Who is the greatest?

Good morning, Friends!

We keep getting closer and closer to Easter. It’s just a couple of weeks away now.
I’ve pointed out several times in the last few weeks that even Jesus’ closest friends didn’t really understand who Jesus was or what he was doing.

They didn’t know where he came from. They didn’t know he was the Son of God. They didn’t understand that he was going to die – they all thought he would be triumphant and glorious, and that he was going to lead a rebellion and instantly get rid of the Roman invaders.

They didn’t understand his teaching half the time. When Jesus died, they didn’t understand that he was going to rise again. When he left, they didn’t understand that he was coming back. There were a lot of things people didn’t understand!

This morning’s gospel reading is another one of those “they didn’t get it” stories. It talks about what it means to be a leader – what they had in mind, and what Jesus had in mind.

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” Jesus asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

– Matthew 20:20-28 

A lot of people these days want to be great. A lot of people want to be famous. Actors. Politicians. Sports figures. They want to be rich and successful. Popular and powerful.

Two of Jesus’ closest friends thought that they’d like to be powerful, too. Thought they’d sit up there right next to Jesus, one on each side of his throne, when the time came. Can’t get much higher than that!

Trouble is, honor and glory and power aren’t things that come because we grab them. Jesus said, over and over, that’s not the way things work in God’s kingdom.

Jesus once told a story about a wedding banquet. He said, “When you show up for the party, don’t rush to sit at the head table. Somebody might come in who really belongs there, and the host might to ask you to go sit at one of the back tables in the corner. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing!”

“No,” Jesus said, “when you show up at a wedding, sit towards the back, and then they might ask you to come take a place up front. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (see Luke 14:7-11)

Another time people came to Jesus and asked him who the greatest person in God’s kingdom was. They obviously hoped Jesus was going to say it was them!

Jesus reached out and picked up a little child and set the child on his lap. And he said, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:2)

Greatness is a slippery thing. Just this year, we’ve seen dozens of people who were accounted great, who’ve fallen off their pedestals, lost all the respect they had.

Famous actors. Politicians of both parties. Business leaders. They’ve fallen because their deeds have come to light. Now nobody even wants to be around them any more. Their “leadership” has often just been greed and self-promotion.

Jesus held up a different kind of leadership to us. Leadership that was based on truth. When Jesus was on trial for his life, with hostile witnesses shouting for his execution, he said, “This is why I was born, and this is the reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth, hears my voice.”

And Pilate said, “What is truth?” and ordered him to be crucified. (John 18:37-38)

In today’s gospel, Jesus says that leaders will drink the same cup that he drinks, and be drowned and reborn in the same baptism that he went through – the cup of suffering, the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. Whoever wants to follow Christ should expect the same thing, Jesus said.

Just about everyone who speaks the truth, knows about these things.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave. . .”

That is a very different idea of leadership than what the world holds out to us. True leaders are humble, Jesus says. True leaders listen, and pray, and work, and share the lives and suffering of the people they serve. True leaders persuade rather than force their views on people. They lead by good example.

They lead by showing what they can do, rather than by talking a big game. They lead by obeying God, rather than popularity polls. True leaders are trustworthy, because they have proved to others that they are worthy of trust.

And before anybody jumps on me, I am  NOT talking about party politics here. I’m talking about standards.

During my lifetime, I have been disappointed by many people who were held up as leaders – doctors, scientists, writers, teachers, religious leaders, elected officials, business leaders, lawyers, all different kinds.

The trust which we put in our leaders has nose-dived during our lifetime. People we had placed our hopes in have failed us, so many times. I’m not talking about any particular leaders today. I’m asking, “What did Jesus say about leadership?”

True leaders, according to Jesus, are humble. They are servants, not masters. They are conscious that God is always watching what they do. They know that there are no secrets before God, and that they will be judged by how they have treated and served the least and the lowest members of society.

I have known leaders like that. Not many, but a few. Humility doesn’t mean putting yourself down. Jesus never did that. He never humiliated anyone. Humility means being willing to kneel. It means sharing the life of the people you serve. It means not pretending to be above other people.

We all come into this world the same way. We all leave the world some day. And we can’t take any of our fame or riches with us. Humility means that we use our limited time, and whatever resources we have, to try and make this world a better place, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. Because we all came from God. And hopefully, that’s where we’re all going back to one day.

Leaders are not perfect people. Every leader has faults. True leaders know that they are very human, and they spend a lot more time trying to deal with their own faults rather than worrying about the failures of others.

Fake leaders try to hide their faults. True leaders confess them.

One of the big questions which always comes up, is, “If a leader is caught in doing something wrong, can they continue to lead?”

I guess the answer is, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. If a business leader has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, stealing from the stock holders or defrauding the public, they need to acknowledge that they did it, and it was wrong. They need to pay it back, and they shouldn’t expect to be treated differently than any other person caught stealing.

And when it’s all settled, I don’t think they should be put back in charge of the cookie jar again, or even allowed very near it. Let somebody else hand out the cookies, and maybe set up a different system for handing them out, to make sure that it’s honest and fair for everyone. I think that a lot of the financial problems of this country have happened because we let the biggest thieves and confidence operators run the banks and the markets.

The same thing is true of religious leaders. When a religious leader has a major human failing, they shouldn’t expect to be treated better than anyone else. Confess, make it right, accept the penalty, and don’t expect to get your pulpit back again.

Do you want to know one of big reasons the church is in decline? Churches stopped being true leaders. Churches stopped listening to what Jesus said.

Way too many times, churches have failed to protect children and young people, and allowed predators to hurt them – physically, emotionally and spiritually. I have seen this with my own eyes. And then, way too many churches have covered it up, rather than bringing it to light and working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

No wonder people don’t trust churches the way we hope they would! My job as a leader, and the church’s role as a leader, is to protect children and protect young people. If we don’t do that, we don’t deserve to be leaders of anything.

I think it’s interesting, in this morning’s gospel, that Jesus says that the decision on who gets to sit on either side of his throne isn’t up to him. He said, “I don’t know who gets to sit there. Even I’m not in charge of the seating chart. God knows who the real leaders are.”

Jesus did say, in another place, that you know trees by their fruit. Good trees bear good fruit. Good apple trees make good apples. Healthy orange trees make good oranges. Bad trees make bad fruit. Look for yourself. It’s not too hard to figure out! (see Matthew 7:15-20)

In much the same way, Paul said that wherever the Holy Spirit is present, you will find love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. No matter where you go, you will never find any law against these things. And I think it’s fair to say that any place these things are found, then true, Spirit-led leadership has a chance of happening.

Same thing, but flip it around. Paul says that whenever the Holy Spirit is absent, you will find sexual immorality, moral failure, shameful deeds, worshiping false gods, hatred, strife, jealousy, uncontrollable rage, selfish ambition, quarreling, division, envy, drunken behavior, carousing, and other kinds of evil. (see Galatians 5:19-23)

Wherever you find this – in schools, in politics, in business, in religious organizations, sports, entertainment, any area of life that people look up to – if you find this kind of negative stuff being accepted and tolerated, then the Holy Spirit is missing in action.

And wherever we find leaders who support this negative stuff, who tolerate it and participate in it and justify it, then I think we need to be clear. Don’t look up to them. Don’t accept their world view. Don’t stand up for them. Don’t honor them.

This is not about party politics. It goes way beyond whoever is on the news tonight. It’s about what kind of leaders we ourselves want to be.

For many years now, one of my favorite devotional books has been The Imitation of Christ. I bought my first copy of it back when I was twenty, so I’ve been reading it for a good many years now.

One of the wise things it says in the Imitation of Christ is this:

“No man safely goes abroad who does not love to rest at home.
No one safely speaks except those who love to remain silent and at peace.
No one safely rules but those who love to be subject to others.
No one safely commands but those who love to obey.
No one safely rejoices, but those who have a good conscience.”
(Imitation of Christ, book 1, chapter 20)

As Jesus tells us this morning:

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

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One Response to Who is the greatest?

  1. Betty Madden says:

    Sorry we missed this great sermon , it was right on! Also missed some beautiful music.

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