Greatness in the Kingdom – a sermon

REC_0002.MP4 from Rick Mitchell on Vimeo.


One of the unintended consequences of the 21st century priesthood is the email forward.  It isn’t uncommon for me to get an email or two a week of funny bulletin bloopers or church jokes.  I read most of them because you never know where a sermon illustration might be hiding.  This week, as I thought about how to approach our Gospel text, one of those stories I read several years ago came to mind.[1]  It is the story of a small jet with five passengers.  While flying at thirty-thousand feet, the engine malfunctioned and the plane started to descend toward earth.  The pilot came running out of the cockpit with a parachute strapped to his back and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.  The bad news is that the plane is going to crash and there is nothing I can do about it.  The good news is that there are several parachutes on the wall back there.  The other bad news is that there are only four of them left and there are five of you.  Good luck.  Thank you for choosing our airline, and we hope that you have a good evening, where ever your final destination may be.”  With that, he gave the stunned passengers a thumbs up, opened the door, and jumped for safety.

Immediately, a man jumped out of his seat and said, “I am the greatest brain surgeon in the world.  My patients depend on me and the world is a better place because of my breakthroughs.”  He grabbed a pack, strapped it to his back, and jumped.

Then a woman stood up and said, “I’m a partner in the greatest law firm in the country.  We go up against big tobacco, asbestos companies, and fight for the little guy.  The world is a better place with me in it.”  She grabbed a pack strapped it to her back, and jumped.

Next, another man stood up and said, “I am arguably the smartest man in the world.  My IQ is so great that I won’t even tell you what is, but surely you understand that the world needs me, so I simply must take a parachute.”  He grabbed a pack, strapped it to his back, and jumped.

That left only two people on the plane, a middle-aged priest and a teenage boy.

“Young man,” said the priest, “you take the last parachute.  You’re young; you still have your whole life ahead of you to do great things.  God bless you, and safe landing.”

The teenager grinned at the older woman.  “Thanks pastor, but there are still two parachutes left. The smartest man in the world just grabbed my backpack.”

Like this joke, our Gospel lesson today is a story about how human beings misunderstand greatness in the eyes of God.  It begins with something of a replay of last week’s text.  In Mark’s Gospel, it has been eight or nine days since we last encountered Jesus and his disciples in the coastal resort village of Caesarea Philippi.  Jesus had taken his disciples there for the first ever clergy conference.  Having stepped away from the hustle and bustle of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, they were able to have some deeper conversations about who Jesus was and what he had come to do.

When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter was quick to respond with the right answer, “You are the Messiah,” he boldly proclaimed.  Surely, Peter was thrilled to finally have it out in the open.  It’d been almost a year of following Jesus around – a year of uncertainty about to whom they had hitched their wagon – and now, finally, they could say that Jesus was the Messiah, the Chosen One of God.  Instead, Jesus sternly ordered them to tell no one.  He went on to describe what being the Messiah meant.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter, blessed, impetuous Peter, knew for sure that that was not what the greatness of the Messiah was supposed to look like, and so he tried to rebuke Jesus.  To Peter’s mind, there was no greatness in vulnerability.  There was now power in dying.  There was no future kingdom in that plan.  No, that couldn’t be what God had in mind at all.  Jesus’ response is strong and clear, “Get behind me Satan!  If you want to be my follower, then deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”  It’s been about a week since that difficult exchange.  Just yesterday, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain.  They heard him talking with Moses and Elijah about God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  They had experienced Jesus at what they thought was his greatest.

As they set off for their next stop, making their way through the Galilean countryside, Jesus again warns his disciples about what being the Messiah will mean.  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  Mark tells us that the disciples don’t have the slightest clue what Jesus is talking about.  They simply cannot understand how God’s plan to restore Israel to greatness could look so weak.  They are totally confused, and are also completely unwilling or unable to admit their vulnerability.  They simply cannot buy Jesus’ assertion that greatness looks like self-sacrificial love.  Greatness, in their mind, is power, strength, and knowledge – not vulnerability, weakness, and death.

As their journey continues, this idea that greatness is best expressed in power and privilege spills over into an argument.  The disciples fight over which one of them is the greatest.  Like the passengers on that airplane, each one of them used their resume to make a case for greatness, angling for which one of them would sit at the right hand of Jesus when he finally gave up on this silly idea about being arrested and killed, and instead used his power to take his rightful place on the throne of David by force.   I imagine Jesus, hearing what was happening behind him, rubbing the dull ache in his forehead, and wondering aloud if they will ever get what he is trying to tell them.  “Here is how greatness works in the Kingdom of God.  If you want to be the first, the best, the greatest, then you have to put yourself last.  To be great, you have to be the servant of all.”

Spoiler Alert – the disciples won’t get it this time either, and every day since, the Church has continued to largely fail to understand it as well.  For two thousand years, the institution of the Church has been tooting its own horn, grabbing backpacks that it assumed was a parachute, and struggling with what greatness really looks like.  It isn’t about being the biggest.  It isn’t about having the most money.  It isn’t about being the closest to the ear of political power.  It isn’t about fancy buildings, or educated clergy, or flowing vestments, or giant organs, or having that Bishop who preached at the Royal Wedding.  Jesus is clear that what being great is all about is how we use all of those resources to reach outside the walls in loving service to our neighbors.

The Greek word that gets translated as “servant” is diakonos, from which we get the word deacon, but it simply means “to minister.”  Being first in the Kingdom of God, being the greatest church on the block, is about how each and every one of us, as followers of Jesus Christ, lives into our unique calling as ministers of the Good News.  Our greatness is defined by our willingness to be vulnerable; listening to our neighbors, and trying to understand how God is inviting us to love them.  Our greatness is defined by acts of humble service – through Wednesday Community Lunch, Churches United in HELP, Living Waters for the World, MEALS, INC., and Room in the Inn, among many others.  Our greatness is defined by how we pool our resources to make the greatest impact.  Our greatness is defined by how we work together to empower one another for ministry – raising up a community full of disciples of Jesus Christ who are committed to a life of servanthood.  This week, as you receive your pledge card for 2019, I hope you will begin to prayerfully discern how God is calling you to take your place in the greatness Christ Church as together, we share in the ministry of Jesus, a ministry of compassion, vulnerability, and grace.  Amen.


Ignorance isn’t always bliss

You know that nightmare?  The one where you haven’t gone to a single class all semester, but find yourself sitting in the final, panicking because you have no idea how to answer any of the questions?  It is a classic stress dream.  Along the lines of showing up at school in your underwear or, for preachers, not being able to find your sermon text amid reams and reams of paper in the pulpit.  We know dreams to be the subconscious working things out sideways, but there is usually a bit of truth, even in a nightmare like the first example, from which we learn the deep truth that ignorance isn’t always bliss.  We learn the same thing in our rather pointed Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Since last Sunday, when we last heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection, a few things have happened to Jesus and his disciples that the Lectionary skips over, all of which are based in misunderstanding.


First, Jesus ends his teaching about what it means to call him the Messiah by telling his disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  This promise is nothing to sneeze at, and it will be the source of consternation and confusion for the early church through the entirety of its first generation.  How do we handle the reality that people are dying and the kingdom of God is not fully inaugurated?  We will have to save that for another post, when/if the Lectionary decides to include 9:1.

Next, and more importantly, comes the Transfiguration, which in Mark’s Gospel includes the detail that Peter’s suggestion that they build some houses is based on the fact that he was terrified and didn’t know what to say.  Finally, as Peter, James, John, and Jesus come down the mountain, they find the rest of the disciples scratching their heads over a boy who is possessed by a demon that they could not cast out.  A rather lengthy story, given Mark’s aversion to details, this passage shows us that nobody, as of yet, really understands what this traveling Rabbi, miracle worker, and, hopefully, Messiah, was really about.  “Why couldn’t we cast the demon out?” the disciples as Jesus.  “Because you have no idea how this stuff really works,” Jesus intimates in his reply.

Which brings us finally to Jesus predicting his death and resurrection for a second time.  Mark flat out tells us that the disciples did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask.  The Greek word that is translated at “did not understand,” carries with it the implication that not only did the disciples not get it, but it is likely that they lacked the capacity to ever get it.  This becomes abundantly clear when the disciples next action is to argue over which one of them was greatest.  Jesus just told us that the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the greatest human being to ever live, was gong to be betrayed and killed, and their response is to try to figure out who will be there to take his place?  No, this sort of ignorance is not bliss.  This ignorance is totally missing the point of who Jesus was and what he came to do. This ignorance is Calvin flying blissfully down the hill in his wagon, ignorant of the likely painful ending to his ride.

It strikes me that many who claim to follow Jesus in 21st century America are suffering from the same sort of ignorance – following Jesus assuming it brings with it some sort of major award at the end, rather than the truth that Jesus exemplified in his life, that the kingdom of God is where the first are last and the last are first.  Following Jesus isn’t about securing celestial fire insurance or making your country greater than all the rest or about safety, comfort, or security.  Following Jesus is, as we heard last week, about denying yourself and taking up your cross.  Following Jesus is about laying down your life – literally and figuratively – for the sake of the other.  Following Jesus is about embracing vulnerability and trusting fully in God.  To misunderstand this reality is to fundamentally miss the point.

Don’t be Anxious

One of the most popular phrases in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is “Have no fear.”  It occurs most often in those moments when fear is the most rational emotion available.  When an angel appears in your bedroom, it always comes with “Have no fear.”  When Jesus who was dead miraculously enters your locked room, he says, “Have no fear.”  When the boat is sinking, when the bush is burning, when life is crashing in, “Have no fear.”

I think the modern day equivalent is “Don’t be anxious.”  We live in a world that is built upon anxiety: real and contrived.  Advertising works by creating anxiety in order to relieve it.  “Did you know that more than half of men over 40 have some sort of erectile dysfunction?  Cialis is here to help.”  The 24 hour news cycle exists because post 9/11 we are anxious for breaking news and quick answers.  “We have no idea where this plan disappeared to, but we’ll spend the next 72 hours in a flight simulator offering speculation and conjecture.”  As Baby Boomers reach retirement age, the constant fluctuations of the stock market is a sure and certain source of anxiety.  Even sports, created to a source of leisure are now rife with anxiety.  Last season, when the Packers started 1-2 and their offense was finding little success, quarterback Aaron Rogers took to the airwaves with a simple request.

His words are wise, and our Collect for Sunday invites us to take them to heart as we ask God to grant us the ability to “not be anxious about earthly things.”  This is one of those prayers that I wonder if we really mean it.  I wonder if the congregation is praying along as I say the words or if they are leaving me out on a limb before God.  “You can pray that, Steve, but we’re so conditioned to anxiety that we’re kind of happy where we are.  Haven’t you watched the news lately?  There is plenty of earthly stuff to be anxious about.”

I get it.  Life in the kingdom doesn’t mean life on easy street.  There will still be hardships: medical concerns, financial woes, job stress, family issues, you name it; but God walks alongside us, with a hand on our shoulder, saying, “R-E-L-A-X.  Don’t be anxious.  Have no fear.  I am here.”

Servant of the Servants of God

Beginning in the late-6th century with Pope Gregory I, every Bishop of Rome has taken on the title of Servant of the Servants of God.  As that great theological and historical treasure trove called Wikipedia tells the story, Gregory I took on the title in order to show his humility as being better than the newly appointed Ecumenical Patriarch, the Archbishop of Constantinople, John the Faster.  The trouble with humility, however, is that once you know you’ve got it, you’ve lost it, and once you try to show how good you are at it, you’ve failed.

Though there is great irony in the birth narrative of the title, Servant of the Servants of God, it still gets used with regularity, and not only by the man who happens to be sitting in Peter’s Chair.  I can’t remember if it was said by the Presiding Bishop or by Bishop Sloan, who preached the event, but I remember hearing that term get used in and around the Ordination of our new Bishop here in the Central Gulf Coast.  While I think that every Christian should probably strive for that title, there is a certain sensibility in its use for Bishops, as it is an explicitly stated requirement of apostolic ministry.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear the story of how Jesus responds to his disciples arguing over who is the greatest among them.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  While it is probably true that no one gets elected bishop without at least a little bit of ego, it is truer to say that one cannot be an effective Christian leader without being humble enough to reach out in loving service.

As time goes by, Jesus will model that behavior.  On the night he was betrayed, while he and his disciples were still eating, he got up, took off his cloak and knelt down to wash their feet.  Jesus, the Son of God, took on the job of a slave.  He who was first, made himself to be last.  This is an important reminder for clergy, for lay leaders, and yes, even for bishops.  Those who wish to be first, must be last: the servants of the servants of God.

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Thankfully, my bishop understands what it means to be a servant to the servants of God.