|33||They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them,
"What were you arguing about on the road?"
|34||But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who
was the greatest.
|35||Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be
first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."
|36||He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his
arms, he said to them,
|37||"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes
me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who
How would you define “greatness”? Eli Black was an entrepreneur. He was a great businessman. And he’s best known in his life for two things: number one, Eli Black masterminded the multimillion dollar takeover of the United Fruit Conglomerate. A book entitled An American Company has the account by a business executive of a lunch that he once had with Eli Black. He said that the waiter brought an appetizer tray of cheese and crackers to their table and immediately Eli Black pulled the tray over to himself, kept his arm around it the whole time and wouldn’t let the other executive have anything. In fact, the other executive was famished and dropped hints left and right that he’d like some of the cheese and crackers. Eli Black just pretended he didn’t hear him. In fact, Black would put a cheese and cracker on his fingertips and kind of wave it there in front of the other executive while he talked business with him, letting that executive know just who was in charge.
As we encounter the 10th of our 11 Core Values, of who we say we are as a congregation, Jesus gives us some insight in what it means to be truly great. I would invite you to turn in your Bibles — and keep your Bibles open during the sermon – to the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and this morning let’s wrestle with verses 33 through 37.
This is the Word of God:
They (meaning Jesus and his disciples) came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Join me as we pray: And now Father, as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Have you ever been caught, or interrupted in the middle of one of those embarrassing conversations that you hope no one else will ever be privy to? You’re in class and you’re whispering to your friend, and suddenly the teacher says “Mr. Scates, would you like to let the whole class in on what you’re talking about?” Or you’re having a very intense conversation with the guys, a conversation that’s peppered with raucous laughter and then Anne says, “Ron, what are ya’ll talking about?” “Ahhh, uhhh, well, ummm.” Imagine if God interrupted one of those conversations.
Well that’s exactly what happens here. Jesus, James, Peter and John, had recently been up on the Mount of Transfiguration. They’ve come down. They’ve joined the other disciples. They hook up with all these dozens of other disciples. They start heading through Galilee and the text today finds them winding up in the town of Capernaum. It’s late at night. They’ve booked a place to stay in a house, and they’re settling down for the night, and then suddenly Jesus pops the question: “Hey, what were you guys arguing about back out on the road?” And all the disciples kind of sheepishly hang their heads. They start doing that little embarrassing dance number with their feet. And they never answer Jesus’ question. But Jesus being God, knows what’s going on. Knowing human nature Jesus knows well what’s happened to them. They have fallen prey to what I call the “Muhammad Ali Syndrome” “I am the greatest.” They were out there arguing on the road who was the greatest. What were they arguing about? Whether Peter, James and John — the three Apostles that had gone up on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus – which one of them was the greatest of the apostles? Or were they arguing as to who was the greatest amongst themselves? Maybe they were comparing Bible knowledge or ministry feats that they had done. Or maybe they were comparing their pedigrees. We don’t know for sure. All we know is that the question of greatness is on the table. And defining greatness is up for grabs.
And Jesus, always the great definer, pulls the 12 Apostles aside and defines for them what true greatness is all about. And then he gives them a visual illustration. He says to them, “If you want to be great, you’ve got to be a servant.” And then Jesus plops a toddler in the midst of them. And then God incarnate, almighty God, Maker of heaven and earth, stoops down and swoops that child up into His arms. Why a child? When I grew up in the Washington, DC area, I remember hearing all my life about “Potomac Fever”, that insatiable appetite for power, that aspiration to greatness by knowing the right people and getting them to open the right doors for you. People who are climbing the power ladder have no need for children. In fact, people that aspire to shoot into the stratosphere of economic or political or military or religious power, a lot of time they either ignore children, or they run them over, or they even blow them up. Witness Kosovo. And Jesus pulls the twelve aside and says “if you’re going to be great, you’ve got to be a servant. If you want to be number one, then get in the last place in line. If you truly want to go to the top, then you’ve got to begin at the bottom. And in this text Jesus says to the 12 Apostles, that it’s a posture of servanthood, it’s the manifestation of a spirit of servanthood, a concern for the powerless — (And in 1st Century Greco-Roman culture, it was no virtue to be a child. They were the very bottom rung of the social ladder.) — it’s a concern for children and others who are powerless where you are to begin. It’s when you hang out with them that you find yourself hanging out with me. And beyond that you find that the doors of access to the top really swing open, and you find yourself in the presence of God, the Father Almighty.
And so you see, true greatness is all about hanging out with God by serving His children. Now Central Presbyterian Church is a great church, isn’t it? By Biblical standards we’ve got a good balance here of purity, peace and unity. We’re growing. We are financially doing real, real well. We’re getting a lot of new members and guests and visitors. And things are just going great around here. We’ve got another new building coming on line after this one. This is a great, great time to be a part of Central Church. And yet, you know what? It’s also one of the most dangerous times to be a part of this congregation. There’s not a one of us here, including myself, who just like Jesus’ disciples, is not susceptible to the “Muhammad Ali Syndrome”. The temptation to begin to look at ourselves and define ourselves by the world’s standards of success. The ABC’s of greatness: attendance, buildings, cash. The temptation to define ourselves by looking at other churches around us seeing where we fit in on the greatness scale. Folks, as parts of Central Church, the body of Christ here at Central, we need to watch out that we don’t get the swelled head, that we don’t start believing our own press clippings. The last thing we need is a high horse to get on to. What you and I need to do is wrestle seriously with this text and cling to Jesus’ definition of true greatness. In fact, the mark of mature faith, the mark of a faithful church, is the posture of servanthood. Reaching out even to the lowest in the name of Jesus Christ.
I would throw out to us this morning four M’s. Four M’s that we need to continually hold before us so that we might continue to walk the faithful journey of servanthood and not get seduced by the Muhammad Ali Syndrome. And the first M is this: Master. We need to continually ask ourselves the question, as individual Christians and as a congregation, who is our master. “Oh, well it’s Jesus of course.” But Jesus, how does he come to you and me? Chiefly as a servant. A Servant of Servants. On Palm Sunday, when Jesus’ first rode into Jerusalem, he didn’t come on the big white stallion. He came on a beast of burden, a lowly donkey. In fact, Jesus was such the Servant of Servants I almost imagine him carrying the donkey into Jerusalem. Keep that picture in your mind for a while. Who is your master? It’s when you and I intentionally give up our identity as being great in the world’s eyes, it’s then and only then that you and I begin to take on the identity of our master, Jesus, Servant of Servants. Who is your master? If you don’t know Jesus Christ firsthand, if he’s just a character form the past or a concept, if you’ve never surrendered your life to Jesus Christ, then I guarantee you, all this talk about servanthood is going to be not one iota appealing to you. Master.
The second M is Mission. What is our mission as a church? We’ve got a great mission statement, “Ron, Don’t you know what it is? It’s right on the front of our bulletin. We see it every Sunday. Moving people toward Christ.” And that is a great mission statement. But I want us to look at that statement through the lens of the text we just read. This text ought to remind you and me that moving people toward Christ is chiefly an act of servanthood. Jesus says to the Apostles, “you are to be a servant of all.” And that’s why we’re involved in global evangelization. Why we are involved in world mission. That’s why we hook up with worldwide ministries like World Vision that you’re going to hear about in just a few minutes. And on the local level, that’s why we hook up with the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, and Habitat for Humanity, and Love & Action AIDS ministry and prison ministries and a host of other ministries – cause those ministries are primarily going to those who are powerless. To the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized. Not the power brokers. And so our methodology is to hook up with ministries that take us to those who need to be served.
So we’ve got our master, we’ve got our mission. Methodology is the third M. And there are three ways that we really do that. Three ways that we put wheels on our servanthood here at Central Church. The first is continually challenge you as a congregation to take texts like this seriously. To be a servant. This is a church that is not aspiring to greatness. It’s a church where we’re aspiring to servanthood. This is going to be an interactive part of the sermon now: Get your bulletin, I want you to look in your bulletin for an insert that has something to do with the Paraclete Ministry. Some of you know what this is about, some of you may not. The Paraclete Ministry is a 50-hour training program to train lay people to become caregivers to each other. Really it’s a training program in servanthood. My dream when we launched this, my dream is that a majority of the congregation would go through this, not necessarily to become a paraclete minister, not necessarily to stand up here and get commissioned, but just so that you might cultivate the heart of a servant. That’s what we’re about here at Central.
A second part of our methodology is to make service opportunities visible and accessible to you all. Occasionally I get complaints about the new concourse: too many tables and booths out there. We need to keep it clean and pristine the way it was designed. But every one of those booths, every one of those tables, week after week, those are ministry opportunities, where you can get involved in serving the least of these our brothers and sisters. In the bulletin this morning there’s a service opportunity – Dave and Jan Turnbaugh, our Christian Community Center, their camp this summer needs one more male volunteer to serve children of the inner city. What a great opportunity, which one of you is going to be the first to the phone to answer that call to servanthood and let Dave and Jan know you’re going to be that male counselor. We keep those opportunities before you all the time.
The third way is to help you discover your spiritual gifts. Let me put a word on top of that that we don’t like because we’ve got it confused with a bunch of other stuff: it’s the word stewardship. Stewardship begins with realizing that God owns everything. This is not my robe, it belongs to God. I don’t drive my car, that’s God’s car. Everything I have I’m a steward of. Do you know what a steward is? Back in Biblical times a steward was what we folks from Texas like to call a ranch foreman. A ranch foreman runs that ranch. He lives on the ranch, he runs it as if it were his. Except he knows it isn’t his. There’s an owner somewhere else. And he knows he’s accountable to that owner for how he runs the ranch. What he does with all of the stuff that’s there. And he has to report in. Is that the way you look at your life? That’s the way a steward approaches life. And that’s why we challenge you to be a steward here at Central. To be a steward of all of the spiritual and natural gifts that God has endowed you with. And to use those gifts in servanthood ministry. That’s why we challenge you continually to financial tithing as a part of your stewardship. One tenth of your gross income given to the kingdom of God – not necessarily to Central – to the kingdom. And then we challenge you on beyond that. To sacrificial giving. We have no pledge system here at Central. We don’t have “stewardship season” where I have to preach four or five stewardship sermons to try to wangle you guys into coughing up money. That’s not what the kingdom of God’s about. But every year, bless your hearts, we oversubscribe our budget, we meet all of our obligations and we impact this world for Jesus Christ because many, if not most, of you have heard that call to servanthood. And you’re living it out financially. It’s amazing what your dollars are doing to transform lives. We’re not a wealthy church but we’re the highest per capita giving church in Baltimore Presbytery. And that’s because of your sacrifice. Sacrifice much appreciated by the Servant of Servants.
The fourth M is a word I hate, and yet it’s a very necessary word in the kingdom of God: Maintenance. It means that preaching from a text like this is not something we do every so often, but we need to maintain that vision of servanthood and hold it out before us. And continually challenge each other to invest our spiritual gifts, our time, our resources, our energy in serving the least of these and following the Servant of Servants. To be a servant you have to practice stewardship and to be a good steward is automatically going to make you a servant of God’s people. And so the mark of true greatness is wrapped up in those two words: servanthood and stewardship.
Back when ice cream was a whole lot cheaper than it is today, a little boy went into a hotel coffee shop and sat down at the table. A waitress came and brought him a glass of water and said, “Can I take your order?” And he said “How much is an ice cream sundae?” and she said, “Fifty cents.” And the little boy carefully dug into his pocket and pulled out his money and carefully studied and counted the coins, and then he said “How much is a dish of plain ice cream?” And the waitress, aware that other people were waiting to be seated, shot back at him brusquely “35 cents”. And the little boy again looked and carefully studied the coins in his hand and then he said, “I’ll have a dish of plain ice cream.” And the waitress brought him the ice cream and also brought him his check and then left. And the little boy ate his ice cream and then he went to the cashier and paid his check and departed the coffee shop. And a little bit later the waitress returned to the table and was wiping it down and then swallowed hard at what she saw. Next to the empty ice cream dish the boy had carefully placed two nickels and five pennies. Her tip.
Servanthood, stewardship. Those are the marks of true greatness. You remember Eli Black? The great entrepreneurial businessman that I told you about? I said there were two things in his life that he was best know for. I told you about one, the other involves the 42nd floor of the Pan Am Building in New York City, where Eli Black jumped to his death.
Join me as we pray:
Lord God, you’ve called us on this Palm Sunday, you’ve modeled for us on this Palm Sunday, what it means to be a servant. To ride in on a lowly beast of burden. To offer yourself to us, we who don’t deserve a smidgen of your gracious mercy. And you give us your all in your life and death and resurrection. Lord God, filled us by your Holy Spirit with a spirit of servanthood. That we might see every person we meet, every day of our lives as someone you have brought across our path to serve in the name of Jesus Christ. That we might touch their lives in a positive way. That more importantly, they might sense your touch through us upon their life and come to know you in a firsthand, personal way. We lift our prayer in the name of the Servant of Servants, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.