August 9, 2020
This worship service began with a clip from the film “Finding Nemo,” where Nemo was inducted in to “the bonds of fraternal tankhood,” referring to their sharing a fish tank together. In short, it’s an illustration of what it might look like to find belonging among unexpected companions. A few turns of phrase in the sermon below presume knowledge of that clip but mostly it is the concept of tankhood that might seem out of left field without seeing it.
Last week, Meg told you a bit about a new small group ministry we are unrolling next month. The staff has been tacking towards this for some time now, and a number of weeks ago we started putting out calls to our small group leaders. We have it all worked out – two co-leaders for each group. One is called the convener – their job is to gather the group and care for its members. The other leader is the content person and their job is to lead the conversation – ask the right questions at the right time, hold silence when that is needed. The staff split up a list of folks to call and spent much of July doing that recruitment work.
As I was making my calls, I honed a certain system. First tell them how we’re re-imagining Church this Fall because we just can’t do all of the normal things. Then talk about that, in spite of the grief we all feel not being together, we have an opportunity here to foster some more intimate connections through small groups. Then, putting the hard sell on, I’d say how much the Church needs some good leaders to make that happen – subtle, huh?
Towards the end of the call I’d leave some space for them to ask questions – most times people didn’t have any. But one person on my list asked this…he said “I think this all sounds good, but to be honest I do have some hesitation. I know that we’ll be pulling this off right in the throes of an election. Things have become so polarized I worry that these small groups could just become one more space for folks to draw the same old lines and argue. If it’s more of that, I just don’t have energy for it.”
THAT was a great observation, a valid concern and a serious challenge for us all as we try this out. How do we create a space that is holy and healthy for everyone, regardless of their beliefs?
We could mandate that anything remotely political is off the table for discussion. Well, that might keep everything nice and pleasant, but we might be sacrificing the opportunity for true connection which is the whole point of these small groups. Besides, when we speak of politics we are speaking of the life of the Polis, the city, the community in which we live…if we can’t talk about that in a civil way at Church, where can we?
So while blatantly partisan conversation may not be helpful, I’m equally unsure that a gag order is the way to go. There has to be another way. Then I got to thinking about Jesus’ small group ministry. Sometime we assume that Jesus only had twelve followers – the original disciples. But Jesus had very large crowds following him around Galilee. The twelve disciples – that was his small group, chosen and personally invited. The exact list of names may change depending on which Gospel you are in, but this is how Luke describes the Church’s first small group.
On another Sabbath [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the Sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
Mike Gecan wrote an article last year called “The Politics We Deserve.” He described an experience he had some 25 years ago as a community organizer in New York City. He had been working hard on an affordable housing initiative in East Brooklyn where hundreds of homes were built in largely abandoned neighborhoods. The end goal was to increase home ownership among the African-American and Hispanic community. The work had attracted the admiration of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in the city, and so Mike found himself at dinner with two of the big hitters in that organization.
The dinner was going nicely as they discussed the Nehemiah Housing Program, but when Mike switched the subject to their other major initiative, a living-wage bill, all of the good will evaporated in an instant. Suddenly his dinner partners weren’t speaking – they were shouting. “How could a group that shows so much common sense when it comes to housing propose such a ridiculous policy – $12 an hour! For Janitors?!?”
Gecan says: “I listened for a minute, then whispered, ‘Please stop yelling.’ They did not. So I said, ‘Look, if you keep this up, I’m out of here.’ They just got louder. So I stood up and walked out of the place. The male half of the twosome followed me out to the street and kept shouting as I hailed a cab and headed home.’
Reflecting on the episode later, Gecan surmised “It wasn’t just our approach to a living wage that upset them. It was the mix of approaches that confounded them. It’s easy to dismiss your ideological opponents, whom you consider totally benighted and utterly lost. But it’s quite another matter when you disagree with someone who, in part, is aligned with your views. They aren’t just opponents; they are heretics.”
As we launch this small group ministry – and I do hope you will take part in it – we will find ourselves in a group of people with whom we are at least partially aligned. What we have in common is that we are trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ. AND chances are we may not agree 100% on what that means. We may discover that we think very differently about how our faith shapes are thoughts about this or that issue. But what I want to tell you is that we need not fear that tension – instead, let’s lean into it. Because that is precisely what Jesus did.
Our Scripture reading today begins with a controversial healing story. I don’t intend to do much with the healing itself. I included that episode just so you could understand that Jesus also maneuvered through a highly-charged political landscape. His every move was scrutinized by critics every bit as harsh as Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow.
Jesus extricates himself from the tense moment and then immediately retreats to the mountain for an all night prayer session. When he comes back down, sleep-deprived but resolute, the first order of business is to form a small group. He invites twelve distinct disciples to join him in the fraternal bonds of tankhood. He invites them to become friends.
Just as Nemo becomes Sharkbait, Jesus knows a thing or two about the power of nicknames. He invites Simon but he nicknames him Peter, which means the Rock. He invites Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, another James and another Simon too, but this one was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and last but not least Judas Iscariot.
Now – Let me ask you – what are the chances that all twelve of them agreed on every little thing at every single turn? You get any twelve people together – there’s going to be tension.
I don’t even have to know any specifics about these guys to know that much is true. But if you’ll allow me to make some educated guesses, I’ll paint an imaginary picture for you. One of them is identified as Simon the Zealot. That may very well mean that Simon belonged to a radical sect of Jews at the time who were single-mindedly devoted to running Rome out of Judea. Zealots were like guerrilla insurgents. They would assassinate Romans when they could, but more often, their targets were the Jewish collaborators who cozied up to Rome. Like Mike Gecan said, we reserve our deepest hatred for heretics rather than our opponents.
So, isn’t it interesting that among this list of Twelve you will also find Matthew the tax collector; the one who collected money on behalf of Rome. It certainly didn’t help that tax collectors were presumed to be corrupt, extorting additional money from their Jewish brethren to keep for themselves.
Think about what Jesus is doing here for a second. Precisely as the heat is turning up out there, Jesus also turns the heat up in here – in his own inner circle; in his small group.
What is he thinking? Doesn’t Jesus want a place and a people that will just tell each other what they want to hear? Doesn’t he want to wrap everyone up tight in the echo chamber of their comfortable confirmation bias?
Amazingly, he does not do that. In a deeply divided land, he creates an intimate community where Simon and Matthew are going to have to learn to co-exist, but not just co-exist – where they will have to get to know one another beyond the boxes they check. In this small group, they are going to become friends.
I could imagine several weeks in to this small group, Simon turning to Matthew and pulling a dagger out of his tunic and saying – “Hey Matt – see this knife…last month you were going to be on the other end of the blade. I’m glad I didn’t stab you – you’re all right in my book.”
As we form these small groups, I can’t promise you that there won’t be any tension.
I can’t promise you that you’ll find a group of completely like-minded folk who won’t challenge you at all.
I can promise you something far better.
You’ll have a chance to know and be known, a chance to love and be loved in spite of the turns of opinion that drive us apart.
You’ll have a chance at experiencing Tankhood.
Isn’t that what we long for most?