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Last Four In

Luke 6.1–16

March Madness is almost here! Of course, no one know for sure what the NCAA tournament will look like this year, but that doesn’t keep folks from guessing. We found ourselves firmly in the grasp of “Bracketology Season,” the time of year where basketball prognosticators like Joe Lunardi try and figure out who will get into the tournament and where they will be seeded.

As Selection Sunday approaches, there are fans of a lot of teams who find themselves in a place where Jayhawk fans rarely are: “on the bubble.” A lot of teams each year are on that dividing line between into the tournament and out of it. They have usually won plenty of games, and a few against good teams, but they have also lost some games they shouldn’t have, and are at the mercy of the selection committee whether or not they get in.

Lunardi and Bracketology experts usually rank these bubble teams. Most of them publish a list that includes the “Last Four In.” These are the last four teams that they predict will get an at-large bid to the tournament. Not the automatic qualifiers, but those who need someone to pick them in order to make it in. According to these experts their body of work is barely good enough for them to make it in.

Have you ever felt like you were on the bubble?

This week, I saw a Facebook forward that several of you had posted. I thought it was a great picture of life on the bubble:

The other day, I was hangin’ with a friend.  This friend calls himself a Christian, but doesn’t always act like it. Some days he’s on fire for the LORD, some days life’s struggles seem to get the best of him.  So, as our eyes met, I really wanted to say something about it to him, but decided to just let the LORD speak to his heart, knowing nothing I could say could ever possibly have the impact that the LORD (becoming again) real in his heart would make.  So I prayed with him, and finally, after some time, I winked…and, walked away from the mirror.

How true is that! How many of us feel like we really want to follow the teachings of Christ, we want to love our neighbor as ourselves, we want to forgive as Christ forgives…but when we look in the mirror, we have to ask “does my body of work suggest otherwise?” I appreciate this post, because it helps us remember that we are complicit. So much of what you see on Facebook (and everywhere) is about “what the other guy did wrong.” But this post recognizes what we do wrong. How we miss what Jesus is really up to.

  • How we as Americans so often believe that we are better than everyone else….that we are exceptional…and an unhealthy nationalism creeps into our hearts.
  • How we as white people think that people who don’t have what we have are just lazy or unwilling to work…and an unhealthy white nationalism creeps into our hearts.
  • How we who don’t usually have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or whether there will be more month than paycheck…look down on those who do.

Or maybe even that we are aware of these things, of the dangers of white nationalism and privilege, but don’t do much about it. I read this week about Frederick Douglas, famed slave-turned-abolitionist. It seems that he was invited by a group in 1852 to “come shed some light about the dangers of slavery.” He came, and he spoke, but they didn’t like what he had to say. In short, he said, “the issue doesn’t need more light…but more fire.” Fire to fight back against injustice. Sometimes, when we see injustice, what we need is not more light, but more fire.

We assume that the problems of the world are about “what the other guy did wrong,” without looking in the mirror and asking “how are we complicit? How are we part of the problem?” If we were to do an honest and realistic assessment of our “body of work,” my guess is that a lot of us would realize we are bound to watch the tournament from home this year.

This section of Luke hits us hard in this area of complicity. Following the calling of the first disciples, we find a series of stories about complicity and brokenness and sin:

  • Jesus proclaims “woe to the rich and powerful.” It might not feel like that’s us, but in a global perspective, it absolutely is.
  • He teaches about those people who are so stuck on their own way of doing things that they simply cannot handle the introduction of Jesus and his message into their lives. He suggests like are like old wineskins, who cannot accept the presence of new wine without bursting.
  • Jesus begins to have these run-ins with the Pharisees. They are the perfect examples of the “old wineskins” from Jesus’ sermon, as they get mad at Jesus because his disciples are gleaning and eating from a field. They get angry, not because they are doing it, but because they do it on the Sabbath, a day of commanded rest, insisting that they keep the rule of not doing any work including feeding yourself.
  • Next, the Pharisees have another run-in with Jesus, this time in a synagogue. A man with a disfigured hand has come on the Sabbath, and they watch him carefully to see if he will heal him. Jesus, exhibiting his masterful understanding of the law and his masterful teaching ability, asks them if it is better to work at healing this man or work at destroying his life by NOT healing him. He subtly shifts the blame to them, suggesting that they are actually working hard on the Sabbath to destroy individuals like this man and others in need.
  • The passage ends that the Pharisees were “filled with fury” and talked together about what they were going to do to Jesus. Clearly, it was the “other guy’s fault,” and not theirs.

Of course, when we read these passages, we cheer for Jesus and congratulate each other and say, “it’s a good thing we are on Jesus’ side! Thank goodness we are not like the ‘other guy!’” But, of course, Jesus’ message to us, and Luke’s transmission of that message, are meant for us to look in the mirror. They are meant for us to ask, “how are we like the Pharisees here? How are we complicit?” What sins of commission and of omission are we committing? How hard are we working, on the Sabbath and otherwise, to participate in the destruction of the lives of others? What local rules and religious laws do we insist on, all the while breaking the command of Jesus to love our enemy? In short, what does our body of work look like? Would we be on the bubble?

But then, in the midst of this series of messages of complicity, Luke tells us about the calling of the Twelve Apostles. And, I don’t know about you, but I cannot help but feel a little like it is Selection Sunday. Look again at the list:

  • First come the blue bloods. The one seeds. Simon, who he renames Peter, the Rock: “on this rock I will build my church! James and John, the Sons of Thunder. These are the three that Jesus will bring to the Mount of Transfiguration, often seen as the top apostles.
  • Then the second tier. These are your lesser-known teams that are having a good year…maybe a bunch of four-year guys on the team and an up-and-coming coach. Here are Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, famous by association. Philip, who later converts the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Bartholomew, who tradition states was a missionary in India, and who is the patron saint of butchers…so he has that going for him.
  • Next are the solid Power 5 conference teams. They have had a few missteps, but are still teams to worry about in March. Thomas, called the Doubter, but also an example of a tried and tested faith. Matthew, who was a tax collector, but who left everything to follow Jesus.
  • Then come the “Last Four In.”  James son of Alphaeus, better known as “wait, there’s another guy named James?” Simon the Zealot, better known as “wait, there’s another guy named Simon?” Judas son of James, better known as “wait, there’s another guy named Judas?” And Judas Iscariot, who we all know about, but for all the wrong reasons!

Let’s talk about those last four in for a minute. Here are four guys that we either don’t hardly know anything about, or in the case of Judas, we know because he messed up so royally. These last four were apostles of Jesus. Jesus, who we can assume was a pretty good judge of character, called these last four to be in the incredibly rarified air of apostledom. Jesus looked at them and said, “I want this guy.” They got to listen to Jesus, minister alongside of Jesus, get a front-row seat to the presence of God-with-Us Emmanuel. They got to sit at the table next to him at his final meal. He served them the bread and the cup. He washed their feet. The co-Creator of the universe washed their feet.

My point is this. They may have been the last four in. But as Dick Vitale would say, they got in, baby. Just like Selection Sunday, they saw their name up there on the board. Jesus included in his group of chosen apostles these four, who were decidedly unremarkable or remarkably dangerous. They might have been a mess, might have been pretty clueless, might have missed the point of what Jesus was trying to do, but he invited and included and integrated them into his ministry. They will always be known as apostles hand-picked by Jesus.

Here is what I think that means…that has got to be good news for us! Just like these last four in, none of us are the best and the brightest. None of us are perfect in our ability to follow the ministry and message of Christ. All of us look in the mirror from time to time and find ourselves in one way or another complicit with the brokenness of the world. But Jesus looks at all of us and says, “I want that one.” We, too are invited and included and integrated into the Gospel work of Christ. Even though we look in the mirror and realize that we are a stumbling block to that ministry more than we would like to admit. Even though we look in the mirror and see nothing but mediocrity. Even if we say, “oh wait, there’s another guy named Matthew?”

Now, don’t get too caught up in the Selection Sunday metaphor. It falls flat, like all metaphors do. Because who are usually the next teams on the Bracketology lists? The First Four Out? The Monday after Selection Sunday, we love to talk about who got snubbed, who should have been in. But Jesus doesn’t play by those rules. Jesus wasn’t in the business of leaving people out! The work of Gospel ministry is not only for the Twelve. Luke will spend his whole Gospel talking about all of the outsiders and ragtags that get to have a place in that Gospel work. Women and children and Romans and shepherds. A close reading of his telling of Pentecost Sunday suggests that it wasn’t just the 12 who spilled into the streets to preach in Acts, but over a hundred. Jesus isn’t in the business of telling people who want to follow him that they cannot. Now, he’ll give them the job description, but then he’ll leave the door open.

All of this is good news for us who feel like we just cannot get it right. That we keep messing up his teachings. Of course we do. So did the Twelve. The Last Four In, and even the blue bloods. (Especially the blue bloods.) But yet this was the community. The family. The Church that Christ created. And this –you all—are the community, the family, the Church that Christ is still creating. He still reminds us of the job description. Reminds us to look in the mirror. But he always leaves the door open.

Thomas A. Jackson was a Baptist pastor in Virginia and North Carolina most of his life. He was born in 1931, so he knew as a teenager the dangers of white nationalism and exceptionalism as it empowered the rise of Nazi Germany. In fact, he likely knew of the tune by Franz Joseph Hadyn that we call Austrian Hymn, and perhaps knew that the actual German translation of its title is roughly “Germany is better than everyone else.”

But in 1973, with this tune ringing in his ears, he had a very different inspiration. Throughout his ministry, he had worked for racial reconciliation in areas of the country where this was not an easy thing to do. Partnered white and black churches together for ministry. Served on the MLK committee in his community. So, with this understanding of the Gospel, and a rush of inspiration, he penned these words to Hadyn’s tune:

We are called to be God’s people, showing by our lives His grace,
One in heart and one in spirit, sign of hope for all the race.
Let us show how He has changed us and remade us as His own;
Let us share our life together as we shall around His throne.

We are called to be God’s servants, working in the world today;
Taking His own task upon us, all His sacred words obey.
Let us rise, then, to His summons, dedicate to Him our all,
That we may be faithful servants, quick to answer now His call.

We are called to be God’s prophets, speaking for the truth and right,
Standing firm for godly justice, bringing evil into light.
Let us seek the courage needed, our high calling to fulfill,
That we all may know the blessing of the doing of God’s will.

May we know that blessing today. Called and included and welcomed into ministry, let us join with the saints of old as we work to bring Christ’s Gospel good news to earth.

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