Monday, January 26, 2015

Jesus Sees Community - APC Sermon 01.25.2015

I said some words in front of some people this past Sunday. I think some of the words might be helpful. I wrote this sermon after some good conversations with my friend Wes and after reading through Eugene Peterson's Spiritual Theology Quintet. I point this out, while at the same time cautioning that the words and thoughts below are my own and not Wes's, nor Allentown Presbyterian Church's, and only sometimes Eugene Peterson's. 

Also, here's a link to the audio for the sermon, though the audio has some mistakes in it that I correct or nuance in the text and textual notes below. Thanks for reading/listening!


I love heist movies: Ocean’s Eleven, Mission Impossible, The Italian Job, the A-Team. Everyone single one has that scene. You know what scene I’m talking about: the montage. [Moviephone voice]: “They need to steal $400 million from an impenetrable vault—and They only have 5 minutes to do it! The attractive one, the brains, the brawn, the computer whiz.” The music gets our blood pumping. [Sing the Mission Impossible Theme—you know you want to.]

Today’s scripture is the church’s “team-up” montage.  [Marc suddenly becomes two people: a rather naive and confused Voiceover Artist and a snarky Bible Scholar]

VOICEOVER ARTIST: [Moviephone voice] From his followers, Jesus chose twelve. The apostles. The foundation of Jesus’ community. The four fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. [normal voice] Wait. Fisherman? Small business owners? Shouldn’t Jesus start with the “professional” spiritual people? Like priests?

BIBLE SCHOLAR: Nope. Fishermen. Small business men.

VO: Okay, maybe Jesus needs their business sense. Every movement needs people who have some money and know how to deal with money.

BS: Nope. The person who handled the money was Judas Iscariot, who ended up betraying them. [1]

VO: Huh. Okay, but Jesus calls Peter the ROCK of the church! [2] 

BS: But he also had to tell him, “Get Behind me, Satan!” When things get rough, Peter denied knowing Jesus—three times! [3] 

VO: Okay. What about James and John, Jesus gave them a nickname: the Boanerges: the “Sons of Thunder!” [4] 

BS: James and John? One day, they asked Jesus, “you want us to call down fire to consume that town?” Jesus rolls his eyes at them. “Call down fire? No! That’s not what we do!” [5] 

VO: Wow. Four Hotheads and screw-ups. Not a great start. Okay. Who’s next? Philip. His name means “lover of horses.” What a great name!

BS: A Greek name. The Greeks had conquered the Jews and destroyed their temple.

VO: Okay. What about Bartholomew. I know that one! Great Jewish name. “Son of furrows.” A farmer!

BS: A doubter. We might call him Jesus’ first doubter. He also went by the name Nathanael. When he first heard about Jesus’ hometown, he said, “Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?” [6] 

VO: Well what about Matthew?

BS: A nickname for Levi—the tax collector. [7] An employee of the Roman Empire, the Empire who conquered the Jews after the Greeks fell apart. Tax collectors were known to charge more than was required, and steal the extra. [8] Which is how Matthew had enough money to hold a huge banquet for Jesus. Matthew—a traitor and a thief.

VO: Thomas? Great name. Means “twin.” We don’t know where his twin was. But he was a twin.

BS: He’s where we get the phrase “Doubting Thomas.” If Bartholomew was the first doubter, Thomas was the last. After Jesus rose from the dead, well, Thomas really wasn’t there. We don’t know where he was. Maybe with his twin. But the other disciples said: “He’s alive!” Thomas didn’t really believe it.  [9] 

VO: Hotheads, screw-ups, traitors, and doubters. Yikes! Okay. Finally. Here they are. The “religious” people. James, Son of Alphaeus. The son of one of Jesus’ first followers. A good, young Jewish boy.

BS: Of course, that means he might not have been a huge fan of Philip and Matthew, the traitors. Speaking of which, you know who really wouldn’t have been a fan of Philip and Matthew?

VO: Let me guess, Simon the Zealot?

BS: Simon the Zealot. The Zealots’ wanted to overthrow Rome so that the Jewish people could be their own nation. They didn’t like anyone who seemed to sympathize with Rome. [10 - Major correction to audio] 

VO: Judas, son of James, AKA Jude or Thaddeus. There are some hints that he was one of Jesus’ brothers or step brothers. [11] Surely he should have gotten things right. Right?

BS: Well at one point, Jesus mother and brothers come and say, “Jesus. Stop it. Stop preaching this crazy stuff?” [12] 

VO: That leaves Judas Iscariot. The one who betrayed Jesus to his death.

BS: But also, Iscariot, which may mean he was part of the Sicarii, another group who wanted to overthrow Rome—but who disagreed with the Zealots. The name “Sicarii” means “dagger,” and possibly alludes to a tactic in which members of the group would draw daggers in crowded public places and stab those they thought were supporters of Rome. They would then slip away undetected. Nowadays we might call the extreme tactics of this group something like “terrorism.” [13] 


These final four are the missing ingredient to this powder keg of hotheads, screw-ups, traitors and doubters that Jesus was putting together. They would have looked down on the first four and hated the second four. It’s a wonder the disciples didn’t fight ALL THE TIME. We have to ask: What was Jesus thinking?

We know that the “religious people,” the good people, the nice people, the clean people, were interested in Jesus. We call them the Pharisees, the pastors and seminarians of Jesus’ day. Two of them, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, became followers of Jesus. Joseph gave up his own grave for Jesus. [14] Why not choose them?

We’re shocked. Confused. Jesus didn’t build his community out of “churchy” people. He didn’t choose the nice people or the people who “got it,” spiritually. He chose doubters, traitors, thieves, terrorists. He chose the exact mixture of people for this community to fail.

It’s no wonder the Pharisees asked, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus had a simple answer: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

I used to really not like this verse. I was a “righteous kid.” A church kid. I memorized scripture. Got a lot of gold stars and toys. I went to church every week. I obeyed my parents. I only got in one car accident, and that was in the snow and it was the tree trunk’s fault… Didn’t Jesus come for me, too? One day, I realized: this is an invitation. I’m sick, too. I realized that Jesus knew the Pharisees and I are just as sick as the tax collectors and the “sinners.” The Pharisees and I are those people who hack up a lung, hold their herniated side, squeak, “I’m fine; I’m fine,” and never go to the doctor. Jesus says, “I want to heal you. Just admit you’re sick. As long as you say you’re righteous you can’t be healed. But once you admit you’re sick...”

It’s strange that so often it’s church people who try to act like we’re not sick. Even more, many churches say that those who are sick have to get themselves right before they’re welcome. Well, newsflash: Jesus founded his church on sick people. Jesus sees community in those who know they are sinners.

Paul—who used to be a Pharisee, a righteous guy, who used to look down on Jesus and his followers, but then realized his was sick—Paul put it like this: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast.” [15] 

Eugene Peterson, one of my favorite writers, expands on this thought: “Jesus obviously wasn’t gathering followers from the moral and spiritual upper-class of society…. He was openly inviting the hurt, the diseased, the rejects—the sick and the sinners. Any time we interpret Jesus’ invitational command ‘Follow me’ as recruitment into a select spiritual company, we totally miss what he was doing. Any time we target our invitations to the people we assume are especially useful to the kingdom—the prominent, the wealthy, men and women with proven leadership abilities and skills that can benefit the kingdom—we are ignoring the way Jesus went about it…. Jesus said ‘Follow me’ and ended up with a lot of losers. And these losers ended up, through no virtue or talent of their own, becoming saints. Jesus wasn’t after the best but the worst. He came to seek and to save the lost.” [16] 

We shouldn’t be surprised. Because, if we call ourselves Christ followers, we follow a failure. A failure. Let that sink in. By all accounts, Jesus failed. He died. On a cross. As a criminal. Jesus’ followers barely merited a footnote in the histories of their dayOne of the few mentions of Jesus outside of the gospels, misspells Jesus’ title as “Chrestus”instead of “Christos.”  Jesus was such a failure that his followers used these words to describe him, words from the Hebrew Bible:

“He was despised and rejected by others,
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
And as one from whom others hide their faces,
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our disease;
Yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.” [17] 

So, what does this all mean? Well, I hope, GOOD NEWS! In at least two ways.

GOOD NEWS! Jesus didn’t appoint that one singular shining star to carry on his work. He chose twelve losers. Jesus didn’t groom a replacement; he created a community. Which means: We aren’t in this alone. We are part of a community of misfits—those who don’t fit—built on weakness and humility, on a savior who “humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!” [18] As Peterson puts it, when we join this community, we “become fellow-sufferers and participants in the sacrificial life of Jesus as he takes the sins of our children, the sins of our presidents, the sins of our pastors, the sins of our friends, our sins…. We have to radically revise our imaginations and memories in order to take this in: to see sacrifice, offering, weakness, and suffering as essential, not an option.” [19] It takes humility, humility I often don’t have, to admit we are sick with sin. It takes vulnerability—showing weakness. It takes considering the needs of others, having an open heart to their vulnerability, without condemnation or judgment.

This is hard. The longer we live, the more we experience broken relationships, the more “acquaintances” we acquire and the fewer deep friendships we make. It’s easy to harden our hearts, after years of rejection, betrayal, always being that last person chosen, always being the one left out. After years of getting to know more and more people less and less well. So, we don’t let others in on our pain and we don’t take the time to care for them. I’ve found myself in this place. After Sarah and I moved to Princeton, we served at three churches before APC, which meant, every year, we had to get to know 200 people all over again. We’ve been at Princeton Seminary long enough to watch five sets of friends graduate and move away. It takes a lot of emotional and spiritual energy to start over with new people. But this vulnerability is exactly what this community of misfits requires. So, thanks be to God, that spiritual energy is not our own. [20]

GOOD NEWS! God chose us. “Not,” writes Peterson, “[because of how] our parents or our teachers or our physicians or our employers or our children define us, but God. Not in terms derived from our employment or our education or our physical appearance or our achievements or our failures, but God…. We are endlessly tested, examined, classified, praised, damned, admired, despised, flattered, scorned, kissed, kicked….With all these voices coming at us from every direction and at all hours, how do we acquire a God-oriented identity? Looking in the mirror and naming what we see as ‘saint’ is one way. We follow that up by redefining these people around us as saints.” [21] “Saints.” People set apart by God. Chosen. Beloved.

God gives us this community as a gift. We can’t earn it. Let me say that again: We can’t earn it. Nothing we can do makes us worthy of being loved by God. God just loves us. But we don’t ever deserve this community. As we have been given—freely—so we should give. We don’t get to choose who is in or out. Jesus does. We’re going to have to get used to rubbing elbows with people we don’t like. We are going to have to get used to failure. We’re going to have to get used to all these people around us who get on our nerves. Jesus chose a powder keg of people to start his community, people who shouldn’t have gotten along; he’s still doing that today.

This is hard. It is much easier to build relationships, to be vulnerable with, to understand those who are like us. It is this truth lies at the root of racism, nationalism, sexism, homophobia, and a whole host of other human ills. It is so much easier to like someone who is like me. It’s easier to coast through life relying on people who “get me.” Most days I long for people who “get me,” people with whom I can have deep conversations over the finer details of C.S. Lewis’ lesser-known Space Trilogy, people who know what it’s like to have two young kids close in age, people who have parents of two different races. I want people who “get me.” It’s then that I’m reminded of how Jesus loved everyone he met; how he died for everyone who ever lived. It’s then that I’m reminded of part of the prayer that has been attributed to St. Francis of Assissi:

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life

Let’s recap. We acknowledge we are all sick. We are all sinners. We all need God. And we need this community, because this community of misfits is how Jesus chose to carry on his work of healing—through communities of humility, weakness and vulnerability. Through mess-ups and screw-ups just like you and me. It’s this community of misfits, many of whom will get on our nerves, will have different opinions and political affiliations, will frustrate us and hurt us, it is this community that God chose. God did this on purpose. So all we can do is see ourselves and others through God’s eyes—as saints. Chosen. Beloved.

Maybe you’ve come here today knowing that you are a saint. You are fed up with all these people who keep making it hard to just get on with the good things in life. Maybe you’re frustrated by those in the church who are getting in the way of our spiritual progress, getting in the way of all the good the church could be doing. Maybe you’re fed up with people who have different theology from you, that you can just see is toxic. God chose them for you. You need them. Because we need this community. And we’re all sick.

Maybe today you came here knowing that you’re sick. Knowing that you’re a misfit. You don’t fit here. You don’t fit anywhere. How could someone love you after all that you’ve done? You’re chosen. You’re a saint. Out of you, God made this community.

This is not to say we shouldn’t hope we all get better. That’s the purpose, right? If someone is being abusive, we should stop him. If someone is an addict, we should help her. If people are hurting others, we should confront them. If people want to pray more, we should encourage them! That’s the purpose—receive God’s healing, and live into it. But we can neither exclude people from the community for being sinners and doubters, nor leave because we think we are more righteous or less sick or have more faith. The hard work of community is staying. Even if we sit next to that person we can’t stand and we physically can’t say one word to them. It’s a big step just to be here. It’s a start. This can only happen once we realize that we’re all sick and we’re all saints.

I admit I’m still horrible at this. I still want to be right. I don’t like going to the doctor, saying I’m sick. Sometimes I just want to get the heck out of Dodge and find a place where everyone is good and kind and fights never happen. Tell me when you find that place! I’ve never experienced it. But God calls us to be in community with each other, right here—each and every one of us a sinner; each and every one of us a saint.

People often think that the church’s witness to the world should be that we never fight and that we all act perfectly. Good luck. Certainly, we should try not to fight and we should try to do good in the world. But maybe the true witness is how we stick together even when we fight, what we do when we fight; how we welcome those who are far less than perfect—not because we’re going to somehow “help” them—but because we realize that we need them, because they are the foundation on which this church is built, the screw-ups, the misfits. We can’t be this community without them.

Where the whole world and all the “religious” and “righteous” people—whoever and wherever they are—where they see sickness and mess and sin, failures and misfits and outcasts, hotheads and traitors and terrorists and doubters—Jesus sees community. Thanks be to God. Amen.



[1] John 12:1-8
[2] Matthew 16:18
[3] Matthew 16:23; Luke 22:54-62
[4] Mark 3:17
[5] Luke 9:51-56
[6] John 1:46
[7] Compare Matthew 9:9 and Luke 5:27-32
[8] See Luke 19, the story of Zaccheus
[9] John 20
[10] NOTE: I got this backward during the live preaching event and mixed up Judas and Simon. Oops! That’s where low levels of sleep gets me. Also, as this article by Richard Horsley points out, understanding the history and context of these various resistance groups helps us not to demonize them—or any people who are under an oppressive regime. Certainly, as the rest of this sermon goes on to argue, Jesus brought two people from these groups into the nucleus of his community. The point is not to condemn the actions of the Zealots or Sicarii necessarily, but to point out the extreme diversity of people Jesus brought together—the powder keg of personalities.
[11] Mark 6:3
[12] John 7
[13] NOTE: I am intentionally using this word provocatively throughout. I really want to stretch our understanding of the people Jesus loves and invites into the community. A congregant mentioned the difficulty many might have with this word, especially in my church full of people who often community to NYC and Philly. I understand the difficult connotations here and I’m sorry if offense or confusion prevents deep engagement for anyone.
[14] Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:43; John 19:38-42
[15] 1 Cor. 1:26-29
[16] Peterson, The Jesus Way, 239
[17] Is. 53:3-5
[18] Philippians 2 
[19] Peterson, The Jesus Way, 184
[20] NOTE: I want to nuance our understanding of "vulnerability" with a quote from BrenĂ© Brown that my friend and colleague, Tara Woodard-Lehman posted on facebook. Of course, I only saw this lovely quote after I'd delivered the sermon. Still. Helpful. From Daring Greatly (no page number): "We don't lead with 'Hi, my name is BrenĂ©, and here's my darkest struggle.' That's not vulnerability. That may be desperation or woundedness or even attention-seeking, but it's not vulnerability. Why? Because sharing appropriately, with boundaries, means sharing with people with whom we've developed relationships that can bear the weight of our story. The result of this mutually respectful vulnerability is increased connection, trust, and engagement. Vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust, and disengagement....Vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviors that are so commonplace in today's culture."
[21] Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 78-9

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