What does it mean to be great?

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I doubt the people of Le Chambon thought of themselves as great.  The small act of opening a door to people who are vulnerable, scared, and in need, becomes an act of greatness, especially when it is done together in community.

 

17th Sunday After Pentecost,
September 23, 2012

Jeremiah 11.18-20; Psalm 54; James 3.13-4.3,
7-8a; Mark 9.30-37

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

 

Grace and peace to you from the One who calls us
to be servants, Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Amen.

What does it mean to be great?  In our Gospel reading today, the disciples
are concerned about establishing rank. 
They argue with one another to determine which one of them is the
greatest.  I wonder…the greatest at
what?  The greatest at fishing, the
greatest at following Jesus, the greatest human being over all?

Jesus just shares with them the devastating news
of his own suffering and death and his closest followers, whom he has appointed
to share the love of God with others, are fighting with one another.

Like our society today, I’m sure the disciples
too felt pressure to be what the society deemed as great.  Even if they weren’t great by society’s
standards, somehow they felt it was up to them to convince others of their
greatness. 

If we are humble enough to admit it, we have
done the same thing at one point or another in our lives.  If we haven’t done it on a school playground
in our younger (or current) years, we have done it in sports, in our work, on
the street, or even silently in our minds. 
Insiders and outsiders are created wherever we are.  And somehow if someone else is left out and
it’s not me, it makes me feel like I am greater.

Our world, especially in the United States, is
structured in such a way that holds rank, status, and privilege as
central.  Somehow our society convinces
us that you need to have money, a nice car, and a gorgeous individual to be
your partner, to be worth something or to have any status.  Nearly every commercial on television tries
to convince you that you deserve to have whatever they are selling, and if you
don’t feel great, their product will make you feel great if you have it.

If you haven’t noticed it already, we are in an
election year.  It is every candidates
job to convince you how great they and how much better they are than any of the
people they are running against.  Somehow
we get used to others arguing, putting each other down, and making systems that
determine who is the greatest by society’s standards.

These are the realities we are living with
today, and here we are on Sunday morning hearing Jesus tell us what it means to
be great: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all
(Mark 9.35).”

Being last and being a servant of all is a far
cry from what we usually think it means to be great.  Our Gospel reading today got me thinking
about people I think are truly great, great in the way Jesus talks about. 

One of these people is Andrew Trocme and the
people of the village of Le Chambon in France. 
Andrew Trocme was the village pastor in Le Chambon during World War
II.  All around Le Chambon in France and
all over Europe, Jews were being slaughtered by followers of Adolf Hilter
because they themselves believed that they were the greatest race on earth.  They believed it was their right to rid the
world of people they thought were not as good as they were.

Andrew Trocme and the people of the village knew
about the constant killing of innocent people. 
They believed that every life was precious, even that of a German
solider who killed a Jew just because they were a Jew.  They also believed that an “intimate
community of people praying together and finding in their love for each other
and for God…” would be able to “extinguish indifference and solitude (Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip
Hallie, p. 57).”  Thus, the village of Le Chambon became a place
where thousands of Jews, particularly children, found refuge, life, and safety.

Every person in the village of Le Chambon risked
their lives each day for people they did not know.  The village was organized into Bible study
groups who operated both independently from one another, yet together.  They operated independently enough that if
one group’s leader got caught and tortured, they would not be able to give
enough information to dismantle what the village was doing to save people.  Each group was charged with housing Jews who
made it to the village, and were also responsible for continuing to smuggle
them out of France to a safer place.

Andrew Trocme’s wife, “Magda, and all the other
people of Le Chambon,” had an understanding that “turning somebody away from
one’s door is not simply a refusal to help; it is an act of harmdoing (p.124).”  Through helping refugees, the people
“realized the concrete meaning of the ‘city of refuge’ passage in Deu. 19.10:
‘lest innocent blood be shed in your land…and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon
you (p. 125).”

The book that carries the story of Le Chambon is
called: Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by
Philip Hallie.  What is so moving about
the story of this village to me is the way they quietly practiced nonviolence
together as a community for years and years with the every day threat to their
lives.  There were constantly German
soldiers in their village threatening them and looking for Jews and it did not
stop them from welcoming the people, mostly children, who showed up on their
doorsteps.

When the author of the book was giving a talk
about the village in a hotel in Minneapolis, a woman stood up after it.  This is how he describes her:

She was a powerful woman wearing a sheath dress
that made her body look like a slender cannon, taut, full of explosive
power.  But for a moment the cannon
seemed to crumple.  She stood there
silent for what seemed to be a long time and then she said, “Well, you have
been speaking about the village that saved the lives of all three of my
children.”  She came to the front of the
room, turned to face the audience, and said, “The Holocaust was storm,
lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes.  And
Le Chambon was the rainbow (p. xvii).”

The author continues: 

The rainbow remind God and human beings that
life is precious to God, that God offers not only sentimental hope, but a
promise that living will have the last word, not killing.  The rainbow means realistic hope.  For that woman whose three daughters were
save by the villagers of Le Chambon, history is not hopeless because of the
unshakable fact that lives were saved in Le Chambon (p. xvii-xviii).

I doubt the people of Le Chambon thought of
themselves as great.  The small act of
opening a door to people who are vulnerable, scared, and in need, becomes an
act of greatness, especially when it is done together in community.

The disciples of Jesus tried to single
themselves out from one another to prove their greatness, yet none of them were
willing to go to the cross of death with Jesus. 
The villagers of Le Chambon went to the cross every day as they risked
their lives for sake of others.

Jesus teaches his followers what it means to be
great through a child.  Children in Jesus
day were thought to be insignificant and not important.  ½ of the children would die by he age of 5,
so no one wanted to invest in them until they became a more productive member
of society.  Jesus does a radical thing by
bringing a child into the middle of the disciples and saying, “Become a servant
to this child and you will learn what it means to be great.” 

What Jesus is really saying is, “Become a
servant to people around you who are seemingly insignificant: people who are vulnerable,
people who might smell bad, people who make you uncomfortable, people who don’t
puff up your ego.  Be willing to
sacrifice a bit for the sake of someone else.”

So what does greatness mean for you and me?  I’ll simply lay three things out here for
thought: 

  1. You do not need to prove to
    God or to this community of faith your worth.  Jesus goes to the cross for you to tell you
    that you are worth more than his own life.
  2. You do not need to be
    defined by what you own or your accomplishments.  Jesus chooses you, imperfections and
    all.  You are given the name of ‘child of
    God’ and this title and identity alone makes you great.
  3. Because of God’s love for
    you in Jesus Christ and God’s gift to you of eternal life, you are joyfully
    free to be a servant to those around you. 
    To be great is to understand that everyone else’s life is just as precious
    as your own.

Author, Philip Hallie, writes at the end of his
book: “Our awareness of the preciousness of human life makes our own lives
joyously precious to ourselves (p. 293).” 
He then concludes his book with some words from Jewish Rabbi Hellel:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? 

If I care only for myself, what am I? 

If not now, when?”