Saturday, November 25, 2017

When Was It?

The day began with a preparation for a memorial service.  Having come through the Thanksgiving day excess and avoiding the cult of consumerism on black Friday, I now got to preside over a service for a woman who had lived a good long life.  Her sons were grateful for her life, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren said thank you and we’ll miss you.  Friends and neighbors came to say thank you and God bless you.  It was a good time.  

I know that sounds odd to many folks.  Rhys often stumbles over what to say when I head out to do a funeral.  “Have good time,” doesn’t sound quite right.  He’s settled on “I hope it goes well.”  Which is pretty good really.  Except this one was good.  I got to meet some family members I didn’t know, and while there was sadness in the loss, none of them wished her to continue in the frail and declining body she inhabited, and living alone after her beloved husband died was hard too.  So it was good.  Good to celebrate a life and a legacy.  Good to be with family who loved and lived in peace with one another.  

Yesterday my family and I went to see my dad in the facility where he resides.  They recently moved him to a higher level of care.  He was still unsettled by the move, you could tell.  Wasn’t sure why he was there, wondered when he would get to go home, was sure one of his other sons had just been there.  In fact I think he thought it was my brother’s home and he was just there wondering where everyone went.  He just drove there in his little car, he said, and now he’s there.  I told him my brother was coming Saturday.  I know, Dad said, mom told me.  Maybe she did.  If anyone could communicate across the barrier of life and death it would be my mom.  Especially when she had something my dad needed to know.

It’s a hard visit to make, I’ll confess.  Hard to see what he is and remember what he was.  Hard to not be able to give him what he wants, even though what he wants he can’t do any more.  Hard not to find the little thing that will clear his mind,  that will give him peace that seems to elude him these days.  Yet, though it was hard, it was also good.  Good to be there for a while.  To show him two of his grandchildren, one all the way from Boston.  What are you doing there, he asked my daughter.  I live there now, she replied.  Oh, all that way?  Yeah.  

We fussed with things, cleaned up, threw out, piled up stuff he didn’t need in the new room which was a little smaller than the one he left.  I was preoccupied with the stuff, sometimes.  Because stuff is easier to deal with.  But there were moments.  Silent ones sometimes, talking ones sometimes.  Moments where something else was going on.  Something deeper, more significant.  Something good.  I almost missed them, I confess that too.  I was too worried about what was going on to really be present in the moment.  But there were times.  When something ... no, when Someone showed up in the midst of us.

Matthew 25:31-46 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

The blessing here is the question that is asked of the Lord in glory.  Did you notice the question?  You probably noticed it from the goats.  We’d expect goats to ask such a question.  They are goats after all.  Jesus tells them what they didn’t do, how they neglected Him in His time of great need.  When He was hungry, when He was thirsty.  They didn’t help, they didn’t offer, they didn’t pitch in, or show up.  But they ask, “when was it that we saw you and didn’t help?”  The implication being had they known it was going to be on the test they would have studied.  Had they known those needy ones were someone important they would have jumped up to help out.  

Of course, we expect such goat-ish behavior from the goats.  But then, hang on a minute.  Didn’t their question sound familiar by the time we got to it?  Hadn’t it been asked before?  It was baa baa-ed by the sheep, even before the goats were confronted.  Really?  The sheep didn’t know either?  “When was it that we saw you...?”  What was it?  Tell us.  We must has missed it, we must have missed it in our busyness to help. In our attention to the job at hand, we didn’t realize the gravity of the moment.  We thought we were just helping.  We thought we were just serving.  We didn’t realize that we were worshiping too. 

There are those who don’t like this story.  They are afraid that it might lead to works righteousness.  Which means it might give us the idea that we can earn our place in the Kingdom we long for.  If we do good works, if we labor long and hard, then God will reward us and give us entry into the gates of heaven.  And I have to agree, it does sound like that.  

There are those who go to great lengths to tell us that we can’t earn our salvation, That it comes as a gift from God, by grace through faith.  And that any sense that we can pile up enough good works to earn it is not just misguided it is dangerous, it is heresy.  And this I agree with too.  It is a dangerous mode of thinking that says my fate is in my hands, when in fact it is always in God’s hands.  And God’s hands are big enough to, well, He’s got the whole world in those hands.  Remember?  And we can trust in that.  

So, do we nod and wink at Matthew’s story as misguided somehow?  Or a mystery beyond our understanding?  Because it sounds like works righteousness.  Or it would sound like that, if it weren’t for the question.  When was it that we saw you?  When was it that we were helping you?  When was it that you were present in a difficult moment of caring or a joyous moment of thanksgiving?  When was it?  That question is what keeps this story from being about earning my way into God’s kingdom.  Because evidently the sheep weren’t doing what they were doing in order to get into heaven.  They were doing it because they learned to love somewhere.  They learned to care somewhere.  They learned to give and love and serve somewhere.  They were doing it, in other words because they were already a part of the kingdom.  It was a response to salvation not a means to earn it or be worthy of it.  

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He gave them two.  Love God and love neighbor.  You can’t, He is saying, separate them.  You can’t love God and not love neighbor, it just doesn’t work that way.  Grace received has to be grace shared, it’s what makes it grace.  Jesus was saying to the sheep, you have shown that you received grace because you lived it out in your everyday life.  So, welcome home.

When was it?  And His answer was “whenever.”  Whenever you did it to them, you did it to me.  Whenever you loved, you loved me.  Whenever you cared, you cared for me.  When it was easy and good, it was easy and good with me.  When it was hard and painful, it was hard and painful with me.  When was it?  Whenever.  He is there.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

As If

A gloomy, rainy Saturday.  I’m sitting here watching the yard fill up with leaves, which are falling mostly from the neighbors’ trees, gosh darn it anyway.  Why can’t leaves just fall straight down?  I’ll take care of my leaves, you take care of yours, how about that?  Huh?  As if.  They are community property, these leaves.  Wherever they land, that’s who has responsibility for them.  We’re in this together.  We could have chosen a neighborhood without trees, or with little scraggly trees that drop a few leaves when they finally get tired of the attempt to be leafy.  Could pick them up by hand almost.  In those neighborhoods.  But not here.  No, here we live in the forest.  In the jungle.  With trees bigger than houses and leaves too many to count, and I live on a corner lot.  A leaf magnet corner lot, it seems.  A week ago we raked for part of a Saturday and bagged up about a billion leaves.  And then I came home Sunday after church and it looked like we hadn’t done a thing!  So now we’re waiting.  Waiting for the rain to stop knocking the leaves off.  Waiting for the trees to drop every last one.  Waiting for a gust of wind, a tornado to come and gather them up with all the sharks and carry them out to sea, or to California or wherever it is that Sharknadoes end up.  Yeah, God dropped all those leaves, let God pick them up!  As if.

Yeah, not going to happen.  I know.  That’s what “as if” means.  It means imagination is all well and good, but it just isn’t going to happen.  We can pretend, we can fool ourselves, we can even hope, but those leaves are at least as patient as I am.  They’ll wait.  We can hope for a freak, lawn clearing wind, or a localized lightning phenomenon that incinerates each leave as it lies in the wet grass and thus doesn’t burn down the house.  But it isn’t going to happen.  As if.  

Jesus told an as if story tucked away in the midst of a lot of other stories, and it has puzzled us to no end.  It seems different than His usual story.  And I wonder if we’ve missed it all these years. If we’ve been emphasizing the wrong things.  Not seeing it as radical as it really is.  As challenging as it really is.  Domesticating the story into something more like worldly wisdom. Do your best with what you have and you’ll get rewarded.  When in fact it was trying to say something much more edgy, much more risky.  I wonder.

Matthew 25:14-30  "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

Yeah, that story.  We know that story.  The parable of the talents, we call it.  And it is one of those interesting linguistic things that the Greek word for the unit of money used in the story has now become our word for abilities, or gifts.  Talent.  Talenta.  It was a large sum of money.  No, larger than that.  Larger than you are thinking.  It was an almost unthinkable sum of money.  Hard to translate into modern amounts.  Most commentators settle for years instead of amount.  It is equivalent, they will calculate, to fifteen years of labor.  If you worked at your job for fifteen years - and didn’t spend any of it - at the end you would have a talent.  Fifteen years.  

You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don't you call me /  'cause I can't go \ I owe my soul to the company store.  My dad loved Tennessee Ernie Ford.  I remember that song.  Fifteen, sixteen, an impossible number when it comes to labor, when it comes to money.  Yet, in the story, here are three slaves (slaves mind you) handed 15, 30 or 75 years worth of wages and told ... Well, what are they told?  Nothing.  Not a thing.  Just handed it before the man skedaddled out of town.  “Here you go boys, a literal ton of money.  Gotta catch a train.”  “Wait.  What?”

Well, we good, industrious sorts look at what happened and the reactions of the man when he returns and say, well this is about working hard.  This is about using what you’ve got.  Don’t sit there like a lump.  Get off your keister and produce.  And that the blessed ones are the ones who make more.  Who get more.  Who have more.  But it’s OK, because, wink wink, it’s not really about money.  It’s about the abilities God has given each of you.  And Paul comes along later and tells us that we are given gifts to be used.  Not to make us better, but to build up the body of Christ.  So, when we work hard, we honor Christ.  So, get out there and use it.  

And you know what?  It works!  It’s a great story about laboring in the fields of the Lord, a story against the sin of sloth, or the selfishness of the one talent slave who was only worried about his own skin, about the concept of stewardship and taking responsibility and being accountable and ultimately about the need to prepare our souls for entry into the Kingdom of God.  That’s what this is all about after all.  It works.  And that’s what 99.9% of the commentaries say this is about.  

And yet.  I, for one, am uneasy about the portrayal of God, or Jesus, in this story.  The Master, the man going on a journey, is depicted as a hard man reaping where he does not sow, gathering where he does not scatter seed.  This sounds like a predatory business person who skirts the edge of ethical business practice to amass this incredible amount of wealth.  And then hands it over, with no instruction, as a test of those he owns.  He gave it to them, in our translation, according to their ability.  But the Greek read that he gave it to them according to their power.  To the power they could wield in the mercenary world, the connections they have, the palms they can grease.  How in the world could they double that enormous amount of money without succumbing to shady business dealings?  Even the instructions to the one talent slave were you should have put it in the bank.  But to a first century Jew, collecting interest was illegal, the sin of usury. 

What if, instead of the usual interpretation, Jesus wanted us to identify with the one talent man?  What if He was saying He was the one talent slave?  Weeping and gnashing of teeth was sometimes used to describe the effect of torture and execution.  What if the blessing of the others was the blessing of a world that values wealth, and the joy of the master for them was to celebrate the spoils of getting one over on the poor who don’t know any better and are just fodder for usurious financial practices?  What if one opened a payday loan business and made the poor poorer by charging incomprehensible interest?  What if one foreclosed on mortgages that were out of the reach of most workers no matter how they tried, thus keeping both property and whatever money had been paid?  What if the honorable route was to choose not to play that game, not to take advantage of your neighbor, to bury the possibilities of becoming rich so as not to hurt anyone, and having to pay the price for your choices?  

This story doesn’t begin with “the kingdom of heaven is like.” It begins with “it was as if.” What is this story is not about the kingdom we long for, but the kingdom we’ve created, like a Frankenstein’s monster and now it is shaping our dreams and running our lives? I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong here, and I’m not the first to see it this way, let me hasten to point out.  I didn’t come up with this interpretation.  But it has been troubling me.  So, I thought I’d trouble you too.  And maybe we can go back to our old interpretation and just keep working hard for the kingdom.  That would be easier.  That would be simpler.  That would help us fit into the world we know.  Isn’t that better?  As if. 


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Trimmed and Burning

It was a teaching day today.  I was at the University of Indianapolis most of the day, working with local pastors on their preaching.  One of the bonuses of my new appointment and the house we purchased to live in is that I’m just a few blocks from that campus.  I walked this morning to get to the place where I teach.  Considering I used to have to leave at 6am on a Saturday to get here, that feels like a luxury.  And it was a great walk.  Cold autumnal air, crunching through the leaves that no one in the neighborhood can keep up with right now, though some try harder than others it should be noted.  It’s quiet at that time of a weekend morning.  Time for reflection, time to breathe.  But then catching a scent of that common fall like flavor, burning leaves.  The city says they’ll pick them up if you bag them and put them out, but some folks don’t like to wait.  They pile them up somewhere and burn them.  I didn’t see the ashes and only caught a hint of the haze, but smell was strong.  Despite the air quality issues, it’s not a bad smell, brings back memories of a more innocent age, an annual chore, a family moment.  

Fire fascinates me, I confess.  The bulk of our vacation experiences growing up was camping out in the wilds of somewhere, and a highlight of those trips was the late night sitting around the fire, cooking and toasting marshmallows, keeping warm, staring into the ever changing shapes and sounds of a crackling flame, being together, telling stories, singing songs.  The fire drew us together, kept us safe and gave us a sense of place in the dark and sometimes scary world around us.  Yet, care had to be taken with that fire, it had to be tended, it couldn’t just be set free to run and spread and turn into a destructive force.  You had to tend it, care for it, feed it and control it.  

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning is a Spiritual from the text we’re reading this weekend.  Like most spirituals it has an uncertain history, but it certainly can be traced back through various blues singers and recordings into the slave experience where is was used as a work song, but also a way of hoping for something better.  It was a flame around which an oppressed community gathered to keep their spirits warm and have a sense of place in a dark and scary world of pain and suffering.  A simple song, sung by workers able to keep their minds on their task and yet be transported into another reality, another kingdom.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / keep your lamps trimmed and burning / keep your lamps trimmed and burning / See what the Lord has done.

Actually there is some divergence on that last line.  The oldest recording of the song ends with “See what the Lord has done.”  It was sung by Blind Willie Johnson, a popular blues singer of the early 20th century.  His plaintive tenor voice seemed to be calling us to pay attention to what God is doing among us every moment of the day.  It was a call to keep awake, as Jesus tells us.  But not simply for what is not yet here, but what surrounds us already.  

A few years later, the Rev. Gary Davis, another blues singer/preacher, recorded the song and changed the last line to “for the world’s about to end.”  Rev. Gary was singing a warning about the coming kingdom, that the promised return of our Lord is on the horizon.  He wanted to remind us that what we see and what we experience, for good or for ill, is not all there is.  There is more, something more, another world, another reality into which we lean, even as we live and work in this reality.  There is a destination to our history, a culmination of all that we are becoming.  It doesn’t have to be a threat, it could be a promise, a hope.  One can imagine the slave singing of another world knowing that the scars he bore did not define him, the chains he wore was not the shape of his life, the name he was given to live in the white man’s world was the name written in the book of life for him.  And one day, one blessed day, the tears will end and life, promised abundant life, will begin.

But some of the oldest reports of this song being sung in the fields have yet another ending to the verse.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / for the work is almost done.  The work.  Or sometimes your work.  Your work is almost done.  Soon I can lay down this hoe, soon I can set aside this shovel, lay down my pen, and enter into the blessed rest of the savior.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.  

Matthew 25:1-13 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9 But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' 12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Sometimes I think Jesus tells a story just to confuse us.  It’s like He wants us to work on something, to work out something.  We’d rather He’d just hand it out on a silver platter, wrapped up in an easily opened package that makes things easy for us.  But no, a story, about ... what?  Weddings and lamps and oil and an odd celebration of selfishness.  Something is not right here.

Of all the images Jesus uses to help us grab hold of the kingdom of God, or of heaven, which is Matthew’s preference, this is the only one where the future tense is used.  The kingdom will be like this.  Why is that?  Aren’t the others future oriented too?  Well, yes, and no.  There is something unique about this one.  Perhaps if we heard entering the kingdom of heaven will be like this we might understand the whole story a little bit better.  The approach of the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this.  

Jesus loved weddings, He used the image for talking about the kingdom often.  Parties and feasts and especially weddings.  Because something special is happening there, a binding, a connecting, a covenant and a vow.  And a whopping great party.  What better description is there for this new world, this new life?  A party of inclusion and invitation.  Y’all come.  Right?  

Why then the lamps?  Why then wise and foolish?  And aren’t we supposed to share, even when we don’t have enough ourselves?  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?  Why do we call the ones who won’t share wise?  OK, every metaphor has it’s limits.  Or rather we’re victims of crashing metaphors in this story.  Go back to the Sermon on the Mount, on the other end of Matthew’s gospel.  You are the light of the world, so let your light so shine before others that they may see your light and give glory to God.  Remember?  The light, the lamp, is not just an object of illumination, but it represents a life of service and sacrifice.  It represents a life transformed by faith in Jesus, by the grace of God.  The wise bridesmaids lived a life of preparing for the Bridegroom; the foolish ones thought it didn’t matter until the last minute. When He finally arrives, they have nothing to show that they belong to Him, nothing to shine as a way of living and giving and caring and hoping.  He says, I don’t know you.  

Remember, unlike the Sermon on the Mount which is for everyone, this is insider talk here in Chapter 25.  This is the sign that you’ve been paying attention.  This is for those who said yes some time ago and now they need to show a yes worthy life.  The wise bridesmaids didn’t share their oil because they couldn’t.  You can’t share acts of love.  Each has to do their own.  Each has to participate according to the grace given them, to use the gifts they have received.  I can’t ride your coattails into the kingdom, you can’t let my lamp light your way.  That’s just not how it works.  Sure we can share, sure we can teach and mentor and sure we are better together than any of us are alone.  But in the end, we have to trim our own lamps, we have to burn our own oil.  That’s the work.  The work that is almost done.  Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / the work is almost done.  Thanks be to God.   


Saturday, November 4, 2017


It’s time to go.  You’ve heard that a few times in your life, I know.  Said it many times too.  Go.  Let’s go.  Can we go?  Ready to go?  Questions, statements, promises, pleading - Go has lots of moods, lots of attitudes.  It’s hard to deny the excitement inherent in Go.  It just drips with possibility and with newness.  Go into a new world, a new reality, a new way of being.  Who could say no to Go?  The horizons are calling and the world is yours.  Just go.  Go and see, go and live, go and be.  A new chapter is a new beginning, but also a continuation of the story so far.  Go!  Of course we want to go.

But.  There is the other side of Go.  In order to go you have to leave.  To move toward a new tomorrow is sometimes to leave a comfortable – or even not so comfortable, but maybe familiar – yesterday.  To embrace the call to go is to turn your back on stay.  It is to leave behind those who have become family, even as you stride into an uncertain hope, a possible joy.

We stand on a mountain with the remaining disciples, as they wait for whatever might be coming next.  Mountains in the Bible are more than simply geologic formations.  They are theological signposts.  Something significant is going to happen.  You can tell.  There’s a mountain.  It’s a dead giveaway.  Or rather a living one.  Mountains are alive (thank you Rogers and Hammerstein by way of Julie Andrews), but not just with the sound of music.  No, mountains are alive with the Presence and Power of God.  Standing on this mountain, the lives of all of the disciples was about to change forever.  In fact the whole world was about to change forever.  Not that they knew that in that moment.  All they knew is that they heard that word: Go. 

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

I’m only reading the last couple of verses in worship, so we can get right to the Go.  But here, I’ll back up and include some of the prelude to Jesus’s command.  There’s some very important information in these extra verses.  We want to get right to the crux of it, to the Go, the Great Commission.  And that’s certainly understandable.  That’s where the work is, that’s where the call is.  We are a part of a denomination that takes as its mission understanding that we are to be Making Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.  And we say it like that, with capitals and emphases.  You can hear it in how we say it.  We say it with fervor, with passion, we say it, let’s admit it, with a bit of desperation.  We’re losing our grip on what we have been, and uncertain about what we will become.  So we cling tightly to the Great Commission for the salvation of the church, of the denomination.  And we hold it so tightly we squeeze the life out of it.  It has become our weapon, our bludgeon to force a resurrection of the churches we were once upon a time, in our memory if not in fact.  

It comes down, I believe, to how we hear the word Go.  All authority has been given to me, says Jesus, to drive His point home.  To sear it into their souls, so that they would bow to the King, and scuttle out of the mountainous throne room ready to do His bidding by hook or by crook.  Go.  Make disciples!  Whether they want to be made or not.  Baptize them, even if you have to hold them under the water until they stop squirming, get them in, get them done.  Then teach them to obey.  Obey.  Put them in their place.  Under the thumb, under the heel.  Make them good, make them pure, make them right when all they seem to want is wrong.  Get ‘er done!

You’re squirming as you read those words, aren’t you?  I hope so.  I was squirming as I wrote them.  But the truth is that is the attitude of many in the faith historically and today.  The Great Commission is license to hate, to wield the sword, to put down, look down, come down on those who don’t measure up.  Go, run over the world until you’ve made it into the image that is palatable to Me!  And if some get hurt in the process, well, better that than to miss the urgency of the call to Go.  It’s in there, they say.  That steel, that iron, don’t mess with God.  All authority has been given to me.  There is no other way.  So, you’d better shape up.  Get in line.  And if you don’t have the right credentials, we don’t want you, we won’t let you in.  Go.

Matthew says, with what sounds like a certain amount of sad honesty, that it was eleven disciples that gathered on that mountain.  Did you notice.  Maybe he hoped you wouldn’t.  Eleven.  They were broken.  Incomplete.  One of them turned, betrayed them, threw it all back in their faces and pushed to make something happen that wasn’t going to happen, or pulled down the curtains to reveal the smoke and mirrors of the whole enterprise.  At least that must have been what he thought.  Oh, I know, John says it was the enemy.  That he was infected, diseased.  Can’t blame him, he was a cancer that was cut out.  Let’s point the finger and let him take the blame.  It absolves us.  Our betrayal can remain hidden that way.  Our weaknesses, our failings pale before his.  

But Matthew doesn’t seem interested in blame, just in truth.  Eleven disciples gathered on that mountain.  Carrying their wounds, their failures, their disappointment and their fears.  Even when Jesus appeared, he says, that they worshiped but some doubted.  Really?  The resurrected Christ, stood before them, about to ascend into heaven and take His place at the right hand of Almighty God.  And some doubted?  Still?  On the mountain?

We aren’t told what they doubted.  Him?  Themselves?  The mission that was about to be handed to them like a hot coal from a fire?  All the above or something else entirely.  Who knows?  We don’t.  Except that we do.  Because we have them too.  Those doubts.  That sense of inadequacy.  That feeling that maybe we shouldn’t force someone else to believe what isn’t within them to believe.  That maybe we should just keep it to ourselves, this faith thing.  Keep it quiet, don’t make waves, don’t disturb the neighbors.  Live and let live.  That’s a better motto.  Better than Go anyway.

But then, maybe we’ve got the tone wrong.  Maybe it isn’t about triumphalism.  But about joy.  Not about being right, but about being whole.  Maybe Jesus meant that all that happen has just shown that His way, His life, His parabolic teaching was indeed a better way to be, and that if we were thinking right we couldn’t keep it to ourselves if we tried.  It will leak out of us as we live in the world as fully alive human beings.  So, says Jesus, live intentionally.  Live outwardly.   When He says “make disciples” he doesn’t imagine a anvil upon which we pound them into shape.  Instead, He imagines a relationship.  He says, Go spend time with people, value them, learn from them, know them, help them, tell them what makes you the fully alive person that you are.  It isn’t a course you take and get a diploma, it’s a way of living that we are always growing into.  Make disciples as you are being made into a disciple.  

Baptize them.  That sounds formal, ritual, joining up, signing on the line, right?  Well, sure.  But maybe more.  Baptism means cleansing.  Washing.  Maybe he meant less of a rite of the church and more of a process of being made clean, peeling off the understandings of a self-centered culture, scraping away the stuff centric life, and immersing yourself in the Creator God, the Redeemer Christ and the Sustainer Spirit.  Give them something else, Jesus was saying, to live by, to be defined by.  Give them Me, He said with that trademark thousand watt smile.  And teach.  Oh yes.  Teach them obedience.  Not by breaking their will, though, not by beatings and repetitions, but by passion and joy and encouragement.   

Go, He said, to them and to us.  Go.  And trust that He knows how hard that is.  That to Go forward is to leave something behind.  That to accept the call to Go is to live with uncertainty and a sense of what if and why not.  It is to embrace the goodness of God in spite of those doubts.  Trusting that new place, the new world is a mountain of potential and power and the Presence of God.  And maybe the real call is to live into Go rather than to jump and run to meet some deadline, some quota.  Having known failure, Go is harder to hear.  Harder, but not impossible. Because with God all things are possible.  Even Go.