Based on Mark 9:30-37, Psalm 1, James 3:13 – 4:3
Those of you who follow professional sport of any type probably recognize the capitalized acronym “G.O.A.T.”…anyone? Right, “Greatest of All Time”, very good! The abbreviation has become popular in our world of shorter written communication, as the full name takes too many characters in a Tweet. The debates rage among the paid and unpaid pundits among us, just who is the G.O.A.T.? Now it certainly depends both on the sport you follow and also the timeframe that you use. Baseball, being around a very long time, has many candidates for this designation. In baseball you can break it down much farther into who was greatest at each individual position, and if you specifically like American League rules, who might be the greatest Designated Hitter of all time. The names of the greats roll off the tongue: e.g., Aaron, Cobb, Young, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Ford, Seaver, Mantle, Mays, Robinson (multiple choice here – Jackie or Brooks), Ripken, and the list goes on and on.
Outside of sports, who do you consider the G.O.A.T.(s)? In music (Beethoven, Bach, Bernstein), architecture (Pei or Wright), literature (Shakespeare, Poe, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Michener), and for your individual chosen field…who is considered the greatest? What has made them so revered in the court of public opinion? To become great at anything one must separate themselves from the “huddled masses” who also participate in that endeavor. To become a Rachmaninov or Chopin for example, scientists have estimated that one has to repeat what one is doing 10,000 times to achieve mastery. Certainly, all of those who we would consider to be greatest have been blessed with a tremendous talent – but also with the mindset to persevere and develop that talent to the fullest extent possible. They have beaten the odds; for example, think about all the people that ever start playing the cello, millions of children over all the years…yet there is only one YoYo Ma.
Jesus had an answer to settle the argument of who is the greatest. Let us explore that question after we ask God to free us from our striving for greatness so that we can hear again this wisdom…won’t you join me in prayer?
The writer of Psalm 1 gets the whole of the book started by stating that those who are focused on God and God’s commandments are blessed and will prosper in all that they do. This is in direct contrast to those the psalmist labels “scoffers”, “sinners” and the “wicked” – who will perish and be blown away like wheat chaff. Those who deny the existence of God or who choose not to follow God’s laws will never become truly great, because their prosperity will be limited to things of the world which are finite and limited in scope. Those who lay up treasures in heaven, however, will know eternal rewards.
The author of the letter of James posits a question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” He could have also written, “Who among you is greatest?” He then clarifies greatness by saying who is it that is living a good life with works that are gentle and “born of wisdom”? Wisdom of the world is envious and filled with self-ambition – it is neither wise nor gentle. Envy and self-ambition lead to conflicts and disputes between members of a community. Disorder and wickedness, murder and mayhem, spending all that one receives simply to pleasure themselves. This is not the way that flows from God’s wisdom which is peaceable, gentle, merciful and fruitful, equitable, and free from hypocrisy, envy or ambition. The writer of James hints that communities which order themselves after God’s wisdom will receive God’s grace and God will always be close to them.
Jesus returns to the Galilee. On the journey, He is once again teaching His Disciples that he must die in order to rise again and fulfill God’s plan. When they get back to a special house in Capernaum, Jesus asks the Disciples about the argument between them on the road. They had been arguing about who among them was greatest – that is, who would lead once Jesus was gone (not understanding His statement about “rising again”). Jesus teaches them one of his foundational principles – to be first, you must humble yourselves and be last and a servant of all. He places a child – deemed expendable in first century Palestine – among them as a reminder of how they are supposed to be in the world.
In the world there are measurements to determine who is the G.O.A.T. Number of home runs, number of buildings erected, number of accolades or titles bestowed upon, championships won, amount of money earned, companies or land owned, written works cited. There are statistics and numbers and tangible markers of success that can be tallied up and displayed for all to see. People raise their children to be like a Tiger, or a Ripken, or a Brady, or a Pele – because they really want their surname to live “forever”. Nobody lives forever, however. The thing all the “greats” know is that one day, they too shall be surpassed…all records are made to be broken.
This greatness that Jesus teaches about…what about that form of greatness, Preacher? Well, that form of greatness is often unknown and unseen. It shies away from the limelight and spends its days covered in the mud and muck of lived lives and human suffering. It is the belief that no one deserves to die alone. The belief that something can be done to improve life even in the slums of Calcutta. It is the nameless and often faceless empathy that streams out from those who know that their Savior lives and because of that they too shall live. It is the many peacemakers among us, whether in our own families or those who work to keep Nations talking and working with each other. It is people who recognize, like the writer of James, that conflicts and disputes come from “the cravings that are at war within” us all. This is true greatness – available to those that follow the only human who will never be surpassed, Jesus the Christ.
The G.O.A.T. – Jesus, got that way by living a life that was focused on God, but lived in a way that was humble. Jesus understood and lived our human life, all the while showing us how to achieve that which we so desire – unity with God the Creator. When Jesus put the child among the Disciples and said that they were to welcome them into this new movement, this new community, He was telling them that they had to become expendable. Because you see, nothing was lower on the social ladder than a child. It was a fact of life that at least 50% of all children born would die before age 5 years (this was true until about 1850). That’s where the old adage, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” came from. The last one to bathe was the littlest least valuable to the household, and the water so dirty by that time that one could not easily see a small child.
This is what Jesus is trying to teach us about becoming the G.O.A.T. in our spiritual lives. We must become humble enough to be equivalent to the lowest and most marginalized member of our community. We must be a servant to all, and dependent upon God and the good graces of the community around us, to achieve this level of greatness. We are called to simplicity, downward mobility, powerlessness (worldly power, not Holy Spirit power), and unconditional love for the least, last and lost. We are to become one with them so that we can create community with them and show them the way back out of their life situation, while being open to their teaching about the social injustices that got them to the margins in the first place.
Like the journey to the pinnacle of worldly greatness, our journey to the top in our spiritual lives will be accomplished by very few individuals. These are people who have been venerated as saints by the Roman Catholic church, and others that we can name who have selflessly given of their gifts, talents, time and resources to make the world better than it was before them. While few of us will reach sainthood or become G.O.A.T.’s, all of us can learn to live life in a way that is more compassionate to those who are not as fortunate as we are; a way that is less judgmental of those who are different than we are; a way that is welcoming to all who have been created in the image and likeness of God; a way that is based on “The Way” of the Greatest of All Time – Jesus the Christ. His is the true Way that leads us to life eternal and brings peace to the cravings that are at war within us. May we all seek to be great like Him! Amen and amen!