When Greatness is Redefined

Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner 

Matthew 18:1-9

Friends, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

You would think by this time the disciples would get it. Right? What part of the Sermon on the Mount, or the parables, or hearing what Jesus predicts will happen to him, or the experiences of watching Jesus heal people who would never be considered great do the disciples not understand by now? But here we are, listening to one more time where the disciples go looking for answers to questions Jesus has no interest in answering the way they expect.

“Rabbi, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” they ask. To Jesus credit, he doesn’t chastise them for their ignorance or toss his hands up in disgust. He just refocuses their attention – as if to say – don’t go looking for superheroes of faith to show you the way to the kingdom of heaven – just look at the children and you will know everything you need to about who is great in God’s kingdom.

Don’t we all look for the hero, the one we can look up to or aspire to be; whether in faith or our careers, or sports or politics. We love to cheer on a good champion or be a fan of successful influencers. It’s easy to watch someone else do something “great” and admire from afar. But Jesus isn’t interested in strong-man contests or those who get insta-famous on Instagram. Jesus says, “If you’re looking to be great then you better look to the weak, the vulnerable, the forgotten. They have first place in the kingdom of heaven. And if you’re not part of that group – if you have more status, or wealth, or power in earthly terms – then you better be intentional about including them in the communities that you create, because then there’s room for you in the kingdom of heaven too, when you do.

Jesus isn’t quite finished there, though. Then, Jesus looks us disciples square in the eye and says, “And if you plan to be a stumbling block to the weak, or call these little ones ‘unworthy’, you might want to think twice.” Now, I don’t think Jesus’ real intention is to threaten those who threaten the weak. He is very clear though, on whose side Jesus stands and what Jesus will do for those who the world sees as weak or unworthy. He will literally go to the cross for “the little ones” of faith. And on the way, he’s going to call anyone who follows him to do likewise.

John Bacon was the worst player in the history of his high school hockey team. He scored zero goals and zero assists in his three years as a right wing on the varsity team. If you know anything about hockey you know that in that position his primary job on the team was to score goals and assists. He was by far the weakest among the team.

Several years later, for reasons I can’t understand, John Bacon was invited to be the coach of that same team. Seems like a terrible idea, right?  At the time, the team the worst high school hockey team in the United States. They hadn’t won a game in over a year. When he arrived, the players were undisciplined and had an attitude of uncaring. They thought it was funny that they were so bad. It would have been so easy to write this team off, and throw the gloves in before it even started.

But John saw something in their weakness that others might have had a hard time seeing. He chose to care for them. He cared about how they played, but more importantly, he cared about who his players were. He did all the workouts he made the players do, which sometimes made him sicker than any of his players. He called them out on their bad attitude and challenged them to be better, to do better, to believe they could do things they had never done before. When he flipped the script and gave them authority to coach one another on the ice, people thought he was crazy. Soon the players didn’t think it was funny to be bad. They made the calls the coaches usually make, and they experienced what it felt like to be a real community. It was unconventional, for sure. But it transformed everything.

After three years of coaching the worst high school hockey team in the US, John Bacon and the Ann Arbor Huron River Rats ranked in the top 5% of high school hockey teams. He did it without ever cutting one of the original players on the team. He did it by transforming the players he had. They didn’t win a state championship, and they never beat their archrival. But, that really wasn’t important to John Bacon – what was important was that they learned to care about each other and through thick and thin, and most of all – to believe in what they were part of.

The season of Lent is a time to reevaluate our priorities, to refocus our life on what is important to God, not what is always important to us; to deeply believe in what we are part of not only through our thoughts, but also our actions and relationships. Jesus asks the disciples and us, “Are you willing to change and be like a humble, helpless child in order to experience the fullness of God’s grace? Are you willing to turn your world upside down and prioritize community over self, in order to be part of what God is doing in the world?  Are you willing to set down your attraction to power, influence, and “greatness” as the world defines it – and trust the downward servant path of Jesus? If you are, the kingdom of heaven’s doors are wide open.

But, if we’re honest, we don’t easily redefine greatness as Jesus does. It’s not always comfortable to make room for people who are different from us or engage the world differently than we do.

Last summer, I learned that there had been conversation over the last few years about installing a pray ground here in the sanctuary. Interesting fact: Did you know that the movement to install pray grounds in Lutheran sanctuaries across the country was started by a pastor who was raised right here at Augustana? Pastor Andrea Roske-Metcalf has helped dozens of churches create and curate spaces that enable young children to worship in the sanctuary with their families. Anyway, from what I understand there was fairly wide support for it, and a few who were concerned it would be too much of a distraction in worship. By the time a decision was about to be made, the pandemic happened. So, like so many things it went by the wayside. When I learned about this process and heard about a few families who were hoping to return to worship after pandemic, but not sure how to do so with their kids who were “pandemic babies”, I decided that we should try it. Is it perfect? No. Is it sometimes distracting? Yes, sometimes. Even for this preacher. But that’s okay because worship isn’t only about what happens up here on the chancel or the choir loft or at the organ bench. This isn’t a show. We, together, are a community – Christ’s body. Worship is also what happens in the pews (or on the couches at home as the case may be this week) among all of you who form this radically diverse, and sometimes wild body. And it is what happens in here, in our hearts, when we place our focus on Jesus and see the world through his eyes. Making room for little ones is a small way we do as Jesus calls us to do. And making room for them now is the only way they will sense a place in this body when they are older. As we make room, I can’t help but see the doors of the kingdom of heaven open just a little wider as we refocus on the little ones of faith who dwell among us.

Jesus calls us to be a community built not on the terms of the strongest in the community, but on the weakest. When Paul planted churches around the Mediterranean, he compared the church community to a body, with every member playing a role. He said, “The members of the body that seem weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.” God calls us to be a community, a body, a church, that thinks and acts differently about greatness. It is not in how much we collect or receive that makes us great, but how much we are willing to give so that others may receive the greater honor and respect. It is not about building perfectly ordered programs, as if we are a gated community – but about being explicit that this is Christ’s church and anyone who shows up here belongs. It is not about how many people follow us, but who we follow. The One who is greatest is already leading us. It is not always to places of comfort, but it is always to a place of abundant life. When we forget, as we disciples tend to do from time to time, Christ is there to forgive us, to remind us again that greatness is in giving, and he will call us to refocus our lives. Amen.


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