A Radical Invitation
Sermon delivered Sunday, February 12, 2012
by Rev. Robert McClellan
Startle us, O God, that we might be surprised by unexpected opportunities, that we might be moved by the movement of your Spirit, that we might not let our own way of doing things get in the way of the possibilities you have for us. Amen.
Today's second reading comes from Matthew's gospel, the 28th chapter, verses 16-20. This is what is commonly called ‘The Great Commission', though it is never actually called so in the biblical text. In any event, as I read it, I would like you to pay attention honestly to how it makes you feel when you hear it.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'
How do you feel? Is that your text? Is that the tradition to which you belong? I ask those questions because my guess is that you are the type of Christians that text makes uncomfortable. Am I right? If you'd like (and you don't have to) raise your hand if there are parts of that passage that make you uncomfortable. What parts?
I came up with three major ones and they all come from the same sentence in verse 19. First, "Go therefore and make disciples" (v. 19). Make them. We are not a people very fond of anyone making anyone else do anything. Coercion, force, violence. Make them. The church has tried, with stories of early American clerics literally chasing Native Americans/American Indians through the wilderness trying to throw holy water on them to forcibly baptize them, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Make them.
Second, "make disciples" (v. 19). This commandment again awakens our discomfort again with our colonial past and the mentality that says we have truth and they need it, so we'll make them our students (or slaves). We'll make them like us (but lesser, of course). Am I right?
Third, "make disciples of all nations" (v. 19). In your making, do not stop at any border or boundary. Conquer every land with your truth and with your way of being. This is the type of imperialistic language that makes our skin crawl.
Our inclination, then, is to retreat from this passage and others like it in the Bible, to prove our worth and sophistication to the larger world by sprinkling in a few quotes by Gandhi or poems by Rumi (both of which were probably more faithful than I—see I just did it). The problem, we say, is that the church has taken this passage too seriously, too literally.
However, Christianity that practices empire, of colonialism, and coercion, it is by definition unbiblical. The problem is not that the church has taken this passage too seriously; it's that perhaps it has not taken it seriously enough. Certainly progressive Christians have not taken it seriously. Instead, we say, "the Great Commission was probably a later editorial addition to the text", but if we stopped running from it long enough to actually read it, we might see that what we're afraid of isn't actually there. What is there is a message of great hope not just for the church in general, but for this church in this time.
Let's take my initial objections in reverse order. "Make disciples of all nations." Up to this point in Matthew's gospel, Jesus has been almost exclusively concerned with the nation of Israel. There wasn't even a hint of the sort of colonial aspirations his followers would one day have. The Great Commission is not about coercion, it's about inclusion. It is the risen Jesus proclaiming that the story of God's love is so strong, so beautiful, so good, that it shouldn't be limited by the types of lines we tend to draw. It should be available to everyone, and everyone doesn't have to be made the same in order to experience it.
…which leads me to our second point, "Make disciples." This is not about making other people in our own image. The Gentiles do not have to adopt all the rules and practices of the tradition from which Jesus comes. People are free to come as they are. This passage may indeed be about conversion, but it is not about cloning.
It's also not even necessarily about believing in a certain way. Did you notice in verse 17 that it says, "When they saw him (Jesus), they worshipped him; but some doubted"? It does not go on to say, "and those who doubted were destined to be cast into an eternal lake of fire unless they rid themselves of completely of doubt." They worshipped him; but some doubted. No judgment is rendered on either designation.
…which leads us to our third point, "Make disciples." You can't make someone a student. They're not a true student if they're forced. Make my story available to all people, yes. Make my love reach everyone on earth you possibly can, yes, but make them love my story? No (it cannot be done). Think of it this way, at this point in the story eleven people sit at the teacher's feet (because Judas is gone). Now that circle is being expanded to include everyone, and everyone will be granted the same type of intimate connection as was granted the original twelve. The risen Jesus is saying make that available to everyone.
This is no "Great Commission"; it's the most radical invitation ever known. Everyone is welcome here. No one will be kept out because of who they are. Now that is a message that should resonate at Tabernacle United Church, "Tab" if you are an insider here (a topic for another sermon). From what I know of you, and I have been so privileged to get to know you just a bit over the past year and a half, many of you are here because of the kind of welcome this community represents and enacts. Am I right? This is a place where you can come with your family, however that is construed. It is a place where you can come by yourself. It is a place where you can come as you are. It is where you can come with your questions, and you won't be browbeaten into signing onto a pledge that you cannot say with integrity. It is where you can come and expect not to feel judged, but to feel cared about and cared for, loved, at least I hope you feel that. Would anybody raise their hand if that has been their experience at Tabernacle?
Moreover, I wonder how many of you, and I won't ask you to self-identify, are here because you did not find that sort of welcome, either interpersonal or theological, at other religious institutions in your past. The church, as I alluded to before, has become expert in pushing people away, telling them implicitly or explicitly, why they can't be belong or be full participants, why they can't sit in the same row as the disciples. If you remember, Jesus even let Judas take communion after he knew what he was going to do!
This community of faith is perfectly positioned to offer a grand invitation to that same table to the thousands in this city who are dying, in some cases literally, for the good news of God's love. It's that simple. Who else provides a safer place for the groups that the church has pushed aside? Who else? I challenge you to name someone else better positioned. Ever since I arrived here, to help you do some transitional work, I have heard people ask, in a number of forms, what's next for Tabernacle? This era was about this. That era was about that. I joined for this etc. What's next? From what I can tell, what's next ought to be a radical invitation to the scores, literally scores, of people out their seeking with no safe place to search, with no safe place to be sought by the living breathing God. What if that was what was next for Tabernacle?
Better yet, what if when the ushers came in in a few moments the offering plates were already filled for us with $1,000 to match your contributions to get to work on that invitation, or $2,000, $5,000, $10,000, $20,000. What if I told you that is actually a possibility? Recently a grant stream has become available through the presbytery for urban churches who want to do outreach. You may remember I wrote about it in the newsletter. I put out calls in a number of ways for anyone who might want to dream about the possibilities for this community. Two weeks ago a small team of us went to a workshop to learn about the grant and in about three more we'll turn in a proposal for money to fund our radical invitation.
In the time since the workshop, that group has been working tirelessly. If you are here and a part of that group, raise your hand. Beverly Dale, who is now in Massachusetts for the spring, has also been working with us. Together we have come up with four areas in which we think Tab might be poised and well positioned to offer an invitation, not just to Tabernacle, but to a deeper connection with God and the community of faith: (1) Education & Faith Formation. Look how many children have been coming to Tab. Did you see the Christmas pageant? We've already begun training for an exciting new Sunday School program. What about the rest of us? We've got a vibrant group of young adults getting together regularly. Recently they decided to do a book, and what do they want to read? Theology! We've got people of all ages from all backgrounds coming and we've got saints who run Tab.edu and teach Sunday School, but we think what we could do if we truly built the infrastructure to make this a dynamic learning and growing environment.
(2) Sacred Music. We have one of the most talented church music directors you will ever find, who teaches workshops to many who otherwise wouldn't go near a church. Music is a language that can speak across so many lines. What if we really got behind that ministry and established Tabernacle as regional center for sacred song?
(3) The disenfranchised because of sexual orientation or identity. Maybe no group has been more judged by the church in my lifetime than those whose lives, not lifestyles, but lives and loves have been perversely deemed perverse than LGBTQ persons. But the church isn't meant to be a house of judgment; it's a house of God, the one place where judgment has no place. We have a lot of passionate people here about this issue, so we show up to Pride and Outfest with a few black and white brochures and friends we can do better. We can more intentionally become a body positive church, not just for LGBTQ persons, but for all people, and claim these values not aside from our Christian faith, but as an integral part of it.
Those are just our thoughts. Our team wants to hear yours. The timeline was short for all of us, and we only have a few weeks left, but there is still time to hear from you. You have, in your bulletin a sheet with three questions on it. We want your feedback on how you might like to see Tabernacle make use of additional resources for this kind of radical welcome, and what part you would like to play in it. If you're someone for whom ideas come fast, you may fill these out and put them in the offering plate. Or, you can also drop them by the office at a later date. You can email them in (to Deb? I'm gone next week). You can simply talk to one of the team members in person).
I don't how many of these initiatives, if any, we can get funded. However, if nothing else, this process may tell us more about what the gospel is compelling us to do and be, and we can use our own resources to support that. Let's find out.
Friends, the passage I read you today should make you uncomfortable, but uncomfortable for the right reason, namely that God's world is full of those who have never been told that they, too, have been invited to come close to sit side by side and know God's love in the flesh. Let's not miss the chance to be the mail carriers of that Radical Invitation. Amen.
© Copyright 2012 by Robert McLellan