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The List That Finally Matters

Text: Matthew 9:35 - 10:8

Matthew loves lists. He begins his Gospel begins with a long list of who begat whom. And, today, he is at it again. I notice this about Matthew because I love lists myself. I find few things more satisfying than crossing off just enough items from one list to warrant making a new one.

The uninformed and uninitiated do not appreciate lists. They rank list-making right down there with scribbling. Well, to all the non-list makers listening to this sermon, I beg to disagree. A list can be critical shorthand for crucial information. It says a great deal about what is on your mind and what is not. Just ask Matthew.

In the middle of our text today, Matthew provides a list of the twelve disciples of Jesus. If you doubt the potential power of lists or wonder why Gary is going on about something as mundane as making a list, take a look at what biblical literalists have done with Matthew’s list of disciples over history. For years, biblical literalists have used this particular list to decide who is in the church and who is not.

For instance, did you notice that there is not one woman mentioned in Matthew’s list of disciples? You can bet that biblical literalists have noticed. For centuries, they have used Matthew’s list as a warrant to keep women out of church leadership. No women on the original discipleship list of Jesus means no women in ordained leadership of Jesus’ church. No women as pastors, as elders, as deacons.

If we are to follow the logic of biblical literalists then we will need to say goodbye to Renee and Pam and Cove’s Clerk, Marilee. They are all ordained as church leaders at Cove. And, what was Cove thinking when it called Marcy and Gay Lee and Jane as pastor? Had your Pastor Nominating Committees not read Matthew’s list?!

And you say lists are not that important?!

One problem I have with biblical literalists is the narrow way that they read Matthew’s list. While many of them read Matthew’s “male only” list as a reason to exclude women from church leadership, they ignore that most of us – male and female – would be excluded from church leadership if we truly read this list in a literal way. Jesus says to the newly ordained male leaders: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles [that would be us] . . . but rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” If Jesus’ list of disciples in Matthew is a reason to keep church leaders male, then why is it not also a reason to require that all church leaders have direct Jewish ancestry?

Jesus calls these newly minted leaders by a new name – “apostles,” or from the Greek, his “sent out” ones. Jesus does not focus on their gender or their religious ethnicity as much as he focuses on what he calls them – “apostles” – children of God sent into the world to follow in the spirit and direction of Jesus.

Matthew’s list of names is not the list that finally matters. It is the list that follows that truly matters as Jesus sends “apostles” to bring health into sick situations, to challenge injustice when it is safer to stay quiet at home, to insist on sane public policy where madness rules.

Not one of these newly minted “apostles” are the promised Messiah or our Lord and Savior, so what qualifies them to be ordained to such a demanding vocation? Hold on. I will return to that question.

Some years back, I chaired a body of presbytery that works with church committees, PNCs, searching for a new pastor. When I asked most PNCs what would qualify candidates to be their next pastor, I heard a version of the following: “We want a MAN who is younger than forty, who finished at the top of his class in college and seminary, who has thirty years of pastoral experience, who is social media savvy, who is happily married to a WOMAN who is a cooperative and loving wife, and they have two well-behaved and idyllic children. He must be a great preacher, a great teacher, a great scholar, a great administrator, must visit in members’ homes on a regular basis and must always be available when an emergency arises.”

Now, go back and take look at the first “apostles,” the first “sent out” ones. What were their qualifications? Matthew tells us little about them but what we do know does not inspire great confidence. Nothing Matthew tells us explains why Jesus chose this particular group. They have few, if any apparent, qualifications for such demanding church leadership.

In one scene of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s, Jesus Christ Superstar, the original twelve apostles are sitting around the table, sitting, mainly because they have had too much to drink. They sing:

Always hoped that I’d be an apostle.

Knew that I would make it if I tried.

Then when we retire we can write the gospels.

So, they’ll all talk about us when we’ve died.

This rather crass song reveals a rather crass reality in the church. Nothing is more dangerous than when pastors, elders, and deacons think that they are fully qualified for their calling. Few things are more frightening than church leaders who are convinced that they deserve their positions and that God and the people of God cannot survive without them. Matthew does not give us a CV on the first disciples called to be apostles. He says that Jesus called them and sent them out to be the church. Maybe that is all that we finally need to know about them.

A few years back, I had the privilege of preaching the commencement sermon at Union Presbyterian Seminary. I duly noted my thanks to so many gifted future church leaders graduating that day. I commended their fine theological education. Then, I reminded them of the charge of Jesus to a newly minted group of “apostles.” I urged these graduates never to forget that a church leader is not defined by racial or gender identity, by age or degrees held or officer training completed. I reminded them that not one of them was qualified to lead the people of God, but every one of them had been given authority to do so by the grace of the One who chose to build the church on such rocky soil.

I wish that Matthew’s list of apostles would have named the women following Jesus because we know that they were the apostles who came to the empty tomb. I wish that Matthew’s list of apostles would have described the ethnicity of each person called because we know that Jesus and Jesus’ first apostles had far different complexions and religious identities than mine.

Throughout my ministry, biblical literalists have waved their list, be it from Deuteronomy or Matthew or the Apostle Paul, lists designed to exclude people from the church. As I read the list from Matthew two things matter; Jesus names a motley crew of apostles and he says to them and to all who would be apostles to “go proclaim the good news,” “go be the good news that you proclaim.”

Then he issues this very specific list: “Go and cure!” “Go and give life!” “Go and cleanse!” “Go and cast out the demonic.” “Go and give generously and with reckless abandon.” He gives that to-do list to the likes of Peter and Andrew, Thomas and Thaddeus, even to Judas Iscariot.” He gives that list to Fran and Rahima, to Nick and Oliver, to John and Jeanne, to you and me.

As far as I am concerned, that is the one list from Matthew that finally matters.


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