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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Recipe For Greatness Part 1: True Greatness

II Corinthians 12:5-10

Recipe For Greatness Part 1:  True Greatness

Sunday July 3, 2016

Rev. Peggy O’Connor

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell


Rev. Peggy:  This is an important weekend. It is a time for family gatherings, for fun in the sun, for fireworks.  It is one of the few weekends all year when we pause as a nation to celebrate this great country of ours. It is a time to sing patriotic songs, and to watch the celebration on the national mall. It is a time to enjoy the many blessings of life in this good land, and to think about what a blessing it is to be here. But it is also a time to  consider the principles on which this nation was founded. It is a time to remember our founding fathers and the ideals they espoused, which have set this nation apart. It is a time to remember with gratitude those men and women who have been patriots in word and deed. It is a time to remember everyday heroes whose stories go all under-appreciated who gave themselves to the notion that all of us have been endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

     As church leaders, we remember that whenever we celebrate this country we also celebrate the faith of the early settlers because of the way that religion has shaped and nurtured our people, and inspired and refined its laws. Though we appreciate the separation of church and state we also cannot ignore the way that our most cherished notions about democracy, equality and justice were ideas that originated in Holy Scripture before they were refined in our constitution and our courts. 

     So on this weekend as we celebrate our nation’s birthday, here at the start of this new century with all of its challenge and potential, we stand aware that we still need the inspiration of our founding fathers and mothers.  And, as we remember the finest moments in our history, as a people in church we also come to God to seek new inspiration for our times.

     During the month of July the topic for our sermons is Recipe for Greatness. We will examine the qualities of life that make life memorable, and good. We will ask questions like “How do we reach our potential as human beings potential?  What makes a community or family, a church or a nation truly great?

Rev. Susan: In the first place the Bible tells us Greatness is possible for everyone.  Our scripture lesson today comes from one of the letters of the Apostle Paul. Though we know him as one of the founders of the Christian Church he was not always considered a great man. A convert to the faith, Paul was relegated to starting churches in Roman territories outside of what had been Israel. Peter ran the main church in Jerusalem. So Paul traveled along the coasts of Greece and Turkey, sending letters to the churches he had started, offering encouragement and course corrections. These letters remain in our Bible as a testament to his tremendous faith. So his faith inspired people in his own generation and as well as Christians today and no doubt for those in centuries to come.

     Paul is the first person who would have told you he did not feel great. in the passage we read today he speaks openly about his temptations and how he struggles to be faithful. He is candid about his own foolishness, and how his life was such a surprise to him. Though he may be one of the greatest architects of the Christian faith that ever lived, he did not see himself as great.

     The Bible’s main story is about a small and insignificant people who emerged from slavery with 12 tribes. Before long 10 tribes were lost and only two were left. They lost most of their military skirmishes, and wielded little influence economically. Their temple was destroyed three times, and they endured refugee status again and again over the centuries. But their stories inspire our imagination week after week. The Jews are the people for whom we name our children- David, Judith, Abigail, Anna, Abraham, Benjamin, Jacob, Deborah - are all Jewish names. These people were overlooked and underappreciated but the Bible tells us that they were great. 

     By telling their stories and looking to them for inspiration, the Bible reminds us that we all carry in ourselves the potential for greatness. Sadly we assume that being great means being famous- having a big platform on twitter or a lot of followers on Facebook. The recipe for greatness does not have much to do with being a star. The Bible says we all have the potential to be a great person who like Paul can reach out to others and talk about God’s impact on our lives. We all have the potential, like Esther to speak up for what is right. We all have the potential, like Mary Magdalene to confront our deepest fears. We all have the potential, like Ruth, to be loyal to our family. We have the potential to be great givers in this life and to leave the world better than we found it.

The Bible says we can all be great.

Rev. Peggy: Secondly, the recipe for greatness involves humility. This may seem counterintuitive.  That comes from our confusion about fame and leading a truly inspiring life as a human being. But really great people wear their greatness like an easy yoke or a mantle that is light.

     Paul is very open about his weaknesses. He is not easily threatened. He does not have to hide his fault. Here in the letter we read he tells us that he has been humbled by his own spiritual battles, and his own unanswered prayers. He may offer advice to these fledgling churches, but it is often peppered with his own doubts. Paul says that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness…”  With remarkable candor and self-reflection Paul refuses to build an image or promote a false sense of perfection. He talks openly about how his faith is tested, and he is candid about his own confusion and about the times he did not have any answers….about times when only God’s grace was got him through. With remarkable humility he explains that weakness is part of faith. “I boast of my weaknesses that the power of Christ Jesus may rest on me. For the sake of Christ I am content with these weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions…for when I am weak then I am strong. ”

     Today we hear that humility is weakness but that is not what the Bible says. The greatest people in scripture and in life are often humble about their power. Great nations don’t need to brag; they know their strength.

     Pope Francis has become a modern hero and world leader for our time because he seems to have a quality of greatness which is admired by people within the Roman Catholic Church and beyond it. One of the marks of his greatness is his humility. He owns his enormous religious authority with an ease that endears him to the world. Part of what makes him so appealing is his bedrock of self-confidence that makes him able to examine the Church honestly and humbly.   Last Thursday at a conference in Dublin a close advisor to the Pope reported that Pope Francis has said the church should apologize to gay people for what they have suffered.  In an earlier interview the Pope declared that he was not in a position to judge gay people. It is a stunning statement from a man who might be excused for judging. But one of the things that has won the admiration of a world audience is this pope’s ability to humble himself so often.

Likewise, the greatness of Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who died yesterday at the age of 87, was in large part due to his humility. As an article in the Times said this morning, “More than anyone else he seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience.” But he did this not by yelling but by quietly telling his story. A professor at BU when I was in seminary, I had the privilege of hearing him speak one evening to a large gathering of students. He sat at the front of the room and talked about his experiences. Then he answered questions. We all had to be very still so as to hear him as he spoke as if we were all right next to him. It was intimate and moving. He never argued with or demeaned those who asked critical questions. He just shrugged and spoke his truth. Holding true to his truth he did not have to win the argument, just to make his own point. His humility made it hard for anyone, whether they agreed with him or not, not to like him. That was the basis of his greatness.

Rev. Susan:  Finally, true greatness stands the test of time. Many of the great people in history never realized the impact of their lives in the world.  Abraham Lincoln often mis-calculated the impact of his efforts. On November 19, 1863 he was invited to speak at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four and a half months after the Union soldiers had defeated the Confederates in one of the most bloody battles of the American Civil War, Lincoln was not the feature speaker. It was Edward Everett who was the speaker selected to dedicate the cemetery and he spoke for two full hours using almost 14,000 words. On the train to Gettysburg, Lincoln told his aid that he was not feeling well and was dizzy. That night, after the speech, Lincoln felt worse and was diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox.

     But the President had managed to speak for just over two minutes at Gettysburg. In a speech too short to be photographed or recorded, Lincoln recalled the principles of human equality from the Declaration of Independence, and re-defined the Civil War as a fight not just for union in this country but as a fight for the principle of human equality. They were fighting and sacrificing everything so that American representative government of the people by the people and for the people should not perish from this earth. When he sat down he judged the speech inadequate, and boarded the train for Washington, feeling sicker and sicker as the day wore on. It took time for anyone to realize that his words were destined to become an immortal gift to this nation that would set the course of the country and articulating our mission for generations to come.

     “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Posted: Sunday July 3, 2016