The Greatest

Mark 9:30–37

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

—Mark 9:37

 

I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee;
I done wrestled with an alligator;
I done tussled with a whale;
handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail;
only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick;
I’m so mean I make medicine sick.
That, of course, is Muhammad Ali on his own inimitable athletic prowess. He was a legend in his own mind, and probably in ours as well. He never tired of reminding us that he was The Greatest.

Who stayed up late last night to watch the greatest monologue in the history of Saturday Night Live? Donald Trump was the host. The Donald is The Greatest.

“What were you arguing about along the way?” Jesus asks his disciples when they arrive at their destination, but they were embarrassed to tell him, because they’d been arguing about which of them was The Greatest. Sometimes it seems as if our whole common life together is one long argument about which of us is The Greatest.

That passage from Mark I read a few moments ago happens very near the end of Jesus’ ministry. He is still in Galilee, but he will be headed to Jerusalem in just a couple of days, and he knows what awaits him there, so he warns his friends about the difficult days ahead: “The Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of his enemies, and executed.”

He says this three times, so that his friends will get the point. Three times, three ways. This is the second of the three times. Mark tells us, though, that “the disciples did not understand him, and were afraid to ask him.”

After this brief and bootless lesson plan, the Teacher and his students head out on foot for the next adventure, and on the way the disciples get caught up in a conversation amongst themselves, one in which Jesus does not participate.

In ancient Jewish tradition, you see, the students, out of deference to the Master, always walked a few steps behind the Rabbi. So Jesus is a few paces ahead and the disciples are back there wrangling with one another, out of Jesus’ earshot.

When they get to the next place, Jesus, just out of friendly curiosity, I guess, asks them what they were arguing about, because even the Son of God doesn’t like to get left out of an interesting conversation. They won’t answer him, of course, because what they were arguing about was which of them was The Greatest among them. Just after he’d told them that he himself would be humbled and defeated by his enemies.

In his film Scoop, Woody Allen plays the mild-mannered nebbishy Sidney Waterman, who in his other life on stage becomes the flashy, larger-than-life magician and showman The Great Splendini. When someone asks Sidney what religion he is, the Great Splendini answers, “I was raised in the Jewish persuasion, but when I grew up I converted to narcissism.” Know anybody like that? Peter, James, and John were raised in the Jewish persuasion, but when they grew up they apparently converted to narcissism.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus is right about that, isn’t he? Isn’t it the self-forgetful who rise like cream to the top and the self-absorbed who sink like a bag of hammers to the bottom? Isn’t it the self-forgetful and the humble who make the finest leaders? Isn’t it the heart of the servant leader we all crave and crown and respect?

In 1997, I made the mistake of moving my 9-year-old son close to New York City, and I say it was a mistake because when we got there he instantly became a Yankee fan. He would wear Yankee caps all the time. In my house! That’s hard to swallow for a lifelong Tiger fan.

But it was hard to argue with his new allegiance, because those late-90’s Yankees teams were so good. They won four World Championships—1996, 1998, 1999, 2000—and more than that, they were such great guys: Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, Paulie O’Neill, Mariano Rivera, David Cone. This is way before Alex Rodriguez. Roger Clemens played on those teams but let that pass for the moment.

And best of all about those late-90’s Yankees, Coach Joe Torre, the only Major Leaguer to get 2,000 hits as a player and 2,000 wins as a manager. Joe’s players loved him so much because he was humble and self-forgetful. Whenever someone brought up the year 1971, when Joe Torre batted .363 and won the National League MVP, Joe would always remind them that the next year his batting average plummeted 70 points to .289. And then Joe would share the memory of a game from 1975 when, while playing third base for the Mets, he batted into four double-plays and committed an error. Four double plays!

I remember one year when Mike Mussina was the ace on the Yankee pitching staff. The Yankees were paying Mike $19,000,000 to strike out Tigers and Mets and Cubs, but at one point that season, Mike was getting clobbered so bad he lost his spot in the starting rotation, and so reporters asked Joe Torre to comment on his awful performance, and Joe Torre just said, “Well, he’s probably not as proud of his stuff as he’d like to be.” Not “he’s an underperforming multi-millionaire with an ERA of 5.15,” but “he’s not as proud of his stuff as he would like to be.” Said Mike Mussina, “I’d play for the guy anytime.”[1]

This past April when we were thinking together about the meaning of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, we sort of all agreed together that Abraham Lincoln was The Greatest. And President Lincoln was The Greatest because he never thought of himself that way. Paradoxically, Abraham Lincoln might have been at once the humblest and also the most self-assured of all our Presidents. Self-forgetful and self-assured are not incompatible.

His servant spirit was contagious; it was viral. Pretty soon it had infected everyone around him—his soldiers, his superhumanly talented cabinet—so that during Holy Week of 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Confederate soldiers “were not hanged, they were saluted; they were not jailed, they were honored; they were not humiliated or beaten; they were embraced.”

Joshua Chamberlain, the Bowdoin College Professor who’d won a Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, says the Union soldiers universally saluted those “vanquished heroes, a token of respect from Americans to Americans.”[2] Back in Washington, President Lincoln asked the military band to strike up a chorus of Dixie, in honor of the fallen foe. He was The Greatest.

“What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asks his disciples when he finally arrives at Peter’s house in Capernaum. “But the disciples were silent, because on the way they’d argued about which of them was the greatest.” And then Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last, and the servant of all.” And then to hammer home his point, Jesus lifts up a little child into his arms. Perhaps it was the little boy of St. Peter himself. “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes God.”

In other words, whoever’s not too self-important to change these diapers, whoever’s not too self-absorbed to bathe this child, whoever will dry these tears, whoever will dress this wounded knee, whoever will listen patiently to these dithering, meandering, pointless conversations and tiresome Knock-Knock jokes, whoever will teach this child the stories of the Bible or the rules of arithmetic, whoever will honor the powerless, respect the disrespected, lift up the weak, show patience to the clueless, and forgive the wayward, that is the one who has understood the point of human existence.

He took a child in his arms. Stephanie Hochschild and Jon Grand were here at Kenilworth Union on Wednesday to talk to a few of us. Stephanie and Jon run the Book Stall in Winnetka and they were here to tell us what good books to read next. They told us to read Rosemary by Kate Clifford Larson, so I did.[3]

What an extraordinary book. Have you seen the reviews? It’s on the nonfiction bestseller list in this morning’s New York Times. Do you know who Rosemary is? Rosemary was the third child of Joe and Rose Kennedy. Her older brothers were Joe Kennedy, Jr., and Jack Kennedy.

As a young woman, Rosemary was 5’8″ tall, statuesque, and beautiful. When she entered a room, men would freeze. But when they went over to talk to her or to ask her to dance, everything would fall apart because all her life, Rosemary had the mind of a child. What’s the right way to talk about these things today? Her mind was differently abled. The only men to dance with Rosemary at parties were her brothers Joe and Jack. Sure, she was dancing with Joe and Jack Kennedy, but still, they were her brothers.

In those days, children like Rosemary were usually living in institutions, but Joe and Rose Kennedy had piles of money and raised Rosemary at home during her childhood and saw to it that she was educated in regular classrooms.

All through Rosemary’s childhood, her sister Eunice, three years younger than Rosemary, became her best friend. Eunice would spend hours swimming with Rosemary and playing tennis and running with her.

When she becomes a young woman, Rosemary eventually ends up in an institution, for reasons you will discover if you read this book, but her sister Eunice grows up and never forgets those times in the pool with Rosemary.

Eunice becomes a tireless campaigner for the rights of mentally-challenged Americans. Perhaps her most spectacular achievement is the creation of the Special Olympics, games and prizes for the differently abled.

Do you know where the very first Special Olympics was held? You probably knew this, but I didn’t know this. The first Special Olympics was held at Soldier Field in July, 1968. This was just weeks after Eunice’s brother Bobby was assassinated in Los Angeles while campaigning for the Presidency. One thousand athletes from the United States and Canada, about 100 spectators, at Soldier Field with, at the time, 80,000 seats. Today, four million athletes from 200 countries compete.

Eunice Kennedy’s brothers were Jack, Bobby, and Teddy, one U.S. President, two U.S. Senators, and an Attorney General of the United States. Eunice’s husband was the vice-presidential candidate for the Democrats in 1972. Arnold Schwarzenegger was her son-in-law.

When Eunice died in 2009, her obituary read, “When the full judgement of the Kennedy legacy is made, the changes wrought by Eunice Kennedy Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential.”[4]

I raised an eyebrow. Eunice’s older brother John was a war hero; he saved his shipmates on PT-109, faced down the Russians in the Cuban Missile Crisis, created the Peace Corps, and got us started on our journey to the moon.

After Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy may be the most important figure in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Teddy Kennedy labored tirelessly for health care reform.

But it’s possible that The Greatest Kennedy was Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She was awarded the Legion of Honor. She is a Dame of the Papal Order of St. Gregory. In 1984, President Reagan granted her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

And one more award—my favorite: she was made a member of the Order of the Smile of the Polish Children. What a wonderful organization: The Order of the Smile of the Polish Children. Other winners are John Paul II, Mother Theresa, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Nelson Mandela.

So here’s the Kennedy Family Legacy. Jack: War hero, Leader of the Free World, Creator of the Peace Corps. Bobby: Civil Rights Champion. Teddy: Senator. Sargent: Almost Vice-President. Arnold: Governor of California.

Of all the achievements won by the Kennedy family and their in-laws, the most endearing and enduring may be the Order of the Smile of the Polish Children. “When the full judgement of the Kennedy legacy is made,” said the obituary, “the changes wrought by Eunice Shriver may well be seen as the most consequential.”

So go ahead and try to be a war hero; that’s a good thing to be. Go ahead and become Leader of the Free World; that’s a good thing to be. Go ahead and fight for civil rights or universal health care; those are great things to do. But if you want to live life as Jesus meant for it to be lived, organize hundred-yard dashes and 50-yard freestyles for children like Rosemary.

He took a child in his arms, and said, “Whoever welcomes a little child…”


 

[1]Roger Angell, “Comment: So Long, Joe,” in “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2007, p. 34.

[2]Quoted by Jay Winik, April, 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), pp. 196-197.

[3]Kate Clifford Larson, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
[4]Carla Baranauckas, “Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Influential Founder of Special Olympics, Dies at 88,” quoting the cover story of U.S. News and World Report on November 15, 1993, in The New York Times, August 12, 2009.