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"The Apostles Get Their 12th Man" - Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter - May 16, 2021

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

I was having drinks with a friend last week when she said to me, “I just kind of do my own ‘Church' thing. I mean, what’s the point of being part of a Church if I can encounter God anywhere?”

It’s a good question. And I thought about it for a minute, and then answered with a college football analogy. There’s a first time for everything.

I attended college at Baylor in the late 90s - this is back when Baylor couldn’t have won a football game against the University of Phoenix online, so I don’t have any real or appreciable sense of “School Rivalry” about college teams.

To be honest, I only went to A football game or two every year, and usually one of those games would be the Tech game and one would be the A&M game, because I had close friends at both schools.

Since Baylor wasn’t exactly of a bastion of school spirit when I was there, I mostly experienced school spirit second hand based on hanging out with friends at other universities.

Now, I know that other schools have spirit too, but I’m just saying: my freshman year of college there was literally a maroon dye shortage in the United States of America because the Aggies decided to start a new tradition of having a “Maroon Out” game.

Texas A&M is often accused of being “cult like” because they have a whole slew of traditions and rituals.

My favorite of these rituals is the 12th man.

The 12th man thing goes like this. There was a bowl game in 1922. The Aggies were playing ostensibly the best team in the country and they were getting rocked on the field. Injured players being dragged off the field left and right. The coach began to worry that the team was going to have to forfeit because the bench was empty. Desperate, the coach, looked up into the stands and saw Gill. Gill was one of the guys who generally played basketball, but had practiced with the football team to stay in shape. The Coach calls for him, and says “Gill. Come down here. Put on this jersey and STAND THERE just in case.” So Gill put on the uniform and stood there for the rest of the game. The only player on the bench. The “12th man”. Just standing there at the ready to fill in wherever needed.

And if you’ve been to an A&M game, you know. Since that day just shy of 100 years ago, every A&M student who is physically able stands for the entire game. Often wearing the number 12 - They’re STILL just STANDING THERE at the ready, just in case they are needed.

Again, I went to Baylor, and blew off most of the spirt-stuff in favor of doing my own thing - studying in my favorite spot in the library, taking walks on the beautiful campus, playing disc golf in the park. So, if you ask me, how was your college experience I’ll say “Oh, it was okay. Good. Whatever."

Because really, just like you can encounter God anywhere, you can get an education anywhere.

But people who went to college and participated in the silly rituals and traditions and built community and solidarity with other students - if you ask them about their college experience, they usually don’t answer “it was okay.”

In fact, if you ask an Aggie, they probably have some elaborate ritual and yell for telling you how - whoop - very very great it was.

Because there’s something about the power of community.

And we can see the power of community in our readings today, particularly in the vignette we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles.

You likely know the backstory for the first chapter of Acts. It goes like this: Jesus was crucified. Three days later, Jesus was resurrected. The resurrected Jesus appeared to his remaining followers. In one of these post-resurrection appearances, Jesus promises his followers that in a few days they are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and then Jesus commissions them to “be witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then he “[disappears] from their sight.”

Can you imagine what it’s like to be any of the 11 apostles in this scenario? Plot twist. That’s a whole lot of turns of events to process in a short amount of time. And in this absolutely unprecedented scenario, the rest of Jesus' followers are looking at you, apostle, to know what to do next.

It’s time to re-group.

So they gather together to pray, and decide before this Spirit-baptism thing happens, they probably need to replace Judas. They probably need to get their 12th man.

And even though the events of the past months have been unbelievable and incredibly turbulent for the followers of Jesus, there’s 120 of them just standing there at the ready saying “put me in, coach."

The group decides they need somebody who has seen it all - the baptism, the teachings, the healings, the death, the resurrection, the ascension. Someone who has consistently been there. Someone who consistently accompanied Jesus.

Someone who can say “Yes, I know that has been a wild ride and will be a wild ride, BUT IT’S WORTH IT.”

And they come up with two guys, and roll the dice.

I know that it seems weird that they’d leave the 12th apostle spot to a game of chance, but in my sanctified imagination, I like to think that there were so many good candidates and that Justus and Matthias were so equally matched that they just had to cast lots.

Matthias is added to the apostles, and the rest of the 120 just go on their own way and do their own thing.

No. No they don’t. They will all be together again in our reading for next week when the day of Pentecost comes.

And y’all, just wait to see what happens for this rag-tag group at Pentecost. You mix together a community of people who share in praying together, share traditions and rituals, and then you add the Holy Spirit into the mix?

You’re going to have to tune in to find out, but I’ll give you this spoiler:

The spirit moves in community.

And we’re likely sitting here today - 2000 years later - in part because this group of folks was standing around willing to step in as needed to carry the message of the resurrected Jesus forward into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

The spirit moves in community.

Do not hear me wrong: You absolutely can encounter God anywhere. If you are prevented for any reason from being in community with others, I firmly believe that God will meet you where you are.

I firmly believe that God can reach through the walls of solitary confinement and provide company to the imprisoned.

God can penetrate through the wilderness of dementia and be very near and present to those otherwise lost in decline.

I do not discount God’s power to meet people where they are at.

But there is something about what happens when that power works in a community.

There’s something exciting about the kingdom-building work that can be done by a community with shared rituals and shared traditions that gathers around a common purpose.

The Holy Spirit does her best work in and through the Church community.

Now, I do realize that this sermon probably needs a follow up sermon Titled “Dealing with People is Messy but Worth It,”

Because, it’s true - being in community means dealing with other people and dealing with other people is messy.

But a good community is worth it.

The Holy Spirit works in a healthy faith community.

I know because I have seen the Spirit at work in this parish.

I’ve seen the Spirit at work in the tears of joy and hugs of comfort at the Wednesday night healing services.

I saw the Spirit at work in the small group that dropped their regularly-scheduled curriculum to accompany each other through grief after the death of one of their friends.

I saw the spirit at work at the Cinco de Mayo party, in the way that people pitched in to look after other people’s children, so that weary parents could have a chance to eat a meal in peace and mingle with other adults.

AND I’ve seen the spirit at work in our Beloved Community group - a group that started as a Zoom Sunday school class and has now become part of a city-wide movement. They heard about a need for children’s books in our Amarillo community and joined with StoryBridge to help bring the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to Amarillo so that any kid under 5 can have access to a free book every month. That's how the spirit works in community.

The hugs. The tears. The accompanying through grief. The help with kids. An idea taking flight and becoming a movement that changes the city.

We are a parish absolutely blessed with an abundance of “12th men." There is always someone at the ready to step in at a moment's notice.

So I would say to my friend, if she is watching today.

Yes. You can see God over your morning coffee or on a hike.

But you can see God’s kingdom being built “on earth as it is in heaven” in community.

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