I got on Amazon and searched for books with the word “greatness” in their title. “How to be Great”, “The Secret to Greatness”, that sort of thing. Do you know many titles I found?
26,000 books telling me how to be great.
Jesus boiled greatness down to one thing. No formulas, no gimmicks, just one simple truth. The great person is the one who serves.
You can listen to my sermon here.
This is a deeply personal sermon I gave in June about hunger and the pain of not having enough money. A lot of us have been there, but we don’t often talk about it. But we should. It helps knowing we’re not alone.
I hope you’ll be encouraged by the closing story to keep your hearts soft and your hands open.
Steve Prefontaine was supposed to be the greatest distance runner in American history. Had he not died at the tender age of 24, he probably would have been.
Pre, as he was called, liked to run out front, way ahead of the pack. He made a show of racing because he thought of running as art. His coaches begged him to run with strategy, to hold back and let others do the work. But Pre was famous for saying that he ran, not to win, but to see who had the most guts.
Because of that, he sometimes lost races he could have won.
The world says we should temper our love, look out for ourselves first, and be suspicious of our enemies. But Jesus says to turn the other cheek, give to those who ask, and pray for our enemies.
It wasn’t logical for Pre to run like he did. He would have been more successful had he not. But Pre said that when he ran he wanted people to stop and say, “I’ve never seen anyone run like that.”
Sometimes people ask me why Jesus had to die on a cross. It’s a good question. And there are probably a handful of good answers.
But one of them has to be that he wanted us to see him there and say, “I’ve never seen anyone love like that.”
The first funeral I recall attending was for the dad of a classmate who lived up the street from me. Her dad died suddenly and it scared me to learn this was a possibility. This meant my dad could die. My mom could die.
I could die.
I didn’t want to go to the funeral but my dad said I needed to go. So I went. I’ll never forget watching my friend walk into the church, her arms draped around her mother’s waist. I had never seen anyone cry so hard. Her entire body shook.
Afterward, I asked my dad why I had to go. “Because,” he said, “that’s what friends do.”
That’s what friends do.
It is, isn’t it? Friends go down to the valley with us. Friends aren’t afraid of the shadows. Friends don’t shy away from pain. They move closer to it. They make sure we’re not alone.
As I grew older I watched my father make great effort to attend funerals, sometimes for people he seemed to barely knew. I didn’t understand.
“Adults get invited to a lot weddings,” he explained. ” Someday you will, too. When that happens, make sure to go. But don’t forget about the funerals. Everyone loves to celebrate, fewer choose to mourn.”
I eventually learned my father got this from Jesus, the God of suffering. The God who hung on a cross to make it desperately clear there was no suffering he wasn’t willing to enter on our behalf.
Jesus doesn’t just show up at our weddings. You’ll find him at the funerals, too.
He is a suffering God. And this is good news because we are a suffering people.
As many of us know…when it’s our turn to pass through the valley, we need more than the alleluias of Easter. We need the cries of Good Friday.
And for that, I’m terribly grateful.
If you’re suffering today, please know that you’re not alone. And never will be.
Church can be awkward.
One Easter Sunday a woman behind me started screaming, “It’s about forgiveness! It’s about new life! Today!” And then, as if that were normal, she sat back down.
I’ve never forgotten that, just like the folks in the Gospel never forgot the day a man with an unclean spirit burst into their worship service.
Jesus is teaching when the man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus? Have you come to destroy us?”
Can you imagine? This isn’t awkward. It’s frightening.
Demon talk makes us squirm. Maybe the Gospel writers didn’t understand mental illness? Maybe when they said “possessed” they were describing something they didn’t understand?
No doubt there was confusion in the ancient world about mental health, just like there is today. We have a long way to go until we understand that anxiety and depression are just like diabetes and cancer. Some of us have it. Some of us don’t. And this has nothing to do with character.
If you’re dealing with any of that, I want you to know something. God is with you. And the church, while flawed, is behind you and for you.
The trouble with explaining demon scenes away is there are too many of them.
What’s interesting about this scene is that we don’t know what Jesus is saying, only that people are astonished, for he taught with authority and not as the scribes. The scribes were teachers who interpreted scripture. What Jesus is doing is different. He isn’t appealing to authority; he’s being authority.
“I know who you are,” says the demon. “Have you come to destroy us?”
“Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus replies.
And it did. That’s authority.
I wore a uniform in high school, but there were special days when I was allowed to wear my own clothes, even hats. On one of those days I walked into the chapel with a hat on. A teacher told me to take it off. Without missing a beat I said, “Jews wear hats to pray.”
(I would have slapped teenage me.)
I don’t love being told what to do. But the older I get the more I realize I need to be told, because I don’t always know what’s best.
In the ordination process you get asked lots of questions. Somebody asked me this one: What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord and Savior of your life?
“He’s my Savior,” I said, “because he saves me. Not just from sin and death but daily. He comes to me and rescues me. Every single day.”
That part came easy.
“He’s my Lord,” I continued, “because I do things for him I don’t want to do. But I trust He knows what’s best.”
And I felt like a fraud. Because for all my talk, I want to be my own Lord.
But I need a Lord.
Here’s the deal. We’ll never make Jesus our Lord unless we believe he knows more than we do. Because, as Dallas Willard used to say, “it’s not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters we don’t believe him to be competent.”
Would you fly with an incompetent pilot? Let an incompetent surgeon cut your chest open? Do you give authority to anyone you don’t believe is smart?
I doubt it. Do you believe Jesus is smart?
We talk a lot about Jesus’ love, but what about his competence? Does he know how to help us be good engineers or good parents? Does he know what it takes to run run a business or keep a marriage alive?
The earliest Christians believed He did. He was divine, which meant he couldn’t be dumb.
I think it’s tough to claim Jesus as Lord until we’re ready to claim he’s smart. And not just smart, but the smartest man who ever lived.
I was in a doctor’s office some time ago getting a physical. I was going through a rough time and really stressed. As the doctor examined me my blood pressure shot up.
“Do you smoke?” he said.
(I told him, but I’m not telling you.)
He took the reading again. Still high.
He took the cuff off my arm. “Your father tells me you like to read.”
I told him and we talked about books and life for an hour. Then he took the reading again. “You don’t have a blood pressure problem,” he said. “You’re stressed.” He smiled. “Relax.”
And I did, not just then but in the days that followed. His words had power because I trusted his authority. I believed him to be competent.
We may not be demon possessed, but all of us — from time to time — get possessed by something.
Anxiety. Money. Regret.
When this happens, we need a Lord to cast it out.
Don’t be afraid to make Jesus your Lord. He won’t abuse the position; he’ll use it to set you free. From sin. From death. From yourself.
“I know who you are,” says the demon. “ Have you come to destroy us?”
“Oh no,” Jesus says. “Just the opposite.”
“Jazz class,” she said to me. “Intermediate Dance. It’ll be fun.”
She was my college sweetheart, and the jazz class she spoke of represented the final credits I needed to graduate.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Will there be actual dancing involved?”
“It’s a dance class.”
I should have shut it down. I didn’t need this headache. I needed one class. But you know how love works. She batted her eyes.
“Well,” I said, “maybe we should sign up for Beginner’s Jazz. Intermediate sounds serious.”
“Are you calling me a bad dancer?”
“No,” I said. “I’m calling me a bad dancer.”
Her eyes stopped batting.
“I thought it’d be special to take this class together. But if you feel differently, that’s fine.”
A week later I found myself in Intermediate Jazz.
The professor handed out the syllabus. I read my execution orders. FINAL EXAM: EACH STUDENT WILL CHOREOGRAPH AND PERFORM A SOLO DANCE.
My very first panic attack.
I tried to walk out, but you know what happened. Those eyes started up again. So I stayed, hid in the back row, and tried not to think about stepping out from the group and dancing on my own.
In the Gospel, Jesus constantly asked people to step out from the group.”Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” In other words, “Come with me and I’ll teach you the ways of God.”
And people did. And they changed the world.
What I love is that it was never supposed to happen.
Jewish Rabbis didn’t go looking for students. Students went looking for a Rabbi. And only the best were allowed to follow. A Rabbi recruiting random students was ridiculous.
It’d be like Harvard Law admitting the first 50 people who liked their Facebook page. It’s not how these things work.
But it’s how Jesus worked. And it’s how he works today. He calls everyone and accepts anyone who’s interested.
The great Irish theologian, Bono, said, “It used to shock me that the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, and adulterers. But now it’s a source of great comfort.”
Me too, Bono. We should hang out.
What a relief that the Bible isn’t about perfect little angels who do everything right. If it was, I couldn’t read it.
Thank God it’s about people—damaged, guilty, scared—whom God sweeps into His arms, heals, and uses to change the world.
Jesus wasn’t turned off by the rap sheets of his first disciples, and he isn’t turned off by yours either. One of the more destructive lies we tell ourselves is that we don’t deserve to be used by God, that something in our past disqualifies us.
No. We serve a God of second chances, a God who uses broken things to make the world whole.
I was talking to a young girl who’d been called some ugly things. I tried to tell her about the good I saw in her, but she stopped me and said, “If you knew the things I did, you wouldn’t like me.”
It hit me: that’s how we feel about God. We believe He loves us, but we don’t believe He likes us. At least not enough to use us. He has priests and missionaries for that, people who aren’t quite so broken.
But it’s not true. Jesus used regular, flawed people to set the world on fire with love.
God doesn’t just love you. He likes you. He chose you. And He’ll use you. The only question is whether you’ll let Him.
Following Jesus doesn’t mean abandoning your life and moving to Calcutta. It can be done right where you are.
“But I don’t know how,” you might say.
Me neither. That’s why Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” That’s the good news. We don’t do it on our own. We can’t, which is why we follow.
Which brings me back to love, because when you love someone you’ll follow them anywhere.
Which brings me back to Intermediate Jazz and my final exam.
I’ve never been a shy person but that day I wanted to find a rock and die under it. But I couldn’t, because I needed to graduate.
So I stepped out from the group and danced alone. And for a minute or two, it was OK. But then it happened. My ears stopped working. I couldn’t hear the music. I froze and felt so stupid.
But then someone started clapping to the music. And she kept clapping until I found the beat and finished my dance.
That may seem trivial to you, but it isn’t to me. She rescued me and I’ll never forget it.
Following Jesus will take us into uncomfortable territory. We will be stretched.
But here’s what I know. The God who calls us, goes ahead of us. And when we lose the music, and can’t find the beat, a pair of hands will appear.
And they will clap.
And they will clap.
Until we all finish our dance.
In college a buddy and I were standing in line to order dinner when a deaf woman approached us, hands out. Clumsily, I tried to tell her I didn’t have cash.
Meanwhile, my friend did something unexpected. He began using sign language.
I had no clue what was being said. But I understood what happened next. They finished their conversation and hugged. The woman walked away, smiling.
“What was that?” I said.
“The sign language?”
“Oh, that. I’ve noticed that woman hanging around. She looks lonely. I thought I’d do something about it.”
“So you learned sign language?”
“Trying to,” he said. “I’m not fluent, just doing what I can.”
Who does that?
A few weeks later, my landlord stopped by my house. The same buddy was with me. My landlord spoke English but was more comfortable in Spanish.
My buddy did it again.
Without warning, he started speaking Spanish.
At this point I figured he was a spy.
Afterward, he confessed he’d been learning Spanish so he could talk to the underprivileged kids in our neighborhood, most of whom spoke only Spanish.
I was confused. Why was he going to all this trouble for strangers?
It was beyond generous.
The Gospel tells of a woman who reminds me of my old friend. A woman who did what she could. A woman who gave so generously it caused confusion and even anger to those around her.
Near the end of his life, Jesus and his disciples had dinner at the home of a leper.
A woman appears. Anonymous and silent, she walks in with an alabaster jar filled with nard, an expensive perfume. She shatters the jar and pours the entirety of the perfume onto the head of Jesus.
Close your eyes and imagine it.
Jesus sitting at the table. He is exhausted from three-years of ministry. He has travelled incessantly, been rejected in his hometown, silenced demons, and brought the dead back to life. His back aches. His feet are calloused. His heart burdened by all he has seen.
This woman blesses him. She spreads the nard into his hair. Her fingers massage his scalp. Her hands work his neck and shoulders.
She is focused. She takes her time.
His breathing slows. His eyes close. He allows the only woman in the room to grant him a respite from his troubles.
The peace is broken.
“Don’t waste the ointment!” the disciples say. “The nard could be sold for a tremendous amount of money, money that could be given to the poor! How dare you?”
The woman says nothing. She sees only Jesus.
But the disciples have a point. This perfume had the value of a full year’s wage.
The median income in the United States is $51,000. Imagine someone walking into a dinner party and uncorking a $51,000 bottle of wine and offering it to one person at the table? That’d raise eyebrows, especially if the guest drank one glass and poured the rest onto the floor.
I was once in the home of a fabulously wealthy man. He went to great lengths to show me his possessions. And I have to admit, it was fun.
By the end of the tour, however, I was conflicted. I couldn’t help but wonder how else his wealth might have been used. How many children can be fed for the price of a Lamborghini?
I don’t know. The United Nations reports that 1 in every 8 humans on earth goes to bed hungry. That’s 870 million people a day who don’t have enough to eat.
This is what the disciples are thinking. The perfume could be sold and used to bless the lives of others. Instead, it’s poured on the head of Jesus and left dripping onto the floor.
Like my buddy learning foreign languages for the benefit of strangers, this woman strikes me as excessive. What should we make of her?
“Let her alone,” Jesus says. “Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
What is it about this that’s beautiful to Jesus?
She sees him. She notices his pain. She does something about it.
But the disciples, blinded by their good intentions, miss it.
I wonder how many people I miss?
I was jogging a few years ago when I tripped and fell. It was the bad kind. The kind where you go all the way down and say things unholy while you do.
As I lay on the ground, bloodied, in pain, and embarrassed by the onlookers, a teenager appeared above me. I had seen him across the street seconds before the fall.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He offered me his hand and helped me to my feet. “Do you need a lift home?”
He could have pretended not to see me. It would have been easy. But he didn’t. He crossed the street. He drew close to me.
It seems like a small thing. But it’s not.
He saw me fall and he did what he could.
The disciples weren’t wrong. Their instincts were good. Nobody expects the woman to shatter a $51,000 bottle of perfume over the head of Jesus.
But she did.
And Jesus liked it.
Likewise, no one expected the Son of God to lay down His life for us, but he did.
My old college buddy did what he could. He still does.
This woman in the Gospel did what she could.
But I worry about me.
What about you?
I like to imagine that as Jesus hung on the cross, his mind escaped to the memory of this woman’s hands on his head. I like to believe her blessing eased his suffering, if only for a second.
There are people in need all around us, but do we see them? Will we do what we can?
I don’t know. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather hear Jesus say about my life than what he said about that woman.
She did what she could.
And it was beautiful.
Dan Clendenin says that “one of the most dangerous spiritual places we can live is in the deluded notion that we are a fully sighted person.”
There’s something to that.
The Westboro Baptist “Church” is famous for protesting the funerals of American soldiers and making hateful statements about all kinds of people. I’ve often wondered what drives those people to such extremes? Probably a lot of complicated factors. But at least one has to be the deep-rooted belief that they see the world rightly. Because folks don’t treat others as worthless unless they actually believe they are.
It’s easy to get into trouble when we think we’ve got it all figured out. We may not spout hate speech but we have our plans and ambitions. Why consult God in prayer? We know who to vote for. Why listen to another perspective? We know what’s right and wrong. Why bother reading scripture?
We know. We know. We know.
But you know what I’ve been learning? The healthiest people don’t just admit they don’t know, they celebrate it. The wise readily admit, “I. Don’t. Know.”
A newspaper once asked, “What’s Wrong with the World?” G.K. Chesterton wrote back, “Dear Sirs: I am.”
If we hope to see by the light, we must first acknowledge we’re in the dark. The first step in any recovery is admitting there’s a problem.
Jesus said he didn’t come for the healthy but the sick. A healthy person doesn’t need a doctor. A sick person does.
The righteous can keep on being righteous. But sinners? We need help.
May today be the day we ask for it.
I heard of a woman who received a nice settlement from a lawsuit. Afterward, she was still furious. Her lawyer asked, “What’s wrong? What you got was more than fair.”
“What I wanted,” she said, “was for somebody to look me in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry this happened.’”
We all know this. But saying sorry is hard, isn’t it?
In a book called Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz writes: “As a culture, we haven’t mastered the basic skill of saying ‘I was wrong.’”
Think about that. We fly robots to Mars. We cure disease. We’re the most advanced people in the history of humanity.
But we can’t say sorry.
Why? Maybe it’s because our culture is upside down on the issue. There’s a famous line from the movie, Love Story – remember it? “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Love means having to say you’re sorry all the time. Preferably every fifteen minutes.
There’s a thousand answers that could be given for why we don’t do it, so let me focus on one: pride.
Pride trivializes God’s mercy in our lives.Pride makes it hard to appreciate what God has done.
We’re like the young rich man who can’t follow Jesus because his heart is consumed by wealth. He’s spiritually blind to his need for Christ. Why follow Jesus when you already have what you need?
Dorothy Day said the closer she grew to God the more she could acknowledge her sinfulness because she saw that God never abandoned her to sin but repeatedly extended his mercy.
That’s the secret. Drawing closer to God allows us to see ourselves for who we are: fragile creatures in need of grace.
It’s tough to say sorry when we’re doing life on our own. Easier when resting in God’s mercy.
It comes down to pride. We don’t apologize because we see it as weakness. But it’s not.
A recent study on leadership found that admitting fault and apologizing creates solidarity, innovation, and openness to change.
So, saying sorry literally makes us more creative and successful. Sorry isn’t weakness; it’s power.
When we need to say sorry, who keeps us from doing it? Nobody.
We hold all the power. And that’s the problem, because our tendency is to address our weaknesses and struggle with them. But there is often little moral effort where we are strong.
But in scripture sin resides not so much in our weaknesses but in our strengths. Because God doesn’t kick us when we’re down. He lifts us up.
Think about Jesus with the adulteress, refusing to condemn her, daring others to throw the first stone. He whispers something hidden in her ear, then says, “Go and sin no more.”
Scripture is filled with a God who grieves with us in our weakness and offers grace to help us overcome.
It’s when we sin in our strength that God drops the metaphorical hammer. When we simply don’t bother to do what we can.
The rich man could have followed Jesus and given his money to the poor, but he doesn’t. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite could have cared for the wounded man, but they don’t. In the last judgment scene of Matthew’s gospel, those who are condemned are told their fault lies in their unwillingness to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked.
The story of sin, like the call to repentance, concerns those areas of our lives where we could have tried harder, precisely because we were able to do so. Christ judges not the weak heart that struggles, but rather the strong heart that does not bother.
We hold enormous power over one another. We can withhold an apology and wreak havoc. Or, we can trust God’s mercy, lay down our pride, and offer this little word of healing.
The choice is ours.