Saturday, April 15, 2023

“Commission and Promise” - April 16, 2023

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

Since January 8, we have been in the gospel of Matthew.  That is 98 days, for those who have been counting.  It’s like binge-watching a series except this isn’t exactly a binge – it has been a 15 Sunday, slow motion binge, with those extra scenes and bonus episodes on Wednesday nights during our Lenten Study and then on Maundy Thursday.

We have not read every verse of Matthew, but we have covered a lot of this gospel.  

  • Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist
  • the temptation in the wilderness
  • the Sermon on the Mount, with the Beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer and Jesus saying that we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  

Jesus talked about the wise person building on the rock and about carrying our own cross.  And there were so many parables:

  • the laborers in the vineyard
  • the weeds and the wheat
  • the unforgiving servant
  • the wedding banquet where everybody gets invited
  • the wise and foolish bridesmaids
  • the sheep and the goats.  

There was Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and shortly after he drove out the moneychangers.  There was the Last Supper, his betrayal and arrest and finally his crucifixion.  And then last Sunday we celebrated resurrection.  Jesus is alive!

We have explored the life of Jesus through the gospel of Matthew for these last 98 days.  And this morning, finally, we come to the conclusion.  

After the resurrection, Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.  He had told them to tell the other disciples to go to Galilee where he would meet them.  And the disciples had made that long journey.

I wonder what that was like.  The women’s story was a little hard to believe, you have to admit.  Despite dying on the cross and being placed in a tomb, Jesus was actually alive and had gave them instructions to go to Galilee where they would see him.  And oh yeah, an angel had told them the same thing before they actually saw Jesus.

But the women were so sure of it.  Clearly something had happened.  And what were they going to do now anyway?  There was nothing to do but go back home, back home to Galilee.  And so they did.  They went to the place that they had been directed – and amazingly, Jesus was there!

The text is poignant and very honest.  When they saw Jesus, “They worshiped him, but some doubted.”  It is even more interesting when you consider the Greek, which does not actually have the modifying word “some” in there.  They worshiped and doubted.  Translators understood that it has to mean “some” doubted, but it does not literally say that.  They fell down in homage to Jesus – and they doubted.  At least some of them and perhaps all of them.

In the Gospel of John, Thomas doubts and gets this bad rap as Doubting Thomas, but we read in Matthew that “they worshiped, but some doubted.”  And the some is perhaps questionable.  

We really shouldn’t be surprised.  If we are honest, even on our best days we wonder a bit – about God, about life, about mystery, about the universe.  It means we are alive.  It means we are honest.  It means we are sentient beings.  

Every once in a while, I wonder how there can possibly be something instead of nothing.  How is it even possible?  How can there be a world and a universe and life?  How could there be anything?  And if God created all of this, where did God come from?  Not every day, but I wonder.  This kind of contemplation, which is close to doubt, is also close to wonder – which is close to amazement – which is close to awe – to reverence - to worship.  

The disciples worshiped, and some – at least some - doubted.  It may be possible to do both.  

Jesus’ disciples go to Galilee as they have been instructed, and they see Jesus there.  Our text includes Jesus’ last words to his followers.  These are his parting instructions for those  who were closest to him, those who have followed him.

A few weeks ago, we looked at a passage from Matthew 25 called The Great Judgment.  Do you remember that?  The sheep are separated from the goats, and Jesus says that in the end, the big question will be, did you care for those in need?  When you saw others hungry or thirsty or sick or naked or in prison and you cared for them, you cared for Jesus.  You did it unto Jesus.

The passage we just read is known as the Great Commission.  It feels like a very Baptisty scripture.  I heard it a lot growing up.  We memorized it in the King James Version.   “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”  The Great Commission is a call to take the gospel to the world out there – to all nations.

Now if you think about this for a minute, this is really stunning.  These disciples do not have a great track record.  Before he was crucified, they had all abandoned him, some had denied him, and they had gone into hiding.  They had just worshiped but also doubted.  Jesus is leaving it up to them to continue his work.

Just to reiterate here, Jesus is depending on people who are not completely sure.  This is who he is sending out.

Often, we may feel like we are not spiritual enough, not polished enough, that we don’t have special gifts or training or abilities.  You know what?  Jesus depends completely on people just like us.  

The commission Jesus gives is to go and make disciples of all nations.  And at this point, the gospel has come full circle.  The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy – Jesus is set in a very specific community and tribe and nation.  But then Jesus is born, and the news of the messiah is first revealed to who? – To the Wise Men.  Gentiles.  People from another place, another land.  

Jesus’ mission is largely to his own people, to the Jewish nation, but all along we continue to have these inklings, and sometimes more than inklings, that the gospel is not just for insiders, but those on the margins – children, lepers, tax collectors like Matthew.  And not only for Israelites, but for all the nations.  Jesus heals the Roman centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  In other gospels we have the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus for healing.  The Good Samaritan.  The Samaritan woman at the well.  And all along, Israel was called to be a light to the nations.

So Jesus’ parting words are that his followers are to go to all nations and make disciples.  Now, a couple of things about this.  First, we tend to think that this is for missionaries, right?  It’s for special people, super-spiritual people.  Well, think again.  Remember, these words were spoken to people who had questions, people who weren’t even sure.

But on the other hand, we can read this as though it is totally written to us – as though we are the ones on whom Jesus’ mission depends.  And by us, I mean us Americans.
The missionary impulse runs deep in American life.  And as an organized denomination – if that isn’t an oxymoron – Baptists first organized to do mission work.  We came together as a national denomination in 1814 in order to send our first missionaries, Ann and Adoniram Judson, to Burma.

Our church has a long and proud history of sending missionaries.  There is a framed list in the narthex of those whom First Baptist has sent out.  Among them is Lydia Brown Hipps, who died while teaching women in China.  There are Charles and Viola Smith.  Charles was our college student minister more than a hundred years ago.  He and Viola went to the Congo and helped to establish our Baptist medical and agricultural mission that continues to this day.  Over the years we have sent missionaries from this church to India and Albania and Hong Kong and Nigeria and South Africa and the Philippines and Poland and more.  This is in addition to those serving in the U.S.

And not only that, we have had numerous groups and individuals, including many of you, go to serve in short-term missions.  Some of you have gone to Nicaragua and Puerto Rico and Oklahoma and Mississippi and Tennessee and Kansas City and to Green Lake, Wisconsin and more on mission trips.

It is easy to have a paternalistic attitude when going out on mission, as though we have the truth and we have the answers and we are going to bring it to you.  But you know, there are groups in other countries who send missionaries to the U.S.  We have been a recipient of that – some of you remember Saboi Jum who was here in Ames a couple of years from Burma,  And it is not just missionaries who come to share the gospel.  

Some of us have gone on mission trips to Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  It is located on the grounds of Bacone College, a historically Native American college affiliated with the ABC.  Today at Bacone, about 1/3 of the students are Native American.  Roughly another third are students who came to the U.S. as refugees from Myanmar.  They are ethnic Chin and Kachin and Karen.  Their families came here from refugee camps in Thailand.  They came to this country as Christians and as Baptists.  And they are bringing the message of Jesus to our country.  

People like students we met at Bacone are coming here, starting new churches, and transforming long-existing churches. Out of new church starts in our region, I would say that at least half are Chin and Karen congregations.

The world is getting a lot smaller, and we don’t have to go anywhere to be in conversation with folks from other nations.  Living in a university community, we know this well.  We are all blessed by a rich diversity of folks from many places.  Just this school year, we have had folks from Cameroon and Ghana and Brazil and Puerto Rico, not to mention places like Texas and Florida.  So, you can go and make disciples of all nations, or you can actually stay and make disciples of all nations.  And to top it off, some of those who go will wind up in places like Ames, Iowa and will help us as we become disciples.

All of this is great, but going is not really the main point of what Jesus is saying.  The verb here really has more of the sense of “as you go.”  As you go, make disciples.  As you go about living your life, make disciples.  This is really is about being a faithful person and sharing the Good news wherever you are and with whatever people you encounter.

A disciple is basically a learner who follows in the steps of the teacher.  A disciple of Jesus seeks to become more like Jesus.  And so making disciples is about teaching.  Mentoring.  Helping.  Providing an example.  Building a relationship.   Which includes listening and being willing to learn from the other.  Becoming a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong adventure.

Go, make disciples, baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Help others come to faith and grow in faith.  And then, “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

The obeying part is kind of a downer, right?  We are not really up for a heavy rules-based kind of religion, where obeying every little thing is what it’s all about.  And we especially don’t want to try and teach a bunch of rules to others as being the way that you follow Jesus, the way that you serve God.

Well, let’s back up.  “Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.”  Well what is it that Jesus commanded his followers?

  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength.
  • Love one another as I have loved you.  
  • Love your enemies.
  • And then on Maundy Thursday, we read this verse: I give you a new commandment: love one another.

Do you see a pattern here?  The command is to love.  When you get down to it, what Jesus is asking us to do is to love others.  That is what we are called to do and that is what we are called to teach – by word and example.

Now here is the last part.  Just as important as anything else Jesus says to his followers.  This is his very last word for us: “I am with you always.”  Whatever happens, wherever we go, whatever we do, Jesus says, “I am with you always.”

Think of your life.  And think of all the situations that you find yourself in.  Wonderful and terrible times.  Joy and happiness as well as pain and desperation.  Those times when life is easy and those times when we feel we can barely go on.  

Jesus knew it would not always be easy.  And so he gives this wonderful promise: I am with you always.”  That is the last word.  Amen.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

“Jesus is Going Where?” - Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023

 Text: Matthew 28:1-10

It is wonderful to be together on Easter morning!  It is such a joyful occasion, with familiar and much-loved traditions.  There have been Easter egg hunts and a lot of folks have made plans for Easter dinner with family and friends.  We enjoyed the Easter breakfast this morning and the wonderful music and all the bright outfits.  And we are all gathered here together, both in the sanctuary and on Zoom, to celebrate resurrection.

It may be familiar and filled with tradition.  And it may be joyful and comforting for us.  But that first Easter – that first Easter was anything but.

Last week we celebrated Palm Sunday.  Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to palm branches and shouts of Hosanna.  There was great enthusiasm and anticipation – there was electricity in the air.  It created a huge stir.  Matthew describes it with a word that could literally be translated as seismic.  It was an earthquake just waiting to happen.

And then it did happen.  

Jesus entered the city and it wasn’t long before he was throwing the sellers and money changers out of the temple.  And it was all downhill from there.  After sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was arrested.  And on Friday, he was crucified.  From great expectations to crucifixion in less than a week.  On Sunday, Jesus is hailed as the great hope of the nation, and by Friday he is dead.

Everything had gone so badly so quickly.  His followers were stunned, just numb with grief.  
As Matthew reports it, after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb.  “The other Mary” is apparently Jesus’ mother, who is mentioned in the previous chapter.  The women do not have an agenda.  They are just going to see the tomb, which makes perfect sense.  We may go to the cemetery after the funeral of a loved one.  The women went to remember and grieve and to be physically near Jesus, at least near his body.

But they did not find what they expected.  When they arrive at the tomb, there is a great earthquake.  An angel descends from heaven.  An earthquake and descending angels.  That will absolutely get your attention.  The angel rolls back the stone from the entrance to the tomb and sits on it.  Guards posted at the tomb are so terrified that they pass out like dead men.  And the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”  Angels just live to make announcements.  That is literally what an angel is: one who makes announcements for God.  Before anything else, the angel announces, “Do not be afraid.”  

This was necessary not only because of the display the women had just seen – the earthquake, the angels, the stone rolled away, the guards dropping like flies.  That would be scary enough, but the two Marys had been fearful long before this.  They had been absolutely running on fear which had grown through Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion and hardly lessened since his burial.

The first thing the angel said was, “Do not be afraid.”  And then the news: Jesus is not here; he has been raised from the dead.  Stunning, unfathomable news.  Jesus was alive!  And finally the commission: “Go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

When you have just been through an earthquake and see an angel descend from heaven, and then watch the angel roll away a great stone sealing a tomb, you do what the angel tells you to do.  Not that they really needed encouragement.  They ran to tell the other disciples.  This was beyond belief.  This was utterly amazing and at the same time just incomprehensible.  This was an earthquake.

Easter is like an earthquake, only we have been through the routine so many times, we have grown kind of nonchalant about it.  The power of Easer doesn’t really grab us.  We’ve heard it before and the surprise and the joy just isn’t so strong when you are expecting it.  This is an earthquake of joy beyond anything that can be imagined – except that we have heard it all before, and so we can imagine it.

William Willimon told about preaching in a little church in Alaska when an earthquake hit.  “The earth heaved for a moment that seemed forever,” he wrote.  “The little church shook.  But the Alaskan Methodists sat there like it was another day at the office.  Their only response was the woman who said, ‘How about that, the light fixtures didn’t fall this time.’”

Willimon ended his sermon immediately.  He was shaken both by the earthquake and by those nonchalant worshipers.  

Our reaction to Easter is not exactly that of the two Marys.  It is more like those Alaskan Methodists.  We have heard this story before.

But how did it affect these women?  We are told that their reaction to the news that Jesus was alive was fear and joy.  Fear and joy.  They are an unlikely pair.  

Cardinal and gold – they go together.  Spring and daffodils.  Peanut butter and jelly.  College and ramen noodles.  They all go together.  But fear and joy?  As it turns out, we have all have had the experience of simultaneously feeling joy and fear, in both large ways and small ways.

You’ve looked forward to the day when you could buy your own home, and now the day has come.  You make an offer, and it is accepted.  And then it hits you that you have committed to paying an incredible sum of money over the next three decades, and so you feel both excitement and joy at owning this home as well as this feeling of “what have we done?”

You have looked forward so much to the birth of a child.  And seeing this tiny baby, you feel such incredible love and joy and thankfulness.  But at the same time, as you think of the challenges of parenthood, there is fear mixed in - a sense of the awesome responsibility you now have.

We have all had experiences of both fear and joy, but what the two Marys experienced went far beyond this.

An earthquake and an angel will elicit fear every time.  But what is really frightening is to have your understanding of reality challenged, and that is exactly what happened on Easter morning.  What really provokes fear is a sense that things are out of control and that the world is not the way we had thought it was.

As they ran to tell the others, suddenly, Jesus is there with them.  I love what he says.  “Greetings.”  He has been dead in the tomb for 3 days.  He appears before Mary Magdalene and his mother, and he says, “Yo.  Greetings.”  They took hold of him and worshiped.

There was fear, and then there was joy.  If the guards became like dead men, Mary and Mary, who had felt dead before, suddenly became fully alive.

The resurrection challenges us with the notion that God is at work in ways that we cannot see or even imagine.  There is a reality beyond the logic and analysis of our minds, and God is not limited by our understanding or experience.

The resurrection is the heart of the Christian gospel.  It is reason for great, soaring joy, and it can scare the living daylights out of us, because it means that we thought we had the world all figured out, and maybe we don’t.  

The resurrection inspires both joy and fear, but you know what?  We have had mixed feelings about Jesus all along, if we are honest.

 - We really like a Jesus who taught about love, but not so much a Lord who commands us to love our enemies.

 - We really like a Jesus who helped the unfortunate, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.

 - We really like a Jesus who threw the moneychangers out of the temple, but not so much a Lord who calls us to reform our practices of worship.

 - We really like a Jesus who includes everybody, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not so much a Lord who encourages us to embrace people we feel are – well, not quite on our level.

 - We really like a Jesus who accepted people as his disciples, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to take up our own cross, to lose our lives for his sake, and to find new life through sacrifice.

Resurrection can be threatening.  New life can be a bit scary, because we prefer the certainty of the way things are, even when the way things are isn’t all that great.

Mary and Mary see Jesus.  His message is the same as the message of the angels.  “Tell everybody to go to Galilee and they will see me there.”

I had never given this a lot of thought – that the message was, “Jesus will be in Galilee.”  Had you ever noticed that?

Why Galilee?  Of course Jesus and his disciples were from Galilee.  But it was not a very exciting place.  Galilee was a kind of backwater province with not a lot going for it.  As an outlying northern province, it had far more Gentile influence than areas closer to Jerusalem.  The saying was, “Can anything good come out of Galilee?”  

Jesus had been teaching his disciples and preparing them for bigger things.  His plan did not seem centered on Galilee but on Jerusalem, the capital and center of power and culture.  Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem, the Holy City.  That is where things happened.  The temple was there.  The crowds were there.  The power players were there.

Expectations were that the Messiah would come and transform Jerusalem into the center of power and faith that it deserved to be.  The Messiah would restore Jerusalem.

One might expect that the Risen Christ would give the Romans what for.  Jesus could have gone to the chief priests and said, “I’m Back!”  He could have gone straight to the Roman palace and said to Pilate, “You made a big mistake.”

But he didn’t.  Jesus did not go to the power centers.  He did not go to the White House or Pentagon or Wall Street or Hollywood.  He did not go to the United Nations or the Vatican or the National Council of Churches.  Jesus did not go to London or Zurich or Tokyo.

On his first day of resurrected life, Jesus did not go to the powerful or influential.  He did not go to the newsmakers or the movers and shakers.

Jesus went back to Galilee.  Back to that out of the way place that folks paid little attention to.  There wasn’t much in Galilee, to be honest.  Nobody special lived there.  Nobody except the followers of Jesus.  That is to say, nobody but us.

Jesus returns and appears before those same dense people who misunderstood him and disappointed him.  He returns to those who had failed him and fled and betrayed him.  He returned to those trying to make sense of it all and trying to do their best.  He returns to us.

Jesus comes to us, and resurrection is not just a long ago historical happening, it is a right now reality.  The Risen Christ gives us hope not only for life past the grave, but for life here and now, for all of us living in Galilee.  Jesus gives us the promise that he will be with us, he is with us, and that in the aftermath of all the pain and all the losses of this life we can know resurrection.

I think it was Bishop John Spong, a well-known liberal, who was asked if he believed in the resurrection.  “Of course,” he said.  “I’ve seen it too many times not to.”

Jesus will go ahead of you to that backwater place called Galilee.  Jesus will go ahead of you to that flyover place called Iowa.  Jesus will go ahead of you to work, to school, to your neighborhood.

The Psalm says, “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”

Jesus goes to wherever we are and offers us new life.  When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the Risen Christ is there with us.  When we are overcome with hurt or pain or anxiety or exhaustion, we can be amazed to find that Jesus is there with us, and we can find a way forward.  When we feel like we have failed completely, Jesus is there, bringing hope and another chance.  Jesus come to us and we find new life, or to be more accurate, Christ – and new life – finds us.

The angel announced, “Jesus is alive!  He has been raised!  Now you need to get yourselves up to Galilee and you will see him there.”

Jesus’ work is not done.  He is not only alive; he has gone to Galilee.  Jesus has gone to be with us, and to all of those places in need of hope and joy and new life.

Christ Is Risen!  Christ is Risen indeed and has moved on to Galilee.  Christ has risen and is now with us, bringing new life.  Alleluia!  Amen!