“Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20; June 15, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Commission”
Matthew 28:16-20
June 15, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of JesupSLIDE 1 - Great Comission

Our scripture today is a familiar one, likely that you have heard in a variety of contexts: at baptisms, during confirmations, and before mission trips. Perhaps in reading this passage you feel energized to do the work of Christ, emboldened to go out into the world. Perhaps. But more than likely it makes you feel the way it makes most people feel: inadequate and perhaps even guilty. When we read familiar scripture we inevitably bring to it all the other ways we have experienced it, and since this one is so often used in contexts of people’s faithfulness, it can be convicting and perhaps frustrating to place this commissioning alongside our own lives. And so let’s dig in a bit deeper, and hopefully God will have a new word for each of us, emboldening us to take on this commission of discipleship in our own lives.

Our scripture tells us that the eleven disciples went to Galilee. All throughout the gospels we are told of the 12 disciples, their recruitment, their unity as brother’s in Christ, their perpetual need to have things explained to them by Jesus time and time again. But now, one disciple is markedly absent, Slide02 Judas, the one who betrayed with a kiss, the one who was lost. Starting this passage with this numeration of the eleven rather than the twelve, draws attention to the way that even Jesus, the one who shared the gospel and was the Gospel, had a disciple that chose a different path.

SLIDE 3 - WorshipNext our scripture tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Notice that all worshiped, even though some doubted. Doubt and worship are not mutually exclusive expressions of relationship with God. Remember Jesus did not admonish his disciple Thomas when he doubted, but rather drew close and revealed his side for Thomas’ touch. SLIDE 4- DoubtDoubt is welcome, even and especially in worship. Our doubt gives room for a deeper understanding of God, it’s when we think we have God all figured out that we lose room for growth.

Luther Seminary professor, David Lose writes, “I find it striking that in each gospel account, Jesus’ own disciples — that is, those who had followed him from the start and knew him best — do not at first believe the story of the resurrection … even when they see Jesus! Matthew reports that even now, at the close of his story, and just as the disciples are about to be commissioned as Jesus’ witnesses, they still have a hard time believing in Jesus even as they worship him. That’s who we are – people made up of a mixture of faith and doubt, hope and fear, successes and failures. And remembering that doubt is part and parcel of our life as a faith community is helpful to welcome people wherever they are on their faith journey. Moreover, if it feels daunting at times to believe the gospel, we can recall that we are not alone in feeling this way and that, ultimately, God will take responsibility for keeping God’s promises.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - Heaven and EarthNext in our scripture Jesus speaks out of his authority of heaven and earth, telling these disciples, to also go and make disciples of all nations. With Jesus speaking on behalf of both heaven and earth that means that our work is not simply relegated to one’s lifetime on earth, but also their eternal experience beyond anything we can know. This is a hopeful thing when we feel like our work as disciples has been ineffectual.

Slide06As C.S. Lewis put it: “It is not your business to succeed, but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.”

This business of following God in seeking to right can be disheartening. We live in results oriented culture and so we seek immediate and measurable progress. We very well might not be witness to the transformation that God seeks to take place through us. We are called to reveal God’s love, to offer the joy of the Gospel, but we might not see a response. Trusting that God is responsible for God’s promises, we can have confidence that our work is not in vain.

Slide07It is not lost on me that this Great Commissioning passage came up in the lectionary on the very same week that I have offered my resignation as pastor of this church. It has been a quite a difficult decision to do so. It is hard not to feel like I am letting you down, and letting God down in the work that I have been called to. I received council from wise pastors who reminded me that though I am called to minister to specific churches at specific times, my larger vocation is a call to serve God, and that never changes. And so part of my task of ministry is one of discernment, determining whether I am called to stay or to go, whether a particular church at a particular time requires my gifts or the gifts of another minister. And while it’s certainly not an easy decision, I do believe it is the right one. Sometimes the commissioning for ministry looks like staying put, sometimes it looks like going out, either way, God uses us to be the Church.

Slide08In our scripture today, Christ affirms that we are called to make disciples through baptism, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, concluding with the promise that Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age. The “go therefore” of this passage is possible for us and for the disciples because we are not on own own or left to our own devices.

Slide09The Trinitarian formula of this passage, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is particularly highlighted on this Sunday, as we acknowledge today as “Trinity Sunday.” The trinity provides a framework whereby we may better understand our relational God, through the various way we relate to God. The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that remains with us, enlivens us with the energy and joy of service. The Son, Jesus Christ, is the aspect of God that shows us how to live through example, through Christ’s life and ministry on earth. And God the Father, is the aspect of God that has to do with creation and formation. Through all these ways we are able to know and relate to God.SLIDE 10 - People of the ChurchGreek scholars will be quick to point out that just as God remains with us, our call is not just for us alone, but for all of God’s disciples together. In the Greek the verbs of this commission are in the plural. This is a commission not just for one person, but for the whole community. We need each other in order to fulfill God’s call on our lives and on our world.

We are called to worship even as we doubt, to baptize on earth even as we struggle with what is to come in heaven. We are called to do all of the things in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[2] May we be emboldened to do so. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3254

[2] Matthew 28:19

“Dwell”; John 14:1-14; May 18, 2014; FPC Jesup

“Dwell”
John 14:1-14
May 18, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today, I give you full permission to doodle during my sermon, in fact. I encourage it. What I would like you to draw is how you envision heaven. If you’re stumped then be sure to listen for how heaven is described in our scripture passages today. Following the sermon I would like whoever is willing to share their picture with all of us.Slide02This week I went to see the movie, “Heaven is For Real.” If you are unfamiliar with it, it is based on the real life story of a Nebraska minister’s family, the Burpos whose three year old son, Colton has an emergency appendectomy and then afterwards tells his family that during the surgery he floated above his body and went to heaven with Jesus. It’s a fascinating account and the book in particular gave me chills from time to time with the accuracy of how Colton’s portrayal matched up with more obscure Biblical texts. I had read the book a few years ago so I was intrigued to see how they could possibly attempt to depict some of the visions of heaven. It was interesting to see how the filmmakers interpreted Colton’s experience. Not quite as surprising was how everyone reacted in the film to this then four-year-old’s stories about his trip to heaven. Most people were fascinated on some level, but many were resistant, event hostile towards the idea that this boy could’ve possibly gone to heaven.

Slide03While we’re comfortable with the idea of heaven in the abstract, getting into the particularities can be divisive. In our passage today we hear a description of heaven given by Jesus and written down for us by the John, Jesus’ disciple.

Slide04This passage is often used at funerals to speak of the home God prepares for us in heaven. It’s a message of God’s care for us, preparing a place for each of us, for all. This is the place where God dwells and to where God invites us to come home. Here is a picture I came across this week done by a child to show what they think God’s house will look like. Each room a space of joy and celebration. One room with a giant birthday cake, another underwater, one with animals and sunshine, one with looks like what might be a ball pit, and another a person with a big drum. Looking at this picture at first I thought perhaps it was not completed since one of the rooms is empty, but the way I’d like to interpret that is that there is a room waiting just for you, for all the joys and delights of your heart.

Slide05 Artists throughout time have sought to depict the glory of heaven and the majesty of God. Slide06 Since we know we are made in God’s image, most interpretations show some version of God as a person, often wise looking with a beard. SLIDE 6 - Michaelangelo GodOne of the most well known interpretations is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. This painting shows God reaching down to humanity and humanity reaching up to God, but many will be quick to point out that they are not actually touching. There is a separation there. God in heaven and humanity on earth.

Over and over again throughout the Bible we hear stories of God being the one who lives in heaven.  In Isaiah 57:15 we read, “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

Slide09 It’s amazing to thing of God as not only dwelling in heaven, but also inhabiting eternity. It’s hard to even wrap our minds around the idea of anyone inhabiting a time that never ends, but God is so far beyond what we can know with our own human understanding and language.

Slide10 In Colossians 3:1b-3 Paul implores the Colossians to, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Slide11Most of us would like to avoid thinking about death, but thinking about heaven is a different matter, as though we forget that death is something we will experience in order to experience heaven. Like the people surrounding Colton Burpo, there is a fascination with heaven, a deep desire to have confidence in the hope of something beyond what we experience on earth.

Slide12Influential Christian writer, C.S. Lewis writes of this desire for heaven in his book, Mere Christianity. He writes, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water… If I find in myself a desire, which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”[1]

Slide13How strange to think of heaven as our “true country,” when it is one we have not yet seen. Still, we yearn for the sort of contentment and simplicity that heaven offers. We long to be reunited with those that we love. Particularly when ones life holds much pain and many disappointments, it can be incredibly freeing to think of what will come afterwards.

Slide14Revelation 21:3-4 is another passage that is often offered at funerals as a message of hope. It says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And so, I will ask the question again, how do you envision heaven? Who is willing to share their drawing?

Let us pray: thank you God for the promise of heaven. May we live in your hope. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/462154-the-christian-says-creatures-are-not-born-with-desires-unless

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

Yesterday I led a time of devotion at West Village, a local nursing care facility in nearby Independence, IA. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because this was my first time doing this within this context. While I have lead worship at both The Hermitage in Richmond, VA and Swan Creek in Toledo, OH, this was rather different. The services at the Hermitage and Swan Creek were structured like a Sunday morning worship service, with sung hymns, liturgy, and a sermon. I knew my role in that sort of arrangement and was comfortable preaching from those pulpits.

Here in Buchanan county, members of the ministerial association take turns leading a time of devotion in several different facilities in the area. I spoke with the coordinator and asked her what a typical devotion time at these facilities looks like. She said that there’s usually some a capella singing, a prayer, a story read, and some scripture, but that the aim of the time is really to give the residents some personal attention.

So, I looked through my trusty Presbyterian Hymnal, decided to bring along my copy of “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” to read one of my favorite (slightly autumn themed) stories, brought a great booklet of prayers and scripture from Westminister Canterbury (Richmond, VA) and decided somewhat last minute that maybe I’d bring along my “I Believe” book just in case it would come in handy.

Yesterday morning, when I got to West Village I saw that this devotion time wasn’t in a chapel setting like at Swan Creek or the Hermitage, rather about 8-10 residents were gathered in a small activities room in a semi-circle. A woman working at West Village introduced me to each resident and then stepped out of the room. More than half of the assembled group were asleep and those who were awake seemed confused.

Thanks to some great seminary professors and lots of time spent at Swan Creek, I know that one of the most important tools in engaging people with issues with memory and cognition, is to utilize well known songs and liturgy. When experience becomes foggy, recalling common liturgy can become a light of something familiar and comfortable.

So, I began the session with prayer and then started with “Amazing Grace.” Some people looked up for the song and smiled, one woman sang with me. After another song, and a reading from Romans, I read to them one of my favorite stories from “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which you can read at the bottom of this post. Next we prayed the “Serenity Prayer,” and the same woman as before joined in with me on the prayer.

But the best part of this service came next.

Wanting to engage this place of memory and comfort, I decided to read from “I Believe.” The text of this book is simply the words of the Nicene Creed, but it is set up similarly to a children’s book, with few words on each page, and illustrations throughout. The illustrations are done by Pauline Baynes, probably best known for her illustrations in the Chronicles of Narnia books. She published this book in 2003, five years before her death. She was 81 when she completed the book, likely the same age as many of the people I was sharing this book with yesterday. I have no doubt she knew the timelessness of the words of the Nicene Creed, and the impact of Christian symbology in art.

As I read the book, I would read a page and then walk around and show the pictures to the residents, one by one, talking through some of the images of each page. The illustrations are quite detailed, so there was always something more to discuss. Gradually, each resident woke up, and would engage with the book when I came by.

One woman pointed at the book to an illustration of the Nativity and said quietly and firmly, “Jesus, that’s Jesus!” When I came by with a picture of Jesus on the cross, she said it again. And then when the next picture showed Jesus climbing out of the tomb and then surrounded by light, she giggled and said “That’s Jesus!”

Another woman would simply press her finger to the page and then look up at me. When it was a picture of someone preaching she pointed to me. When it was a picture of doves moving out and towards a man and I talked about the picture symbolizing the Holy Spirit speaking to us and through us, she pointed to several of the birds and then pointed to herself.

What an amazing act of worship. Through the haze, the stories of Jesus and an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit were able to speak hope and truth to this small gathered congregation.

I individually thanked each resident for coming and one woman held on to my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” And I told her, “I love you too and God loves you.” She smiled widely.

As the hymn says, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

_______________________________

 

As promised, here is my favorite “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” story:

In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide-and-seek. How long since I played hide-and-seek? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. Adults don’t play hide-and-seek. Not for fun, anyway. Too bad.
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide-and-seek-and-yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide to good again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.
As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there’s a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, “GET FOUND, KID!” out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.
A man I know found last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. “I don’t want anyone to know.” “What will people think?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
Better than hide-and-seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is It goes and hides, and everybody goes looking for him. When you find him, you get in with him and hide there with him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody gets giggles and somebody laughs and everybody gets found. Medieval thelogians even described God in hide-and-seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think old God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.
“Olly-olly-oxen-free.” The kids out in the street are hollering the cry that says “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all those who have hid too good. Get found, kid! Olly-olly-oxen-free.

An excerpt from “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum