Date: May 9, 2021/Speaker: The Reverend Jon Hauerwas

Psalm 98:1-9 and John 15:9-17

Open up any magazine and you are likely to find images of young, attractive models who have been chosen with the hope that they will help sell products. Turn on the television and you will soon discover famous celebrities, individuals who are already worth tens of millions, serving as spokespeople for brands seeking to turn a profit on items as varied as cereal and designer watches. Or try your hand at social media, where those with large followings are known as influencers, and you will notice how quickly one’s reach and appeal are monetized. The message for most of us is pretty clear. In this world, some voices, some professions, and some bodies are more highly valued than others. Just follow the money.

Presbyterian minister and professor Rodger Nishioka is often considered the most prominent voice of youth ministry in our denomination. Years ago, when he was attending a workshop with a focus on growth strategies, the presenter said something that sent shivers down Nishioka’s spine. “‘First, you go for the brightest and best. You look for the athletes, the cheerleaders, the student government leaders, the most popular and the best-looking kids – the kids everyone wants to be like. You go after them and get them to join your youth group, and then all the kids who want to be like them, which, to be honest, is pretty much everybody else – they will join too.’” [1] Sadly, the presenter wasn’t joking. This guy was serious.

Friends, when I hear about church leaders espousing growth strategies like this one, I can only shake my head in disbelief. For when the church is nothing more than a mirror for the ways of the world, then we have completely and utterly failed. Just think about the beginning of the Jesus movement. It all started, not with an invitation to the brightest and the best, but, by intentionally seeking out the commitments of twelve unlikely leaders. They were all just ordinary people who made their living as fishermen and tax collectors.

Notably, you can explore each of the gospels and not find a single mention of any of those twelve disciples being popular, or wealthy, or good-looking. From Genesis onward, these kinds of superficial concerns appear to be of little interest to God. The heroes are always the understated ones – people like Mary and Joseph. Outwardly, there is nothing to indicate that these are the ones who could change the world. And yet, through a curious strategy employed by a God who holds no marketing degrees, they are chosen.

Perhaps, Jesus began his recruitment efforts not with the best and the brightest because, well, that was not the kind of kingdom that he was trying to build. In reality, that kingdom already existed. It always has, and it likely always will. Audaciously, Jesus came not to affirm our earthly kingdoms, but to dismantle them. And he wasn’t exactly subtle about his intentions.

Just consider Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus. Pilate entered the headquarters, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That’s a very odd response, isn’t it, especially from an individual who is on trial for his life? And it is this admission of Jesus’ kingship that placed him at odds with the powers of this world. His insistence that we pursue love as our motivation for everything is hardly a persuasive sale’s pitch for those seated at the top of the social hierarchy. [2] And as for his stated vision in which the last would be first and the first would be last? Forget about it.

Jesus, though, is persistent. And he will not back down in his conviction that our lives “are to be characterized by how we love one another,” and nothing else. “That is what builds the community,” and “that is how we embody Christ, not by seeking first ‘the brightest and the best’ but by loving one another, no matter who they are, because that is how Jesus loved.” [3]

Several years ago, when our youngest child was very little, we employed the services of a nanny in her early 20’s who came to our home several days per week to assist us with childcare. And whenever Nathan was sleeping, Ellen would watch television. To my surprise, she often chose to watch a show that was popular when I was her age. I thought that this was odd, so I asked her, “Ellen, why are you watching Friends?”

For those of you who are not familiar with it, Friends is a situational comedy that ran for ten years. Its last episode aired in May of 2004, when over 50 million viewers tuned in. “During nearly all of its seasons” it “was the most-watched television show, especially among American youth and young adults.” [4]

Set in Manhattan, the show follows the lives of six people in their 20’s who are beginning their careers and struggling to make it in the big city. It proved to be so successful because, “time and again, young people said they wished they were part of a group of people who loved one another as they did.” [5] And, now, the show has a new audience, and a new generation is watching it for the very same reasons.

Whatever our age, we are each yearning for authentic community.
We want to love and to be loved. And we want to know that we have a place in this world where we are valued, and respected, and appreciated. Here, I hope that you will make a connection with the church. Because it is truly amazing, isn’t it, that the church is available to everyone?

People of every age and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Workaholics and those who struggle to find work. Those in good health, and those whose health is failing. Newlyweds, couples who have been married for decades, and those who are grieving the dissolution of their union for whatever reason. Everyone is welcome.

Single people. Children. And members of the disabled community.

You see, “the Christian community that spends time with one another, listens to one another, shares with one another, and walks with one another is compelling and attractive, because it embodies exactly what Christ is calling us to do.” [6] True community cuts through the pretense and the falsehoods and engages individuals completely. As one scholar rightly observes, “being a Christian is more than a way of thinking about things. Christianity is a way of living, a matter of following Jesus rather than just thinking about Jesus.” [7]And so, we show up. And we seek the best interest of the other. And we lead with love. May it be so and all thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Rodger Y. Nishioka, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Pentecost, ed. Joel B. Green (Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), 278.

[2] Nishioka, 278.

[3] Nishioka, 278.

[4] Nishioka, 278.

[5] Nishioka, 278.

[6] Nishioka, 278.

[7] Will Willimon’s Lectionary Sermon Resource, Year B, Part 1, (Abingdon Press, 2017), 301.

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