The Church: A Collection Of Misfits and Outcasts

Up until a few years ago, only the geekiest comic book lovers like myself had heard of the "Guardians of the Galaxy." I sat through the original and thought, “This is the geekiest film America has ever loved.” It went on to be the number #1 grossing movie in 2014. Even those of you who have never read a comic book are somewhat familiar with Batman, Superman, the Avengers, and Captain America. But the Guardians, well they were the ignored heroes of the comic world with only a cult, geek following…until the movie. Friday, their sequel released.

The movie tells the story of this rag tag group of beings who must band together in order to save the universe. None of them had grandiose aspirations to be saviors. As the video showed, they were mostly outlaws. The galaxy had written them off as lost, as a burden, as common criminals. But these five lost and broken misfits found each other, and they found a mission larger than themselves that required them to come together to accomplish something bigger than their selfish endeavors.

You look at the Avengers, and Iron Man, and Captain America, and they are more or less clean cut, have it all together, know what they are about. That doesn't describe many of us, does it? We may put on a good front for each other, but the reality is that we struggle, we fail, sometimes we barely hold it together.

And that's okay. I want to get this out there right now, and keep coming back to it throughout this message. If you feel like a failure, if you feel like life is always a struggle, if you feel like you have been written off by society, by family, by whatever, it's okay. Because that is not the end of your story. God has more in store for you. You have a purpose—even if you feel like a misfit.

Because the message of the gospel centers around this joyous premise—God accepts and uses outcasts. Listen to what Paul says about you, and me, and the person sitting next to you:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (ESV)
The early church was not made up of super heroes. According to Paul, they weren't the best and the brightest. They weren't Captain Americas, Iron Man, or Wonder Woman. And that's exactly how God wanted it. If you were a somebody you became part of the Roman worship cults. You paid your membership dues, you received your status and your special perks. But most of the people couldn't afford that. Couldn't be a part of that. And that's helped the church to explode in the first century. It was a place for the outcasts of society. For the not good enoughs. For people who were willing to surrender to Jesus together, become a family despite not sharing blood, and carry each other along in this life when the need arose.  

If I was going to assemble a team whose purpose it was to change the world, I would not have chosen the disciples. The disciples were misfits too. Their choosing by Jesus goes against every leadership book you can find. They say things like, "Surround yourself with solid, capable leaders." But Jesus did the opposite. He surrounded himself with misfits, malcontents and knuckleheads. When you read the gospels, the disciples come off more as the three stooges than a story of the foundational leaders of a worldwide movement. So when Paul says "God chose the foolish and the weak, and the lowly, and the things that are not" we should perk up and have hope. "That’s me!"

I have a friend who took his church group to a big summer conference.

As a church, they teamed up with another local church and one of the kids from their youth group desperately needed a win in life. He had been going through some major issues, and my friend’s guess was that outside of the youth group kids he didn’t have a lot of friends. It would very safe to assume that in most settings he was a social outcast.

Just as an aside – that is who we are to be. A place that loves outcasts. I remember around six years ago, we had some of the very “popular” kids coming to our Wednesday kids program. We also had a “totally unpopular” kid from a very poor family coming. The “popular” kids started picking on the “unpopular” kid. I pulled the leader of the bullies aside and told him that the church needs to be a place where everyone feels welcome and loved. If there is one place in the world where someone should feel accepted, this is it. The “popular” kid left that night and never came back. And that’s okay. The church needs to be a place for the outcasts and the unpopular. And if the “popular” people aren’t okay with mingling with the less fortunate, then church should make them feel very uncomfortable.

On Tuesday night the conference hosted a talent show. There were some incredible acts. Between Taylor Swift-esque talent, humor, and poems, the talent of those kids was incredible. Then there was the boy. He signed up to be a part of the talent show and as My friend says, “If I’m honest, I thought, "Dude…don’t do that to yourself. All the eyes are on you, you shouldn’t set yourself up for failure."

This boy’s talent was the Rubik’s cube. He was a master; no one questioned that. The fact that he could complete the thing was impressive enough, but he could do it with ease. For the talent show, he wanted to do it blind folded.

My friend asked him, "How will you know how the colors line up?"

He said, “I just memorize the pattern."

My friend didn’t see how he could succeed.

He was the second act. The host messed up the Rubik’s cube, and the boy sat off stage studying it, tapping it, and staring at it.

It was his turn. He put the bag over his head, and then put his hands behind his back.

"No way!" people shouted.

It would have easily been the most impressive act of the night.

The audience watched in silence as his hands tapped and twisted.  The video camera zoomed in on his hands as he worked on it.

Time counted down, and he failed. The host even gave him extra time, yet he still failed. The group tried to comfort him with their applause, but you could see the defeat in his body language.

After the talent contest was over, My friend and him walked back to the dorm together. My friend asked him, "How are you doing?"

He said, "Not good. I feel like that was my one chance and I failed."

It was one of those moments in a kid’s life that could have been a huge confidence boost to a kid who needed it. Yet he failed.

But that’s not how the story ends. Just like the Guardians didn’t fail because of their mistakes, nor does our story end with our sins.

Now fast forward to the last night of the conference. The director was on stage at the beginning of the night and said, “I feel like we need to set something right tonight. I feel like we were close to seeing something amazing and just missed it. Is the Rubik’s cube kid here?”

He was.

“Do you have the Rubik’s cube with you?”

He did.

“Of course you do. Come on up here. We want to give you a second chance.”

The director interviewed the boy and asked him what he needed to make it happen. The boy said, "Compete silence." The director and the audience obliged. But it got really awkward. The director asked the boy if he was close; he wasn’t. It got even more awkward. So the director transitioned to offering, and the boy just sat there studying the Rubik’s cube. After offering, the director asked the boy if he needed more time. He did, so the boy went next to the drums, center stage and sat cross-legged. He tapped; he studied; he tried to memorize the Rubik’s cube. Meanwhile the show must go on, and the director interviewed the main speaker for the night while the boy sat cross-legged next to the drums behind them. Tapping. Studying.

The moment of truth arrived. The boy stood, turned around, put the blind fold over his head, and placed his hands behind his back. The video camera zoomed in on his hands holding the Rubik’s cube. On the big screen for everyone to see.

You could have heard a pin drop as they watched. 900 people completely silent. Everyone pulling for this kid. And he nailed it! In forty seconds, the boy completed the Rubik’s cube blind folded and behind his back. The audience erupted. Standing ovation. Clapping. Cheering. Whistling. High fives. His success was celebrated. He got high fives on his way back to his seat. He was given a second chance, and was redeemed.

That’s what the church is supposed to be as we work with Christ to redeem those who desperately need second chances in life. We help others out when they are down. When the world rejects you – when you feel like a misfit, if you shut out the world and listen to the Spirit in you, you will hear it say, "You are mine. I choose you. I believe in you." That's love. That's acceptance. No matter what we've done; no matter how the rest of the world regards us; we are still God's treasured children.

Though we may feel like we are the least and though the world treats us like the last, we are called to join God's mission of saving the world. We often feel like that kid walking back to the dorm – defeated and a failure. But when you join his team – the church – we carry each other through life’s hard times.

God entrusts us with the task of finishing the mission that Jesus started. God believes in us! God believes in you! God accepts and empowers you! But he doesn’t expect you to do it alone.

Paul wrote:
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. Ephesians 1:4 (ESV)
Take a second and really let that sink in. In a world of celebrities, impossible beauty standards, and constant comparison, where we are always feeling like the last kid picked for the team, God looks right at us and says—"You. I want you on my team. We can win if you play with my team."

Since all that is true—that God accepts and empowers us, then doesn't it follow that the church should be a place of acceptance and empowering of those same outcasts? Just as God says, "I love and accept you," that is what the church is supposed to be like. A place where people come and find other misfits saying, "You are welcome here. You are loved. You’re part of the team." When you fall, we will help you up. Because guess what—the church is full of misfits, outcasts, and unloved people that the world has turned their backs on.

Because of that, Church is always going to be messy. And doing church right is hard. As morals and families break down in society around us, the dysfunction in people’s lives grows worse. When we enter the church, we bring that with us. Ministering to people will be hard, messy, frustrating. So be constantly kind and gracious to each other. Always help one another out rather than tear people down. We will have to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, endure hardship, insult and betrayal, and, most importantly, continue to make church about Christ and others, not about ourselves.

And so we need to realize that people are not sinners to be converted, projects to be preached at, or demographics to be reprogrammed. We should never generalize, categorize, dismiss, or underestimate people who walk through our doors. Every person is a story, rich with history, experiences, creative potential, strengths and weaknesses, clarity and blindness. That was the mindset that the early church embraced; that changed so many lives.

The reason that the early church was so powerful was because they understood their role as God’s Emergency Room, not as some country club. The church was and is God’s refuge for messed up, sin-burdened people who are in the process of transformation. It is more than a cliché that a church is a hospital for sinners; it needs to be our reality. Jesus invades the lives of messed up folks and begins to heal and redeem them.

Since everyone who walks through those doors is in that process, that means that we bring with us the baggage of the past. The church becomes a baggage collection center. If you feel that you have it all together, then praise the Lord. Now get back in there and help those that don't. Now is not the time to sit aloof looking down on anyone. Doctors and nurses who aren't ill in the emergency room are there to help. We don't need to be like the Pharisee who looks around and prays, "God I thank you that I'm not like the tax collector. That I'm not some drunk, some addict, some messed up person." If you want to boast about your place in life, boast in what the Lord has done in you. And work to make that a reality in someone else's life. See yourself in their situation and show them a light out of the darkness instead of a cold shoulder. Start helping others out.

When a parent takes a crying child who has just broken something valuable into their arms with a loving embrace, they aren't saying that their child’s actions are justified. Their love isn’t condoning the behavior. They are saying that they love the child, despite their mistakes. Yes, there are consequences—there always are. But there is also love, and grace, and restoration.

Let me stop here and offer an apology. An apology to all who have suffered disdain, exclusion, ostracism, hurt, cruelty, a cold shoulder, or unfair judgment at the hands of the church. To those who have not felt that love and grace from the church. To those who resent the church and what it seems to stand for in America in 2017, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that the church has not been the church. Has not been the beautiful bride of Christ who shows love, grace, correction, instruction, redemption and restoration. Please forgive us. Please don't give up on the church or us or God. And for those here who are part of the church with me, let’s work to make it what it was intended to be.

Don't give up because just as our personal sins and failures are not the end of our story, the church's story does not end with failure and hypocrisy. It ends with a wedding. Revelation pictures the church as a bride who is made beautiful, wearing white. Then the church partakes in a giant wedding feast where all the faithful share in the greatest party you can imagine. It's the victory party for the greatest underdog story of all time. A group of misfits, losers, outcasts, and not good enoughs are the winners. But before that happens, the mission of the church has not changed. We are still here to save the world. To add more players to our rag tag group of believers. To change the world. To aid in the saving effort to restore people to God.

In the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, there is a character named "Groot." Basically, he's a tree. He seems pretty dumb as all he ever says is, "I am Groot.” Except for one time at the end. But don't underestimate him, because he might teach us a valuable lesson about what it means to be part of God's church:

We are Groot. As the ship is going down, Groot wraps all the Guardians in his branches in order to save them. And when the raccoon asks why, he simply replies, "We are Groot." I think it was his way of saying, "We are a team. You are worth sacrificing for."

It reminds me of the verse in Galatians:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.  For each will have to bear his own load. Galatians 6:1-5 (ESV)
As a church, this is something we would love to plan or program, and we could probably do that. But I have felt for a while that programming is done in a church to make people who don’t live out the gospel feel comfortable about not living it out. Instead, we just have to live this bearing each other’s burdens out when burdens are revealed. And we can do this when we recognize that we are one – that we are groot.

And as I think about the church, we are groot in a way. Not always pretty to look at. Not always the brightest bulb. That’s the norm with outcasts. Not always what the world would consider desirable. We are a lot like the Guardians who saved the galaxy. We need to help each other when we are down to make a difference. But when we act like the church—when we put aside our holier than thou attitudes, pettiness, pride, and whatever else puffs us up and tears others down, something amazing happens—we have the power and strength to save this world. The Guardians had a mission to save the galaxy, and they came together as a bunch of misfits needing to help each other out to accomplish it. Through their weaknesses, failures, even through their dislike of one another. The mission was more important than their personal endeavors. And our mission is to be God's kingdom here on earth--all of us, together, a bunch of misfits and outcasts that God has brought together, accepted, redeemed and restored.

So If you are feeling like one of the not good enoughs—not good enough for your family, your friends, or the church,  don’t leave without hearing this—God loves you and wants on his team. There is no need to do silly things to fit in because God has already chosen you and has a spot for you on his team. And for those of us who call ourselves members of the church, who have already experienced this grace of being chosen and accepted, may we never forget the depths from which we came. May it change how we view one another and this world. May we lift each other up in our times of crisis. And may we never forget that God's church is a place where people can find healing, acceptance, and love.  Let that be us.