What Makes for Greatness? (09/23/2012)

“What makes for greatness?”

September 23, 2012

Genesis 3:1-8; Mark 9:30-37

For the past two weeks we have been talking about what makes this church compelling and relevant in our lives.

On our Gathering Sunday we talked about how we welcome and value all people. And that knowing that here we are loved the same frees us from trying to be the same frees us instead to be our most authentic selves.

And last week we went a little further and explored how being secure in being loved for who we are, not for what we may or may not believe, opens up the space to really grapple with what we may or may not believe. It opens up the space to wrestle with the questions of meaning, questions of who God is for us.

Today, I’d like to set out in a slightly different direction and explore not the how this community of faith can support who we are but instead how the community of faith can shape how we are.

But before we do, let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer, Amen.”


I was probably 6 or 7 years old. I wanted to go over to my friend Jeanie Johnson’s house that was about a half mile or so away. And so I asked my mom if she would take me over. I was prepared for her to tell me to wait a bit until she was done with whatever it was she was doing, but instead she turned to me and said “Well, why don’t you try walking over there by yourself?”

I could not believe it. I had never been allowed to walk there on my own before. In the past my mom always insisted that she walk with me or sometimes she’d ask my older sister to take me. I remember being so amazed and proud in that moment — so amazed and proud that my mom trusted me to get from our house to my friend’s house all on my own.

And so I set out with shoulders squared and feeling great pride in how capable I surely now must be and also feeling great delight in this newfound freedom.

I was well along, when a gum wrapper, lying there on the street, caught my eye. I remember, it was a juicy fruit wrapper, that yellow paper sleeve and silver tin foil wrapper. I hesitated for a moment because I knew if my mom were there she would have told me to pick it up and I would have done so without a second thought.

But Mom wasn’t there. Was she? I was out on my own. I was enjoying my freedom. I got to choose what I was, or was not going to do. And I decided I was not to pick it up that wrapper. I was going to boldly marched right by. That wrapper was not my problem, not my responsibility. I did not drop it, so I should not have to pick it up.

Now I got about five or six paces further, before I began to have a deeply unsettling thought. I began to think “What if a bird, flying by saw the glitter of the foil of the wrapper. And what if that bird picked it up and tried to eat it. And what if that foil got stuck in its throat and it died. And what if that bird was a mother bird and there was a nest of babies waiting for it to come back.”

Well you know what happened next. I turned on my heel as quick as could be. I retraced my steps. I picked up that wrapper. Jammed it into my pocket and marched off to Jeanie Johnson’s house angry now with myself. “So much for being capable. So much for new found freedom. I am not even capable of walking by a stupid gum wrapper.” I fumed.

Deciding what we are or are not going to do as we move through our days in a tangle of relationships with each other and with the world can be tricky. How do we decide what to do in each situation we are in? Is there some cohesive way of thinking that informs our actions or is it all just rather random and impulsive? This of course is the question of ethics, the study of what informs the actions we take.

H. Richard Niebuhr, that great Christian ethicist argues in his book The Responsible Self that there are two prevailing social ethics that have been most influential in informing our actions. The first he calls the model of Humankind as maker. And the second he calls, the model of human kind as citizen.

The ethic of humankind as maker posits that what ought to guide our action is the end goal that we have set for ourselves or for our society. Our decisions in what to do or what not to do is then evaluated against whether the action will or will not enhance and advance the obtainment of the goal we have set. This is the “ends justify the means” ethic.

The second prevailing ethical model Niebuhr argues is that of human kind as citizen. Here it is not an end goal that informs the actions we take but instead it is the law. The actions we take are shaped by what we determine to be right and what we determine to be wrong. We act based on whether we decide to conform to the law or rebel against it.[1]


Now it was a little unnerving for me to realize how pervasive and persuasive these two ethical models are, for it was only in reading Niebuhr this week that I remembered the story of my 6 year old self and that offending gum wrapper. And I saw so clearly in that story these two ethics at work. For this humankind as maker ethic was surely at play in my six year old little mind when the ideal of my self as a free and independent person influenced my action not to pick up that paper. Picking up that gum wrapper would do nothing for me, I reasoned, and so why should I do it? And the ethic of humankind as citizen was also surely at play when I when I consciously made the decision to violate one of the rules of our family household, “If you see trash you must pick it up.’

What I find fascinating is that the Biblical authors of so long ago also recognized the tendency of humankind to be persuaded by these two ethical constructs and how they speak through the story the Garden of Eden of the danger that these lines of reasoning can get us into.

The passage that Jim read for us today from the book of Genesis opens with the serpent calling into question the reasoning behind Eve’s actions. The serpent asks “Did God say ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’? And then the serpent goes on appealing first to the reasoning of “humankind as citizen” saying that the law God laid down is wrong so Eve does not need to obey it. Eve will not die if she eats of the fruit.” And then appeals to the reasoning of “humankind as master” saying the only reason God did not want Eve to eat the fruit it because eating the fruit would elevate and promote Eve not God.

And so deciding to act on these two lines of reasoning constructed by the serpent, Eve takes that juicy fruit and bites into it and then turns and gives it to the man she loves. But after eating, with the juice still running down their chins, they turn and look at the garden and see it changed. Trash is piling up. There is a stench coming from the river. The birds are choking with gum wrappers and the baby birds are being left alone.


Now while these two ethics may be pervasive and persuasive Niebuhr sees that they human constructs. The wisdom of the Genesis account is that these constructs are introduced into the landscape of the garden, they are not germane to it – that the humankind as maker and human kind as citizen ethical models are constructed by us as we try to sort out how we are to be in relation to those around us.

As human constructs, Niebuhr sees that they are inherently limited and inherently limiting. He writes of these constructs “they remain images and hypotheses, not truthful copies of reality, that something of the real lies beyond the borders of the image; something more and something different needs to be thought and done in our quest for the truth about ourselves and in our quest for our true existence.”[2]

What Niebuhr sees emerging behind and around these two prevailing ethical constructs is the recognition that we are enmeshed in what he calls a “field of natural and social forces.”[3] The scope of our actions, our decisions about what we will or will not do is influenced by all of the forces that are acting upon us. We do not live in a vacuum where the only thing that exists is what we chose to create, or choose to legislate, instead we are set down in a rich and textured exchange that already is.

The ethic that we need to rediscover is one of responsiveness. All of our actions are responses, answers really to actions upon us.[4] This responsiveness, this give and take, this living dialogue is what was before that juicy fruit was eaten. It was the ethic of the Garden of Eden where each had its place and had value and was in a harmonious give and take. And oddly enough, it was an echo of that ethic that I believe ultimately caused me to turn around that day. It was, when I saw that gum wrapper as a possible threat to some hapless bird, when I understood myself in relation to a wider community of creation — that my actions may influence what would happen to other, well it was then that I was prompted to turn around and pick up that wrapper. The guiding question in this ethic of responsiveness is not what is my goal, or what is right or what is wrong, but what is happening and how can my actions effect what is happening.

But what is key is that deciding what action to take depends on how we interpret what is happening around us – how we understand the context and narrative of the wider reality in which we are embedded.

If we look out over history and around us in the world today and see only the slow march of death, destruction, and decay; see only that the trajectory of humankind is one of violence and exploitation then how one responds to any given action will be interpreted through this lens of fear, and loss.

I am told that there was a time when this church was grappling with profound financial insecurity so much so that there was talk that perhaps the church would need to close. But instead of closing, you all were able to shift the lens through which you saw your life together from one of scarcity and fear to one of abundance and possibility. Not only did that shift enable an incredibly successful capital campaign but also sowed the seeds of the vibrancy that is alive in us today.

What great world religions in general and Christian tradition in particular do Niebuhr says is to give us an alternative narrative, to this myth of decay; an alternative narrative from which we interpret the actions around us and from which life giving responses can arise.

This great narrative begins and ends with a conviction that God seeks what is life giving for us and for all creation, and that God is actively at work on our and on creation’s behalf. The invitation in this narrative is to join in this live giving work. To have our responses be ones that contribute to the good work that God is doing for the restoration and healing of the world.

When we come into this church, we step into that narrative, and are opened to interpret actions upon us and our responses to those actions in light of that narrative. We ask what is going on in light of our trust that somewhere in the midst of it all, the Holy is at work. When we interpret the actions we experience in light of the narrative of grace and act out of that narrative, our responses become generative. They dig into this deeper narrative of hope and promise and bring that narrative to fruition in our lives.

So let us be our most authentic selves with each other. Let us grapple with the big questions of meaning. And let how we are together, be informed by the great narrative of our faith, that God seeks what is life giving for us and all creation and is actively at work on our and on creation’s behalf. Let us join God in this live giving work. Let our responses to each other and the world around us be participate in this life giving narrative of God’s healing and restorative grace at work in the world. Amen

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr. The Responsible Self. (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 1963) P. 53

[2] P. 56

[3] P. 56

[4] P. 56