Do you remember the movie Places In The Heart? It stars Sally Fields, John Malkovich, Danny Glover, and Ed Harris. The movie is set in the Depression era. A small town sheriff is killed, leaving his wife and two small children to try and scrap out a living on their cotton farm. When the bank threatens to foreclose, the widow takes in a border, a blind veteran of the Great War, played by John Malkovich. Later, a black drifter, played by Danny Glover takes up residence. Together, the widow, the blind man, the black man and the two children try to pull off the impossible; to get the first load of cotton picked and hauled to the gin so that they can win a monetary prize sufficient to save the farm.
The most compelling thing about the movie is the odd mix of characters who make up the central cast of characters; a widow with no farming skills or knowledge; a blind man who is bitter about his life; a black man who struggles with honesty; and two little children.
Did you ever notice how often good stories work that formula?
The Odd Couple --.a neat freak and a world-class slob have to learn how to live together.
Gilligan ’s Island -- seven people, all of whom are weird in some way, stranded together on a deserted island.
The Dirty Dozen -- twelve hardened criminals and a colonel on the outs with his commanders on a mission to eliminate the Nazi leadership.
And it isn’t just television shows and movies. Disparate characters all united in a common quest populate some of the greatest works of literature.
To Kill A Mockingbird,
The Grapes of Wrath,
Of Mice and Men.
And of course, the Harry Potter series of books works this same theme.
Okay, you’ve been listening to sermons all your life, so you know where I’m going with this. There’s another famous book that features tons of stories in which an odd mixture of characters are drawn together to form a tightly knit community. Want to take a guess?
The Bible. Let me show you what I mean.
Do you remember the scripture that was just read from Mark 3? It is the selection of 12 men from the hundreds of followers of Jesus that He would take and train to change the world.
For a moment let’s take a look at two of those guys, Matthew and Simon the Zealot.
Matthew was a tax collector. Simon was a tax protester.
Matthew was a revenuer for the Romans. Simon was a rebel.
Matthew was wealthy. Simon was a commoner.
Matthew made his money overcharging people like Simon. Simon lived to eliminate people like Matthew.
Talk about an odd couple.
With that in mind let’s look at one more passage: Acts 2: 5-12. Read
Remember the tower of Babel? This is the undoing of Babel. The first miracle of the church was not tongue speaking. It was community making. And the reason it qualifies as a miracle is because it runs counter to the normal, natural human response to diversity.
There was an article in the AJC last month about a new study done by Harvard University and the Civil Rights project. Now that many schools are no longer under court-mandated desegregation, sociologists are tracking a pattern called re-segregation.
Black families and white families usually live in separate neighborhoods, so schools are beginning to reflect the demographics of the community around them. Schools are becoming almost exclusively one color or the other. It is a natural human response to differences. But when you look at how the story of the gospel begins and how the church was born, it becomes clear that God is more than a little in favor of diversity.
Romans 15:7 puts it this way: Accept one another just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
What do we do with that passage and the others that celebrate the forcing together of all kinds of odd groupings? Let me suggest two or three responses.
First, we need to recognize that the church is going to be a magnet for misfits.
Don’t be offended by that. Matthew was a misfit. So was John.
For that matter, so was Jesus. He didn’t fit into any of the slots in which first century Judaism slated people. He didn’t fit their expectations of the messiah.
So when I say that the church is a magnet for misfits I don’t mean to be disrespectful of people who don’t fit in. They are running in some pretty good company. Think about the church where you grew up. Weren’t there some people who were -- to be perfectly honest -- just strange?
In Franklin there was a family who was a little to in to holistic medicines. I remember on a retreat the son was suffering from a headache and knowing his families’ thoughts about medicine I asked him what I could do for him. He asked for a cabbage leaf and a dark place where he could sit and meditate for a few hours. We gave him a room and he sat there for 2 hours with a cabage leaf on his head.
In Huntsville there was Clarence, a single man who was in his own world. He would greet every one with a Hello Brother; I love you oh so much and then give you a big hug and a kiss on the neck. He had three cars a 1976 Green Volkswagen Wagon Beetle, a 1976 Green Volkswagen Wagon Beetle and a 1976 Green Volkswagen Wagon Beetle.
Every church has its misfits. But if you think about it, isn’t that what God wants? Where else are people who don’t fit in going to fit in?
In fact, I think it’s quite possible that you can judge a church’s faithfulness to the mission by how many misfits feel like they belong.
Second, racial, economic and social sameness is an artificial substitute for genuine community.
Just because we all look alike, talk alike, and act alike doesn’t mean that we are a real community of believers.
The New Testament shows the early church grappling with issues of racial inclusion in places like Acts 10 and Acts 15.
In passages like 1 Corinthians 11 and James 2, the Apostles confronted economic discrimination.
In Philemon, Paul urges a slave owner to welcome home his recently converted runaway slave as a brother.
Clearly, the first Christians didn’t always do a very good job of bridging the canyons that separated people. Otherwise, the writers wouldn’t have had to address the issues. But the issues were addressed. The divine standard was revealed and the churches were expected to live up to it.
The testimony of the New Testament is that if everyone isn’t welcome at your table on Sunday morning, then you are eating all by yourself. If everyone isn’t welcome, Jesus isn’t either. He himself said, "What you do to the least, you do to me." We welcome Jesus by welcoming every one.
Finally, we have to decide what kind of church we are going to be.
Natives are people who are comfortable with their own culture.
They aren’t very interested in anyone else’s culture. In fact, they think they are normal and everyone else is strange.
The only people a native church is going to attract are people who embrace that cultural norm and the language, music and ministries that express it.
You know immediately when you walk into a native church. It is obvious that they aren’t used to visitors and, in fact, suspicious of them. They talk a lot about change agents. Change is a tool of the devil and anyone who espouses it is an enemy of the truth.
Native churches grow almost exclusively by membership transfer.
Conquistador churches are different, but not by much.
They recognize the mandate of Matthew 28, that Christians are to go into all the world and preach the gospel. And they pursue that mission with zeal. But they insist on taking their culture with them.
The gospel according to the conquistador Christians is, "Repent and accept our version of Christianity as the only true way. Come on in, take a pew, but don’t touch the stereo. When you look enough like us, we’ll think of you as one of our own."
Conquistadors accept you only after they’ve conquered you.
Then there are immigrant churches; Churches who know where home really is.
Immigrant churches -- and Christians -- recognize that there is a difference between their own religious culture and the gospel of Jesus. They realize that there are certain things they are comfortable with, certain ways of expressing their faith that they like and are familiar with and even long cherished. But they are willing to relax or even let go of those things if it means accepting someone who is different.
They know how to squelch the gag reflex. You know what that is don’t you?
Norman Schwartzcof tells an interesting story in his autobiography. His father was an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He once traveled with his father to visit some Bedouins. They were welcomed into a large tent where their hosts had spread a traditional Bedouin feast. The centerpiece of the feast was a camel, fully cooked, but still mostly in tact. The chief of the Bedouin tribe immediately took a liking to young Norman and offered him the choicest morsel on the table; the camel’s eye ball. Schwartzcof writes that his father didn’t even have to look at him. He knew what he had to do. He popped that eyeball in his mouth and swallowed. And kept it down. Any other response would have been an unforgivable insult. He squelched the gag reflex.
Helping people feel welcome and accepted is more important than suiting your own tastes. Immigrant Christians know that. They know that Jesus had to do a lot of gagging when he immigrated from heaven to earth. And when you are seized by Jesus, you follow in his steps -- no matter where they take you.
Here’s a good question to close with: "What have I done lately outside my comfort zone to reach someone else for Christ?"
Is Atlanta Road a place for misfits? Is Atlanta Road a genuine community or an artificial substitute? Are we natives, conquistadors, or immigrants?