Monday, May 6, 2019

Sermon: "Faith Formation is a Team Sport", John 21:1-17/Acts 9:1-20 (May 5, 2019)


Since I’ve only been here for about five months now, you may not know this about me, but I think it’s time for me to come clean: I have absolutely no interest in sports. Zero. None whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if it’s a team sport, an individual sport, a winter sport, a summer sport, a field sport, a water sport—I just don’t care. And yet, in spite of my resounding indifference to all things athletic, last summer I found myself traveling to Belize on a mission trip in which our primary responsibility was to organize a soccer camp for a community of Mennonite kids. In case you’ve ever doubted that the Holy Spirit has an ironic sense of humor, I offer you exhibit A.

At first, I panicked. Although I did play rec soccer for a hot second a million years ago, I didn’t care enough to retain any of the information I picked up as an eight-year-old. I certainly didn’t have the physical coordination or endurance as an adult to plan and run a soccer-themed day camp. But I was the youth pastor, and I felt like this responsibility had been placed squarely on my shoulders. Yet I didn’t have the first idea what to do.

Out of sheer incompetence, I decided to lay all my cards on the table at my first pre-trip meeting with the youth and other adult leaders. “I have less than no idea what I’m doing,” I admitted, “but this is what they told us they need from us, so we’ll figure it out together. I need your help to make this happen.” So we pooled our collective knowledge and skills, and we managed to cobble together a plan. Was it a professional-caliber camp? Probably not (then again, how would I know? I just told you I’m not a sports person). But did those kids learn something about soccer? Absolutely. And more importantly, did they learn about God’s love through our group’s offering of time, energy, and affection? Without question. And what we managed to accomplish in that week was only possible because we worked together as a team—for better or for worse.

It occurs to me that a life of faith often works this way, too. Although it sometimes feels like it would be easier to go it alone, that’s not at all what God intends for us. Practically speaking, there’s not a single instance where faith formation has happened as a result of a solo effort. Think about it: did the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ just spring into your mind one day, completely unprovoked? I suspect not, whether you first learned of him from a loved one or through the words of the gospel-writers, carried down faithfully from generation to generation. And have you maintained that initial knowledge of the Good News through your life exactly as it was first communicated to you, unchanged and unchallenged? Of course not; your faith has been shaped and formed over the years by teachers, pastors, Bible Studies, conversations with other Christians, even arguments with those who disagree with your perspective. Not a single one of us comes to our faith on our own; faith formation is, by its very nature, a team sport.

Scripture certainly confirms this reality. I mean, to begin with, Peter here demonstrates the importance of a team uniform, because you don’t want to be caught naked when the coach shows up unexpectedly. But in all seriousness, Jesus’ entire ministry was built around the idea that a team of his followers would carry on the work of his kingdom after his resurrection. He didn’t entrust his message to just one person; he deliberately formed a group for this purpose. Like my mission trip team, this group was flawed and far from expert, but it was God’s chosen vehicle for the sharing of the Good News and the forming of a brand new faith community.

The post-resurrection account from John that we read today serves as a wonderful metaphor for the necessity of teamwork in this endeavor. Jesus provides important guidance and direction…but ultimately, they needed to do the work together to bring in the astounding haul of 153 fish. Ultimately, it took all of them to drag the net to shore with their catch. Ultimately, these “fishers of people”[1] couldn’t do all that Jesus coached them to do unless it was a team effort. Their unexpected fishing success foreshadows just what it’ll take for them to do the important job that Christ is calling them to do—“Feed my sheep.” Care for my people. Teach them what you know. And do it together.

Now, obviously, fulfilling THIS task isn’t a matter of simply pooling our collective physical strength together. Faith formation is more nuanced than that, and, just like with the Belize trip, the team we’re on doesn’t always seem like the best team for the job. We don’t get to pick our teammates based on the skills that we think would be useful–God picks our teammates based on who God wants on our team. Sometimes, we don’t all have the same strengths to pool together. Sometimes, NOBODY on our team has the “right” expertise for the task set before us. Sometimes, we don’t even get along with some of our team members. But we still need to figure out how to make it work.

The thing that I love most about the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 is just how many people it took to get Saul on track, and what a motley, mismatched team they were. First, of course, there was Jesus, the coach, the one who got the ball rolling. Then there were the men who Saul had been traveling with: they may not have had any unique skills to offer in service to this task, and they probably didn’t even realize that they were on the team at all, but they were still instrumental in getting Saul to Damascus, to the next step. It couldn’t have happened without them. Then, after some needling and convincing by God, Ananias reluctantly joined up. He did NOT like Saul (with good reason), but God had drafted him, so onto the team he went. Of course, although the teammates varied wildly in skill level and desire, each person played their part and they managed to successfully convert Saul the persecutor to Paul, a champion for Christ. Each person was important. Each person answered the call. And because of this, the Church was never the same.

Like it or not, we’re on this same team together. Some of us depend on others to give us guidance and strength for the task, like the disciples. Some of us don’t quite understand what we’re doing, like the traveling companions bringing Saul to Damascus. Some of us aren’t feeling very enthusiastic about our teammates or the task we’ve been given, like Ananias. But no matter what we bring to the playing field, we need to do our part in working together as a team. We can’t depend on someone else to take care of it. It’s up to all of us, together.

Some of you may have heard that Rachel Held Evans, a prominent voice in the progressive Christian world, an accomplished writer, and a brilliant theologian, died yesterday at the age of 37. There is—understandably—a wave of grief sweeping the community of those whose lives have been touched by her ideas, her words, and her ministry. This is a tragic loss, and we should certainly mourn this one who loved Jesus so well, and truly embodied Christ’s commandment to “feed his sheep”. And yet, in the midst of our grief, we would do well to remember that the work doesn’t end because this teammate has gone on to her eternal reward. One of Rachel’s friends, Glennon Doyle, once wrote, “Whenever I want to scare myself, I consider what would happen to the world if Rachel Held Evans stopped writing.” Well, now we have to find out, and while it will certainly be difficult without Rachel’s voice sharing new insights and encouragements, I don’t think it has to be quite as terrifying as Glennon fears. Rachel has been a magnificent teammate and has played her role faithfully, teaching and supporting and leading us. That hasn’t ended just because we can’t see her anymore—now it’s just our turn to be a good teammate to her. We can honor her memory and her ministry by doing the part that WE are called to do and helping to move our team closer to victory.

Because at the end of the day, no matter how mismatched or unexpected a team is, the point is to win, right? So how do we win? What’s the goal of this team that God has placed us on? The answer is right there in scripture: Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.” The newly-baptized Paul openly proclaims Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” The goal of a player on God’s team is to go out and teach others. When we lead Sunday School for kids, we’re winning. When we gather in Bible study, whether lay- or clergy-led, we’re winning. When we teach about God’s love through our service in the community, we’re winning. When we involve ALL members of our church family in ALL aspects of church life—including worship leadership and participation in the sacraments—we’re winning. Because every interaction that we have with each other in the context of our faith is a way that we teach one another more about God. We’re NEVER done learning. So there’s no limit to how much winning God’s team can do.

As I learned in preparing for our Belize trip, the responsibility for this team’s success doesn’t lie with the clergy. It doesn’t lie with brilliant theological minds like Rachel Held Evans, and it doesn’t lie with those who feel most prepared, or knowledgeable, or spiritually-inclined. It lies with all of us. Learning and growing and teaching each other about Christ is not a specialized job; it’s one that we’ve all been given. So whether or not we feel ready, whether or not we feel qualified, whether or not we feel like we’re on the right team, God says we are. So let’s talk about our faith openly and without fear. Let’s welcome all ages, races, genders, sexualities, political opinions, nationalities, and abilities to the table. Let’s share what we know and what we believe. Let’s create a space where faith formation is a priority that all of us take responsibility for. It’s game time—so let’s go. Amen.


[1] Matthew 4:19.

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