May we seek truth together. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I will never forget the time I was invited to sit at High Table at St. John’s College, Oxford University. For those of you who are not familiar, High Table is a tradition of prestigious universities in England, such as Oxford, Cambridge or Durham. (Think Hogwarts’ Great Hall.)
It is a highly ritualized dining experience that performs a certain social order. The “High Table” is literally higher than the other tables and is located at the end of a dining hall on a raised platform, making it slightly taller than the family-style dining tables below. High Table is reserved for the Seniors of the Common Room: senior faculty, fellows, visiting lecturers — and their guests.
The tables below High Table are occupied by students and their guests. Dress on more formal occasions includes academic regalia that indicates one’s order and rank or a black suit or dress. The students below the high table have to wait to sit until all members of the high table are seated.
A loud bang is heard, preceded by grace said in Latin. Everyone sits down and with precision likened to the waitstaff from Downtown-Abbey, servers come out in timed sequence to serve the four-course meal.
I was in heaven. I was sitting next to some of the greatest minds of our time, having intellectual conversations and eating amazing food. As I floated to the back of the hall, I saw the bustling kitchen staff, and what seemed like out of nowhere, I thought about today’s gospel, when Jesus said, “those who want to be the greatest, must be the servant of all.”
It struck me that in the Kingdom of God, those waiters were the greatest amongst those attending High Table. With the great scandal of our faith being that God loved everyone in the room just the same.
And this is what Jesus is talking about in this morning’s gospel when he caught the disciples fighting over who would be the greatest. Jesus tells them that the one who was “the servant of all” would be considered the greatest. In Greek “servant of all” translates as diakonos. Diakonos is the root word for deacon. In the church, a deacon’s main charism is one of service. And for churches fortunate enough to have a deacon, they serve as constant reminders of what greatness looks like in God’s Kingdom: service.
Now to be charitable to the disciples, it is important to consider their context. These disciples had just finished a long trek. According to Mark’s gospel, they had just traveled through Galilee to Capernaum and were headed to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus taught, performed miracles, exorcised demons, was transfigured, and began to predict his own departure.
In fact, moments before the disciples were bickering over who was the greatest, Jesus shared for the second time that he would be soon be betrayed, killed, and on the third day rise again. And you have to wonder whether or not the disciples began to get anxious.
Like any group of people that are about to lose their leader, the disciples may have begun to get a little anxious. Change was in the air and the disciples may have sensed that they would soon find themselves leaderless.
Sensing a power vacuum, the disciples’ arguments about who was the greatest (and therefore who should fill the soon-vacant post) may have been a reaction to the unknown.
And in this moment of anticipated transition, Jesus reminds them what greatness looks like. In the face of losing their leader, Jesus offers them a way toward greatness and a way to become great again, when they get off track.
For Jesus, greatness was not displayed through military might, wealth, prestige, deportment, or one’s ability to lead from the top of a social pyramid. Nor was greatness found in one’s ability to dominate and gain control by any means necessary. No, the way to greatness was not to be seen in political and economic garlands publicly bestowed and relied upon for validation, nor in many of the predominant values of the Greco-Roman Empire that occupied them.
To be great in God’s Kingdom meant to become a servant to all. To become like those servants whose self-gifting and self-effacing actions bore witness to the incarnation of Christ, who “…emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippines 2.7-8) in order that creation might be forever reconciled to God. To be great was to assume a habit of humility that made room for the concern and services of others.
To help the disciples to become great again when they got off track, Jesus told them to welcome antiquity’s most powerless: a child. By welcoming a child, they welcomed Christ himself. A child would lead the disciples from their head games to an uninhibited openness to the world and to God.
When we try to think about a saint who embodied Jesus’ understanding of greatness we often think about St. Francis of Assisi. We are all familiar with St. Francis. We see him in our gardens as a birdbath. But if we go beyond ‘St. Francis the birdbath’ and into his life, he has a lot to teach us about greatness.
St. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, who lived a life without meaning until a near death experience prompted a religious conversion. Francis became convinced that he was to spend the rest of his life in service to the church and to the poor. So, he gave all of his and his father’s money to the poor.
Angry, his father looked for Francis in the center square and demanded that he repay him. Francis responded by taking off all of his clothes and renouncing all of his rights to his family’s wealth. For Francis, the outer stripping of his garments, the giving away of all his possessions, the renunciation of his familial wealth reflected what God was doing in his soul. Through stripping off what he was raised to believe made him great, he was opened up to be filled by something that made him far greater than silver and gold: a servant to all. This material dispossession reflected a spiritual dispossession of self, a poverty of spirit, which in the end was what made Francis so great. His poverty of spirit, his disposition towards service, made it possible for him to write, ”it is through giving that we receive, through pardoning that we are pardoned, through comforting that we are comforted. ”
This way of greatness does not make the newspaper headlines. It does not promise a hagiography to be remembered for all time. This way towards greatness is found in the unnamed folk, the regular folk, who faithfully do God’s work in the mundane. A way that often does not come with adequate monetary compensation or accolade. A way that often subverts society’s social constructs that distance us from other human beings. A way that embraces a poverty of spirit in order to make oneself vulnerably open to the presence of God in one another. A way that knows that in the spiritual economy, the more that we give, the more we receive.
And I have witnessed this type of greatness at St. Thomas’ Church.
Just this week, I visited with two parishioners who were recently admitted to hospice care. During both visits, I noticed that they had bouquets of flowers from our church. For those of you who are not aware, each Sunday, a team of people not only arranges the altar flowers, they also take them apart after the service, and create bouquets to be delivered by another team of parishioners. This team delivers the flowers to parishioners going through a hard time, celebrating the birth of a child, or that need to be thanked in some way.
During both visits with women who were dying, the family remarked how much it meant to receive the flowers during such hardship.
To those who participate in taking apart the altar flowers and to those who deliver them, you are the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
And there are more stories that I could share, if time permitted. I am sure you can think of some examples. If you have been blessed by someone else’s service, consider telling them. This is how we build up the body of Christ and encourage each other in our service to one another.
This way of greatness, this “little way” as St. Therese of Lisieux once said, is seen in small acts of kindness.
Beloved sisters and brothers, this is how we become great again. By giving without strings attached, by listening before we speak, through self-giving acts of service. Through our small and large acts of kindness, through our little and big sacrifices, through our glances, our attention. Through a spirit of dispossession that empties our souls to be able to fully receive the divine spark in another.
Let us make the church great, by following the example of the One who embodied greatness, Jesus our Lord. For we know “…it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Amen.