What is greatness?

What makes one great? At times the Bible can be refreshingly frank. On the road to Galilee, Jesus’ disciples don’t want to tell him what they were arguing about, because “they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest.” No subtlety there.

Can you imagine how that conversation really went? I doubt it was as simple as Peter saying to Thaddeus “I am greater than you, friend.” Maybe they were comparing success at fishing or skill at preaching. I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve got some inside information. They really debated which disciple would one day have the biggest number of beautiful gothic Episcopal churches named after them.

We subtly have this not so subtle debate all the time. Who is the greatest? No one is immune. C-suite executives compare vacations. Grandmothers talk about their grandkids latest success in school or on the field. On one of my trips to El Salvador, I watched two residents of one of the poorest neighborhoods in our hemisphere pull out their phones and argue about whether the iPhone or the Android had the better operating system. We have all played this game, in one form or another. We have all grown tired of this game from time to time.

What makes one great?

If we’re not careful with the question, answers will be supplied for us: Having the latest and greatest phone (I’m guilty on that particular one); Does owning a house in the right neighborhood make one great?; listing the most carefully curated combination of extracurriculars on a college application; the job, the title, the paycheck, the publication. Do these benchmarks measure greatness?

If you just said “no” quietly to yourself, well good, I’d venture you are in good company here at Holy Communion this morning. This is a congregation that tends to push against the grain. The danger is that we have to be so careful and attentive to this question: what makes one great? Because the answers are provided so subtly that they slip into our subconscious. Without meaning to, we begin to behave as if certain attributes, certain possessions, certain ways of speaking and moving through the world make someone more valuable. We can all get caught up in the game.

Jesus pushes back.

Now, to understand the radical character of Jesus’ words about children, we have to know the historic context. In Jesus’ time, children were not valued. Children were seen as “not-yet people.” Some say it is because the childhood mortality rates were so high, it was dangerous for parents to get too attached. Children were likely to die. No one but no one would have held up children as an example. Jesus did. He stood against the values of his day, to say, “my followers look up to little children.”

Jesus flipped the tables physically and rhetorically. Jesus upended the value systems that said Adult Lives matter more. In the early church, Christianity was often derided by well-heeled Romans because it was a religion for “women and slaves.” The early followers of Jesus understood, Christianity does not play by society’s rules. The lowly are lifted up. The hungry are fed. Women and children, the poor and the persecuted, they are given full faith and credit. Their voices matter. Their votes matter. Jesus took those at the margins, and put them at the center.

Likewise Proverbs 31 is a counter-cultural proclamation of the strength of women, their power, their capability, so often denied in a patriarchal world. In the patriarchy, you have to be a woman of valor to simply survive. Proverbs 31 counts a woman as a teacher, as someone whose voice deserves to be heard an heeded. Proverbs 31 counts a woman as a landowner, as a business leader, as a craftsperson, as the manager of a family, as a provider, as a generous and thoughtful caretaker for the poor and the needy. This is radical stuff.   

Jesus’ example of the child and the woman of valor both push back against the default understandings of greatness that continue to operate in the background, even in our own day, evidently and especially in our own day. We often play games of “who is the greatest?”

The question often subtly transforms,

“Who is at the center of the story?”

Today we are again participating in the Concert Across America against gun violence. Again we will pray for the forgotten victims, those whose names and stories are not reported.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this question of gun violence, and gun legislation over the past years. I grew up in a culture of responsible gun ownership. At one point, I myself was a gun owner. My dad purchased a simple hunting rifle for me. My dad grew up with guns. He grew up hunting. He wanted his son to share that passion. My rifle was kept, with my dads’, in a locked safe. I still today couldn’t tell you where my dad kept the key.

Now, I will admit, guns were never really my passion. In the end, I never went out hunting with my dad. We went to the shooting range a couple of times. But my dad figured out pretty quickly that being cold, and wet, and very very quiet while I waited for a deer (or God-forbid in a duck blind), it would not be his oldest son’s definition of fun. Guns were never my passion, but I grew up with good friends and family members who are passionate about their guns. All of them are white, cis-gender, upper-middle-class, heterosexual men. Most of them are Republicans. I say that without judgement. They are simple facts about people I love.

I talked to my dad before I decided to preach this sermon, since he is my most common sparring partner on questions of gun policy. He said it was okay to share our conversation. We have debated the second amendment more than once. When I talk to my dad, or my other gun-owning friends about gun laws, I often want to say this: “why are you, and your rights, at the center of this story?”

My dad would pass any background check you asked of him. While you might call some of my friends from Colorado “gun nuts,” they could pass a mental health screening. Why are we concerned about not inconveniencing the gun owners I grew up around? Why are they the center of the story when it comes to setting policy?

Gun violence disproportionately affects communities of color, communities in poverty, communities with too few options. When you show up to church for a Concert Across America, when you wear orange, yes do remember the high school students in Florida or Columbine, but really I’d ask you, show up for the families up on the four miles of Natural Bridge that The Guardian newspaper named “the epicenter of America’s gun violence epidemic.” We have to do better for the kids in our neighborhoods, for all of the kids, but especially for the ones who are most affected.

What I want to know, in all of the gun law discussions we are having, why aren’t they calling in those at the center? The experts? Where are the black mothers and grandmothers, the sisters and brothers, and school teachers invited to testify?

How do we help responsible, white, Republican, upper-middle class gun owners understand that the debate isn’t about them? How do we make them see that the story doesn’t center on them? 

I think it comes back to the initial question: “What makes one great?”

For Jesus, the answer is right there in the text. “Whoever wants to be first, must be least of all and the servant of all.” Greatness is measured by our ability to take ourselves out of the center of the story. 

Greatness can be measured, but not easily. Greatness, in this Christian sense, is subtle and hidden by design. Greatness isn’t showy. It is never self-righteous. The kind of greatness Jesus preached often stays hidden. The work of greatness is slow and patient, it involves the building of unlikely relationships.

We live in a world with all sorts and categories for greatness. Jesus pushes back on most of our worlds categories. Because for Jesus the greatest among us are those who have learned that every life has value, every life has dignity. Every life matters, and at times we have to go out of our way we have to go out of our way to lift up those who are left out. We have to point to certain lives. We have to learn to move those at the margin in to the center.

For Jesus greatness means looking to the people who are suffering most and getting in relationship, learning how to serve. Greatness takes a certain kind of courage. If you want to be great, learn how to serve. Learn how to seek out your neighbor, and how to put them at the center of the story. Listen. Learn how to listen to the stories of women and children and those who have gone unheard. Believe the stories. Greatness is involved in listening. And finally, when you hear their stories, have the courage to act.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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