Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Not So Irrelevant After All” (1Timothy 1:12-17)
September 15, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Over the years the annual draft for the National Football League has become increasingly popular as all thirty-two franchises shuck and jive, wheel and deal to land their desired draft picks, talented rookies who will bring new life to their team. Some of these draft picks do very well, others not so much. See if you recognize any of these names: David Carr, Terry Baker, Courtney Brown, Tom Cousineau. Each of them was the very first player selected in their respective NFL draft, but none of them lived up to their hype.
Now see if you recognize any of these names: Bart Starr, Deacon Jones, Terrell Davis, Tom Brady. Even the most casual NFL fan will recognize most of these players, all of whom were picked very late in the draft but nonetheless became NFL legends. Bart Starr was the 200th pick in 1956 and yet led the Green Bay Packers to three championships, as well as victory in the very first two Super Bowls. Deacon Jones was the 186th pick in 1961 and revolutionized the Defensive End position and coined the term “sack” for tackling a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. Terrell Davis was the 196th pick in 1995 and yet won two Super Bowls and an MVP award. Tom Brady was the 199th pick in 2000 and has led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl titles, the most for any player in NFL history. All these legends were picked very late in the NFL Draft.
Moreover, since 1976 every year there is a special title for the very last player chosen in the NFL Draft: Mr. Irrelevant. I am not making this up. This year the grand title of Mr. Irrelevant went to the 254th and final draft pick, a tight end from UCLA named Caleb Wilson, who plays for the Arizona Cardinals. The moment when Mr. Irrelevant is chosen marks the beginning of “Irrelevant Week” during which Mr. Irrelevant visits Disneyland, participates in a golf tournament, and appears on the NFL Network. Mr. Irrelevant is also awarded a “Lowsman Trophy” which mimics the Heisman Trophy but depicts a player fumbling the football. But does any player really want to be “honored” as Mr. Irrelevant?
Throughout scripture, again and again, God chooses someone the world would consider a Mr. or Ms. Irrelevant to do something very important. God chose a con artist named Jacob to be the father of what became the nation of Israel. God chose a stuttering orphan named Moses, who never felt like he really belonged anywhere, to lead Israel out of four centuries of bondage in Egypt. God chose a prostitute named Rahab who helped Israel overthrow the city of Jericho and was there when the walls came crashing down. God chose an introverted farmer named Gideon to deliver the Israelites from the oppressing Midianites.
This continued in the New Testament as God chose a humble teenage girl named Mary, who would endure unspeakable scandal and emotional suffering, to be mother of the Savior of the World. God chose a hermit named John the Baptist who lived in the desert and snacked on locusts and wild honey to be the one Jesus identified as one of the greatest people who ever lived. God chose a despised and lonely tax collector named Matthew to write an account of the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
God chose an insecure fisherman named Peter who was constantly putting his foot in his mouth and who completely dropped the ball in Jesus’ darkest hour, to be the Rock, the lead disciple. God chose a notorious prostitute named Mary Magdalen, who had been abused and objectified by many men, to be the very first person who saw the Risen Jesus after his resurrection on Easter morning. Again and again, God continued choosing those the world would consider Mr. or Ms. Irrelevant, those who would be given a “Lowsman Trophy”, as instruments of his grace.
Today’s epistle lesson is from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy. Paul had met Timothy at the city of Lystra, which is in present day Turkey, during his second missionary journey. Timothy joined Paul in his missionary work and became his main protégé. But Timothy struggled with self-confidence and his mixed background because his mother was a Jewish believer and his father was an unbelieving Greek pagan. However, yet again God had still chosen Timothy to serve as the first bishop of the church at Ephesus. Part of Paul’s encouragement to his protégé Timothy in this first letter was to share with him how he considered himself the very last person God would have ever chosen to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, how he would have been considered Mr. Irrelevant, as he wrote in today’s passage:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever (1 Timothy 1:12-17).
Apparently God really enjoys choosing Mr. or Ms. Irrelevant—which was good news for the Apostle Paul, good news for Timothy—and is good news for you. Some of you may consider yourself Mr. Irrelevant or Ms. Irrelevant, or have been treated by others as such. It is not an uncommon experience.
Time for two illustrations from rock songs… As they grow older, some people begin to feel increasingly irrelevant—feel marginalized, left out, left behind. Eddie Vedder of the band Pearl Jam sang about this very scenario in their beautiful song entitled, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”, sung from the perspective of an elderly woman who feels more and more irrelevant:
I seem to recognize your face, haunting, familiar
Yet I can’t seem to place it
Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name
Lifetimes are catching up with me
All these changes taking place
I wish I’d seen the place, but no one’s ever taken me
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…
It’s hard when you’re stuck upon the shelf
I changed by not changing at all
Small town predicts my fate
Perhaps that’s what no one wants to see…
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away
(On their 1993 album Vs.)
One of my favorite British rock bands is Coldplay. Their music always lifts me up, every time. I saw them in concert in Northern Virginia back in the fall of 2005 on their tour for their album X & Y. One of the songs they performed that amazing evening was their single entitled “The Hardest Part”, which also articulates exactly how it can feel to be Mr. or Ms. Irrelevant:
The hardest part was letting go, not taking part
You really broke my heart
And I tried to sing, but I couldn’t think of anything
And that was the hardest part…
Everything I know is wrong
Everything I do, it just comes undone
And everything is torn apart
Oh and it’s the hardest part
Maybe you could you not care any less about Pearl Jam or Coldplay, so here is another illustration…One of the most brilliant pastoral theologians of the twentieth century was Catholic priest and scholar Henri Nouwen, who wrote many books, spoke all over the world, and taught at several prestigious universities. Late in life he left all that to serve as a chaplain at a home in Toronto for disabled adults, those most people would consider completely irrelevant. He later wrote a gem of a book about this experience entitled, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (1989). Listen to how this change initially left him feeling irrelevant:
The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then. Since nobody could read my books, the books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction…These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments (27-29).
The gospel is good news for those who feel like Mr. or Ms. Irrelevant—whether it’s due to being the last person drafted, feeling old and “stuck on the shelf”, having a broken heart, seeing everything you thought you knew as wrong and everything you have done come undone, finding yourself in a situation in which all your accomplishments and accolades do not add up to as much as you thought they did—because that is exactly where the gospel of God’s grace enters the picture.
God has always been, is now, and will always be a God who loves to choose Mr. and Ms. Irrelevant to do something special. It was true for the Apostle Paul who before his conversion was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” but whose life was changed by the overflowing grace of God. It was true for Timothy who became a skillful and faithful bishop of the church at Ephesus. It is true for you because indeed “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” and as Paul wrote elsewhere:
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…so that no one might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
At the Last Supper Jesus assured his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). And the next day the One the world dubbed the ultimate Mr. Irrelevant died on the cross to atone for the sins of the world, including yours. Although infidels and cynics may dismiss Jesus’ Passion Week as Irrelevant Week, since the creation of the world it actually remains the most relevant week in the history of the world. Indeed “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
God created you because God wanted to, God redeemed you because God wanted to, and God chose you because God wanted to.
The “King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” loves you more than you will ever know, and has drafted you to receive and share his grace, which means you are not so irrelevant after all.