Mark 9 does not show us the disciples’ most shining moment. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus takes 3 of his disciples up a high mountain. The disciples suddenly see Jesus become bright white, bright light, and Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Jesus. The disciples hear the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved. Listen to him!” The disciples’ heads are still spinning as they come down from the mountain. They return to the rest of the disciples, only to find them surrounded by a crowd, including some scribes who are arguing with the disciples. Jesus asks what they’re arguing about, and one man says, “Teacher, I brought my son to you. He has an evil spirit, and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they couldn’t do it.” Jesus reprimands the disciples, heals the boy, and thrills the crowd.
As they travel onward, Jesus tells them he is going to die and rise again, but they don’t understand. And then they argue with one another about who is the greatest. I have one thing to say to the disciples at this point: seriously?! You’ve just witnessed the transfiguration, you’ve witnessed a miracle, you’ve been reminded that your rabbi is going to die, and your response is to argue about who is the greatest? Seriously?
I really wish the writer of this gospel had told us which disciples were arguing. Was it the three who had just gone up the mountain with Jesus, or was it the ones who had stayed behind? Was it the three who had been reminded of the transcendent power of God, or the ones who had been reminded that they didn’t even have the power to cast out a single demon? I guess we’re not intended to know, and it really doesn’t matter, because we could be in either group!
Who is the greatest? It’s a question we ask frequently, in one form or another. If you use the Google search engine and search for “who is the greatest,” Google helpfully supplies popular searches: who is the greatest athlete of all time, who is the greatest rapper of all time, quarterback of all time, singer of all time, etc.
If you search for “what is the greatest,” Google will tell you that the most searched for phrase is “what is the greatest common factor.” Evidently lots of math students use Google. After that, the most popular searches are: what is the greatest commandment, what is the greatest song of all time, what is the greatest generation, the greatest movie of all time, and the greatest country in the world.
Ooh, now that’s a question guaranteed to start a controversial sermon, isn’t it? We could share all the things about our country that make it great—and there are many—from the freedoms we share to the beautiful and diverse land we call home.
And we could share all the evidence to the contrary. We are not #1 in education, the quality of our healthcare, or human rights, but we are #1 in incarceration rates and gun ownership. U.S. News & World Report gives an annual ranking of the best countries, based on a wide variety of criteria. The U.S. comes in at #8. Yet many of us insist that we are the greatest country in the world, or that we used to be and could be again. I love my country, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But why do we insist that it has to be the greatest? Our whole society—the whole world, it seems—is imbued with this competition. Everything is a contest, from our television entertainment to our kids’ sports—and not just competing with the other team, but with one another.
The quest for greatness is incessant, and burdensome. A basketball fan wrote an article called “The Burden of Greatness,” about LeBron James in Game One of the NBA Finals in 2014. He wrote, “Ironically, a person whose slogan throughout the season has been ‘Strive for Greatness’ couldn’t summon the energy necessary to ‘will’ himself to the finish. Throughout the course of the fourth quarter . . . James began experiencing cramps which eventually led to his removal from the game and contributed to the defeat of the Miami Heat by the San Antonio Spurs. The pain must’ve have been overwhelming; the grimaces on his face spoke of an individual whose body had failed him at the most inopportune time. And as he was carried off the floor to the bench by staffers and teammates, the cyberverse burst into outrage. There were talks that LeBron wasn’t tough enough. During the television broadcast ESPN analyst Mark Jackson uttered the following, ‘The great ones find a way to tell their body, ‘Not now … I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’… Then of course, there were the pundits, ESPN host Skip Bayless leading the chorus as to why the self-proclaimed ‘king’ wasn’t properly hydrated like the other competitors who also endured the almost 90 degree heat in the arena.” Then people compared him to other athletes who fought through injury and pain by ignoring their bodies. “Asked about the criticism, James simply stated ‘I’m the easiest target in sports.’” It’s the burden of greatness.
Now, as far as I know, none of us are in much danger of being ridiculed on a national stage, at least not in the NBA. But we carry the burden of thinking we have to be great on whatever stage we find ourselves. Of course, you may be wondering if this is the right sermon for this congregation. After all, many of you are retired, and work seems to be the place we compete the most. But what about those successful kids of ours? And the grandkids? (Says the mom who felt great pride yesterday because my son missed 3 weeks of pillow hockey with a broken ankle and still scored two goals in his first game back.) Why am I proud of that, when I had nothing to do with it?! Proud of him, yes, but proud of his accomplishment? Have we simply passed down the pursuit of greatness to the next generation? Why is being the greatest so important to us? It’s almost as if we define our worth by it.
Almost? A biblical scholar I often read says that this passage about the disciples arguing over greatness is actually about identity. Who am I? Who am I in this group of followers? Where do I stand? How do I rate? Jesus’ response is to lift up a child.
This is a common theme in the Gospels—Jesus giant reversal. The first shall be last and the last shall be first; the one who is the least will be the greatest of all. But don’t forget what happened next in our story. After the disciples can’t cast out a demon, they argue about who is the greatest. Jesus responds by telling them the last shall be first, etc. Then John says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” “The disciples, in other words, have decided who they are and defined themselves over and against this other person. They are the leaders of the fledgling Jesus movement, more important than others doing works in Jesus name, the inner circle who should be obeyed by lesser disciples. What’s striking, of course, is that all this happens almost immediately after Jesus chided their earlier arguments about which of them was the greatest. It seems that all Jesus’ admonishment did was to encourage them to give up vying amongst themselves so that they could vie together against everyone else!” Jesus responds by reminding them “that mercy and love are the vehicles through which we discover and express our identity. And one of the great things about service, love, and mercy is that you never run out of them.” 
You see, if we look at what truly matters—relationships with our partners, or our children, for example—there is no concern about who is greatest. There is no “I’m first” mentality. Because love is more important than standing. It’s in these outside areas that we seem to get lost. We get lost because we think our worth is defined by what we do instead of who we are. We get lost because we think our worth is defined by others instead of our Creator. If our identity is in Christ, we don’t need to be first. We don’t need to be the greatest at what we do. We don’t need to insist that we are the greatest country. We can recognize the beauty in all.
I’m almost done with this sermon and I still haven’t gotten to where I thought I was going with this text. When I read it weeks ago, I saw the disciples acting from a place of privilege, looking down on others, and I intended to preach on how we benefit from privileges based solely on our skin color. Then I decided that was way too much for this one sermon, and more than this one text could support. But I still believe the two are connected, because our quest for greatness demands that someone else be “not great.” If we insist on a hierarchy of worthiness, then we need someone else to be not as worthy. And then it becomes really easy, or at least tempting, to identify whole groups of people as below us.
I am all for excellence. I believe in excellence as a value, and I strive for it, especially in worship. I don’t mean to suggest that my sermons are excellent—always or ever—but that I work hard to make each sermon the best I can make it. And I struggle when I feel like my sermon is mediocre. At those times I remember my accounting professor in college. I was not happy with the grade I earned in the second semester. He said, “Did you do your best?” I said, “No! I should have put in more work. I’m capable of an A in this class and nothing less is satisfactory.” He smiled and said, “Did you do your best under your current life circumstances?” That stopped me in my tracks. When I considered everything I had going on that semester—in school, in life, in relationships—yeah, I’d done the best I could, and I should be darn proud of that B! I try to do the same in my preaching. Is this the best I can do this week? But here’s the kicker. Invariably, when I don’t feel good about what I have to say, when I’m not sure it’s going to meet anyone’s needs, that’s the week that more people tell me how much it helped them. So either a) I have no idea what I’m doing, or b) When I’m at my worst, God is at God’s best. Or c) All of the above!
So I have a proposal. Let’s be okay with “okay.” Let’s celebrate our children when they don’t score or don’t get the grades. Let’s celebrate our effort instead of belittling our outcome. Let’s sit together in our mediocrity and offer grace where greatness cannot be found. And let’s remind ourselves not to carry the burden of expectations, or the expectations of greatness, because we already have the stamp of approval of our Creator God. God is great. And we’re not God. And that’s okay. God doesn’t just want my best. God wants my all.