The Measure of Greatness
A sermon preached by the Rev. Bob Flanagan, School Minister, at the Frank D. Ashburn Chapel,
North Andover, Massachusetts, on the 16th Sunday of School, Year A, Luke 9:46-48, February 4, 2009.
How do you measure greatness?
Do you measure it in the number of houses or cars someone has? Do you measure it in Superbowl or World Series victories? Do you measure it in Emmy, Tony or Oscar awards won? Do you measure it in the GPA earned? Do you measure it in number of matches won or goals scored? If we look at the number of statues of bronze or named schools or books written about someone, then Phillips Brooks must be measured as a great person.
And why was Phillips great? Simply he moved the hearts of men and women across the globe. His words spoke to the souls of millions in a way that drew people out of the despair of the mundane to higher vistas where they could see the land of goodness that they longed for. Phillips stirred souls. He quickened heart beats. He inspired thoughts of possibility.
Physically: Phillips stood at 6’4”, weighed over 300 pounds and spoke from the pulpit at Trinity Church, Boston at a mesmerizing 200 words a minute. His sermons were like a freight train rolling downhill or a freighter plowing downriver with an ebbing tide. He was completely captivating and utterly spellbinding.
However, he was not always this way. Phillips went to Harvard College when he was 16. Yes, I said 16. He was very bright. When he graduated from Harvard, at 19-years-old, he was delighted to be hired at his former school, the Latin School in Boston. At the time he wanted to become a college professor. So to gain some experience he figured he would teach high school for a time. He thought teaching high school Latin and Greek was a good, safe choice. Well, things didn’t go so well for Phillips. As a high school teacher, he was a complete failure.
After teaching some younger boys, he was assigned to teach upperclassmen. He was given a class of unruly boys and he was overconfident in his students’ desire to learn. They took complete advantage of him. The boys locked him in his classroom. They scatter explosive matches on the floor and even threw buckshot in his face. It was a class of chaos. Phillips became depressed and shortly later resigned. The headmaster of Latin School said to Phillips, within earshot of other faculty, that “he never knew a man who failed in teaching to succeed in anything else” (Woolverton, p. 51-53).
For a many months, Phillips did nothing. He spiraled into a funk. He was depressed and longed for his youth where all things were still possible. Finally, at the recommendation of his mentor at Harvard, he enrolled at the Protestant Episcopal Seminary of Virginia or as it is known in the south, “The Seminary.” It is also the seminary that I graduated from.
You might think that once Phillips landed at the seminary his life would have taken off. You might think that the 19th century’s greatest preacher would have immediately shined among his peers. Well, academically, Phillips did quite well, but as a preacher he needed work.
If you were to measure Phillips greatness at this moment in his life, you might simply laugh. I wonder if any of his seminary classmates ever thought he’d amount to much as a preacher. But Phillips didn’t give up. In fact, for the rest of his life, he took weekly voice lessons to improve his locution. And when he eulogized Abraham Lincoln in Philadelphia, just days after the president’s assassination, finally Phillips gained notoriety. His greatness began to grow. From there his greatness shot up and rose. Thousands of people packed into Trinity Church in Copley Square to hear him speak. And at his funeral some 15,000 people came to mourn the loss of this great man.
Some of you may feel like young Phillips. Maybe you have faced some setback recently. Maybe your life hasn’t gone just the way you’ve wanted. Look to Phillips as a model for your life. As I have illustrated to you, Phillips had several major failures in his life, but each time he sprang back. He reflected on what had happened. He sought advice from others and then found a solution. He didn’t give up, nor should you.
Maybe you’re unsure how to be better, how to become great. Look to Phillips as a mentor for your life. There are many books written about Phillips’ life and his writings. Many of these books are in our library down the hill. If you pull theses books off the shelf, you will discover many important insights and life-wisdom.
Maybe like Phillips you feel down and hard-pressed. Maybe you feel frustrated and in a funk. Look to Phillips as a mirror for your life. Are you wading in waters of woe? If so, hold up the life of Phillips to your own. Look hard at the failures in your own life. Do they compare to Phillips? If not, then what are you complaining about. Get out of that dark cold water onto dry land and get going and get positive.
Maybe you’re looking for a spark, a reason to push yourself to higher success. Look to Phillips as a motivator for your life. Phillips took his skills, his ability to communicate through written words and excelled. What are your skills? Take hold of your life and strive to do more and be even better.
For those of you who are faith focused and inspired, whose enthusiasm comes from God. Phillips writes these words: “To a young [person] just bursting through the open doors of life, radiant with health, eager for work with an infinite sense of vitality [give your life to God who is] “the Strengthener…the Setter of great tasks; the God who holds the crown of victory on the tops of high mountains up which…eager-hearted young heroes may climb to win it; the God who asks great sacrifices and who gives glorious rewards.”
Greatness is in each and every one of you. The measure of your greatness knows only the boundaries that you timidly build. You are held back only by the tiny fences that occupy the negative recesses of your mind. You stand at the threshold of potential with unbridled opportunity ready to carry you up great heights. So follow trail of giant footprints left by Phillips Brooks. With his help, with his overflowing enthusiasm, you too may one day be measured by statues of bronze, schools named after you, and books written describing your great achievements.
Bibliography: Woolverton, John Frederick, The Education of Phillips Brooks. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995)