18th Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the last of all and servant of all. Amen
There’s a term I came across recently, GOAT,
no I didn’t just learn about goats the animals that eat everything,
GOAT is an acronym standing for
Greatest Of All Time,
it’s one of the pastimes of sports fans and commentators
to debate who is the GOAT of their favorite sport.
I did an internet search
and from a cursory glance
it seems like the most popular GOAT debate is in basketball
Michael Jordan vs LeBron James,
(though Serena Williams looks to be a hot contender for GOAT of tennis).
I even found an article in Sports Illustrated
titled “The Art of the GOAT Debate: MJ vs LeBron Examined”
where the author went as far as consulting a college debate coach
to dissect the discussion.
In doing so the debate coach, a Dr. Scott Harris
made two points I found particularly relevant:
one, he remarked “People never win arguments in sports because people tend not to recognize when they’re losing as much at it. They just think ‘I’m right and it doesn’t matter what you say.”
the GOAT debate is really just an argument,
if it were a true debate
those involved would be open to having their mind changed by their debate partner,
as it is people tend to go into the conversation with their minds made up.
The second point he made
was that before the merits of each particular player can even be brought out on the table
you have “to establish a definition of what constitutes ‘greatest’ and the criteria used to determine greatness.”
What makes someone great is subjective,
each of us admire different qualities in our basketball players,
some place higher value on teamwork,
while others admire brute force.
All of which is to say that to engage in an argument
over who is the greatest
is generally an exercise in futility,
it will never be fully resolved
because the definition of greatest is always changing
depending on the time and place.
In our gospel for today
the disciples argue with one another
over who is the greatest
leading Jesus to teach them the definition of the greatest
according to the kingdom of God.
Now of course they don’t just start arguing this out of the blue,
Jesus, traveling with his disciples
hosts another teaching session
where for a second time he tells them
what’s going to happen to him,
he will be betrayed, killed and after three days rise again
and Mark tells us that
“they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
They don’t understand,
And they don’t ask for help
So they do what we all do
when we don’t understand and don’t ask for clarification,
they concentrate on the part they do understand
even if it’s only half the picture
the part they do get
is that Jesus has said once again that he is going to die,
which means they will be left on their own without their leader
so as they walk along
they try to come up with their back up plan,
who is going to be our leader when Jesus is gone?
Well, who is the greatest among us?
And I bet their argument went along the lines of Michael vs. LeBron,
where most had their minds already made up
and some placed higher value on teamwork,
while others admired brute force.
Jesus of course knows what they’re talking about
but he asks them anyway
and they’re embarrassed
because it’s pretty awkward to get caught talking about who is going to take over
after the one asking you the question is dead
and this is where Jesus sits down
- signaling that he’s going to start teaching again,
and teaches them the definition of greatest
according to Jesus’ way, according to God.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
and then like the good teacher that he is,
he gives them a concrete example,
he takes a child in his arms and tells them
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Now this wasn’t like an ancient Lamb Time,
where there was a time set aside for the children to come up
and for everyone else to see how cute they were, aww.
Children, vulnerable and dependent on others for survival and protection
had no value socially,
they had nothing to offer in terms of honor or status.
Despite the varying definitions
the GOAT in that time would definitely have had lots of honor and status,
which you gained or lost based on who you associated with.
This is who Jesus tells the disciples to welcome,
the socially invisible,
and that by doing so they are welcoming God.
This is what it means to be the greatest Jesus says to his disciples,
climb down the social ladder,
welcome and care for those without status.
What motivates your actions matters,
when you welcome according to Jesus’ way
you are practicing welcoming
out of love of neighbor and God,
you are not welcoming because of what that person could do for you
but for who they are,
a person created by God.
The one who does this,
acts without regard for personal status on behalf of other,
this one is the greatest.
According to this definition
Jesus is the GOAT.
His teaching, his actions and even his very existence
overturn what it means to be the greatest of all time in the world.
Jesus, Son of God,
fully God became fully human,
immortality becoming mortal,
seeking out the least- the sick,
the poor, those without direction and certainly without status.
This is where God on earth can be found,
not among the most religious or the most righteous
but among the most sinful,
the ones most in need of forgiveness.
and for his troubles, for his love
Jesus will die,
he will be killed, for daring to forgive sins,
for loving people because they are children of God
and teaching others to do the same.
But his love is so strong it overcomes death,
on the third day Jesus rises again,
just as he said,
not because of what we can do for him
but because of who we are,
children of God.
All of us loved by the Greatest of All Time. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.