goat (greatest of all time): a divine definition – a sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost

preaching a sermon, based on Mark 10.35-45, that I had planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Sunday, October 18, 2015, but, in the moment, the Spirit of God took hold of my mind and heart, will and lips to utter something (but not quite) akin to what follows…

Jesus, in the manner of rabbis, walks ahead of his disciples as he teaches, saying, “We go to Jerusalem (where) the Son of Man will be handed over, condemned, mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed, and after three days rise again.”[1] With these words, immediately preceding this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus, for a third time, predicts his suffering and death.

First, at Caesarea Philippi. Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus then taught that he was a Messiah who would suffer and die. Peter, in horrified disbelief, rebuked Jesus.[2] The second time, near Capernaum, while the disciples, trailing behind, with mindless disregard for Jesus’ declaration of his coming death, argued among themselves who was the greatest.[3]

Now, James and John, demonstrating how little they have learned about Jesus, discount Jesus’ word of his coming trial, discount Jesus and his undoubted distress. Unable to conceive of trial and tribulation, but only triumph, they seek the prime positions of power at Jesus’ right and left. Jesus, ever patient and exasperated, responds, saying, in effect, “You haven’t a clue about what you are asking.” Can they drink from his “cup” (a biblical metaphor for suffering)? Can they be baptized, immersed, drowned in his suffering? James and John, still clueless, thinking only of standing in the bright light of glory and not in the shadow of a cross, answer, “Yes.” Jesus tells them they will suffer for his sake (though surely they still don’t understand) and that positions of honor are not his to give. The other disciples are angry at James and John, but only because they were late in making the same request of Jesus.

Clearly, all of the disciples suffer from a deep spiritual malady of corporate incomprehension. They just don’t get (or want to get) Jesus, which compels him again to teach them about real power, true prominence. Genuine greatness is to be a servant, in the Greek, diakonos, even more radically, a slave, doulos, the least, the last, the lowest of the lowly. Still more, Jesus, no worldly ruler who lords his power over his subjects, asks that they, we not only do what he does, but be who he is: “The Son of Man who came not to be served, but to serve.”

This is paradox; at first glance, making no sense, but, at its heart, embracing, embodying truth. The nonsense? Nothing about lowly service matches nicely our innate human desire for prominence and individual prestige or meshes neatly with our worldly hierarchical systems and structures, commercial, industrial, and ecclesial. However, God so made the world and us that in the service of losing our lives for the sake of others, we save, discover our truest selves.

Earlier, Jesus, making this same point in another way, taught his disciples: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”[4] An amazing teaching on two counts.

Jesus instructs not by injunction, but observation. He doesn’t say, “You must do this”, but rather, “Life is like this.” Life, as created by God, is more giving than receiving. More justice for all than “just us” (whoever “us” happens to be in relation to “them”). More radical hospitality than calculated generosity. If we focus solely, even largely on our individual interests, life (which by divine design is not only meant to be, but is relational, communal, mutually beneficial) cannot exist.

Jesus, linking greatness with service, places prestige not within the reach of all, but in the hands of all. This also is how life is. Not everyone has material wealth or earthly authority or worldly power. But everyone everywhere everyday can serve at least one somebody in need, and, therefore, is great.

This is what you call gospel, good news!


[1] Mark 10.33-34, paraphrase

[2] Mark 8.27-32

[3] Mark 9.30-34

[4] Mark 9.35

2 thoughts on “goat (greatest of all time): a divine definition – a sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost

  1. How awesome that you let you heart, mind, soul and lips guide you this morning with so many folks in front of you who could benefit from the words of PRA!! Even though you may not have preached this sermon exactly as written, it packs a lot of lessons nonetheless.

    What I took from this is the fact that you don’t have to be rich to serve, any little thing you can do can help. This past Wednesday I was returning from Dallas and my flight was boarding at 5:40am. I was putting cream in a cup of coffee I had just purchased and a man who spoke French was getting coffee and a bagel but didn’t have enough US currency for his purchase. The cashier yelled rudely and loudly “you’re short, you’re short!!” as if screaming at him would help him understand English. Lots of people turned around to look as the Frenchman looked very perplexed. As they were boarding the flight I stepped to the cashier and tossed a $1 bill at her. She said thanks and the man smiled broadly and gave me a quick hug as we rushed to board our flight. I didn’t do much for him, but I felt good (and he looked like he really needed that coffee!) Conversely I’ve not given in some cases where I thought my contribution wouldn’t be “enough” to make much of a difference, but I think in the future, I’ll help anyway since every little bit helps when you’re serving others. Thanks for that lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice vignette, Loretta, of one human-to-human encounter; small, yes, in some sense of strangers exchanging a moment in time, but large in recognition of a need followed by a kind response. In the grand scheme of living, I do believe it is the countless kindly intentions and actions that, among many things, help civilization remain civilized.


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