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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 5 – Year A

These are the names of the twelve apostles….
Matthew 10:2
They started out as a motley crew, those apostles whom Jesus chose! Some of them you know well. Simon Peter, whom he nicknamed “the rock”, was anything but rocklike! He talked a good game, but when the going got tough he denied ever knowing him. Andrew lived in Peter’s shadow. He was always known as “Simon Peter’s brother.” Then the Zebedee boys, James and John. They were a handful! Aggressive, hot tempered, Jesus referred to them as “sons of thunder.” All four of these were hard-working fishermen whom Jesus encountered one day as he walked along the beach; and he called them to follow him.

Next on the list comes Philip, a different kind of guy. Although he was from the same hometown, Bethsaida, as Peter and Andrew, Philip comes across as distinctly passive. But Jesus found the spark of devotion in him and called him to become a disciple. Then comes Bartholomew. We know absolutely nothing about him, unless we equate him with Nathanael—which is entirely possible, for two reasons: First, Bartholomew is listed among the twelve apostles in every gospel except John, whereas Nathanael is listed among the twelve only in John. Second, Bartholomew is a surname; Nathanael could easily have been his given name. John tells us that Nathanael was a skeptic; but after he was introduced to Jesus by Philip he became an enthusiastic believer.

We get back on more familiar ground when we come to Thomas and Matthew. You remember Thomas and his doubts. We heard his story the Sunday after Easter. Remember how he refused to believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he could feel the wounds himself? But Jesus showed him, and Jesus chose him. You also know Matthew, who had probably the most dramatic conversion of all the Twelve. Matthew was by any fair measure a cheat and a fraud. He was a tax collector; and tax collectors in that day routinely collected far more than what was owed, sent the required amount on to Rome and pocketed the rest. But Jesus called Matthew and he got up and followed him.

James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus and Simon the Cananaean are all just names to us, but Jesus chose them nevertheless. He also chose Judas Iscariot, “the one who betrayed him.” Why on earth do you suppose Jesus chose Judas? I can only conclude that Jesus saw some genuine good in that man. At least, like Matthew, he knew how to keep track of finances. Jesus entrusted him with the purse containing the apostles’ money—from which he regularly stole. But what else could have commended him to Jesus? There may be a clue in one of the most heartrending encounters in the gospels. Luke tells it best: Judas has left the Last Supper; Jesus and the remaining eleven have gathered for prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. A squad of soldiers arrives, led by Judas. As customary with a prominent rabbi, Judas goes up to kiss Jesus. But Jesus backs away and fixes him with those penetrating eyes. “Judas,” he asks, “would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?”

For an awful moment, I think time must have stopped. I cannot imagine the emotions of love and hurt, and hope and betrayal, which must have hung in the air. Every time I think of that fateful encounter I place myself there, and I recall the times I have betrayed my God by some thoughtless, self-seeking act of my own. Clearly Judas had a conscience. The pangs of guilt began to stir in him; they would gnaw at him, they would eat away at his soul, until he could stand it no longer, and he would go out and hang himself. Judas had a conscience; and therefore he had the capacity, the potential at least, to follow in the way of truth and justice. And that potential, together with whatever other gifts he may have had, qualified him in Jesus’ mind to be called as an apostle. Jesus took a chance on Judas.

Jesus took a chance on all the apostles. He could not have picked a more ordinary bunch to be his spokesmen. And not only were there these men, there were also a group of very ordinary women around Jesus. Mary Magdalene was the best known among them, and she was certainly no angel. Jesus had healed her of some kind of demonic possession. Tradition has it that she had been a prostitute. Then there were Joanna, Susanna, and apparently others, all of whom traveled with Jesus and the apostles and supported them financially.

Jesus took a chance on these ordinary men and women to be his companions and witnesses. And Jesus takes a chance on you and me. That’s the way it has always been. God takes ordinary people, just as they are, wherever they may be, and sees in them the potential to make a difference for good in the world—and calls them into service. Remember Paul the Apostle—what a scoundrel he had been before his conversion! Remember St. Francis who grew up in the lap of luxury before he met that leprous beggar and devoted the rest of his life to the poor. Remember John Newton, the infamous captain of a slave ship who trafficked in helpless Africans before Christ called him to the faith.

And it’s not as though people suddenly become perfect when they start serving the Lord. I’m sure many of you are aware of the recent revelations about Mother Teresa and how she struggled with her faith. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for all his greatness, certainly had his imperfections. I can think of several more recent Christian leaders whom I have admired, and still do, about whom some serious character flaws have come recently to light. God uses very flawed people, like the disciples of old, to take their part in the work of the Kingdom. And God uses you and me. We’re all a kind of motley crew when you get right down to it! I was asked not long ago how it feels to get up in the pulpit and preach. What I said to that person, and what I say to you, is that it is a very humbling experience. Feelings of unworthiness always sweep over me as I prepare to speak to others about God. The most common of my prayers beforehand is, “O Lord, speak through me and in spite of me to touch the hearts of your people with the Good News of Christ.”

God calls ordinary people to do significant things. On this Father’s Day, let me talk about fatherhood for a moment. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt when Joannie first announced to me that I was going to be a father. But going back long before that, I remember vividly some experiences of my own father. In the world’s terms he was just an ordinary guy. He never finished high school because his own father had died, and times were hard, and he had to go to work to support his family. He was wounded in France as an army sergeant in the First World War and lived much of his life in pain. He became and remained a lower-middle-manager in the New York office of a British bank and never made much money. And he had a lifelong inferiority complex.

But Dad was always a devout believer. My very earliest memory of Handel’s Messiah was hearing the Halleluiah Chorus sung when he took me to his church on Easter Day. Dad always said his prayers. He was an avid reader and had a special interest in geography and astronomy, all which I’ve inherited! He could build or fix anything, a talent which I definitely didn’t inherit! He gave me a love for baseball and would take me to Yankee Stadium at least once a year. He gave me my love for boats and sailing. But far more important were some of the values he instilled in me. Next to God and family, he loved his country and he loved the American Flag. It was important to him always to look his best and be at his best, not only at work but at home. I still have the shoe-shining kit he made from an army ammunition box and used daily. He had no use for crudeness and smut. He would neither tell nor listen to dirty jokes. But probably the most important value came from his deep love for God: He had a genuine love for people. Over and over he would tell me, “Doug, there’s something good in every person.”

That’s the truth that Jesus personified with the very heart of God as he chose those ordinary human beings to be his servants. God grant that you and I, with all our faults and flaws, may be faithful servants too.

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