I want to be great. I want to be great at everything I do, and I give myself a hard time for not being brilliantly excellent 100% of the time — as a pastor, a preacher, a mother, a writer. I long to be stellar … and not just to be stellar, but to be known for being stellar. It’s entirely vain of me, and I want to repent of it as soon as I see it glaring in front of me. But the desire always returns. I’ll see news on Facebook about a clergy colleague’s invitation to the White House, or about another mother who is teaching her children how to cook five-star meals after they finish their homework each day, or about a writer friend who’s on his fifth book … and the demon wells up again: “I want to be great too! I want people to see that I’m great.”
Of course, it can be tricky to recognize ambition as a demon, because it’s often disguised with good intentions. Like the disciples in Mark 9:33-37, arguing over greatness. It’s not that they want to skip past the discipleship and get right to the glory of who sits where in heaven — they have genuine intentions of striving to be good disciples. In fact, they want to be great disciples for Jesus! They want to be the kind of disciples that other people look up to, the kind of disciples leaders turn to for advice, the kind of disciples who will be solicited to write memoirs one day when they retire from discipleship. They want to be the kind of disciples who keep famous company and are seated at the head of the banquet table. They long to be the kind of disciples who will one day be the kind of saints that people pray to, because people will know that these saints can bend Jesus’ ear in heaven. It’s not vanity, it’s spirituality! They just want to be great at it.
In a similar vein, we tell ourselves it’s not vanity or ambition — it’s faithfulness — that we want our individual congregation to stand out and be known for its ministry. We like being distinguished among our denominational peers as one of the churches that is growing. We like being known among churches in the region as an inclusive congregation of diverse theologies, diverse families, diverse loves. That’s who God has called us to be as a congregation; that we are well-known for it is just a perk! And we long for that perk to multiply! We want our church’s reputation to pack the pews and boost our budget and raise our new roof. We want this church to be great…
…but if you haven’t already caught the hint of it, there’s a very delicate line between ministering greatly and desiring greatness. Between doing great work and being known for our great work. Between great discipleship and great ambition. Between desiring righteousness and desiring reputation. Between assessing our greatness in light of our call (individually and congregationally) and assessing our greatness according to our kudos. A delicate line that requires diligent mindfulness!
Jesus says (Mark 9:33-37), “You want to be great? Keep company with the least of these, with the powerless, with the disreputable.”
James says (James 3:13-18), “You want to be great? Show your greatness by your works of gentleness and generosity.”
God says, “You want to be great? Live with humility, and let me be what is great about you. You want to be great? Keep doing the work of your call, keep blessing your community, and I will show you what I can do through you and within you. You want to be great? Make room for me to be great!”
Now by some necessity, especially when we’re embarking on a new project or mission as a congregation, it is useful to generate group enthusiasm and pride. It’s helpful for the task at hand to have a collective positive energy for who our church is, how our church impacts our lives, and what our church represents within the wider Church and community. It’s helpful for the task at hand to believe that our congregation is great, and well worth our investments of time and talent and treasure!
Nevertheless, the ultimate success of a congregation’s new project or mission is not about whether we believe that our individual church is great. The success of the new venture is about whether we believe that God is great, and whether we are willing to make room for God to do great things! And I don’t mean, “Keep doing business as usual and see what miracle God can work with the same-old-same old.” I mean, “Lay everything on the table and leave no stone unturned” to make room for God to do great things! And that means making room for God to change our minds! That means making room for God to change our minds about money — about our personal budgets and assets as well as our congregational budget. That means making room for God to change our minds about time — about whether we fill up our days darting around with a “to do” list rather than discerning the moments of God’s movement.
It means — ultimately, fundamentally — making room for God to change our minds about the greatness of God’s grace, about whether our experiences of grace are such sufficient evidence of God’s greatness that we are finally willing to yield our vain desire for greatness by ourselves, willing to unclasp our tight-fisted need for control in this life, willing to give way finally to peace … and possibility … and gentleness … and generosity.
We have received grace upon grace in this life — full & unconditional love from God, and the nurturing love of those who have gently guided our journeys.
We have received grace upon grace in this life — the breath of God within us to inhale the autumn air, to exhale with laughter, to sing with joy, to pour ourselves out in sobs.
We have received grace upon grace in this life — confidence and sustenance by God’s mercy for those days that we thought we couldn’t get through, for those trials which seemed too stormy to survive, for those moments when it seemed that beauty might shatter our hearts.
We have received grace upon grace in this life — and this is evidence of the greatness of God! It is not the greatness of us. It is not the greatness of this church.
So with gratitude for grace upon grace, with the confidence that God’s grace is sufficient, we will step aside from being great. We will set aside our vain hopes that others will see us as great. And we will make room for God to be great — we will risk making room for God to be great and to do great things — in our lives and in our congregation.
Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/23/12.