last, and the servant of all.”  

Now it’s time for Jesus and his followers to make the fateful journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. 

As they set out, he tells them a third time, in excruciating detail, what awaits him.  He will be betrayed and condemned, humiliated and beaten, and finally crucified. 

But that’s not the end.  In three days’ time, he will rise again from the dead.

You’d think, they would finally grasp what Jesus is telling them.  But no.

This time its James and John who shuffle ahead of the others and sidle up to Jesus.  They want a special favor.  And it’s proof of just how little they have learned.  

Instead of acknowledging Jesus’ imminent suffering and death, they clearly expect the exact opposite:  a triumphal entry into the city, a regal coronation maybe, and a royal throne room with the two of them seated in the positions of honor and power, one on Jesus’ left and the other on his right.

If only they understood what they were asking for.  In truth, their own leader - Peter - will be the one to betray Jesus.  The rest will scatter in fear. 

And the ones who’ll end up on Jesus’ right and left will be two bandits crucified alongside him, under an ironically truthful sign that declares Jesus “King of the Jews.”

Jesus knows this, of course.  He also knows that most of his disciples are going to experience suffering and martyrdom.  Even so, only God determines the seating arrangements in his Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the other disciples get wind of what James and John are asking Jesus for.  They’re angry. 

They’re only angry that these two pushy Zebedee brothers got to Jesus before they did.  They want the very same honor and power that James and John are asking for.

So Jesus realizes it’s time for yet another lesson on true greatness. “Whoever wishes to become great among you,” he tells them, “must become the slave of all.”  

Then he reminds them that he came, not to be served, but to serve others. He will even give his life as ransom for many.

The word ‘ransom’ has all sorts of connotations for us, but for Jesus and the disciples it had one very specific meaning.  It’s the price that was paid to free a slave.

That’s what Jesus is doing.  He’s come to set people free from slavery.  The problem is they’re slaves to the wrong master.  Just like the rich man’s devotion to money stopped him from following Jesus, so does the disciples’ yearning for worldly, self-aggrandizing power get in the way of their discipleship. 

By the way, they weren’t alone in that ambition – not by a long stretch.  That desire pervaded the 1st century Roman world. 

Differences in power and status determined the social hierarchy.  That rigid stratification was evident in every phase of public life. 

When Romans went to the theater to see a play or to the arena to watch a gladiator fight, the social classes were literally - physically - separated by law. 

The very best seats were right up front, close to the action. Those were reserved for the Emperor and his family.

Then, further up, a little further away, would be the senators, members of the Patrician classes, wealthy land-owners, and other powerful public figures.  Then, the rest of the great unwashed were sorted out in the upper tiers.  But you can bet they weren’t content to stay there.   Like everyone else, they had ambition.

Gaining power and status was practically an Olympic sport for Romans. They took their cue from their leaders. It was Julius Caesar who said “If you must break the law, do it to seize power.”  

And so, by any means possible – including violence – Romans competed for positions of influence and power, and the wealth and honor that came with them.

We have to wonder whether things are really all that different today.  After all, we live in the most competitive society in the world.  The upside to that is we lead the world in everything from finance, business and medicine, to education, technology and entertainment.

But perhaps we’ve taken our competitiveness a little too far.  Evidently there is nothing we can’t turn into a televised contest:  dancing?  Dancing with the Stars.  Singing?  The Voice.  How about life itself?  We’ve got Survivor and Big Brother. 

Would you believe we have even managed to make spirituality competitive?  No kidding – there is actually an international yoga competition.  That’s right - yoga.  We’ve taken an activity dedicated to achieving inner peace, and spiritual and physical well-being, and we’ve turned it into a contest. 

The thing about competition is it’s almost impossible to help others when we’re trying to beat them.  And when we’re concerned with being first, we rarely think about the folks who are last.

And we know what Jesus thinks about that. 

So, what does true greatness look like for Christian disciples in our world? 

Well, no surprise, it turns out it looks a lot like Jesus himself:  a servant leader. 

You’ve probably heard that description before.  Servant leadership is one of those concepts that has transcended all facets of life.  But it originated in one of the last places you’d expect:  the world of business.

The man who first conceived it was Robert Greenleaf.  After he graduated from college in the 1920s, Robert went to work for AT&T.  For the next forty years he researched management, development, and education.  Along the way, he became convinced that American institutions were experiencing a crisis of leadership. 

The predominant management style of authoritarian leadership was not working.  So, in 1964, he took early retirement to begin a management consulting practice.

In 1970, at age 66, Greenleaf published his first essay, which he entitled "The Servant as Leader".  He later expanded it into a book which became one of the most influential management texts ever written. 

Here’s what he said about servant leadership: “The servant-leader is servant first... Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead . . . to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this:  Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

Jesus would agree with that.  That is the essence of a truly great servant leader.  The question is, ‘How do you and I become great like that?’

Naturally, we start by looking at the way Jesus served others.  Then we look for examples of folks who do what he did.  But, we quickly find that they’re not always easy to identify.  There’s a very good reason for that. 

The great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, explained it. He said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists.  When his work is done, and his aim is fulfilled, they will say, ‘we did it ourselves.’”

Who are those servant leaders in your life?  Who are the unsung heroes who took time to shape you and mold you – without fanfare or recognition, just a lot of patience and love?  Was it a parent?  A teacher?  A coach or Scout leader?  A boss or a colleague?

All of us can be great like them.  As Martin Luther King said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”

I want you to do two things this week. 

First, I want you to contact that person who helped shape you into the person you are.  I want you to thank them.  If you can’t find them or their family, then reach out to someone else who knows them.  Tell that person how much that servant leader meant to you.

Second, find someone this week to serve, to serve in the same self-giving way Jesus did, by giving of yourself without expecting anything in return. 

That is how the truly great get that way.

May it be so.

Last Published: October 25, 2018 3:33 PM
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