Redefining Greatness

In 1908, a baseball team by the name of the New York Giants was playing a division championship game. It was the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the bases were loaded. The Giants only needed a single run to win the game. The batter at the plate hit a single to right field, the run scored, but the player running from first to second base, whose name of Fred Merkle, never actually touched second base. He was tagged out, which ended the inning, meaning the run that had scored didn’t count. The Giants went on to lose the championship. In 1978, during Superbowl XIII, the tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, Jackie Smith, was wide open in the end zone for an easy touchdown that would have tied the game, but somehow, he dropped the pass.  In 1982, at the end of the NCAA championship basketball game, a player by the name of Fred Brown actually passed the ball to the wrong team. So, what do Fred Merkle, Jackie Smith, and Fred Brown all have in common? Well, they were all ridiculed for their mistakes and they were each given the derogatory nickname “the goat.” You see, back in the day nobody wanted to be called the goat. Because it was a term reserved for the players who made the most notoriously humiliating and egregious mistakes. 

But here’s the remarkable thing. Over the past few decades, the meaning of the term “goat” has turn around 180 degrees. Today, G.O.A.T. is an acronym that stands for “Greatest Of All Time.” And so, the likes of Michael Jordon, Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Simone Biles are all referred to as the possible GOAT of their respective sports. What was once a term that referred to the most humiliating mistakes you can imagine, has been redefined as a term referring to the epitome of greatness. Even the gameshow Jeopardy! last year held a tournament to determine the greatest Jeopardy player of all time. Just Google “G.O.A.T.” and you’ll find references to individuals in sports, entertainment, business, and politics all making the claim to be the greatest. 

But, at some point, we have stop and ask the question, “What is greatness?” For most of human history, greatness has been defined in terms of success, power, achievement, wealth, control, status, influence, dominance, and the list goes on. And yet, here we are this morning to worship a rejected and crucified Messiah, who by almost every worldly standard was a failure. Two thousand years after his death, billions of people are following the teachings of Jesus, even though he was executed at the hands of the Roman authorities. So, maybe for those of us who choose to follow Jesus, there is a different paradigm for success. Maybe there is something radically different about how power works in the kingdom of God. Maybe there’s another way to define greatness.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus and his disciples have made their way back to the village of Capernaum, which was sort of their “base of operation.” Apparently, on their way back home, the disciples had been talking amongst themselves. Now Jesus decides to join in the conversation, and he asks his disciples, “So, what were you guys talking about during the trip?” And it’s like the disciples all turn into a bunch of nervous teenagers, because they are completely silent. I can just imagine their eyes darting back forth, not wanting to make eye contact with Jesus. Because they know that Jesus knows exactly what they were talking about. They know that Jesus knows they were arguing about who was the greatest. In other words, they were arguing over who was the G.O.A.T. They were thinking when Jesus conquers the Romans and ushers in the renewed kingdom of Israel, who is he going to declare is the “greatest disciple of all time?” Can’t you just see Peter, James, John, Andrew, and the others all comparing themselves to one another, jockeying for positions of power, seeking to be recognized and esteemed for their greatness? 

But notice how Jesus responds. He doesn’t rebuke the disciples. He doesn’t chastise them for their ignorance. Jesus doesn’t tell them not to pursue greatness. What he does is redefine greatness according to value system of the kingdom of God. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant of all.” Jesus makes it clear that greatness in the Kingdom of God is not measured by human achievement, wealth, power, status, prestige, or any of the other metrics that we use to measure greatness. Instead, greatness in the Kingdom of God is characterized by humility, service, sacrifice, and a deep awareness that “you know what, it’s not about you!” I mean, hasn’t that been the message since the very beginning? The message that God gave to Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses and David and Peter and James and Paul. God has chosen and appointed leaders among his people, but he reminds them over and over and over again, that the calling and purpose and anointing of God is not about us. It is always about the glory of God. 

Several years ago, the pastor of a large suburban church in Chicago wrote a book entitled Descending into Greatness. The book, as the title implies, describes the paradox of Christian leadership. The paradox that true greatness is found in sacrifice. Strength is found in weakness. Power is found in humility. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples not to pursue greatness, but he redefines greatness according to the value system of the kingdom of God. 

And like any good preacher, Jesus introduces a powerful and profound sermon illustration to reenforce his point. He calls a small child into this gathering. He picks up the child in his arms. And he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and not just me, but the One who sent me.” Now I think we often read these stories about Jesus and children through our lens of our modern attitudes and perceptions about children and families. We value and cherish our children. We lift up the innocence of children as a virtue. We sentimentalize the experience of being a child. But children in the ancient world were essentially considered non-persons. They had no influence, no rights, no standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. It’s not that parents didn’t love their children, but no one looked to a child as an example or illustration of greatness. And yet, Jesus, in a profoundly countercultural move, takes a child into arms and essentially says that this utterly dependent, vulnerable, powerless child is an ambassador for Jesus, and not for Jesus, but for the God who sent him. 

My friends, we live in a culture obsessed with greatness. Yet that greatness is defined according to the value system of this world – success, power, achievement, wealth, control, status, influence, dominance, and the list goes on. But we have Savior who came to show us another way. We have a Lord who emptied himself and took the position of a servant. We have a King who became a slave and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Jesus came to show us the way of abundant life, the kingdom life, a life grounded in grace, rooted in love, and defined by service to one another. Jesus came to give us a glimpse of a way of life that can only be described as the greatest of all time!        

Spiritual Paradigm Shifts

Almost sixty years ago, in 1962, the American physicist and philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, published a book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Now some of you may be familiar with the work of Thomas Kuhn, but I would venture to guess that many of us, including me, really have no idea who he was. But regardless of whether or not you know anything about Thomas Kuhn, you are probably familiar with a specific concept that he famously introduced to the world. Because Thomas Kuhn was the first person to coin the phrase “paradigm shift.” Of course, Kuhn was talking about “paradigm shifts” within the realm of science, but once the concept was introduced, it was quickly adopted and has been widely used in business, technology, social movements, and even spirituality. So, what is a paradigm shift? It is a fundamental change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.” It is a change in our basic assumptions about how the world works. A paradigm shift requires the letting go of one set of beliefs in order to embrace another. And very often this movement from one paradigm to another is precipitated by a moment of crisis. A moment of decision. A moment when the old and the new come crashing together. 

Now why am I giving you an introduction to the conceptual history of paradigm shifts? Well, I’m glad you asked! The reason is because I believe the Bible is full of paradigm changing moments. Moments of crisis. Moments of decision. Moments when the old and new come crashing together.  And I believe the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman described in today’s gospel reading is just such a moment. 

Now before we jump into this story, we have to remember that up to this point in the gospel, Jesus has spent most of his time in a relatively small area around the Sea of Galilee, primarily among his fellow Jews. Jesus hasn’t ventured very far from his hometown of Capernaum. He’s been too busy teaching and preaching, healing diseases and casting out demons. But this morning we’re told that Jesus travels to the region Tyre and Sidon well to the north of Galilee. And he goes there apparently to get away from the busyness of ministry. It seems that Jesus just wants to hide out for a while. He doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. He’s not there to speak at a conference. He’s not there to hold a ministry rally. He’s there simply to get away. Yet even though Jesus is a long way from home, the word gets out that he has come to town, and immediately, a woman, a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin finds Jesus and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. A woman. A Gentile. A foreigner. In other words, it couldn’t be more clear that Jesus is in a very different place, and a very different set of circumstances, than anything he has encountered up to this point in his ministry. But nothing can really prepare us for how Jesus responds to the Syrophoenician woman. “Stand in line and take your turn. Don’t you know the children get fed first? If there’s anything left over, only then do we give it to the dogs.” What happened to compassion? What happened to mercy? How do you and I make sense of this harsh and seemingly derogatory response from Jesus? Some have suggested Jesus is simply having a really bad day. Some have suggested Jesus is using this encounter as a teachable moment. Some have suggested Jesus is actually referring to cute, little puppies and therefore, his comment would not have been considered offensive.

But I’m wondering this morning that maybe, just maybe there is something much, much bigger happening in this story. Maybe this story is challenging and convicting precisely because it represents a major paradigm shift in the ministry of Jesus and life of his followers. In you think about it, Jesus himself has created a crisis. Not in the sense of an emergency, but in the sense of a turning point. A moment of decision. A moment when the old and new come crashing together. On the one hand, in the harsh words of Jesus, we hear echoes of centuries of religious and cultural prejudice, division, and violence. On the other hand, there is the inbreaking kingdom of God that Jesus himself represents, a kingdom of extravagant grace and unconditional love. And into that tension, this woman of extraordinary faith boldly declares to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, but the dogs get the crumbs that fall off the table.” In other words, Jesus there’s enough. She perceives the abundance that Jesus offers. She knows that even a crumb of the food that Jesus has to offer will heal her daughter. And that’s exactly what happens. Her daughter is set free. 

But the reason I think this is a paradigm changing moment in the ministry of Jesus is because of what happens after the healing. Jesus doesn’t immediately go back to where he came from. He doesn’t go back home. He doesn’t go back to Capernaum. Instead, he goes north to city of Sidon and south to the region of the Decapolis, which is all Gentile country! In other words, the mission has been expanded. The vision enlarged. Because of this dramatic encounter, Jesus and his followers have experienced a paradigm shift. There was a change of basic assumptions, a letting go of one set of beliefs in order to embrace something new.

All of this is important for you and I gathered here this morning, because God is still in the business of challenging and changing our paradigms. In fact, over the course of the past two thousand years, the church has faced countless more paradigm changing moments. The good news of the gospel hasn’t changed. The message of the kingdom of God hasn’t changed. But the way we see the world has changed. And as a result, the mission has been expanded. The vision enlarged. 

I think it is very likely that we are in the midst of a paradigm changing moment right now. One of my favorite authors of the last twenty years was Phyllis Tickle, and she wrote a book about ten years ago entitled The Great Emergence, in which she argued that about every 500 years, the church is compelled to have a giant rummage sale. Every 500 years, the church “cleans house” in order to make room for something new. In other words, every 500 years or so, the church goes through a major paradigm shift. A moment of crisis. A moment of decision. A moment when the old and new come crashing together. Well, guess what? The last big ecclesiastical rummage sale was the Reformation of the sixteenth century, which took place exactly 500 years ago. So, the church is due for another paradigm shift. 

Here at Good Shepherd, we have our BRIDGE Plan, the short-term strategic plan that is guiding us through the coming year. And the letter “I” in this acronym stands for “Imagine Change.” Now I know for Episcopalians the word “change” can be like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. But this is an invitation to begin imagining what it will mean to be the church in light of all that we have experienced these past few years. We don’t know exactly what the new paradigm will look like, but one thing is for sure, we can’t just go back to where we were. Just as Jesus didn’t return to hometown, but expanded his mission and enlarged the vision, in the same way, God is calling us to resist the temptation to return to the ways things were, and to allow the Spirit to expand our mission and enlarge our vision. And just as Jesus received a word of exhortation from a Gentile woman in a far-away land, we need to listen to the voices of those who are different from us, and that’s a whole other sermon1 This morning we challenged to imagine change. To open ourselves to the paradigm changing work of God’s Spirit. Of course, God loves us just the way we are, but He loves too much to leave us that way. 

Living On God’s Time

It has often been said that “time is our most valuable commodity.” Once lost, it can never be replenished. Nobody has access to more time than anybody else. In other words, we are all subject to the same unchangeable reality that there are 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, and 365 days in a year. Which means that time really is the ultimate non-renewable natural resource. Time is something you simply can’t store up for later. You either use it or you lose it. And because we have become so busy as a culture, over the past few decades there has arisen a multi-billion-dollar industry devoted entirely to helping you manage your time. There are time management seminars and conferences. There are time management apps you can download for your smart phone or tablet. There are books on time management that make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. All because we believe time is our most valuable commodity.

This morning, in our reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Making the most of the time. Now, when someone tells me to make the most of my time, what I hear is that I need add more things to my “to-do list.” What I hear is that I need to add more color-coded categories to my iCloud calendar. What I hear is that I need to do more, to be more productive, to be more efficient. Now perhaps you hear something different. Perhaps when you hear the exhortation to make the most of your time, what you think about is finally taking that vacation you’ve been planning for years. Or perhaps making the most of your time means taking a risk and doing something crazy like going skydiving, or going back to school, or changing your career. But all of these ideas and responses only make sense in light of our 21st century, post-modern cultural context. In our cultural context making the most of the time usually means being more productive, more efficient, and more successful. Making the most of the time means doing the things we’ve always wanted to do. Making the most of the time is about not wasting this most precious and valuable commodity. 

However, this morning, in the Letter to the Ephesians, I would submit to you that we are given a very different vision of what it means to make the most of the time. In order to understand this biblical vision of time, we have to first be aware of the fact that the New Testament has more than one word for time. The first word, used to describe the normal succession of time, is the word chronos. You can hear the connection to our modern English words, chronology or chronological. So, things like our calendars, our “to-do lists,” even that vacation you’ve always dreamed of – all of those things fall into the category of chronos. And moreover, our western, post-modern obsession with productivity, efficiency, and success is rooted in the concept of chronos or chronological time.  

But the Bible talks also about a very different kind of time, we might think of this as God’s time. And the word the New Testament writers use to refer to God’s time is the word kairos. Now, unlike chronos, which refers to the ongoing sequence of events in history, kairos refers to an appointed time, a particular time, a season of time set apart for God’s purpose. And so, Jesus, when he begins his ministry in the opening chapter of the gospel of Mark, the first words out of his mouth are “the time is fulfilled.” – Kairos! When Jesus speaks about the abundance of the kingdom of God, he says the harvest will be gathered at the appointed time. – Kairos! The Apostle Paul speaks of a day when all things in heaven and earth will be gathered together as one. And that unity will come in the fulness of time. – Kairos! For us, we typically only think in terms of chronos, the ongoing sequence of events, the continual forward march of history. But for the first followers of Jesus, they believed they were also living in a kairos moment. An appointed time. A particular time. A season of time set apart for God’s purpose. 

And so, when the Letter to the Ephesians tells us, “to make the most of the time,” it’s not about getting our schedules better organized. It’s not about adding items to our weekly “to do” list. I’m sorry to say, it’s not about taking that dream vacation. 

Instead, as followers of Jesus, making the most of the time is about opening our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world about us. Making the most of the time is about walking daily in the power and anointing and wisdom of God’s Holy Spirit. Making the most of the time is about striving for justice and peace and building for the kingdom of God. Making the most of the time is about discerning God’s purpose for our lives and then following that purpose with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

But sadly, I think too often many of us in the church are actually not making the most of the time. We get distracted and pulled in so many different directions. We become overwhelmed by the confusion and chaos of the world around us. And as a result, we lose sight of God’s vision. We lose sight of God’s purpose. We get spiritually stuck. And you know, the same things hold us back today that have hindered God’s people for thousands of years. At a corporate level, we are often hindered by division and separation. We are hindered by complacency. We are hindered and held back by what has become the unofficial motto of the Episcopal Church, which, of course, is, “We’ve never done it that way before!” At a personal level, we are hindered by addiction, fear, and anxiety. We are hindered by hurt and anger and unforgiveness. We are hindered and held back by our own comfort zones.

But if we’re going to live our lives according to God’s time, we’re going to have to step out of our comfort zones. If we’re going to live according to God’s time, we’re going to have to let go of some things. If going to live according to God’s time, we’re going to have to open ourselves to the transformational work of God’s Spirit in our lives. And not just a little bit. But in every aspect and dimension of lives. 

My friends, I believe this pandemic has brought us to a kairos moment. We are living in a kairos moment. An appointed time. A particular time. A season of time set apart for God’s purpose. God is calling us to make the most of this time. To make the most of the resources and gifts entrusted to us. To make the most of the opportunities that are being set before us. To even make the most of the challenges we are facing, because it is in the challenges and disappointments that our faith is strengthened and our dependence on God renewed. The question is, “what will we do with our kairos moment.” Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it, you can never get it back. So, be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time