A sermon, based on Mark 9.30-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, September 23, 2018
To Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?”, Peter declared, “You are the Messiah!” (the ages-foretold, long-awaited, God-sent redeemer of Israel). Jesus, then, taught his disciples that he was a Messiah without a “messianic-complex.” He did not come to be served, but rather to serve. His mission was to proclaim in word and deed to all God’s kingdom of love and justice for all; because of which, his triumphant throne would be a crucifixion cross.(1)
Jesus now turns toward Jerusalem. Where he will face his final confrontation with the religious and political authorities, who, as all in power, in whatever time and place, serve primarily the institutional interests of self-preservation and status quo and not those of the masses, especially the poor. Jerusalem. Where he will face his do-and-die moment.
Passing through Galilee, Jesus’ disciples, acting like children, argue about who among them is greatest.
If I was Jesus, risking my life, facing my death, I would be hurt and angry at the selfishness of my friends in disregarding the desperation of the moment, in disregarding me! And I would chastise them in the most ungodly terms! Yet, if Jesus did that, he, like them, would make it personal; all about him.
Instead, Jesus asks, “What were you arguing about?” The disciples, like embarrassed children, fall silent. Again, if I was Jesus, I’d point a frustrated, shaming finger at them. Instead, Jesus, patiently, calmly brings a child into their midst, who, in that time, was the least important, most easily disregarded member of the household, and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Aye, also saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me and the one who sent me.” In defining greatness is this way, he does two great things.
First, Jesus affirms, does not ignore the importance of their concern: greatness. How many times have you, have I been a part of encounter and it became clear to us that the other or others cared not one whit for our thoughts and feelings, desires and needs. Here, Jesus honors his disciples by speaking directly to their interest, though, yes, redefining the definition of greatness.
Second, Jesus, in joining greatness and service, elevates everyone. For everyone is not wealthy in material things or in command of legions of followers or possessed of vast intellect and wisdom or has in hand great strength. Nevertheless, everyone, everywhere, every day, no matter the state and stage of one’s life, can serve somebody and, therefore, not only can be (is able to be) great, but is great.
Today, is Stewardship Sunday. Our annual asking for our financial pledges to support and sustain the mission and ministry of Epiphany Church in the coming year.
When I look back over forty years of my stewardship sermons, they largely fall into three categories.
One, focusing on the needs of the church, my pitch for money sought to answer the questions “For what?” and “How much?” But I won’t do that today.
Two, focusing on the needs of parishioners, I encouraged their continued support so that the parish could serve their needs better. But I won’t do that today.
Three, never wanting to ask anyone to do what I wouldn’t do (every tire of folk who demand that you do what they won’t do?), I focused on what I planned to give. But I won’t do that today.
What I will do is focus on our greatness, therefore, in accord with Jesus’ teaching, our service.
We, Epiphany, Laurens, compared to larger congregations, mega-churches, yea, even those, our neighbors, our fellow Christian sisters and brothers of other denominations right across the street, are small in numbers of members and dollars. Yet, in a world in which size still matters, a world that continues to measure greatness by bigness, we follow Jesus who says greatness is service and anyone can be great who serves, for anyone who serves is great.
So, in 2019, what if we, using our money and our time and talent, consciously dreamed and intentionally searched for more opportunities to serve our larger community of Laurens, the city and county, or expanded the backpack ministry(2) to reach more hungry children? What if service was our raison d’être, our reason to exist?
And here’s another “what if?”. What if we, the Epiphany, Laurens community, overnight, fell into the ground and we were swallowed up by the earth, would our city and county miss us? However you may answer, this I believe. Folks would miss us for they would miss the service we offer in Jesus’ name. And we always can do more.
So, in a word: How great do we want to be?
(1) See Mark 8.27-32a (my emphases).
(2) Weekly, Epiphany Church, in communion with other Laurens’ churches, provides weekend take-home backpacks of foodstuffs for children of our local elementary school who otherwise would have little to eat.