“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”
By now, most of you are aware that the Episcopal Church has been mired in a contentious battle that was sparked by the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Gene is gay, and his elevation to bishop prompted a number of parishes to leave the Episcopal Church.
There was another fight before that. A decade earlier, when the Episcopal Church began ordaining women, some parishes left in protest. A few years before that, when the Episcopal Church changed the prayer book, some didn’t like that very well, and so they left.
A generation before that, the Episcopal Church decided to repeal a ban on divorce, and that prompted some to leave in protest over that.
A century earlier, the Episcopal Church split over the question of slavery. Episcopalians fought and killed each other in the Civil War.
And before that, the Anglican Communion, of which we are a part, split apart over how to worship. At issue was music and vestments, and mission work in the world. The Wesley brothers, John and Charles, had a vision for a reformed Anglican church. But those in control of the church did not share their vision, and so Wesley’s followers split to become the Methodists.
Or go back before that, to the Protestant Reformation. The Church of England, a vital arm of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, went its own way, as did the followers of Martin Luther and John Calvin elsewhere in Europe.
And before that, around the turn of the Millennium: in 1054, the Eastern Orthodox church split from the Western Catholic church, the last straw a fight over a single line in the Nicene Creed.
And before that, in the fourth century, there were sects of Christians known as Pelegianists and Donatists and Athenasians and Arians – none of them agreed about much of anything. The Nicene Creed was a document forged from those controversies to put an end to those controversies. Not all signed on at the time or after.
Go back another 200 years. The Christians could not agree on the nature of Jesus. Some said he was fully human, others said he was fully spirit, and some said he was fully both.
Or go back to the first followers of Jesus, the ones we hear about in today’s gospel lesson. This long march through church schisms I have described this morning begins right here, with this group of crabby disciples, jealous of each other and squabbling over who should sit where at the side of Jesus.
Since then, Christians have been arguing and splitting, building new churches that they believe are the purist form of Christianity. And when the newest in this pantheon falls short, someone takes up the newest call for purity, splits and builds another, and another, and another. The drive for purity trumps all else.
That tendency, of course, is not confined to Christians. There are dozens of sects of Jewish, Muslim, and Hindus, each claiming to be the true and greatest guardians of the faith. That seems to be a very human tendency, and I would suggest, a very human sin.
Jesus walks right into the middle of this in today’s gospel. He has a very direct, simple answer to those who claim to be greatest: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”
The greatest among you is the one who serves.
The greatest is not the one who gets their doctrine right.
The greatest is not the one who lives a pure unblemished life.
The greatest is not the one who writes the most learned theological books, or has risen to the most exalted rank in the church or the world.
The greatest is the one who serves.
As Martin Luther King once said, in perhaps his greatest sermon, all of us can be great because all of us can serve.
All of us can be great because all of us can serve.
Each of us can be servants – in the church, in the classroom, in our homes, in our work. We can serve boldly whether it is in a jail, or with one other person in a hospital room, or on the streets. All of us can be great because all of us can serve each other.
You do no need me to tell you that we live in an uncertain time. Unemployment is stubbornly high, the economy is sluggish, the world remains a dangerous place with our country immersed in two wars, and threats to peace looming elsewhere.
And it is precisely in times like these when the greatest opportunities to serve come.
All of us can be great because all of us can serve.
Each of us is called to be servants to each other and the world in which we live.
Servants are great because they are good listeners, and are open to people no matter their station in life, or where they come from, or how they look or how much money and education they have, or don’t have.
Those who serve are slow to anger, quick to forgive, and are patient, kind and generous. Servants do not seek to control, but seek to open their hands and hearts to others. That is a very high standard of servanthood, but that is what it means to be great.
Rather than striving to build a pure church, let’s strive to build a church that is a place where people can come with their wounds and their questions, and their doubts, and not be judged for being, well, human.
That kind of church will not look very neat or pure, and it might even look a little messy; it will have contradictions aplenty, and people will be more important than doctrine. But a church like this will be brimming with people.
And Jesus will be right in the midst of us while we build this church, bringing heaven to earth.
Bringing heaven to earth is about serving.
Thy will be done, on heaven as it is on earth.
All of us can be great because all of us can serve. AMEN