Sunday, June 18, 2017

Who are these guys?

Matthew 9:35-10:8   (NRSV)

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
It is Father’s Day.  I’m really glad that at First Christian Church we make kind of a big deal of it.  We have pie! and ice cream! and whipped cream!  Yum.  Pie.   People don’t always seem to make a big deal of Father’s Day.  Mother’s Day, yes.  But Father’s Day…not so much. Well, advertisers make a big deal of it.  Power tools, gardnening stuff,  a New Car!  I even saw an ad the other day suggesting it would be a great idea to buy Dad a new vacuum cleaner!  I thought that was a bit odd, but hey, lots of Dads clean the house these days, right?   

It occurred to me this morning that, in my childhood home we mistreated my father pretty badly.   Every Father’s Day we would present him with his annual gifts of shirts, ties, and handkerchiefs or whatever, and then send him outside to burn meat.  Yes, that’s right.  On Mother’s Day everyone dressed up and went out for a wonderfully special meal in a restaurant.  On Father’s Day, Daddy got sent outside to cook his own dinner while we popped out from time to time and pestered him, wanting to know if it was ready yet!  In retrospect, there seems to be something wrong with this picture.  

Sometimes, when I am sitting with a family talking about their father’s funeral service, I hear phrases like, “He wasn’t anybody special, really.  He went to work every day, supported us all, encouraged us to do well.  He was an ordinary guy who did the best he could.  He was just our Dad.”  And whenever I heard that, I always knew which scripture passage to select.  It’s kind of unrecognized (like Father’s Day).  I mean, we all know the one from Proverbs about the capable wife, who is worth more than rubies and gold.  We frequently pull that one out on Mother’s Day.   But there is one in Sirach - one of the books of the Apocrypha - that speaks of fathers like these.  Ordinary guys.  
It begins by talking about the famous:
Let us now sing the praises of famous men, Our ancestors in their generations
The Lord apportioned to them great glory, His majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor,
Those who gave counsel because they were wise;
Those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
Those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
They were wise in their words of instruction;
Those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing;
Rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes--
All these were honored in their generations, and were given pride in their times.
Some of them have left behind a name, so that others might declare their praise.

And then, the important part:
But of others there is no memory;
They have perished as though they had never existed; 
They have become as though they had never been born, They and their children after them.
But these also were godly men, who righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children.
Their descendants stand by the covenants;  Their children also, for their sake.
Their offspring will continue forever, and their glory will never be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.
The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise. (Sirach 44:1-15)
These were the ordinary guys, the fathers who never got famous, never sought glory.  Just did what they did, raising their families to the best of their ability. No one would celebrate them as historical figures or great leaders.  Their names weren’t on any buildings or in historical documents - except maybe census reports.  But they are all so special.  Because they raised up families who went on to raise up families, caring for each other, loving God, doing the best they could with whatever they had.   Kind of nobodies, really, in the eyes of the world, but so very special to their families.  Kind of like. . . the disciples. 

You know, Jesus could have picked rabbis and Pharisees to be his disciples.  He could have picked people who were steeped in the Law and in the traditions of Temple worship.  He could have picked men who had spent their formative years sitting at the feet of a rabbi, learning the Hebrew of scholars, memorizing the scrolls of the law and the prophets.  He could have had the cream of the academic crop, masters in their field, the top theologians and lawyers of his time.  

For that matter, God could have had Jesus born into a wealthy and powerful family.  He could have had access to the finest education possible, and had name recognition just by virtue of being born into the right family.  He could have grown up in the seats of the powerful, so that he wouldn’t appear a threat to the Powers That Be - because he would have been one of them. He would have known how to play the games of politics and power.    But that’s not who God wanted.  God wanted his Word to be brought by an ordinary man.  So Jesus was born into the family of a carpenter, a man who worked with his hands.  Not quite at the bottom of the social scale, but pretty close.  And these other guys, these twelve guys Jesus selected to hear his message first, and then go out and proclaim the good news.  You know, the guys he picked instead of the rich and well educated?  Who were these guys?  

Simon Peter and Andrew were brothers, and fishermen.  Maybe owned their own boat.  Maybe not.  Maybe worked on someone else’s boat.   Simon was married, we know, because Jesus healed his mother-in-law.  But we don’t know much more about those two.   James and John were also fishermen, and they worked on their father Zebedee’s boat.   We don’t know anything from scripture about who Philip and Bartholomew were.  In the Gospel according to Matthew we are told that the disciple named Matthew was a tax collector, although neither Mark nor Luke say anything about his occupation.  Tax collectors were seriously at the bottom of the social scale!  They worked for the Romans, they were widely reputed to be dishonest and greedy.   Nobody liked or trusted tax collectors!    Thomas is sometimes called “the Twin” in John’s gospel, but none of the other three gospels say anything descriptive about him at all.  The second James we encounter on the list of disciples is known as James son of Alphaeus.  The second Simon is known as the Cananean in Matthew and Mark, and as the Zealot in Luke - which means he was an anti-Rome activist, probably with a violent past (and who may or may not have been the one who drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemene when Jesus was arrested).   Matthew and Mark both include the name of Thaddeus, another unknown, while Luke doesn’t mention that name, but in his place names Judas the son of James.  The last of the twelve, of course, is Judas Iscariot, who Matthew tells us is the one who would betray Jesus.   Iscariot, by the way, means “man of Kerioth,” which is a city in the south of Judea. 

When we consider these twelve men, they are pretty much nobodies.  And not just nobodies, but nobodies at the very bottom of the social structure, a step or two above slaves.  No one would automatically give these men respect, or defer to their opinions.  They weren’t particularly well educated.  Most were, presumably, from Galilee, which, according to Allen D Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament at Harvard Divinity School, was historically known as a contested region, populated by a mix of cultures, a hotbed of political unrest and activity. It was reputedly a place that seemed to breed would-be Messiahs and bandits, of the Robin Hood variety.  Periodically, Rome would have to step in and clear out yet another nest of unrest.   (   Hence the question in John 1:46 “can anything good can come out of Nazareth?”. 

So, again, who were these guys?  These were the right guys.  These were the guys selected by God.  For just as God had Jesus born into the family of a man who worked with his hands, and came from an area with a questionable reputation, so were his followers chosen from ordinary folks.   The message is what is important, not the person who is carrying it.    Because Jesus told these twelve men “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Not to the righteous people who were already doing God’s will in their world.  And not to the people who had funds and easy access to the Temple for healing there, and not to those who could afford physicians.  But go to the poor, the needy, the sick, the desperate.  Go to the ones who felt abandoned, who felt like they had no where to turn.  He told them, in fact, to go and find the very same sorts of people he was drawing to himself, and take care of them, and heal them, and comfort them, to cast out their demons, and tell them the kingdom of God is near.  And quite frankly, those folks, those poor, desperate folks, didn’t need some famous rich guys to come in and wave help around.  Probably wouldn’t have trusted them anyway.  They needed to know that these were people just like them. People who didn’t have a great name or a great fortune or a great education, who were simply there to help, because that is what God required of them.   They needed to know that these people had nothing to gain from the gifts of healing they brought, and sought nothing in return for their healing and preaching.  

Those of you who pay attention to social media may have noticed that three days ago, the interwebs exploded with a story about Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.  It seems that this man, who is worth something like $80 Billion (that is billion with a B!), was called out by the New York Times about his charitable giving.  Because wasn’t telling and you know, it’s important to know exactly how rich people are giving to charity.  He declined to answer the New York Times’ question with  specifics.  Instead, he asked all his followers on Twitter (259,000 people!) for suggestions as to how he could give his money away that would be helpful to people right now.  Not some foundation that will give it out in bits and pieces over years. But where can he put money that will result in actual humans being helped right this minute.  A very cool idea, really, for a man with lots of funds!   Actually, a very cool idea for everyone.  Where is there immediate need?  How can I put my money, my talents, my time to use in taking care of that immediate need?   I may not have $80 Billion to play with.  The New York Times and Twitter don’t care one way or the other what I do with my little bits.  But my $2 here and $5 there and $25 over there added together with your $2 and your $5 and your $25 and yours and yours and yours - that makes a difference, right now.  

So who are those guys?  Just ordinary guys.  Like all those ordinary Dads.   People like us.  Nobodies, sort of.  Not that anybody is actually “nobody.”  We are all somebody important.  But you know, Jesus kept telling people that the last would be first, that those who would lead must be servants first and foremost.  Jesus selected ordinary folks to do his work, then and now.  Because we are the ones selected to do his work.  We are the ones sent out into the world, as Jesus’ disciples, to tell the nations the Good News that God’s kingdom is at hand.  We are the ones who are sent out as Jesus’ disciples, to cast out the demons of oppression and hatred, to comfort the comfortless, to feed the hungry in body and in spirit.    

 So go.  Be like Philip and Bartholomew and Thaddeus.  Lay your hand on someone who needs to know the healing touch of a person who cares.  Speak words of peace and comfort to those who suffer pain and sorrow.   Be the Good News of God’s love.  Just like those guys, the ones Jesus gathered to himself and sent out into the world.  

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