Hi. My name is Tom. You can call me Tom or Pastor Tom, or PT (as youth in previous churches have). I respond to them all. I am thrilled to be joining you here at Sylvania First as your new pastor. I am very grateful for Pastor Larry and all that he did to lead you to this time and place. I am humbled to be asked to follow him and to accompany you in this Christ life for the next season.
Before we begin, there are some things you should know. The first is that I love this church. I have loved it from the moment I first stepped across the threshold. I love the murals and the way children and adults are introduced to the God story just by walking around this place. I love the sanctuary and the way the light dances through the stained glass. I love the worship here, both contemporary and traditional services vibrate with a sense of aliveness. I love the outreach that you do at Henderson, in Haiti and Mexico, and right here in Sylvania. A lot can be told about a church by how wide their hearts are and how they offer themselves to serve their local and global neighbors. I have seen the extraordinary hospitality you offer around district events and know that welcoming people with love and compassion is part of your DNA. Most of all, however, I have been impressed by the people I have met here. There is a joy and a vibrancy in this church that speaks of a resurrection faith. I am not a reluctant pastor coming into your midst. I chose to come because I am eager to join you in this gospel life. You may wonder whether stepping out of a district office is difficult. It is not. I have learned and grown a lot through my service there, but the local church is where the action is and I am longing to join you in it.
The second thing you should know is that I am not a perfect pastor. You can read all the outward accomplishments in my introductory letter, but they only tell part of the story. You may not know, for instance, that I have been a slave of achievement, or that I have struggled over time with crippling self-doubt. You may not know how deeply I have been afraid of failure and how my seeming self-confidence simply masks it. You may not know that I did not believe myself to be lovable until Elizabeth proved me wrong, and that I still wasn’t confident in how unconditional God’s love was for me until just the last few years.
I am neither a perfect human being, nor a perfect pastor. At some point in our life and ministry together, I will disappoint you. I want to ask you today for the grace to receive me for who I am, just as I am getting to know you with a grace that wants to know you for who you are, that together we may become, by grace, the kind of people and the kind of church God made us to be. When you experience disappointment in me as your pastor, I’d like to ask you simply to talk with me so I can learn from you how to be a better pastor. That doesn’t mean I will always do what you want, but I promise you today that I will always listen.
Why do I tell you these things? Because the extraordinary good news of Jesus Christ is that he accepts us for who we are, warts, faults, foibles, fears, doubts, sins and all.
In our scripture today, Jesus has just healed a paralyzed man when he leaves that house for some fresh air by the sea. The crowd that had been crushing in at the house followed right along after him. Now Capernaum was right on a border line, so Jesus came to a customs officer named Levi sitting at a toll booth. Tax collectors were hated in those days, even more than in our own. They were considered traitors because they collected money for the Roman Imperial government. I wonder what Jesus saw when he looked at Levi. Did he see a traitor? Did he see all the tricks he had played to tax the merchants who passed his way? Did he notice his pain and isolation sitting there at the toll booth, a pool of spit at his feet from the passers-by? Whatever it was about Levi, Jesus spoke into his life.
“Follow me,” Jesus said. Follow me because I see you. I notice you. I know you. Follow me because I accept you for who you are. Acceptance is a very powerful thing, isn’t it. To be noticed and not rejected. To be known and not shunned. To be seen for who you are and to be called forth nonetheless. Jesus did not judge Levi for who he was, he accepted him, welcomed him, and invited him to become one of his apprentices.
When we were in South Africa few years ago, we learned a few traditional phrases in some of their 11 languages. The Zulu greet one another by saying, “Sawubona,” which means, “I see you.” To be seen is to be accepted, to be known, to be loved. The traditional response to “Sawubona” is “Ngikhona,” meaning, “I am here.” The call and response translated into English is literally, “I see you–I am here.” Sawubona–I see you! Ngikhona– I am here!
To be seen is to be called into being, to be invited out of the shadows, to step into the fullness of life. Now think, just for a moment, about how important that greeting was during the Apartheid era, when the Zulu along with the other 8 nations of black South Africans were unseen, overlooked, passed by, treated with suspicion, malice and hate. To say to one another, “Sawubona” was an act of defiance. It was to say “I see you.” To which the other replied, “I am here.” I AM here. My life matters, no matter what anyone else says. To be seen was to be accepted, and made acceptable all in the same moment.
In the attached picture, you’ll see three of our friends in South Africa who have shown us how to live in a fully inclusive community. Scotch, Adri-Marie, and Anathi are part of the Oasis community. Anathi came out of a life of desperate poverty in one of the informal settlements. We used to call them shanty towns. Scotch is a lawyer who gave up position and power to serve the poor. Adri-Marie is a single Afrikaaner woman who left everything she knew to break down the walls that divide people. Notice their eyes. They sparkle with joy and delight. They see as they are seen. They are who they are. And one of them, Scotch, is looking away from the camera, always looking to include another. Their life is their ministry, seeing people for who they are and calling them to life with Christ.
In the wake of Charleston, we could learn from them how to do a whole lot less political posturing and a whole lot more relationship building, learning to see one another for who we are, to accept one another as God’s beloved, calling one another into the fullness of life in Christ. That is what Jesus did for Levi, the passed by, the spat upon, the reviled. Jesus noticed him hiding in his toll both; he stopped and looked at him; he said, “Sawubona, I see you,” I see you not only for who you are hiding in the toll both, but for who you can become when you come out. Hearing Jesus’ voice of full acceptance, Levi came out and replied, “Ngikhona, I am here.”
It is the same for us, for you, and for me. When Jesus stops by your work, your home, your school, your rec time however you spend it, what do you imagine he would say? Some might imagine him judging them. Others might imagine him being angry. Still others might imagine him turning away, or shaking his head, looking with revulsion, disgust or pity. Some others of you will be looking for the scorecard of sins that you are just sure he carries with him behind his back. Mm-hmm. I saw that. Check. How do you see Jesus looking at you?
Instead of all those other scenarios, can you imagine him looking at you with an expression of pure love, of joy and delight? Can you imagine him saying to you, “I see you?” And being seen, through and through, can you imagine that he loves you for who you are, intensely, thoroughly, completely?
How will you respond? Will you turn away? Will you curse him and try to send him away? Will you spit in his face or at his feet as others have done to you? Or will you simply respond, “I am here,” and trust that because you are seen by Jesus, your life matters in ways you never imagined?
When Jesus noticed Levi and called him, he said, “Follow me.” Come, be my apprentice, learn from me my ways of living. Come with me and find a life better than you’ve ever imagined before. And the scriptures say that Levi got up. He got up from his toll booth and began to follow Jesus. The language is deceptive in English. It sounds like simply standing up, but the word in the Greek is the same that was used of Jesus on the third day. He was raised. He got up. When called upon by Jesus, Levi was resurrected, never to be the same. Jesus said, “I see you.” And Levi replied, “I am here.”
Friends, I have struggled most of my life to believe that I was acceptable to Jesus just as I am, that I could be loved by Jesus for who I am, with all my abundant faults and failings. I have spent most of my life trying to prove myself to Jesus so that I could somehow become acceptable. Yet at the end of all my tireless striving, in the midst of a season of failure when I was most vulnerable and fearful, Jesus met me and reminded me, “You did not choose me, I chose you.” Jesus looked at me squarely, his eyes piercing the deepest recesses of my heart. He did not look with contempt or derision, shame or revulsion. He looked at me with love and said, “Sawubona, I see you.” And I replied, “Ngikhona, I am here.”
This is the starting point of faith, to be accepted, to be loved through and through for who we are. It is only when we begin to trust that simple fact that we can begin to become as God made us, our truest selves, our whole lives consecrated and made new.
The kingdom of God is a grand “come as you are” party in which nothing is ever the same for those who dare to show up. What I’ve discovered is that Jesus does not reject any part of me, but takes it, blesses it, breaks it and gives it back again, changed, transformed, consecrated for God’s purposes. I’ve also discovered that no one can become who God made them to be unless we know that who we are is not only acceptable, but also beloved. And because we are beloved, God wants so much more for us than what is.
This is one of my core convictions about what it means to follow Jesus. He invites us to come as we are in order to become as he made us. Nothing and no one is irredeemable. So today, on this first Sunday walking with you in this journey of faith and life, I want you to see me for who I am, not for who you think I am or wish I were. I want you to see me and accept me for all that I bring to you because when you see me, then I am truly and fully here. I can become my best self with God among you.
Likewise, as I am coming to know you, I want you to know that I will accept and love you for who you are and pray with you that you may become your best selves, living life to the full as Jesus promised. On this first Sunday, I simply say to you, “Sawubona,” I see you. And pray that you will claim with courage the response of the beloved, “Ngikhona,” I am here.
Sawubona, I see you!
Ngikhona, I am here!