Monday, May 23, 2005

Go,Tell and Watch Out for Alligators!

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year A : May 22, 2005

Matthew 28:16-20


May only God’s wordbe spoken.

May only God’s word be heard and believed.

Amen.

Have you ever been sent to do a chore and come back with something else? I don’t know about you but this happens to me with distressing frequency.

When my kids were growing up, we used to read a bedtime story to them about a little boy who is sent by his mother to the grocery store to buy some cheese, one very green dill pickle, and pumpernickel bread. Along the way he tries to remember his list and it becomes all scrambled into pumpernickel tickle and mean green cheese. This book was always guaranteed to bring my-then-little-ones into gales of giggles—because in the story, forgetting the list and then remembering it again was so much fun. Has this ever happened to you?1

How many spouses look at their partners when they come back from the store and say something like “I sent you for eggs and bread. Where’d this videotape and duct tape come from?” It’s always a long story.

Of course, it isn’t just distractibility that’s the culprit. Life’s little details can cause us to stray off-course. There is a popular little saying that has been photo-copied to death in cubicles across the land (which I will clean up here): “When you’re up to your elbows in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp.” And that’s what’s happened in the Church. The myriad of details just to stay afloat, the volume of little problems to be solved has allowed us to focus on the small successes of fending off alligators and forgetting why we’re sent into the swamp in the first place.

I get a little bit of a sinking feeling when I read the last chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: that we Christians have been distracted. That we have garbled the list, and we celebrate just surviving. The good news is that the task that Jesus has given is one that we can re-orient ourselves to at anytime. We can always go to the mountain top ready to be sent out by the risen Christ. The challenge is that we may have to give up a few cherished alligators along the way.

We only read the last part this morning, but the entire last chapter of Matthew is about people going to tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection to someone else. First, Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” are sent by both an angel and then by Jesus himself to “Go and tell” the other disciples that Jesus is risen from the dead and to meet them in Galilee. Second, the soldiers who witness the empty tomb and spy from a distance all that happened between the women and Jesus, went and told the chief priests and those in authority everything they saw. Third, all the disciples—including us--are told to “Go” into the world and make disciples of all nations.

First, the two Mary’s go and tell what they have seen and heard.

Second, the two soldiers go and tell what they have seen and heard.

And now, in the lesson we just heard, we are told to go and tell what we have seen and heard.

The two Mary’s do their job, and they do it very well. That’s why all the eleven and the other disciples are there on the mountain when Jesus sends them out.

Notice their responses in each of the parts. The two Mary’s experience both fear and great joy. The eleven worshipped and doubted. Today we think of these as opposites, and maybe they are. I believe they are also consistent with human nature when confront the things of God. The women who found the empty tomb are joyful to find that their friend and teacher is not dead but risen “just as he said.” At the very same time, they are humbled and awed by being witnesses to God’s presence and power.

The eleven worshipped Jesus and doubted what they were seeing. Doubt here has less to do with skepticism, as we know the word, and more to do with not fully comprehending what is right before their eyes. It’s wonderful, and I can hardly believe it.

The bottom line is that both Jesus sends both the doubters and the worshippers into the world. The command does not require us to understand everything. Just to tell the story.

Notice what happens to the guards. They tell their bosses everything they saw, and the bosses have a quick meeting. They believe everything the guards have said. There is no sense that they believe that the soldiers made this up to cover their own incompetence. Their solution? They decided to pay off the guards and to pay off the guards superiors and to spread the story that the body was stolen. A lot of money seems to have been spent—not because the story was false, but precisely because it was true! Faith gives way to fear here. Not the fear of the Lord, but the fear of loss of power and position the fear of losing the world we have come to rely on.

So going and telling can backfire, if it gives way to fear and human agendas. This part of the story stands as warning to us not to pay so much attention to the institutional life of the church that we sacrifice our mission.

Meanwhile, back on the mountaintop, the church is gathered around Jesus who is now commissioning them to something great. Jesus tells them to “Go and Tell” once more: go into all the world “and make disciples.”

What’s a disciple and how do you make one? What’s the recipe? A disciple is a follower of Jesus. We are not out to “save” people—God does that, through Jesus’ death and resurrection and by the grace of the Holy Spirit—but to tell the story and serve people and help them become followers of Jesus.

How do we do that? This first part comes when a person publicly identifies her or himself with Christ—this happens in baptism. The second parts is when those who are identified with Christ also becomes a student of Christ. Being a Christian, in Matthew’s Gospel, is both belief and living that belief. When one is a Christian, one is a friend and apprentice of Jesus.

That’s our job. As friends and apprentices, this is what we have been sent to do: Share the news. Go and tell. Make disciples. Baptize and teach.

The alligators that have distracted us from the initial objective of going and telling, baptizing and teaching have been numerous. Let me name but three little idols: efficiency, money, and habit.

The idol of efficiency is that these days we are pushed and pushed to do more and more with less and less. We are pushed to do everything faster. We are bored when we are not busy. One way this shows up is in the relentless drive to the sixty minute liturgy, and the quick and easy church program. I hate wasting time as much as anyone. But sooner or later we have to come to realize that if we want our relationship with God in Christ to change us, it will require time, and energy and focus. The measure of a liturgy is not our speed but our awareness and awe at being in the presence of God, the risen Christ, the transforming Holy Spirit.

Another alligator is the idol of money. For the most part, in the Episcopal Church—including our own parish—and in all the mainstream churches, evangelism has been about making sure we have enough people in the pews to pay the bills. Well, bills do need to be paid. But Jesus did not send his disciples to “Go into the world and pay all the bills.” We are sent into the world to make more friends and apprentices of Jesus. The question is really how we order our lives. We do mission and God gives us the resources to do mission. We have the choice to use what God has given us: we can be like the soldiers bosses and spend money for out own purpose out of fear of what we might lose; or we can be like the two Mary’s and the eleven and go and tell for God’s purpose.

The last alligator I’ll mention (and, trust me, there are more!) is the one of habit. You’ve heard this before when people say “We have never done it that way” or, “we tried it once and it did not work.” We may be secure in knowing that we have always done it is the way to do it, but the Gospel is not static. Read the Gospels. Over and over again, Jesus meets people at the point of their deepest need. This where God in Christ meets us, over and over again, and when we meet Christ, we are changed.

Look again at the three stories of “going and telling” in Matthew’s last chapter. In the first and the third, the people going and telling have seen the risen Christ—really met him—and allowed themselves to be changed. The two Mary’s are fearful and joyful in their meeting of the risen Jesus. The eleven and the rest of the imperfect church gathered on the mountain meet the Risen Christ. They are there on the mountain, for the whole world to see. Their light no longer covered up, the world sees us, the Church, at once worshipping and doubting. Our eyes are always opening anew to the reality and power of the risen Christ.

Here is both Good News and a challenge: We who worship and we who still trying to understand are all sent! No disciples are exempt. The Good News is that we do not need to understand everything to go and tell.

So what are we going to tell people? We will tell that we have met the risen Jesus in our daily living and that God is changing us. We have seen the fullness of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit made known to us. Right now, where we live and work and play. In Christ we know our savior and friend, our companion and teacher, our sovereign and our rest.

But there is more. We will tell what we are being taught. We have learned how to pray a little more. We have learned how to be a little less anxious. We have learned a little more about our purpose. We have learned a little better how to get along with each other. We have learned a little more about justice. Above all, we have learned that there is so much more to learn! There is blessing in being a student of Jesus. We will teach because we are being taught.

I don’t know if going and telling will keep the bills paid or the doors open. But that, in the end, is nothing but pumpernickel tickle and mean green cheese. That’s the garbled message.

The real message is that we are blessed, truly blessed, when we go and tell what we have seen and heard. And we are never, ever alone.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen


1. Nancy Patz: Pumpernickel Tickle and Mean Green Cheese Franklin Watts, Inc., NY and London,
1978.

1 comment:

3n1-1n3 Rector said...

[This message was sent to me via e-mail in response to the same text being posted on the Ecunet meeting 'Bethlehem of PA'. Shared here with permission.]

Andy,

I don’t believe we have ever met.

I trust you don’t mind a comment on your fine evangelism sermon which Bill published recently – from my biased perspective.

“And what are we going to tell people? We will tell that we have met the risen Jesus in our daily living and that God is changing us. He is our friend, our companion, our savior.

But there is more. We will tell what we are being taught. We have learned how to pray a little more. We have learned how to be a little less anxious. We have learned a little more about our purpose. We have learned a little better how to get along with each other. We have learned a little more about justice. Above all, we have learned that there is so much more to learn! We will teach because we are being taught.”

Perhaps another (additional) way to evangelize is through behavior – as well as by words. From my experience some of the most powerful evangelism has been as a consequence of the behavior of Christians – as that behavior follows some of the essential teachings (mandates) of Christ. (“by their fruits………….’)

Would enjoy coffee together sometime when you are in Bethlehem.

You congregation is certainly to be commended for its support of the young Swazi women in her successful efforts to further her education.

Regards,

Ned Wallace