Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 19, 2021
Who is the greatest? It’s the most natural of human questions. Who is the greatest? Children fight on the playground to answer this question. Wars have been waged to answer this question. Untold millions have lost their lives so that one ruler or another could claim to be the greatest. Who is the greatest?
Rightly so, we’re sick and tired of this question, of the posturing, of the self-aggrandizement. We assume that anybody who wants to be great must be an egomaniac. This is part of the cynicism laden in our political culture right now. It’s a red flag, a warning, to see someone seeking greatness.
And that is part of what is going on in the gospel lesson for today. The disciples of Jesus have been arguing among themselves about which one of them is the greatest. But notice, notice the subtle move that Jesus makes here. He doesn’t condemn greatness. In fact, Jesus calls us, calls his disciples to greatness. It’s just that the path to get there has changed. For Jesus, greatness is not something you earn through wealth or power or celebrity. Greatness, for Jesus, has been redefined. Rather than accumulating money or fame to become great, greatness comes through giving and through service.
Think of those great heroes of our faith, even those ones who are arguing with each other on the road. We now remember them as great, not because of what they accumulated but through what they gave and how they served. Peter became great because he was crucified for the Lord Jesus. Thomas became great because he preached the gospel to the ends of the earth. Mary became great because she gave herself to the will of God to carry this precious child, Jesus. Paul became great, though he died a prisoner, because he gave his life to something bigger than he was; the Kingdom of God.
Or, think about our own parish church. Think on the great heroes that we remember. There’s a bust of Mr. Eaton, our first rector, right there as you walk into the church. And a bust of Mr. Bird, our second rector, as you walk out. There is a plaque to remember those who died in World War 1; another honor roll to remember those who died in World War 2. This pulpit was given in honor of our first bishop, Alexander Gregg. They all became great in our eyes, not because of what they received, of what they earned, but by what they gave. For the Christian, for the disciple, greatness is the goal. And that’s what the disciples have to learn. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Being first is not bad, it is good. Being great is not wicked, it is honorable. It’s that Jesus has redefined greatness. It’s that we define greatness differently from the world.
The problem is that we try to become great on our own terms. In our selfishness, in our sinfulness, we are those disciples on the road who think that greatness is something that we can earn. We have yet to fully embrace the way of Jesus, because that’s the way to greatness. We give our way to greatness. We give ourselves in prayer, in worship, in ministry.
And yes, even our money. We give our money away – not because it’s the smart thing to do financially, not because we might get our name on a building, not because it’s a way to gain notoriety, but because it is part of the path to spiritual greatness. I know – I could stand here and talk about dying for Jesus like Peter; I could talk about saying yes to God like Mary; but once I talk about money we all tighten up. Well, that just goes to show what we really care about in life. It’s our money. And if we want to get to that next place of spiritual growth, if we want to make our way to greatness, we have to give away what is most precious to us. So many of us say that we are willing to die for Jesus. That’s fine. The real question is this – are you willing to be inconvenienced for Jesus?
That’s what a pledge campaign is about; and that’s what we’ll be talking about over the next few weeks here at Trinity Church. We give our money to the church, we give our money to God, because it is part of our discipleship. A pledge to the church is not a few dollars off the top. It’s not an afterthought. Charitable gifts to the church and non-profits must be our primary financial commitment in life because the Lord Jesus is our primary commitment in life. We do not give to the church in order to pay the light bill. No, we give to the church because it is our spiritual discipline to return a portion of our money to the Lord God. That is where the rubber hits the road. We can talk a big spiritual game all day long; we can tell everyone how great we are; but it’s all hollow if we do not commit to Jesus with everything that we have and everything that we are. Our time, our gifts, our resources. It is good to be great – but we must give our way there.
As our Lord Jesus became great. He became great by giving himself away on the cross. Jesus redefined greatness, not by his words but by his actions. He gave everything he had and everything he was. And that is why we still remember and worship him today. God is the greatest because God gives. God gave everything away, even his own Son, to the death of the cross for us. That is what makes God great. It is this path, the path of giving, by which we receive that same greatness.
In the coming weeks I ask you to prayerfully consider your own path to giving. What is Jesus calling you to give away? To what extent are you willing to be inconvenienced? Are you ready for that next step to greatness? I ask you to prayerfully consider your own financial pledge – as my family will consider our pledge. And I promise you – we will not give just a bit off the top. We will not give whatever is extra or leftover. Trinity Church is our primary financial commitment. Because this is where we worship, grow, and serve with the Lord Jesus. I’m not saying that to tell you how great I am. I’m saying this because I know that giving away is the greatest thing I can do in my walk with Jesus, including my money.
My friends, the history of Trinity Episcopal Church is great because of those who gave, and those who served over these 180 years. So many faithful people of the past have given of their money so that we can be here now. But we cannot rest on our laurels, we cannot rely on the past. As Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts and a devout Episcopalian said: “The work of today is the history of tomorrow; and we are its makers.” We must claim our future. We can make history now. 180 years from now the people of Trinity Church should look back on us and marvel at our faithfulness, at our generosity, at our commitments. I believe that this church has a future that is even greater, even brighter than our past because we are givers. The future is so bright, that I think I need some sunglasses. And on your way out of church you will also get your sunglasses. Wear them proudly, wear them as a reminder of those who gave, wear them to shield your eyes from the greatness, from the brightness of our future. But we must give our way there.
Tap into that human desire for greatness. That drive, that desire was given to you by God. Don’t let it get all sideways, don’t think you can earn your greatness. Don’t play all the petty games to become great in human eyes. Because true greatness is not earned, it is received. Allow God to shape that desire within you so that you can give your way to greatness. So join me. Join my family. Join in this church’s next chapter. Join us on our journey to greatness through giving to the Lord Jesus.