Greatness in the Kingdom

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. For they had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” ~Mark 9:33-37

I Palma logo work at a great school, surrounded by young men of incredible physical and intellectual ability, discipline, character, and integrity. Palma is truly an amazing place. These young men are definitely going places! They are heading off to D1 schools for sports, to UC’s for their academic and social excellence, and are widely recognized as the future leaders of Salinas and the larger community. These are young men who aspire to greatness in all endeavors–intellectually, socially, physically, and Spiritually. It is my pleasure to be around these fine young men all day. These young men are truly exceptional, and worthy of praise, but my work with them is to help them not to be successful (which the will no doubt be) but great. Greatness is the requirement to enter into the kingdom of God, to receive Jesus, and to be received by God the Father. Excellence in the world is admirable, but greatness in the Kingdom must be our fundamental concern.

I think it can be quite easy to get caught up in the things of the world, in greatness according to societal standards. For many, success its-hard-to-be-humbleis measured by how much one makes and how much influence or education one has. Jesus’ own apostles, who were hand-picked by Him, who spent day and night with Him, watched Him forgive, feed, heal, and serve others were still arguing about who was the greatest among them. Did they learn NOTHING from Him? Why is it that so often feeding our own ego becomes our main priority? We live in a world that teaches us to beat our chest and say, “look at me!” We see ourselves only in relation to others. Their success somehow means my failure! Their fortune means my misfortune. Each of us must decide what type of person we want to be. Will we be those that walk into a room and say, “Look! I’m here!” or will we be those who walk into a room and say, “Hey, look who’s here!” There is not place in the Kingdom of God for bumper stickers that read, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re this darn good!” or to step on others to achieve our success.  Jesus calls us to something greater. He says that those who are first, must be willing to be last. He says that the servant of all is the one who will enter the Kingdom first.

What does this look like practically speaking? How does one live this out day to day? Let me first admit, that I am with you on this journey to true humility. In a me-centered world, there is very little recognition of others’ greatness. So often I feel unappreciated and undervalued. I work long, hard hours and wonder if anyone notices my sacrifice. And the less we make others aware of how much we appreciate them, the more our society becomes filled with people who, like me, wonder if anyone is listening or if anyone cares. And in our me-centeredness, in our own darkness and need, we too often fail to appreciate and give praise for the amazing gifts, accomplishments, and contributions of others.

last firstMy good friend and co-worker, Jim Micheletti, honors the contribution of others more than any person I know. He is always quick to compliment, quick to congratulate, quick to sing praise, and is always there to stand in solidarity with those who suffer most. He exemplifies the servant leadership Jesus is calling His disciples to. His coworkers and students are never in doubt of their effort, of their accomplishments, or their value–in spite of their weaknesses and failures. His students leave class and the chapel glowing with pride at their job well done. He showers praise on them (not lies or half truths), and they become acutely aware of their dignity and the dignity of others. And when one’s cup is full and runs over, he shares his abundance with others around him. In other words, people who are empty seek to be filled. People who are full, share what they have with others. And that’s a beautiful gift that brings us one step closer to the Kingdom of God. We might even come to appreciate the truth that the Kingdom is indeed among us.

Jesus with childrenThe Lord Jesus took a child, placed it before his Apostles and told them that whoever receives a child such as that in His name, receives Him. I think each of us is called to embrace not just children, but also the child in all people. Children love to be loved. They are tender and clearly in need of compliments, affirmation, and encouragement. They are easily discouraged and we much treat them with tenderness and compassion. Each of us still has that child within. Each of us wants to be loved, complimented, encouraged and affirmed. We must be among those who have NOT become hardened by the world and accept the world’s standard of greatness. St. Paul challenged the church at Rome, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:2). If we wish to be great, we must recognize our dignity, recognize the child in others, and like my friend Jim, be willing to pour out the adulation, compliments, love, and goodness upon all those we meet; at the grocery store, in our workplaces, in our families, in our world. We must be willing to make ourselves the servant of all if we ever desire to be first in the Kingdom. Know this, the Kingdom of God is indeed at hand, but are you aware of it, and helping others to be aware of it too? Who is the person in your life who exemplifies the humble servant and loves others? Would others say it was you?

By Deacon Stephen Valgos

Bear Much Fruit

Jesus said to his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” John 15:1-5

almond blossom branch     My son Mark watched as my friend Jason and I pruned my young peach, plum, and nectarine trees this year. The blossoms had already begun and I’m not sure Mark was very happy about seeing all those pretty flowers, attached to small branches, falling to the ground! I went into his room later than evening and he had on his headboard a small glass jar with some water and a few of those branches that had earlier been cut off inside! The flowers were still quite bright and beautiful, I might add. I asked, “Mark, why did you put those branches in the glass?” He said, “Dad, I’m going to let them grow so that I can have some peaches of my own!” Super cute, right? I said as I gave him a big hug, “Son, those flowers are very pretty, but they can’t and won’t give you the fruit you desire. Once those branches are cut from the tree, although they might look nice for a while, they will die.” And that, my friends, is the hard truth that exposes the world’s lie that Jesus is trying to teach His disciples in today’s Gospel reading.

Almond Blossom     Jesus teaches His disciples that He is the true vine. He alone is the means by which we produce the fruit of a Spirit-filled life, which St. Paul teaches the Galatians are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control” (5:22-23). When we are disconnected from the vine that is Christ Jesus, we will wither and die. Period. We might look nice for a while, smell nice for a while, but at the end of the day, we simply cannot bear fruit. As Jesus says, “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

I’m not an expert when it comes to things plant-like, but I know enough to know that fruit doesn’t come from the grocery store! Fruit comes from tree branches, vine branches, and the like. And those branches must be connected to a source, a tree, or a vine. And that tree or vine must be firmly planted in good, healthy the ground. It is from the fertile earth that the tree receives nutrients and water that it might grow, that it’s branches might spread, that it’s flowers might blossom, and that its fruit might grow. And that’s just the way it works.

We are lTrinityike those branches, says Jesus. He is firmly planted in the Father’s love. As the third Person of the Holy Trinity, He and the Spirit share with the Father an eternal exchange of love. And the amazing thing is that God has destined us to share in that love! We are not meant to be disconnected, isolated, and alone–in other words, dead. We are instead called to the joy of sharing in the loving communion of God. This is what we call Heaven, namely, total immersion in the life and love of God for eternity. God has revealed that we can achieve this end in Him through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. We know that through Him we can achieve this unity with the Father and the Father’s love even now in partial and various ways right here on earth where it then reaches its fullness when we pass from this earthly existence to the next. He said it himself, and yes, that’s just the way it is. That’s great news! Don’t be afraid to share it!

During this life we are offered quite a lot by many people that promise to satisfy our deepest longing for Bag-of-silver-and-gold-coinshappiness, peace, joy, and love, but like my son’s peach blossoms, that simply cannot deliver what they promise. The things in this world are very nice to look at, smell sweet to our nose, sound wonderful to the ears, but have their end not in fulfillment and satisfaction, but in greater hunger than ever. How many, myself included, have had to discover the hard way that only Jesus Christ has the power to deliver what the world promises–peace, fulfillment, and love? Only when we seek Him, enter into unity with Him, and remain in Him will the love of God that gives meaning and purpose to our life, pulse through our very being. Amazing grace indeed.

fruit     And what of this fruit that both Jesus and St. Paul talk about? You know, my trees do not produce peaches for their own sake. They don’t need them! They need only the soil, water, and the sun. The same is true of all fruit bearing plants and trees! The fruit is not for their sake, but for the sake of other to enjoy. And the same is true of the fruit of the Spirit-filled life. Remain in Christ, produce much fruit–not for your sake, but for the sake of the world that is hungry for more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. If you think we could use a little more of these in our world, give me an AMEN! Stop collecting branches that have been cut off, have pretty blossoms, but will soon be dead. Instead cling to Christ. He is the source for what the world needs most and that which our heart truly desires.

By Deacon Stephen Valgos