The Meaning of Greatness – Mark 10: 35-45

Sermon preached by the Rev. Roy Almquist, at all services,

October 17 & 18, 2009, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

The Meaning of Greatness – Mark 10: 35-45

Why did you come to worship today? What motivated you to get yourself organized, move away from a comfortable place, and travel some distance, facing the danger of hitting Bambi’s mother on Rt. 23, in order to be in the Chapel at this moment? It takes some effort to participate in worship. It never happens by accident.

Why are you an active member of this congregation? We live at a time when many people flee from any kind of commitment, avoid community, and refuse to volunteer for anything. The big trend today is cocooning, wrapping yourself up in your home. You certainly do not enhance your social status by participating in a church anymore. And yet people like you regularly share in the gathered Christian community, you support the work of this congregation with your gifts, and many of you work in many quiet ways to further Christ’s mission and ministry here at Washington Memorial Chapel.

Someone once said to me, Roy, don’t ever try to figure out why your people go to church .. it will break your heart! I think I know what he meant. For there are a variety of reasons why people go to church … perhaps to gain a favor from God, perhaps to satisfy a spouse or to appease a parent, perhaps to deepen a friendship.
Some of you are here for the same reason you visit the shopping mall … you want to get something you need. For many the church is a kind of full-service mini-mart, a place to pick up the spiritual resources you need in a quick, efficient manner.
Others come to church for mood alteration … to get a sense of forgiveness when they feel particularly inadequate … or to seek comfort in the midst of grief and disappointment. Many come to church for encouragement when they feel depressed, confidence when they feel afraid, and inspiration when their lives grow stale.

And if we are honest, we must acknowledge that some come because their parents make them come – even if those parents have been dead for years now!
Our Gospel lesson focuses our attention on two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, or, as it is also translated, the Sons of Thunder, which might mean they were loud and windy. These disciples wanted positions of importance in the Church. The lesson we just heard is most revealing ..
First of all, it tells us something about the Evangelist Mark. Matthew tells this story but he has Salome, the mother of James and John, ask Jesus to give her sons positions of importance in the coming Kingdom. Matthew must have thought that it was unbecoming for an apostle to make such a bold request. Mark, however, is more honest. He wants us to understand that the disciples were not paragons of virtue but very ordinary people like you and me.
The lesson also gives us some valuable insights into James and John. They may have been lowly fishermen, but they were ambitious. These brothers wanted favored positions – seats on Jesus’ right and on his left – when he came into this Kingdom. In a way they stand out for being boldly opportunistic, but all of the disciples were dreaming about a time when Jesus might win out over his opponents. Clearly they believed in Jesus and placed their confidence in his leadership.

But the great value of the Gospel is the manner in which it reveals what Jesus means when he speaks of greatness, a designation quite different from the way the world uses that word. For Jesus greatness is defined by total, unconditional trust in God. What is more, Jesus tells James and John … greatness is measured in service, in spending our lives for the sake of others.

How do we measure greatness? Our world tends to define greatness in terms of power, privilege, and prestige. We measure the importance of a person by external markers – the house they own, the car they drive, the ostentatious nature of their lifestyle. We are impressed by the visible achievement of people: their prestigious honors and academic degrees, the importance of their profession, and sometimes even the accomplishments of their children.

But when Jesus speaks of greatness he inevitably links it with service. As he said to James and John, that which makes us great is not our ability to rule over others, but, rather, our ability to invest ourselves for the welfare of others. In a world where most people want to put as little as is necessary into life and to get out as much as possible, our Lord speaks of a better way.

Jesus calls us to that “better way” today. Only when we are willing to put more into life than we take out .. to put service to others in a place of honor .. only then, Jesus tells us, are we worthy to be called his followers.

In a wonderful poem, Mary’s Son, Rudyard Kipling speaks to this issue of greatness, which is at the heart of our Gospel lesson:
If you stop to find out what your wages will be
And how they will clothe and feed you,
Willie, my son, don’t you go to the Sea,
For the Sea will never need you.
If you ask for the reason of every command,
And argue with people about you,
Willie my son, don’t you go on the Land,
For the Land will do better without you.
If you stop to consider the work that you’ve done
And to boast what your labour is worth, dear,
Angels may come for you, Willie, my son,
But you’ll never be wanted on earth dear!

[quoted by William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, p. 267]

After over forty years of service as a pastor and a church leader, I am convinced that the Church of Jesus Christ finds its validation not in its public rituals, nor in solemn pronouncements on social issues, nor in the pristine quality of our theology and teaching. The Church of Jesus Christ establishes its credibility through its acts of mercy and kindness – the cup of water to the thirsty, the bag of groceries to the distraught, the life-giving accompaniment when we walk with someone who can go no farther without a champion.

Once upon a time in a far-off country, a king had twin sons. One was strong and handsome. The other was intelligent and wise. As the ruler grew old, everyone speculated about which son the king would choose as his successor – the strong son or the wise son.

In this land the sign of kingship was a royal ring. Just before the king died, he had a copy of the royal ring made and presented both rings to his twin sons. The chief advisors to the king asked him, How shall we know which son wears the authentic royal ring?

You shall know, answered the king, because the chosen one will reveal his right to rule by his self-giving service to our people. [Richard Carl Hoefler, Insights, October 1988]

And Jesus said, Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. [Mark 10: 43,44]

Many congregations declare at the conclusion of their liturgy .. the worship has ended – now the service begins. Let that be our hope as we hear those words, Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. For if that is our intention, then we can truly say and mean .. Thanks be to God. Amen.

For information about Washington Memorial Chapel and its life of faith and mission at an important venue of
American history in Valley Forge National Park, please write to the Parish Office,
P.O. Box 98, Valley Forge, PA 19481, call 610-783-0120,
or visit us on the web at

Service Schedule
Holy Eucharist: Wednesday, 10:00 AM (with Healing); Saturday, 5:00 PM; Sunday, 8:00 and 10:00 AM

Washington Memorial Chapel