THE GREATEST AMONG YOU Matthew 23:1-12 November 6, 2011
A businessman driving out on a rural road hits a curve too fast and ends up in a ditch. He gets out of his car and stands there frustrated. He’s way out in the country – closest town with a wrecker service is hours away. So he heads up to the closest farmhouse to ask the farmer if he would use his tractor to pull him out of the ditch. “Knock, knock, knock.” Farmer comes to the door. “Well, Son, I’ve retired, sold my tractor, and all my equipment. All I’ve got is one old mule named Daisy and she’s blind. But we’ll try.” A few minutes later the farmer and the mule hitched up to the car, and the farmer called out “Come on Clyde!. Giddup Bonnie – pull Daisy – pull.” And Daisy pulled and strained and lo and behold, she pulled that car out of The ditch. A very grateful businessman began saying his thank yous. And then he said to the farmer “Why did you call all those other names? There was just Daisy.” And the Farmer said, “Well son, I didn’t want her to think she was pulling by herself.” Come on, First Christian Church – pull together – pull harder. Remember, unlike Daisy, we aren’t pulling by ourselves. All around us are those who have finished the race. We can’t see them, but now they pull beside us – in the communion of saints. We remember them always, but especially today – All Saints Sunday. Sunday School Teachers, preachers, church family, mothers, fathers, children, extended family. They are all around us, like “a great cloud of witnesses” as the Book of Hebrews says. Pulling with us – great people who left tremendous legacies of faith and life examples. And in our scripture this morning, Jesus is interested in teaching what makes a person great. And it’s not what folks often think. Greatness is not about sitting in a seat of authority telling others what to do, nor is it about names or titles or social prominence. It is about something entirely different. According to Jesus true greatness is about humility – is about being able to care and help out – Is about having a servant’s heart. It’s a definition of greatness very different from Mr. Webster, that’s for sure. I checked what he had to say on my shelf copy and greatness is defined as: - Predominant - Preeminent over others - Remarkable - An outstanding superior or skillful person. OK, so we’ve heard Jesus’ side, now let’s consider Mr. Webster.
I First of all “greatness” is defined as predominant. PREDOMINANT- like the folks in the place of honor at the feasts – the best seats in the house: The folks who interrupt other people and talk real loud in council meetings so everybody will know how important they are. The ones who jostle for the front row seats so they will be noticed. When Marty and I took Ellen to Freshman Orientation, her department orientation was in a big room full of plenty of chairs, but when we walked in, people were literally scrambling over each other to get to the first row. To get close enough to the front so the department chair would see them – notice them – maybe even remember their names. Predominant – folks who look the part, dress in power suits, perfect hair, big jewelry – just a cut above everyone else. Just a little louder – just a little closer to the front – dressed just a little better than everyone else. But. But. It is said when Thomas Jefferson was Vice-President of the United States, he was summoned to Washington and he left Monticello in a hurry – still in his farmer’s clothes. A storm blew up and Jefferson was forced to stop and spend the night. When he entered the inn, the innkeeper took one look at him and pulling him aside, said “Sir, this inn is a reputable place – not for farmers. There is a cheaper inn down the road.” So Thomas Jefferson turned and walked out the door. One of his aides told the Innkeeper he had just refused service to the VicePresident of the United States of America, and the mortified Innkeeper chased out the door. “Mr. Jefferson, sir, please accept my apologies” And Thomas Jefferson replied, “If this inn is no place for a farmer, then it is no place for the Vice-President of the United States”. Maybe? Just Maybe? The council man who interrupts and talks over the other councilman at the meeting is just rude. Maybe the people on the front row are just opportunists. And maybe, the extravagantly dressed people just had money to burn at Saks Fifth Avenue. Maybe greatness and predominance are not necessarily the same. II.
Still – a truly great person is not just any old Mo Joe on the street, right? What about pre-eminence? You know the Board Chair versus the Board Member – the Professor versus the student – the General versus the Sergeant – the fighter pilot versus the parachute packer.
You know where this is headed. You’ve probably heard of Charles Plumb. He was a popular writer and conference speaker several years ago. US Navel Academy graduate – jet pilot in Vietnam – flew 75 successful missions. But on Mission 76 was shot down by a surface – to air missile. Spent 6 years in a Vietnamese prison – finally allowed to come home. And then told this story: One day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!” “How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb. “I packed your parachute”, the man replied.
Plumb gasped in surprise and gratitude. The man pumped his hand and said, “I guess it worked!” Plumb assured him, “It sure did. If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.” Plumb couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about that man. Plumb says, “I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform: A white hat, a bib in the back, and bell bottom trousers. I wonder how many times I might have seen him and not even said good morning, how are you or anything because, you see, I was a fighter pilot, and he was just a sailor.” And then Plumb goes on to say, “But when that missile hit and we ejected, I was only as strong as the man who packed my parachute.”
Who are your parachute packers? Be grateful. Honor and respect them. Pre-eminent? Maybe not. Maybe greatness is different than just rank and a title. III.
OK. But surely you have to be good at what you do. Remarkable, Mr., Webster says – to be great? You know:
the person who gets “employee of the month” several times a year or “parachute packer of the year”. The salesperson who wins the cruise for top sales of the year. The professor with the wall full of honorary degrees The student with the long record of club memberships, athletic activities, elected positions, honors AP classes.
When I was at Duke, Dr. Williman, Campus Minister told the Divinity School about an underclassman. Someone attending Duke on an academic scholarship. He was from an innercity school district in Chicago. In his high school he was low-tracked. No one in his classes was on their way to college. As a mater of a fact, the school was desperately trying to keep these students out of jail. He spend most of his time doing drugs on the street corner. One day he was walking the halls of his high school after being kicked out of class for the sixth time and the principal yanked him up – sent him into a room where there was an exam in progress, and told him to sit still and shut up. The teacher walked over and handed him an exam to keep him busy. He noticed it was a standardized form and he picked up a pencil and started filling it out. Two months later the principal called him into his office and shut the door. First he fussed him out for wasting his potential all through school Then he said “your life is about to change and I suggest you begin to use this potential” And then he congratulated him for making the highest score on the SAT ever scored by any student in that high school. Maybe – just maybe – what we like to think of as great is really just circumstance. Someone happens to be born into a family that happens to be able to afford – soccer cleats, and dance lessons, and band instruments. And so naturally the resume’ thickens and the colleges are interested and the sales jobs loom. But in fact, instead of being great, that person is simply riding the wave of opportunity??
I know we don’t like to think about that because that might have something to do with our own self-concept. But just maybe, like it or not, “great” has less to do with remarkable achievement and more to do with the attitude in which we approach life??? OK, Mr. Webster, one more chance. IV.
Greatness equals outstandingly superior or skillful. OK. So successful folks – people who make it to the top of their dog pile – whether that dog pile is academics or parachute packing.
Some time ago, I was in the car tuned in to NPR, listening to an interview with a psychiatrist practicing in Washington in a private practice. What kinds of patients do you see? Aha – professional folks. Successful business owners, managers, white collar. And what are their primary complaints? Discontent. A sense of dissatisfaction with life. A vague sense of permeating sadness in every day. Unhappy marriage. Restless children. The psychiatrist that I know very well calls these folks “the worried well”. Not struggling with physiological problems, brain injury, chemical imbalance, mood disorders – too highly socialized productive citizens who present with statements like: “I’m just not happy” “I’m not really interested in life”. “My marriage is boring.” “My job is boring.” “I need something but I don’t know what, so I made this appointment and came here to ask you if you think I need Prozac?” And in this NPR psychiatrist interview – to the large number of people who show up at his posh downtown psychiatric practice, looking Prozac, this doctor (for a small fee, I’m sure) tells them something completely radical: He tells them to go get involved in doing something for somebody else. Just not happy? Life doesn’t feel worth living? Get outside your self. Find something you care about and get involved. Reach out to somebody who needs you. Find a way to make somebody else’s life better and thus improve your own life. Top of the line psychiatric advice from Washington, DC. And guess what? We are all the way back around to Jesus. “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
OK. So, Mr. Webster, Jesus has certainly put a different slant on what it means to be great. Pre-Dominant? Lord, who is greatest in your Kingdom? Whoever becomes humble – like this child – is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Pre-eminent over others? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love even your enemies and do good to those who persecute you. Remarkable? You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the Prophets. Outstandingly superior or skillful? He who is greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be Humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. These are the words of God for the people of God. On this Sunday we remember those people who influenced our lives because they were truly great – and they were great because they were Servants of the Great Servant – the One Who served with love, even to His death. We’re not pulling by ourselves. We’re pulling with themWe’re pulling with Him, our Servant Lord and Savior. In His name we give thanks today. Amen