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The Measure of Greatness

October 18, 2015

“The Measure of Greatness” Job 38:1-7, 16-21, 28-37; Mark 10:35-45 © 10.18.15 Ordinary 29B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The new “Star Wars” movie, The Force Awakens, premieres a couple of months from now, this time with J.J. Abrams at the helm. You may know that the basic premise of the popular series is based on the work of psychologist Carl Jung, made available to general readers by Joseph Campbell. The hero must face the dark side in his or her own personality as he or she goes on a quest, dealing with challenges and aided by friends met along the journey.

Perhaps nowhere is the hero’s need and sometimes failure to come face to face with the dark, the shadow, side more clearly seen than in The Empire Strikes Back, a film in the original trilogy. As part of his training, Luke Skywalker is instructed by his mentor Yoda, the diminutive Jedi master, to enter a cave. “What’s in there?” Luke wants to know. “Only what you take with you,” the master responds. But that was a later scene. Luke first meets Yoda in a swamp, unaware of who he is. He’s annoying Luke, trying to see how patient the would-be Jedi is. Finally, things settle down, and Luke says “I’m looking for a great warrior.” “A great warrior!” Yoda retorts in his gravelly voice. “Wars not make one great.”

We may disagree with Yoda. But still the conversation raises the question of what greatness looks like. What does make people and nations great? What is the measure, the index, of greatness?

We might start by thinking of the great singer, musician, painter, sculptor, actor or chef. Surely what separates the great from the merely good in the arts are imagination, the ability to engage our senses, to arouse our emotions, to help us enter into a story. A certain ease in the craft points to greatness, too. The best actors seem natural; they aren’t just reciting lines. I heard a story about Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the classic romance An Affair to Remember. They learned the script, but their director encouraged them to paraphrase, so the conversation seemed more realistic. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know the chemistry between the stars is wonderful.

But greatness seems also to require a certain wildness, craziness. Great musicians seem to be just on the edge of madness, to be willing to experiment and break out of the molds. Indeed, as the poet John Dryden once wrote: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “to be great is to be misunderstood.”

But what is the measure of greatness in the arts may not apply in some other part of life. You know that journalist Tom Brokaw called the WWII generation “the greatest,” a much better designation than the dry title “Civics,” which is what researchers Strauss and Howe named them. I never read Brokaw’s 1997 book, but I delighted in knowing and loving for almost 30 years a member of that generation, Susan’s late dad. And Neal showed why he and his peers were called “the greatest.” Greatness is displayed in and earned from self-sacrifice, from complete commitment to a cause beyond oneself, like freeing the world from tyranny. It comes from surviving, working hard, keeping on whatever the odds. It’s shown by gratification deferred, saving for tomorrow, denying oneself now to ensure a brighter future for your kids and grandkids. Greatness in this case is not in being wild and unpredictable, as in the arts, but in staying the course, keeping in line, being wise and prudent, all mixed with a bit of humor. And above all, being thankful for what you have. That is the sort of greatness that wins world wars and rebuilds even the enemy. As William Blake put it: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet”; great people and nations accept a challenge. And of course, Shakespeare famously wrote: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” Rising to the challenge when we did not choose it is a measure of greatness.

Or perhaps to be great is to be magnanimous. The word in fact literally means “great soul.” The opposite is “pusillanimous,” which is a “very small soul or mind.” A magnanimous person gives generously, loves boldly, doesn’t take easy offense. By contrast, the pusillanimous go through life so afraid for their own safety that they withhold good from others; they don’t have the courage to be generous, believing that if they don’t keep it all for themselves now, they won’t have anything in the future. Magnanimous people believe there is enough; they trust in a gracious God, and so they open their hearts. Their opposites think the universe is a cruel place, where scarcity rules, and you better grab for yours while you can.

A professor at a small college in the North once wrote: “I want the best for my students. That’s why I teach them about the virtue of magnanimity and its corresponding vice of pusillanimity, a word that is hard to spell and even harder to pronounce, but important to understand. Magnanimous people consistently set their sights high. In everything they do, they aspire to what is best. Not fearing the cost of heroic ambitions, they strive for excellence and hunger for greatness. [Magnanimity] … characterizes persons who remain resolutely focused on the utmost possibilities for life. By contrast, pusillanimous men and women lower their sights and regularly opt for what is easier, more pleasurable or quickly attainable. Not willing to devote themselves to discipline and sacrifice, they foster puny ambitions and thus deny themselves the joy and meaning and satisfaction that come from transcending themselves in love. That’s why magnanimity is one virtue I want my students to learn by heart. I don’t want them to suffer from the sadness that comes from renouncing greatness” (Paul J. Wadell, The Christian Century, 10/6/09: 19).

We’ve come close now to the measure of greatness suggested by the scriptures this morning. But the story calls our attention first to behavior that is not great. James and John, notice, come to Jesus seeking advantage for themselves. They want to rule at places of honor with him when he comes into his glory, proving right there how clueless they are about Jesus. The other disciples get angry at them for wanting a special place or maybe because the others didn’t think of asking first. The point is that James and John seem to think that greatness comes from seeking it, competing with others for it. Their model is the imperial system of the day, which whatever we call it, still is the norm in governments and corporations and even the church. It’s based on self-seeking, one-upmanship, climbing the ladder, sucking up and back-stabbing, compromising values and reputations. But the consequence of such competition for place and power is not greatness, but ruin.

The movie The Prestige, with Christian Bale, is about two late nineteenth-century British magicians who are vying with each other for the title of the greatest magician, indeed, the greatest performer, in all of England. They try ever more dangerous illusions, continually sabotage each other, and cause great pain and personal loss to their opponent. The ultimate end of all this is tragic for both.

The movie title has a double meaning. The “prestige” in magic is the third act, after the pledge and the turn. It’s the climax of the illusion. Not only does the magician disappear through a door, but he or she reappears almost instantaneously from a second door, with no apparent connection between the two, or even elsewhere in the theater. But “the prestige” also refers to what both of these men sought more than anything: the acclaim, the applause, the knowledge of the other’s methods. In seeking greatness, they became the opposite of great.

Jesus teaches that in the Christian community, we do not seek “the prestige.” Instead, those who would be great are the servants, a role freely chosen in full knowledge of the risks and the pain it may bring. In asking this of us, our Lord only invites us to follow him in what he has already done, as he gave his life not for the few, the elite, the oligarchy of rulers, but for the “many,” the same Greek word as in the term “hoi polloi,” the masses, the “great unwashed,” those with no claim on anything.

I suggest to you this morning that the servanthood Jesus commends to us has three constituencies. One is already clear from the story in Mark. We serve each other in the community of faith. The one who is great is servant of all.

A classic parable illustrates. A man is having a near-death experience, and in the limbo between life and death contemplates his life of sin and anxiously awaits his fate in the next world. An escort meets him at the boundary of the hereafter and with a welcoming smile says, “You’re not ready yet, friend; you still have another chance. But you’ll return soon, so let me show you what goes on here on the other side.”

Together they enter a great hall where a long candle-lit banquet table is laden with bowls of steaming, fragrant soups, succulent roasts, perfectly cooked vegetables, aromatic loaves of bread, the finest of wines, fruits of every kind, and a dazzling array of cakes and pies. Diners fill every chair, but shockingly, amid luxurious bounty, the scene is one of pain and anguish. Skeletal forms are twisted and moaning in starvation, with barely the strength to strike at each other with their spoons.

Looking more closely, the man sees that all the spoons have long handles—longer than the diners’ arms; too long for the diners to feed themselves. “So this is Hell,” gasps the man. “Anger and misery amid abundance. Where’s the Devil?” “Evil resides in the hearts of men,” says the escort, “But, come, let me show you something else.”

The two enter another great hall. And in that hall there is another long, candle-lit banquet table, covered with a similar incredible spread of delicious foods, drinks and sweets. Here the sounds of laughter, chatter, and song fill the hall while healthy and happy diners are enjoying the company and the bounty before them.

They, too, have long spoons, but they are feeding each other. “And this,” the escort tells the man, “is heaven” (

Every time we serve our sisters and brothers in faith, we taste a bit of heaven. We enter into glory through self-giving. Power in the Christian life is the power to live on behalf of others (see Wadell article).

We serve our sisters and brothers in faith, then, but we also serve our neighbors, whoever they may be. This congregation already does this through the Food Pantry in ever-increasing numbers, but let me tell you about another fascinating project. It’s called “Laundry Love.”

The effort started about a dozen years ago in California in response to the comment of a homeless man that if he had clean clothes, people would treat him like a human being. We take clean clothes for granted. But think about living on the streets or in a tent or having to choose between clean clothes and food. And because you don’t have clean clothes, you don’t have anything to wear to a job interview, if you could get it. Says their website: “The Laundry Love initiative consists of regular opportunities to help people who are struggling financially by assisting them with doing their laundry. For those living below the poverty line, washing clothes presents both a logistical problem and a financial hardship. Laundry Love partners with local laundromats in cleaning the clothes of those living in shelters, motels, cars, garages and on the streets” (

But the point isn’t just clean clothes, as important as that is. Laundry Love “believes that through the neutral space of a laundromat, every guest and stranger can become a friend. This idea tears at the labeled constructs of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and erodes the societal, economic and cultural divides that separate people.” To date, over 600,000 loads of laundry have been done, and 450,000 persons cared for.

Serving neighbors with basic needs. You do it with food. Laundry Love does it with coins and washing machines. Others do it with hammers and nails or clean water. Simply because there is a need, and somebody cares enough to meet it. Serving in a small way, being magnanimous, is a measure of greatness.

Finally, not only do we serve each other and serve our neighbors. We serve the creation, as part and parcel of it. God comes to Job in a whirlwind and asks questions that remind Job that there is One beyond him. “Who is this?” “Where were you?” “Have you?” “Can you?” Job is reminded that his knowledge is limited, and there are things humans cannot do and cannot know. Plus, neither Job nor any human is the sole focus of God’s attention. All the creatures and processes God names give the Creator delight and deserve his care, even the ones that are the symbols of chaos. Indeed, God says that he brings rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, empty of human life (38:26). In modern terms, Job “ain’t all that.”

But in reminding Job of his place, God has given him a gift. Namely, the gift of humble wonder at the mystery of it all. The ancient Chinese philosopher Meng-tzu observed that the “great man is the one who does not lose his child’s heart.” Greatness is in part the capacity to be amazed, to stand in awe, and be delighted like a child with some new discovery. And such humble wonder will make us better servants of creation or servants for the first time. We are part of the world, even as we work within it as God’s stewards. That is the paradox of being human. We are creatures, but we are the only creatures addressed in speech by God. God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind, yes, but he does speak and addresses Job as a partner, as one worthy of talking with God. Greatness is realizing what a gift we have been given, and what a gift each of us is to the world God made as we fulfill our calling.

We don’t measure greatness by someone’s height or age or bank account. The index of it isn’t the trophies they’ve acquired or the honors they’ve received. It’s not who they know or what office they hold or the bricks and mortar with their names on them. A little child can be great and a tall adult small. A woman who has never been out of her county can be the example of virtue and love while her globe-traveling counterpart known by all is missing out on what matters. A small church without many resources can be full of love and show hospitality. At the same time, the mega-church—literally the “great” church—ignores its neighbors’ needs and focuses on warehousing souls for heaven, as writer Brian McLaren once put it. The measure of greatness, whatever the externals, is what’s in our hearts. It’s the strength of our character, our willingness to go the distance to serve.

Even the distance to the cross.


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