A New Vision of Greatness

“So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”

Mark 10:42-45

Some of you have probably seen the National Geographic Special entitled “Killer Stress.”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, has been studying chronic stress in the social hierarchies of humans and other primates.

Much of the program was devoted to examining the social hierarchy of baboons in East Africa and which members of the community are most prone to stress.

What he’s discovered is that baboons typically organize themselves in a steep pyramid of power with a few dominant males ruling rather tyrannically over the rest.

The few males at the top are remarkably free of stress—they are “golden,” luxuriating in their privileged status while the more submissive males and females are awash in stress, have more health problems, and die earlier.

It reminded me of that CEO I read about the other day who was making command decisions while lounging on his monster yacht which was equipped with every conceivable extravagance; while he was throwing big, no holds barred wingdings and seemingly feeling no stress or pain, the company was going down the drain and his land-based employees were sweating bullets over their future.

But something interesting happened to the particular troop of baboons Dr. Sapolsky was studying.

Some tourists had left mounds of garbage around their camp site and the dominant baboon males, seizing on their kingly status, claimed the spoils for themselves, promptly gobbled up all the garbage, were stricken with food poisoning, and died.

The remaining more submissive males and females then proceeded to form a more collaborative society in which food and power were more democratically shared.

When Dr. Sapolsky tested the surviving baboons, he found their stress level had diminished considerably.

When some new, more aggressive males happened along and joined the group, they were gradually over a period of months induced to adopt a more cooperative mode of operation—they were in effect overwhelmed by the greater number of collaborative males and discovered that their former aggressive conduct no longer paid off.

We might call this a bump up the evolutionary ladder.

But it took a trauma, namely, the food poisoning calamity that wiped out the baboons in charge, to bring about the change.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is trying to introduce his disciples to a new concept of leadership.

He’s trying to redirect their competitive instincts toward a shockingly new mode of greatness.

He’s not so na├»ve and unrealistic as to think that the competitive urge is going to dry up and blow away.

But he’s trying to nudge them into competing in a different way—competing in serving and collaborating rather than in a zero-sum game in which I win, you lose!

Jesus is describing a fundamental power shift, a drastic change in the way of doing business, as different as democracy is from dictatorship.

He’s suggesting that the old images of leader as kingpin and cock of the walk, the head honcho sitting in the catbird seat, have to be jettisoned for a drastically different image—he turns the traditional notion of leadership on its head by defining greatness in terms of serving.

But it’s a tough sell—the disciples are too steeped in the old pyramid model of power to grasp what Jesus is getting at.

It took a trauma, that is, his death for them to get it.

We might say the end result was a bump up the ladder of spiritual evolution.

A couple of years ago I received in the mail a glossy album containing photographs of my college classmates then and now along with autobiographical sketches of how they had fared over the years.

As I leafed through this book, what struck me was that so many of these accounts of life after graduation sounded like 6th grade kids doing “show and tell.”

Here’s a sampling.

“I have been a successful investment banker for thirty years and have recently become a consultant to the State Department on new economic initiatives in Viet Nam.”

“I developed precision instruments for micro-surgery that enabled me to retire at 35, and since then I have written a book on the wild flowers of Western Washington that is now in its third printing.”

Well, who among us has not at some time or other been consumed by the itch to do something fantastic and extraordinary that would demonstrate beyond a doubt that we are inspired and set apart from others?

So this is perhaps the most common understanding of “inspired”—to do something exceptional that sets one apart from the average, run of the mill bloke.

But Jesus’ view of inspiration seems to be an almost 180 degree contrast.

Jesus’ view seems to be that the most inspired person is not the one who excels, surpasses, and sets himself apart from others but rather the one who holds things together.

Jesus’ view seems to be that the most inspired person is the one who, when a group or community is on the verge of splintering and coming apart at the seams, manages somehow, by hook or by crook, to hold things together.

We’re speaking here of someone who is steadfast and stalwart, someone who especially when others are bailing out can be counted on to show up come hell or high water, who more than anything is trustworthy.

We’re speaking here of a person whose inspiration consists of an almost infallible sense of when and how to be helpful and when to leave well enough alone.

This is not the inspiration of a newsmaker or trendsetter but the kind of inspiration that is unassuming, unpretentious, and often scarcely noticeable, that does not call attention to itself, that goes about its business without pomp or fanfare.

We’re speaking here of a person who has a low profile, who mostly functions behind the scenes, who does not consider herself remarkable in any way, and yet who, a good part of the time, is the heart and soul of the operation, the linchpin, the center of gravity.

We’re speaking here of a person who is equally adept at bandaging skinned knees and soothing ruffled egos, who’s an artist at balancing and defusing tensions within a family or parish or office.

This is not a person who’s “nicey nice” but someone who can be tough as nails when the occasion calls for it, who has the intestinal fortitude to voice out loud that hard, cleansing truth which others know but are too timid to say.

We’re speaking here of a person whose inspiration is that without even realizing it, she consistently practices the old fashioned virtues of faithfulness, patience, integrity, and kindness.

This is a person with a sense of humor that won’t quit, someone who has a talent for bringing out the hidden best in those around her.

This is the grandmother or uncle who, as we were growing up, was the glue that held our family together.

This is the teacher who has 27 kids in her kindergarten class and who’s able to hold this impossible situation together by instinctively knowing what’s going on with each child, who needs to be comforted because his parents are going through a divorce and who needs to be pushed and challenged.

This is the parish secretary we once knew who, more than anyone else, held the various factions and constituencies of a parish together.

We’re speaking here of a person who is able to hold things together, to endure, not because she trusts in her own strength or capability, but because she trusts in the under-girding power of God that holds all things together, that is, she trusts in the One in whom, as Paul says in one of his epistles, all things cohere.

There’s a fictional example of this kind of inspired person who holds things together in William Faulkner’s novel, “The Sound and the Fury”.

The Compsons are an old Southern family that has fallen on hard times.

Three generations of Compsons live in the old, cavernous family place–a brooding, elderly mother, a ruthless, cynical son, a brain-damaged son, a promiscuous daughter, and a flippant, surly granddaughter.

And each of these figures does his or her part in maintaining a perpetual whirlwind of strife and resentment.

Amidst this frenzy of confusion and ill will, carping and feuding, the black servant Dilsey Gibson is this rock solid, stabilizing force of sanity, health, realism, and compassion who somehow keeps this family going.

Depending on the circumstance, Dilsey rebukes, mothers, prods, or comforts, and from day to day exerts enough of a unifying, settling influence to hold the family together if just barely.

Dilsey is able to endure, she is able to hold the family together, because she trusts in the Divine power that holds all things together that is stronger than human folly; she trusts in the One in whom all things cohere.

Maybe we can call this Dilsey power which I think is close to the kind of inspiration that Paul refers to in one of his epistles where he writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

So this day let us remember and praise those various, unsung persons we have known who have exuded Dilsey power, who have shown us the true nature of inspiration, who have been gifted at holding things together, who have personified the kind of greatness in service Jesus is talking about.

And especially when things seem to be crumbling, may we learn from these mentors and guides to trust in the One in whom all things cohere and use our gifts to hold things together.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
20 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
10/18/09

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