by Rev. Doug Gray
The other day I was poking around on the web, and I ran across this t-shirt. It reads, “You are in the presence of greatness.” And I wondered if the shirt meant the person wearing, or the shirt made whoever wore it great. Then I saw a picture of Tom Brady walking on the field.
It says, “They said you were done. They said you should be benched. They said you were no longer elite. They said you were overrated. They said the dynasty was over. They even said you were a cheater. They doubted you from the beginning, but today, they say, “Greatest of all time.” And I thought, “That is definitely great.” And then I read what Jesus said when he was asked, “Who is the greatest?” And I was confused. “Greatness” is one of those things we think we know about, something we would like to think we recognize in others, but what is it really? How can we recognize it? How will God recognize it in us?
Greatness is child-like. What are the priceless qualities children at their best show?
[Take responses from the congregation. Compassion, kindness, trust, innocence, hope, honesty, acceptance.]
Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was
asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring
child. The winner was a four-year old child whose next-door neighbor was an
elderly gentlemen who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry,
the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and
just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor,
the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.” Childlike kindness and trust. Knowing the loving thing to do and doing it. Jesus says, “whoever becomes like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Greatness focuses on the “little ones” among us. Who are the sensitive souls? Who are the people who trust without reservation? Who are the ones who believe the best about each other and about God? Who are the people who are completely trusting and completely defenseless before us? Who are the ones who most need a break? These are the “little ones.” Over and over again in the Bible—Old Testament and New Testament—God seems to have a special place in God’s heart for the down-and-out and the disadvantaged, the down-on-their luck and devastated. Think of how many who receive God’s blessing in the Bible are people the world has written off:
• second-born sons who inherit everything
• childless women who become the mothers of millions
• a people with no land of their own has their prayers heard by a God who
inexplicably cared…and rescues them. Later, God would remind them, “Do not
mistreat an alien or oppress a stranger for you yourselves know how it feels to be
aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, 23:9)
Because we have been down-and-out, we help those who are. Because we have been disadvantaged and devastated, we have compassion on those who are at a loss, crushed by the load of society, left behind and left out. Jesus says, “…when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me.”
Greatness seeks the one who is lost. Jesus tells the story of a shepherd looking for a lost sheep. The point is that the one matters. In Jesus’ day, all the shepherds from a town would watch their flocks together, so if one was lost, the others could be left in their care while one shepherd went after the lost sheep. This kind of greatness calls us to look at the world differently—to look for the people who are the “little ones” and to find a way to care for them. I can be great like that! Who are the children and child-like people around us? What do they need? What would make their lives and the lives of their parents better? That’s a path to greatness for each of us.
Jesus’ teaching here sounds a note of warning that challenges our complacency. Jesus says, ““But if you give [these little ones] a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You would be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don’t have to make it worse—and it’s doomsday to you if you do.” Jesus challenges us to think about how we are behaving. Is our example leading “little ones” down a path that helps them get closer to God? If we were to see our behavior in the “little ones” around us, would we think that was a good idea? If not, perhaps we shouldn’t be doing that? If so, Jesus says, “Woe to us!” It’s so serious in fact, that Jesus says we are better off taking the suffering of leaving that path, rather than making any “little one” stumble. Is there any habit we need to leave in the dust, so that a better life and a better example might take shape? I think sometimes we settle for comfort and easy, when God is calling us to greatness!
I will confess that I would like to own that t-shirt about greatness. I don’t think the shirt would make me great, and I’m pretty sure that no one would think I’m great just because it said so, but I would like to be great. I do think Tom Brady is great, maybe even the greatest of all time, but it’s a kind of greatness I can admire, but never have. But this greatness that Jesus talks about, that I can manage. It’s a greatness that requires me to look at the world differently—to look for the people who are the “little ones” and to find a way to care for them. I can be great like that! You know, every week we pray “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.” What if the kingdom of heaven is around us all the time—and we just haven’t seen it. What if the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is already in our midst? Child-like may we trust and show compassion.
We are called to look after the “little ones” and woe to us! Woe to us if we cause one of these “little ones” to stumble! Jesus says, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1831, said “I sought for the greatness of the United States in her commodious harbors, her ample rivers, her fertile fields, and boundless forests—and it was not there. I sought for it in her rich mines, her vast world commerce, her public school system, and in her institutions of higher learning— and it was not there. I looked for it in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!”
Greatness is not childish. Childish is when an adult acts like a child—and not in a good way—thinking only about oneself, taking out one’s own anger, frustration and sadness on others, taking instead of giving trust, throwing a tantrum, etc.
French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1831, said “I sought for the greatness of the United States in her commodious harbors, her ample rivers, her fertile fields, and boundless forests—and it was not there. I sought for it in her rich mines, her vast world commerce, her public school system, and in her institutions of higher learning— and it was not there. I looked for it in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!”
Source: America’s God and Country, William J. Federer
A group of tourists visiting a picturesque village walked by an old man sitting beside a fence. In a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked him, “Were any great men born in this village?” The old man replied, “Nope, only babies.”
Source: Developing the Leader Within You, John Maxwell
A converted Hindu gave the following address to a number of his fellow countrymen: “I am, by birth, of an insignificant and contemptible caste—so low, that if a Brahmin should chance to touch me, he must go and bathe in the Ganges for the purpose of purification; and yet God has been pleased to call me, not merely to the knowledge of the Gospel, but to the high office of teaching it to others. My friends, do you know the reason of God’s conduct? It is this—if God had selected one of you learned Brahmins, and made you the preacher, when you were successful in making converts, by-standers would have said, it was the amazing learning of the Brahmin and his great weight of character that were the cause; but now, when any one is converted by my instrumentality, no one thinks of ascribing any of the praise to me: and God, as is His due, has all the glory.”
Source: An Answer to the Abbé Dubois, Henry Townley and Jean Antoine Dubois