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What Happened to Greatness?
January 22, 1978

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

AMOS 7:10-14; LUKE 1:11-17

Whatever happened to greatness? Our history is primarily the story of great men and great women. Our history and where we are today is dependent on what the great people of the past did. The lessons out of the Bible this morning pointed us to such great people. In the Old Testament lesson we heard about Amos. Amos was a prophet who dared to stand up to criticize the government, who dared to speak out against the policies of the government in spite of opposition. Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel sent word to the king and told him that Amos was stirring up trouble. So King Jeroboam said to Amos, “That's enough. Stop preaching. Go home.” But Amos persisted and responded with those immortal words, “I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but a herdsmen, a farmer, a shepherd and a dresser of fig trees. But the Lord took me from following the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy’”. In the spirit of Martin Luther, he could do no else. We call him a great man. His words are revered, his words are contained in the Bible. 

The New Testament lesson told of the birth of John the Baptist. An angel came to Zachariah and told him the baby that was to be born will be a great man in the Lord’s sight. “He will go ahead of the Lord, strong and mighty like Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again. He will turn disobedient people back to the way of the just. He will get the Lord's people ready for the Messiah.” He will be a great man. 

Last week, the nation buried Hubert Humphrey who I called a great man. You will forgive me any political ramifications, but being reared in Minnesota, and being in high school and college when he was Mayor of Minneapolis, and when he led the battle at the 1948 convention for civil rights, and when he was elected to the Senate, he had a profound impact upon me and others of my generation. Humphrey used to come speak at college. He was quite a talker with a brilliant mind. How influenced I was by him! He was a great fighter with boundless energy. And as we've seen through the years, he was an honest man with integrity—a good man, a great man. They no doubt will find some faults, and they will try to tarnish him. They will find some blemishes because no one is perfect. 

But what's happening to greatness today seems to me that there is a great prejudice against greatness. We spend far more energy trying to find faults and blemishes than we do in idolizing, in holding up the great people of our nation for admiration and example. We spend far too much energy, and there’s far more news in tearing great people down, rather than admitting and allowing them to make mistakes, allowing them to make errors of judgment, allowing them to mistrust the wrong people at times. We are all human. But we love to tear people down. We love to undermine and undercut people who approximate and try to attempt greatness. We attack, we try to destroy them as if their goodness, as if their greatness threatens us. 

Even Jesus is is not exempt. There are those in our generation who are trying to find faults in Jesus. I understand a movie is being made in Europe portraying Jesus as a homosexual. They are trying to undermine, trying to attack, trying to destroy the great. There is a prejudice against the great. They are undermining greatness. How can a society persist without the great? How can a society endure when there are not people who embody the principles, who embody the ideals of society? 

We are so successful undermining the greats that our young people have to idolize rock stars. They identify with rock stars and people with beautiful bodies. We've long admired beautiful bodies and there's nothing wrong with beautiful bodies. But it's tragic when all the heroes we have left are only those with beautiful bodies to tack up on our wall. And it doesn't matter if that beautiful body has any brains. It doesn't matter if that beautiful body has any values or ideals. It's just their bodies. How tragic for our society that heroes are only people with beautiful bodies!. Our value system suffers when we hold up and emulate ideals that say, “Whatever is fun, do it, or if it feels good do it, or do just enough to get by.” We cannot long survive with those kinds of values and ideals. 

People who have value and ideals and are willing to stand up and fight for them as did Amos are undermined and undercut. We do it even in the church. Even in the church, greatness is not a popular goal. We misinterpret Luke 22:24-27 where the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Tell us, Jesus, who among us is the greatest? Who will be the greatest?” Jesus refused to answer the question the way it was asked. And we misinterpret the answer. We interpret the passage to say that it was wrong to seek greatness. But Jesus didn't say it was wrong to seek greatness. He didn't criticize them for seeking greatness as a goal. He criticized the way they were going about it, the competition they were engaged in. But he did not tell them not to seek greatness. 

But, we're so filled with some kind of humility or false modesty, we think it's wrong to try to be great. As a result, we get caught. If our goals are not greatness, then our goals are second best, our goals are mediocrity. One cannot live long seeking mediocrity and have much respect, self pride and self esteem. Ena Plank had me read a book that she is going to put in the library. It's a little book called The Greatest Miracle in the World by Og Mandino. Let me quote, “Are we unhappy? We are unhappy because we no longer have our self esteem. We are unhappy because we no longer believe we are a special miracle, a special creation of God. We become cattle, numbers, punchcards, slaves, ghetto residents.” Have you ever had your master charge credit card call and check? They actually talk in numbers— 5263649127893, $15 and 30 cents or two x y z — all in numbers. They don't even need language anymore, just a bunch of numbers. 

And whether it's circular, whether we do not see greatness because we lack self self esteem, or because we lack self esteem, we do not see greatness, I don't know but it's a vicious cycle because then we are content with mediocrity and second best and sloppiness. Mandino continues, “All of us know that we can be better than we are. People do things which are fine and good and thus respect themselves. Or people feel despicable, worthless and unlovable by being sloppy in their work, not caring about their appearance, or not studying or working a little longer to improve their position in life, or taking that unnecessary drink, or doing a thousand other stupid, small acts that tarnish their already bruised self image… Most of us have a will to die, we also have a will to fail.” By being sloppy, by being content with the mediocre, we lose our self respect. We lose our desire for greatness. Too many live and too many die without ever tapping the resources within them for greatness. 

Seneca, a Roman philosopher who lived at the time of Jesus, wrote, “Nothing is more disgraceful than that an old man should have nothing to show to prove that he has lived long except his years.” What a tragic legacy to leave to the world—just one's age, no content or contributions or impact. God calls you and me to greatness. “He shall be a great man,” the angel said of John the Baptist, and the potentials are also within every single one of us to be great. John Steinbeck wrote, “It is the nature of man to rise to greatness if greatness is expected of him.” Greatness is in our nature. It's in us to be great. You have the capacity to be great, and oh, how our society needs greatness, not just by famous people, but great people! 

How our society needs great churches! I am not content to be associated with a church that doesn't want to be great, are you? But if you do not want to be in a great church, what kind of a church do you want to be in? If your desire for St. Paul's is not to be a great church, what kind of a church do you want us to be? Average? Second best? Mediocre? How America today needs great churches!

Many of you are parents. How our society and our community of Manteca needs great parents for others to emulate, for others to identify with, for examples. How we need great parents! If your desire, if your goal is not to be a great mother or a great father, what is your desire? What is your goal? If you don't want to put in the time, the effort, the energy into being a great parent, what kind of a parent do you want to be? Mediocre? Hinder the future of our children because you were too shy to seek greatness? 

There are many educators in this congregation. How our society and how our community needs great teachers! I imagine if we went around the room today, most of us could list teachers who had great impact and great influence on us. They were great. How our children need great teachers! If your goal is not to be a great teacher, what kind of a teacher do you want to be? There are many children and youth here today. God calls you to be a great student. If you don't want to be a great student, what kind of a student do you want to be? Sloppy, humdrum, mediocre? 

Stop and think about that—all of us—do you really want to put your time and your energy into being sloppy? Or second rate? Is your time of such little significance and little importance that you are willing to expend it in being mediocre? Do you think so little of yourself that you are content with being second best? Do you think so little of God's creation that you are willing to be mediocre? You are a special, unique creation of God. There is no one in the world like you—the one sitting in the space you now occupy. You are a unique, special creation of God. You have been redeemed by Christ. Jesus gave his life to show and empower you to recapture the creation, to restore God's rightful creation, to restore the image. You are redeemed by Christ. You are called to be great. You are a special, unique creation and it is sin to let the devil talk you into thinking you are lousy and worthless. You were created and you are redeemed to serve God. Sin is to lower yourself and serve mediocrity or inferiority or evil. You were created and redeemed by Christ to shine as a light in this dark world. Sin is to hide your light under a bushel, or under mediocrity, or under shyness. You were created by God and redeemed by Christ to be great. Sin is to deny that call. 

Accept the call to greatness. There is such a need in our day for greatness. Let's take the risk. Let's take the risk for there is a lot of prejudice against greatness. People will attack, people will laugh, people will ridicule, people will try to find your blemishes, which we all have. They will try to tear you down so they are not threatened by your goodness. Let's take the risk to be great. God calls us to be great. Let's take that commitment to God seriously. This doesn't mean famous people but people like you and me. Charles Reed has written, “Not a day passes over the earth but men and

© 1978 Douglas I. Norris