September 23, Who is the greatest?

Who is the greatest?

Mark 9:30-37

There’s a woman by the name of Man Kaur, who recently won her age-group race in the 200-meter sprint at the World Masters Athletic Competition in Malaga, Spain. She is from India and she has been running competitively for 9 years now. In that time, she has gone to competitions around the world, and she has won 32 gold medals, mostly in 100 meters and 200 meters. Fairly recently, she has taken up some field events as well – the shot-put and the javelin, and not so long ago, she set a record in her age group in javelin.

Now, that is pretty impressive: 32 gold medals in her age group and a world record to boot. But let me tell you about those races and those records. The race Man Kaur ran in Spain recently? The win in the 200 meters? She ran the 200 meters in 3 minutes and 14 seconds. Oh, and she was the only one running, so she was all but guaranteed the gold. All she really had to do was start when the gun went off, stay on the track, and finish the 200 meters. And the 100 meter races she runs? Her best time is 70 seconds. That’s down from 74 seconds a year ago. She’s shaved 4 seconds off her time over the last year. And the javelin throw? The world record she holds in that? It’s sixteen feet.

Now let’s put some of that in perspective. The world record (not an age group world record, but the world record) for 200 meters is 19.19 seconds, which was set in 2009 (the same year Man Kaur started running.) The world record holder is Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt. The women’s world record for 200 meters, set by Florence Griffith-Joyner back in 1988 at the Summer Olympics is 21.34 seconds.

Man Kaur, remember, ran her 200 meters for gold at the World Masters Athletic Competition in Spain a week or two ago in 3 minutes and 14 seconds, or 194 seconds – about ten times slower than Usain Bolt’s 19.19 seconds. Her 100 meter sprint time is slightly better in comparison: she runs it in 70 seconds; the world record holder, again Usain Bolt, has a time of 9.58 seconds.

Okay, by now you have probably caught on. The first tip off was when I said that Man Kaur has won 32 gold medals in her age group. The second tip off should have been the word “masters” in the title of the competitions in which she runs. But the part I didn’t tell you is that Man Kaur is tops in the 100-104 year-old age group for running. She is 102 years old, and in her age group, she is among the greatest of runners.

What makes her great? Well that’s an interesting question. Because you could say that it’s her speed – she faster than all the other 100-104 year-olds. But at the same time, she’s not that great because of her speed. She is, by comparison to almost every other runner that you or I will ever come across, extraordinarily slow. Three minutes and 14 seconds (194 seconds) to run 200 meters, does not qualify by almost any standard as “fast.” It’s maybe not even what you or I would call running.

But she wins gold medals, right? So that’s pretty great? And she keeps improving, so that’s great, right? And she’s 102 years old and she didn’t take up running until the age of 93 and that’s pretty great.

She stays away from junk food and she keeps to a strict routine. Every morning, she gets up at 4:00 a.m. From 4:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., she bathes, washes clothes, makes tea, and recites prayers. Sometimes the praying is at her house of worship and sometimes at home, but at 7:00 a.m. she goes to the track for an hour of practice, unless the weather is bad, in which case she goes to the gym to lift weights, and that’s pretty great.

Clearly, she can outrun all the other 100 to 104 year-olds, so doesn’t that make her not only great, but the greatest?

We could make a case one way or the other, I suppose, and we live in culture that wants to compare and compete, measure and judge: Who is the greatest? What is the greatest? Who is better? Who is worse? Who wins and who loses? Who is more powerful, more influential, stronger, more talented, and so on and so forth?

But you know what? A story like this reminds us that perhaps such a measurement just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. Man Kaur spent her working life as a nanny and a maid. She even worked in a palace for a while, but she never earned more than a monthly salary of 10 rupees (the equivalent of 15 cents today). She was not educated and the only reason she started running is because her son likes to do it and he encouraged her to try as well and she discovered she liked it.

He’s now 80 years old and he too competes at the Masters level. There’s no prize money in it, and they have to pay for all the travel involved, and he funds their participation with his life savings. He calls it “a labor of love” and says when his savings run out, they will stop. At home, he does the cooking and she does the housework. They live a simple life. For her part, 102 year old Man Kaur quotes a Punjabi saying, “What you ask for, you never get. It’s better to accept your blessings as they come.” (NPR, 9/14/18, “Secrets of Success from a 102-year-old runner”)

So, what is greatness? Is it being better than everyone else or is it having an integrated life, a humble spirit, and worthy goals? Is it being dominant, famous, “important,” or is it still moving one foot in front of the other so long as you can, enjoying the moment, being grateful you have yet another day to go to the track, so to speak?

Most of us will never achieve the “greatness” of Usain Bolt. We will never be the very, very best at anything. But, then again, is that the real measure of greatness? Is greatness measured by comparison? Or domination? Or, what the world calls, excellence? Or might it be something more simple? Something less about measurement and more about attitude? Something with humility mixed in?

That’s part of the reason I told you this story of the 102 year-old “sprinter.” If greatness is about comparison, then she creates a dilemma for us. Compared to her cohort of 100 to 104 year-olds, she’s a great athlete. Compared to Usain Bolt, she’s not. So, comparison doesn’t really help.

On the other hand, if greatness has something to do with humility, with taking the cards you are dealt, but playing them in the best way you can; if it has something to do with servanthood and willingness to care for those who have been handed into your care; if it has something to do with inspiration and consistency and a right spirit…well then, she’s pretty great.

In the scripture story for today, Jesus overhears his disciples bickering or perhaps bragging about who is the greatest. They apparently don’t realize that he has overheard their conversation, because when he asks them directly about the conversation, they drop their heads and look down at their feet. No one wants to admit that they were playing the compare and compete game, because in truth they know that Jesus has a different agenda.

And in the scripture story, Jesus’ response is rather unsurprising – to them and to us.  Of course, Jesus would encourage humility; of course, Jesus would encourage service; of course, Jesus would call for the disciples to stop bickering or bragging about greatness; of course, Jesus would say last and first are to be reversed; of course, Jesus would finally make his point completely clear by scooping up a child into his arms and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”

There’s no surprise in any of this for us. Of course, Jesus guides us away from power-grabbing, from competitive impulses, from aspiring to greatness – no surprise! And yet, every time Jesus says something along the lines of, “Give up your control, put down your power, sacrifice your influence, set your concern in the direction of the weak and those who are suffering from having the least concern and the least attention from society, stop trying to change the world by force, stop competing and comparing…every time he says these things, while we are not surprised, we are still brought up short by a recognition that we are attracted to comparisons, to measurements, to power.

We want to know who the winners and losers are, we want to rub elbows with greatness, we want recognition or credit, we like having influence, we crave respect, we want to be first.

So, apparently, we are a lot like the disciples. We’ve heard the message of service and humility, but that doesn’t stop us from taking the measure of ourselves against those around us. It seems not to stop us from aspiring to greatness, as the world understands greatness. 

I would never wear one of those red ball caps that say “Make America Great Again,” but I understand the yearning to win, to validate our culture, and to feel important and influential. I understand the “winners and losers” mentality that is so deeply embedded in our way of life. I understand how politics has always been about defeating the opponent and gathering more power, and I recognize that right now especially, it appears to have become even more nakedly about those things.  

I know about competition, even about criticizing the opponent, about diminishing the other in order to build yourself up. I know those things and I am not immune to them. I can even imagine walking along with the disciples and putting in my two cents about who is great and who isn’t.

And, in contrast to Jesus, who seems quite genuine when he promotes going to the back of the line, I am, quite honestly, a bit suspicious of people who wear the badge of humility too brightly: “You go first, I’ll step back. I don’t need to have it go my way. I’m not interested in affecting the outcome. I just want to help.” Really?

I wonder sometimes when someone goes out of their way to tell me that humility isn’t so hard, and loving everyone is easy enough, and they’ve never had a critical thought about the person across the way. Granted, all of us have those brightly “humble” moments from time to time – those are our good days; but I daresay, few of us are as consistently pure, self-effacing, and willing to yield as Jesus calls us to be.

Think about it. If you’re pretty sure that you are less about greatness and more about humility, just think about the last time you wanted to have your own way because you were convinced that you were right, or you knew better, or someone else was misguided, or they were in the way, or they were doing the “wrong thing.” You don’t have to turn the clock back very far to come up with an example, right?

If you are anything like me, you could probably come up with multiple examples from just the past week. More often than I’d like to admit, I find myself judging others’ motives, seeking the upper hand, thinking well of myself and poorly of others, wanting to win.

I don’t typically go around having arguments with others about who is the greatest – me or them, my ideas or their ideas, my team or their team, my plans or their plans, my motives or their motives – but often enough those things are present in my mind and in my heart.

It may not show in me or in you – that is, we may appear humble enough – but maybe that’s just because most of us are smart enough, socialized enough, to know that over the top arrogance or being supremely opinionated doesn’t get us what we want or where we want to go, so we are willing to wear the badge of humility. But the truth? We are probably more like the disciples than not.

So, what to do? Well, it seems to me that at the end of the scripture, while it might appear that Jesus offers an object lesson when he picks up the child and says, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” it may well be more than that.

Sure enough, a case can be made that he’s demonstrating how important it is to reach out to the small, the weak, the powerless, and in doing so, he’s also showing how to honor and respect God, but what if it’s more basic than that? What if he takes the child in his arms and tells them to do the same because there is something that shifts in us – in terms of arrogance and innocence – when we literally hold what is dependent and fragile and realize in an instant that this is the way God holds us? 

In truth, whenever we are held in God’s arms – as Jesus held that small child – whatever we imagined about our own greatness slips through our fingers. And what is affirmed instead, is that vulnerable and dependent and fragile as we are, God loves us. Average as we are, God loves us. Slow and tired and old or weak as we are, God loves us. A fistful of gold medals, or none at all – it matters not. Everyone was once a child, and everyone is still God’s child. And isn’t that great? Yes – there’s nothing that compares.




Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

September 23, 2018