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Spiritual Bios: The Overlooked ~ Acts 1:15-26

This may sound morbid, but I like graveyards. I like wandering through graveyards and reading the dates and thinking that below the ground lie the remains of someone who really lived, who was really present. I like to imagine them and wonder if there is someone around who still cares that they were alive, who still remembers their name, who still remembers stories about them.

And on this Memorial Day Sunday, I picture in my mind the graveyard on the coast of France and in Gettysburg; rows and rows of graves, simple markers with a name and a date. Time passes and we move on, overlooking and forgetting young soldiers – and young they were – who were there. There – wherever the “there” happened to be.  And it gets to me. Because you know, one can be both a Christian pacifist and still appreciate and give thanks for the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their nation.

And it is good to stop and remember. It is good to give thanks for sacrifices made. It is good to name and recall. The Christian community is at its best when we refuse to overlook and refuse to forget and continue to celebrate and give thanks.

For the past few weeks, we have been remembering the lives of the early disciples. We looked at Peter – that exuberant disciple who was out in front, a born leader, who sometimes spoke before he thought;  and Philip, that winsome spirit who was always telling stories and who let himself be led by the Holy Spirit, being so comfortable, hopping into people’s chariots to help them interpret Scripture. And we bumped into that unnamed Ethiopian Eunuch, one of my favorite characters in all of Scripture.

It is also good to remember that, for the most part, the early followers of Jesus were not the powerful of the world. For the most part, the disciples of Jesus were the forgotten ones and the overlooked ones of society. But we know that overlooked by society does not mean overlooked by God. Unrecognized by culture does not mean unknown by the Divine One who knows every single strand of hair (or lack thereof) on your head. And if you read the Bible with any kind of sensitivity, you see again and again and again that it’s always folks on the fringe, folks overlooked, unrecognized. Look at David, overlooked in the original line-up of brothers until Samuel said “I think there’s one more, isn’t there? Bring him along.” And even Jesus – “Has anything good ever come out of Nazareth?”  So remember that – that it’s often the overlooked that God seems to choose to do God’s bidding.

God uses any and all who are willing to risk for that which is unseen, that which is unprovable but that which is real – responding to a love that will not let them go – God calls both the powerful and the powerless, the known and unknown. God delights in those who come to realize they have nothing to lose, except their own manic control – and so they leave all and lose all, and in so doing, find all. And the power of the Gospel is still alive for you and for me today.

God most creatively uses those who have had an experience that causes them to see the world in a different way, and to share what they have seen with their own eyes, out of their own experience, what they have looked at and touched with their own hands, concerning the Word of life.

And so I like to remember the early disciples and tell their stories for, in so doing, I think we recognize much in ourselves and we receive permission to claim and name our own stories.

So this morning we meet Matthias. And we don’t have much to go on. All we know about Matthais is that he had been present with Jesus from Christ’s baptism to the ascension. We read that Matthias was selected by lot over Joseph Barsabbas Justus to replace Judas (whose gory demise left the original 12 missing 1). Matthias gets one verse of scripture and is never mentioned again.

Now, non-biblical tradition has it that Matthias might have gone to Ethiopia. Maybe. The Gnostic heretic Basilides claims that he got his doctrine from Matthias. Who knows? But, there’s a little detail that I hope you picked up about Matthias because I sure did this week. A little detail about Matthias that moved me. Did you hear how he was described? “He was present with Jesus.” He was present. He was there. That interests me.

What do they say, “90% of everything is just showing up; just being there.” And I think it was the rabble rousing activist, anti-war priest Berrigan brother who in the 60’s said, “Hope is where you (expletive for rear end) is.” Because being present is important. Being at worship every Sunday. (No guilt…just descriptive.) It is important for the worshiping community. It creates who we are. Present. The whole point of the incarnation is that GOD IS PRESENT – God is being, God is not just idea. God is with us. Emmanuel.

Now, Matthias wasn’t like a Dr. Martin Luther King – he was more like one of the unnamed at Birmingham and at the lunch counter, and maybe on the freedom rides, and at Memphis. Those who don’t get the press but show up at the rally, or clean up after the rally. Present is important.

And it made me think about all those wonderful disciples who were present in my life, who made witnesses to the resurrection and showed me the way. They were just there for me. The first person I thought of was Gertrude Nemeier, my church school kindergarten teacher. Old lady, hair up in a bun. Not warm and fuzzy. Never changed. But I remember seeing her in the pew when I preached my very first sermon at New York Avenue church in Washington. And I remember the note I received afterward, affirming my first attempt. She wrote “John, you did Peter Marshall proud.” Most of you probably don’t know who Peter Marshall was but the Rev. Peter Marshall was the LeBron of preachers in the 1940’s. (And by the way, my heart still has not stopped beating with the shock of that shot!)

Anyway, Gertrude Nemeier was Matthias to me. Heck, she might have been old enough to be at the baptism and ascension! But certainly she witnessed to something that had transformed her life; some good news that caused her to witness to and be present with 5-year-old children.

And I think of Margaret Corman. She’s 90 or so now, living in Santa Barbara. Still a social activist, liberal, going strong. She worked for the government in D.C. She can’t get out any more so she emails me. All the time.  Wrote me an email just the other week telling me that she had her evacuation bags packed just in case one of the out of control fires in California came to her neighborhood. She ended her email with the words “other than that, everything is normal!”   What a woman! She marched in Washington, and worked the Poor People’s campaign, and taught Sunday school, and cheated at this spring-loaded boxed basketball game that we used to play together. (She would kill me if she heard that – she always accused me of cheating – but who are you going to believe?) Margaret can handle her Bible and talk theology. She is another Matthais. She was just always THERE. Just present.

And the other day I was listening to an interview on my iPod of the author, teacher, lecturer and Quaker, Parker Palmer who has written one of the best books, meaningful to me, Let Your Life Speak. You really need to read it. It’s kind of a Matthias book for me. Parker Palmer was sharing about his life and the time he was struck by a deep depression, that twisted his mind, and gut – kind of like Judas, I suppose – feeling cut off and bowel sick – ashamed and despairing.

Palmer remembers that so many people came to help him, reached out to him, and he appreciated it but found it so hard to listen to their words, too many words, to hear again and again the same message ranging from “God loves you” to “Get over it” to “This too shall pass.” But he said that there was one person who asked permission to just sit and be present, massaging Parker’s feet. And as the weeks passed, this friend would keep coming to knead his feet and gently share; “Parker, I feel a loosening in the soles of your feet.”

And years later, Parker Palmer remembered that person and reflected upon this simple gift as the great gift, as a redemptive grace that slowly brought him back. And all he did was to be present. The friend was a Matthais figure who was present during the descent and the ascent of Palmer’s soul.

And so many of you are Matthais to me. Don’t EVER discount your being, your presence. It matters! No, you weren’t at the original baptism of Jesus and you were not at the ascension – but originality doesn’t make it unique. We make a mistake, I believe, to think that only THEY in the past have the definitive experience, and that ours is kind of watered down, not as good as theirs. You and I should claim, can claim, we better claim to be witnesses of the resurrection. We can claim to be followers of Jesus, that we too have been baptized. And this is the power of our faith – by remembering the past and giving thanks for it – we actually make present, make alive, are in continuity with Jesus. What happened so long ago is happening today. It’s the same. You and I are touched and claimed and called.

One doesn’t have to be Peter or Paul to make an impact or be recognized with gifts. I hear all the time, “John, I wish I could do more.” Well, maybe you can, I don’t know. But from what I see, oh, my goodness – week after week after week, you come, you give, you are present to one another, you are being yourself in the world day by day. You are incarnating you, your faith, your life.

I hope that I do not come off as patronizing when I say this, as a male, but I hear mothers and stay-at-home parents express the frustration of being home-bound, and I have to say – your being present is the greatest incarnational gift imaginable.

Older members – you can’t get out as much – and yet, you are present for your spouse, being grounded in your space and place – it is enough, it is enough. Sometimes we wonder what we will say to a grieving friend and so we just stay away. Yes, words can be helpful, but people remember not your words, but your presence.

On this Memorial Day, and on this Sunday a week before Pentecost it is good remember the disciples. It is good to gather them again in our imaginations, and to grasp at redemption and grace even as we sometimes dwell in the land of darkness and judge ourselves and others.

We need to gather ourselves too, to see ourselves among the saints, to see ourselves among the early disciples. For you are not forgotten and you are welcomed into the same upper room, at the same table. Peter, Philip, Matthias, Mary, Martha, Joanna, John, the unnamed women, even Judas is gathered (I trust) to celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh. They are assembling along with the angels and arch-angels and all the company of heaven, all the benighted creatures – that’s you and me – for whom Christ died – anticipating the day when sons and daughters would prophesy, and the young and the old would dream dreams, and the slaves would be freed and would prophesy too.

It is good to be. To be community. To welcome all – just as they are, the whole and the broken, the strong and the weak, the slave and the free, the famous and the unknown, the woman and the man, the gay and the straight, the poor and the rich, the pro-lifer and the pro-choicer, the NRA member and the gun control advocate, the depressed and the happy, the despairing and the dancing, every Tom, Dick and Harry, every Thelma, Louise and Margaret, every Judas who has betrayed and felt betrayed and especially those who are pulling the darkness around themselves like a blanket, with their guts tightening.

As we claim our own being, our own presence, the worth of our own presence, let us not forget the nameless ones on the streets, falling through the cracks. I think of the blessed and beloved children of God who are overlooked and dismissed and forgotten. And today I lift up the blamed and the cast out.

But in God’s eyes they are precious just because they ARE.

And, I believe this comes from that irreverent but very funny movie Caddyshack, what a way to close – where Bill Murray, the groundskeeper is lining up, in his mind, the putt on the 18th green of the Masters – if he sinks it, he wins. He keeps saying, “Be the ball. Be the ball.”

So mMy word to you today is “Be yourself,” just be present with yourself today. Be present with another. Be present at somebody’s baptism, at somebody’s resurrection, at somebody’s ascension.

Like Matthais… it will be enough.

God bless you . . . for being