When I drive home after church on Sundays, I listen to a public radio show called “Freaknonomics.” Each week, the show explores the economics of all kinds of subjects that traditional economists ignore—like Girl Scout cookie sales, drug dealing, the art market, and traffic circles. It’s kind of a combination of economics and pop culture, with some sociology and science and other stuff thrown in.
In one episode, the hosts talked about something called “disruptive innovation.” This term was coined by Harvard professor and economist Clayton Christensen in a book he wrote in 1997. You might have heard this term before. It’s thrown around a lot, especially when people get all excited about some new technology, like the latest iPhone.
But, according to the Christensen Institute, “disruptive innovations are not breakthrough technologies that make good products better.” Rather, the Institute explains, they’re innovations that create something new that is simple to use for uncomplicated applications. Because of their simplicity, they’re more accessible and affordable for larger numbers of people.
Think of the Model T. Cars had been around for a while before the Model T, but only the rich owned them. They were too expensive and complicated for the average person to own. Then Henry Ford figured out how to build a new kind of car that was easy to drive with minimal training and which the average American could afford. In 1908 (the first year of the Model T’s production), Ford sold more than 10,000 of them. Just six years later, Ford produced more than 300,000 of them—more than the other 299 car manufacturers in the U.S. combined.
Disruptive innovators focus on serving people who have been shut out of traditional markets and systems. Their “customers” are marginalized in some way—because of things like low income, lack of education, outsider status, or lack of infrastrucure. Disruptive innovators address the needs of those who are ignored or forgotten, offering them alternatives that afford them a better life. But, as the disruptive innovations gain traction, they spread upwards. The status quo teeters. It either adapts or falls but, whatever happens, the world changes for everyone.
Clayton Christensen may have coined the term, and Henry Ford may be one of our best-known examples but, as I read our passage for today, it dawned on me that history’s most influential disruptive innovator was Jesus. He spoke first to those who lived on the margins—the poor, the sick, the outsiders. He offered them a way to a better life—a way that was, in some ways, costly and demanding, but was accessible to all. His message threatened the existing powers and systems but, eventually, as the inferiority of the status quo was exposed, the good news of Jesus spread throughout society and the world. In this season of Epiphany, we see Jesus revealed as the Divine Disrupter.
He was a disrupter from the start. His impending birth was announced first to a teenaged virgin and her husband-to-be—ordinary people with nothing to mark them as worthy of attention. The event of his birth was announced, not to rulers in palaces, but to shepherds in the fields. They heard from the angel that a new thing had happened—a thing that was meant for people like them: poor, uneducated, outside the circles of the powerful or even the respectable. A sign of his coming was given to the ultimate outsiders: magician-astrologers from a foreign, Gentile country. There could hardly have been a more “underserved market” than the people who first learned about Jesus’ birth.
The news of this new thing may have come to the ruling class second-hand, but it was enough to cause fear. Herod was so disturbed by the news of Jesus’ birth that he hatched a plan to execute all the little ones who were potential threats to his position, and then carried it out.
Later, John’s proclamation of this disruptive new thing that had happened in Jesus was so disturbing to those in power that John was arrested. Matthew tells us nothing about what Jesus had been doing between the time of his baptism and John’s arrest, other than his temptation in the wilderness. But, in Matthew, John’s imprisonment seems to be the impetus for Jesus to begin his public ministry. Jesus moves from his hometown of Nazareth to Capernaum—a Galilean town with Gentile connections. He began to preach as John had: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Matthew doesn’t tell us how much time passed before Jesus took his walk along the Sea of Galilee, where he encountered first Peter and Andrew, and later James and John. Usually, we hear this part of the story with a sense of awe and amazement. Here are these men who appear to hear the voice of a stranger who is so charismatic and compelling that, at a word from him, they drop everything—family, livelihood, security—and follow him. It’s a beautiful and inspiring interpretation.
But there is another possibility. It’s possible that Jesus was not unknown to them. It’s possible that they had heard him speak the words that called people out of darkness and into the light. It’s possible that they had heard him offer a way out of the shadow of death—way that was open to all people, regardless of social or religious status. It’s possible that they had heard his call to repentance—not a call simply to sorrow for past misdeeds but a call to a new way of living.
It’s possible that those Galilean fishermen had had it with life as they knew it. They may have owned their own boats and been successful enough to pay some employees. But they were not free. They were not independent. Fishermen worked under contract to the Roman government or to others who controlled access to fishing areas. If they had to borrow money to buy the necessary supplies, the interest rates were exorbitant. Taxes were heavy—on the catch, and also on their boats.
And, perhaps in the back of their minds was the knowledge of how their catch would be used: the biggest and best fish would feed the wealthy, while the smaller, less desirable fish were what lower-class people like them would eat—people like them. The fishing industry was a financial pillar of the oppressive Roman occupiers and of a social system that rigidly separated the rich from the poor.
And so, it’s possible that it was not Jesus’ charisma alone that prompted the fishermen to leave their nets and boats behind. It was the compelling news that he proclaimed. Jesus had a message for those who were ready for something new—a new way of life built on a foundation of faithfulness to God, not the existing political or social systems. It’s possible that they were ready to embrace this new way of life, built not around military, economic, and social power but one built on the good news of the kingdom of God.
As they accompanied Jesus throughout Galilee, they heard him teach in the synagogues. They witnessed the Divine Disrupter as he tore down every barrier that keeps the insiders in and the outsiders out. Matthew tells us he cured every disease and every sickness—sicknesses of the body, soul, and mind. He reached out to the Jews in their synagogues and the Gentiles from all over. The innovation Jesus introduced was a power and wholeness that could be enjoyed by all and which came, not from military, political, economic, or social superiority, but from faithfulness to God. This is as true today as it was two thousand years ago.
Imagine how threatening this would have been to the existing power structures. Think of how threatening it is to those in power today. Here comes this man: an upstart, a nobody, who is stirring up the “little people” they had ignored, confident that they were safe at the top of whatever ladder they occupied. But what Jesus is offering is new—or at least, it sounds new, having been disregarded for so long. He offers dignity and wholeness and life, not just to some but to all. It’s as available to the neediest, sickest, most marginalized person as it is to kings and priests and generals. Repentance opens the door to a new life, and the great “unwashed crowds” are flooding through it.
Like other disruptive innovations, Jesus’ message began to spread upwards from the have-nots to the haves. We read about the Pharisee leader Nicodemus, the Roman centurion who believed that Jesus could heal his servant, and the rich man who asked to bury Jesus’ body. His message didn’t remain with the poor, the sick, and the outsiders. It began to be accepted by the wealthy, the healthy, and the in-crowd. It spread like a drop of food coloring spreads throughout a glass of water until the entire contents are changed.
Of course, we know that total change hasn’t happened yet. Ours is a now-and-not-yet faith. We rejoice in how the kingdom is known now, and we anticipate the day when all will be transformed. God began the process of disruptive innovation when God took the unheard-of step of being born in the human body of Jesus, and that process will be complete when Jesus comes again. But, in the meantime, we can allow Jesus to disrupt our lives and, as we embrace that disruption, we can continue the process of disrupting the world.
Disruption in our personal lives begins with repentance. We can examine our hearts for the wrongs we have committed and the good we have omitted. We can offer God our regret and ask for forgiveness. But the repentance that disrupts our lives is bigger than that. It’s a determination to live differently—to live according to God’s word rather than the word of the world around us.
The first disruption we may need is in the way we see ourselves. How often we see ourselves only in terms of what is wrong with us, or what we don’t have, or how we have failed. We are too old, or too fat, or too out of shape, or too disabled. We didn’t rise to the top of our company or class, or we don’t make as much as our siblings. There was a failed marriage or an estranged relationship or a child who took a wrong path. Purveyors of the latest gadgets and fashions and trends try hard to convince us that we are unacceptable if we don’t meet their criteria for success. Television and social media make idols of the glamorous and the outrageous, and suggest that the rest of us deserve only to be ignored (unless, of course, we purchase the products they’re peddling).
But, when we allow the Divine Disrupter into our lives, we are reborn and remade. We see ourselves differently—as God’s beloved, heirs with Christ, members of Christ’s body. Instead of feeling like we are just cogs in a giant machine or small, indistinguishable fish in a very large pond, we gain confidence from knowing that Jesus sees each of us for who we are and loves who we are. Jesus is not blind to anything about us, including our faults. But, he sees everything that makes us unique and beautiful, and he cherishes us.
You may feel that such a disruption can’t happen—or doesn’t need to happen—for you. Like the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, you’ve done pretty well for yourself, and the status quo has generally worked for you. You’ve believed in Jesus since you were a child, and you can’t imagine what new thing he might have in mind for you. But I challenge you to think carefully about that assumption. If I were a betting woman, I would bet that there are pockets in your life that could do with some disrupting. I hear people say this all the time: “This is how I’ve always been.” Sometimes it’s said defiantly, or even proudly, but regardless of how it’s spoken, I’m convinced that there’s an undercurrent of regret and a desire to be different running beneath those words. Every person who is in Christ is a new creation. The Divine Disrupter came to make us new.
When we allow Jesus to disrupt our lives and our routine ways of thinking, it leads us to another kind of disruption. This one redirects our focus toward the Divine Disrupter’s desires for the world. Think of how our relationships with those around us would change if we all lived according his values. The world would be transformed if our priorities were that all had enough to eat and all had clean water to drink, that strangers were not just tolerated but welcomed, regardless of nationality, language, religion, or status, that those who required the protection of clothing or housing would have it, that the sick and disabled were cared for with dignity and diligence, and that those in prison were not forgotten while behind bars and were assisted and encouraged upon their release. What would happen if we repented of our own self-centeredness and made these values the bedrock of our lives. How would our connections with people very different from ourselves become more accepting and loving?
Like other disruptive innovations, what begins with us and people like us spreads upwards to the people who have official power and influence. How would our existing political and economic systems be disrupted if we were to evaluate companies and our elected officials or candidates and their plans by God’s desires, expressed in Isaiah: that their policies would loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? That they would ensure that our bread is shared with the hungry, the homeless poor brought into the “houses” of our community and our nation, and that those who are exposed and vulnerable would be protected? What if we were to reject any proposal that gives us cover for hiding ourselves from our human brothers and sisters and their needs?
What if we were to demand, as God does, that the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil be removed, our food be offered to the hungry, and the needs of the afflicted satisfied? And then, what if we were to communicate our support or our disapproval with our calls and letters, our credit cards and our checkbooks, and our votes? The very fact that we are committed to living in this way would disrupt the prevailing notion that everyone’s in it for themselves. And disrupting that notion would disrupt the status quo in kingdom-building ways.
Jesus came to disrupt the barriers between us and God. He came to disrupt the assumptions that separate us from our neighbors. He came to disrupt what keeps some of us feeling comfortable at the expense of others. He came to disrupt the status quo at every level. If we were to allow Jesus to truly disrupt us and our lives, we would create a transformational groundswell. Do you know where the word “groundswell” comes from? A “ground swell” is a seafaring term for “broad, deep ocean waves caused by a distant storm or earthquake.” Jesus’ disruption of our old ways of thinking and living can cause a seismic change in us that moves upwards, into the power structures that govern our lives and the lives of others.
Pundits today declare many things to be disruptive innovations. But we know the One who was the original disrupter. When Jesus withdrew into Galilee after John’s arrest, he disrupted the idea that aggression should be met with hostility. When the fishermen accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him, they allowed him to disrupt their lives so that they might find a better way to live, according to God’s expectations rather than those of the world around them. When Jesus taught in the synagogues, he disrupted the notion that God’s chosen people could rest on their genealogy or church attendance alone. When he healed the sick in body, the sick in mind, and the sick in spirit, no matter where they came from, he disrupted the idea that only certain people were beloved of God. And when he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom to all, he disrupted the idea that the way things are, are the way things have to be.
Just as he called the fishermen so long ago, Jesus calls us to follow him. He calls us to be made new, and he calls us to create something new. As he called the fishermen beside the sea, the Divine Disrupter calls us to follow him—into a disrupted and disruptive way of life. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young