The readings for Year B Proper 20 include the disciples’ argument about who is the greatest, and Jesus’ child-assisted response.
“Look,” said Jesus, scooping up a spare small child as it scurried by; “Look. This is what greatness looks like.”
He sat on the floor with the little one and its grubby little feet kicking at him. The child peered into the ears of the Son of Man, and pulled the beard of the Son of God. The child rubbed its snotty nose on Jesus’ shoulder. It wriggled and began to snivel a little.
The disciples waited for Jesus to elaborate, to draw some great lesson, some marvellous metaphor out of this admittedly very physical spiritual encounter with the child. There must be something special about it, they thought.
But Jesus continued to sit on the floor, cradling the little one, wincing whenever it caught its chubby little fingers in his hair and pulled; making soothing, sighing, songful noises whenever it became fretful; like a woman, like a nursemaid, like a mother.
The child’s own mother, a woman of no consequence, one of the servants of the household, hung around the edges of the room a little bashfully, watching as the most honoured guest of all time whispered a lullaby to her drooling child. As the little one’s eyelids drooped, Jesus murmured quietly to his disciples, who had to lean in to hear him,
“Whoever can welcome such a child as this in my name embraces me. And whoever can embrace and welcome me has opened his heart and mind and body and soul to God.”
The disciples, still a little out of sorts from their argument about greatness, could not find it in themselves to dispute or question Jesus’ teaching, since no one wanted to waken the now-sleeping infant who still rested on the knees of the Messiah, who still sat on the floor, and whose right foot had now quite definitely fallen asleep along with the baby.
And now Jesus was stuck on the floor with a sleeping baby, his hands full, his feet with no feeling left in them, and the child’s mother had gone back to work. There was nothing for it but to continue to wait on the baby, serving it with patience and with love.
Another time, talking about greatness, Jesus told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
This was more their pace, they thought. This was a lesson more suited to a man. Heroism. Good stuff. But the image of the infant still haunted their dreams of greatness. They were infected by the suspicion that Jesus really was talking less about grand gestures and more about great love.
Great love doesn’t have to wait for a great gesture. We can practice great love in small matters. We can practice on small children (or even small animals). They have a way of drawing us into the discernment of service: what do you need? What do you want? Why won’t you stop crying? Why won’t you stop laughing? Help me to understand you! How can I best and most lovingly serve you?
Each time we put our own life on hold – our desire, our need, our timetable – for the sake of someone else: letting them take the first or the last piece of pie; letting them go before us in line; giving up our place, our time, our pride and importance: then we are practicing, in our small, everyday ways, giving up our lives for those around us, our friends and our neighbours.
Jesus practiced it when he washed the feet of his disciples, his friends; he was demonstrating and foreshadowing and practicing the service that he preached, and the self-sacrifice that he lived out to the end, and beyond.
Greatness abounds in humility.
Power and pomp cannot feed the people: the hummus, the earth, the small seed, the dirty fingernails, the mud and the rain are more essential, more useful, than parades and penants. A loving arm, and a breast full of milk, is more useful to a child than all the tea in China. Such things are not the seeds of greatness. Small acts of great love, practiced with abandon, with more than occasional regularity; habitual humility and service is not the key to greatness: it is greatness.
We are good at discerning the lessons from this gospel as individuals. We have all taken a couple of mental notes already about how we can practice great love in small ways in the next day or week, and that is marvellous.
But what does a great church look like? What is the institutional image that is akin to Jesus sitting on the floor with the child of a serving girl? The Son of Man, whose dignity cannot be diminished, sitting on his pride and serving the needs of the one who needed him least in the whole household? If that is the measure of greatness, what is the greatest achievement or action of this church that you can remember or imagine?
Given a little time and a few pieces of paper, my loving and generous congregation came up with the following, among others, and in no particular order:
A great church
reads the Bible
loves Jesus (they mentioned him a few times!)
welcomes all people to the table (this got said a lot, too)
opens its arms to children (as did this)
sings to God
reaches out into the community
plays well with others
serves its neighbours
has people willing to give of themselves
has people who care for one another
engages with social justice and gun violence prevention
is willing to share the good news of God
A great church is built upon the greatness of our God; and the greatness of our God is that God so loves the world, that God sent Jesus to sit in the dust, so that all who needed it might find life in him, and dream of the divine, and be cradled by the great love, the amazing graciousness, of God.