November is Commitment Season at First Baptist Church Greensboro, as we remember again who we are and pledge our gifts to the life and ministry we share as a community of faith. Our Commitment theme this year is “As We Go,” based on the benediction we share at the end of each service. This week’s sermon was the last of three sermons on this theme, remembering that the love of God is “loose in the world” through our lives and the life of First Baptist Church Greensboro.
In her wonderful book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor includes a chapter entitled “Benediction.” It includes a story from some of the last days of her father’s life. Family was all gathered around, when Taylor’s husband, Ed, went to her father and leaned down. They shared some memories, and both chuckled, then Ed knelt down on the linoleum floor by his father-in-law’s bed, to fit his head underneath the older man’s bony hand. Taylor watched as Ed reached up and put one of his big hands on top of her father’s hand to make sure it did not slip off. Then he held still while her father’s lips moved. After he stood up, he leaned over to say something in the older man’s ear.
“What was that?” Barbara Brown Taylor asked when her husband came back to slump at her side. “I asked him to bless me,” Ed said. “I asked him to give me his blessing.”
Taylor writes, “This kind of blessing prayer is called a benediction. It comes at the end of something, to send people on their way. All I am saying is that anyone can do this. Anyone can ask and anyone can bless, whether anyone has authorized you to do it or not. All I am saying is that the world needs you to do this, because there is a real shortage of people willing to kneel wherever they are and recognize the holiness holding its sometimes bony, often tender, always life-giving hand above their heads.”
In these weeks of November, we have recalled the blessing we share through the life of First Baptist Church Greensboro – how it extends to us through all kinds of hands, in so many different moments, times, and places, and how we commit ourselves to be the ones extending our hands and our voices, our lives and our gifts, to bless one another and to bless this world that God so loves.
Each week at the close of our service, we share in just such a blessing – a benediction. It’s a wide, open-eyed moment. We look at one another and share with one another words of the memory, blessing, and hope that we know through the love of Creator, Christ, and Spirit one. Usually a minister speaks the words, but we all share in the blessing – repeating it in our souls, and in our very lives, as we live as those who believe: “As we go, remember who we are. We are sons and daughters of God. We are friends and followers of Jesus Christ. And through the power of the Spirit, the love of God is at loose in the world through our very lives.” This blessing has formed the theme of these sermons in November, as we’ve recalled who we are as beloved of God, followers of Christ, and this week those who are “loose in the world…”
And anyone can do it. Anyone can extend their arms and extend their lives. Anyone can bless.
At least that’s what Jesus believed. You’ll notice that our passage today – the sending out of these disciples – is at first a singular charge: “Go.” Eyes are open and hands are outstretched. He blesses them and sends them, but before the instructions to cure and cleanse, to cast out and call out, to preach and teach, the very first word is “Go.”
When I think of “going,” I remember an early morning in June that doesn’t seem like that long ago. Jenny and I joined our lives together over fourteen years ago. After our honeymoon, we returned to our childhood homes in Lakeland, FL, where we packed the things we loved and left the things we felt we’d outgrown, hugged our parents and siblings, and then came to the time to set out. Bound for Winston Salem, North Carolina, and then who knew where, we drove a 17-foot UHAUL, filled up with our clothes, our furniture, the new mattress we bought dutifully with some wedding cash, and the box my mom had packed full of my Christmas ornaments and a few old little league jerseys that my son now wears to sleep in. It struck me as we went: “Everything we own is loaded in this UHAUL Thrifty Mover!!” And, as if Mother Nature wanted to accent my sentimental mood, somewhere out beyond Interstate 4, the sun began to rise.
Of course, much of our “going” occurs without dramatic light cues. Most of it’s not so thick with romance. To be loose in the world is a vulnerable state, and journeys that start out with confidence and boldness, hugs and parting gifts can end with consequences, wounds, dejection. And we’ve heard these travel stories, too. That’s why this charge to “go” can clash with our better judgment.
We know too much. We’ve seen what this real world can do to the wandering and wildeyed – to people that fail to take the necessary precautions. It is a world that can be frightening and unforgiving. It’s a world that rolls stones in front of tombs, where broken people stay broken and dead people stay dead. And when you see enough of that story, you begin to internalize it and live your life by the cues of reticence and fear.
So how tempting it is for us hear Jesus’ call to “Go,” and instead hunker down as the people who “Stay” and spend our lives in safe and settled spaces. Such is the tendency of disciples in any age.
Imagine what must have been racing through the minds of Jesus’ early followers that day. This account of Jesus blessing and sending forth the disciples is one of the most challenging and demanding stories in all of the gospels.
Up to this point, things had been going just fine for this curious, recently compelled group of followers. They have witnessed some amazing and reassuring things. Just before this story, they’ve seen a demoniac freed from his demons. Earlier, they saw a man with leprosy made clean with a touch from Jesus. Sick people cured. Dead people raised. Nothing seems too much for Jesus and they get to see it all up close – a reclined, lazy-boy version of the gospel where they were able to sit back and cheer, swapping the stories of exploits past and present.
But then Jesus comes around one day with this abrupt announcement and a new look in his eye. “Go” he tells them at first. Go out from this place with the good news that you’ve seen so much evidence of.
But then he tells them even more. Not simply “Go.” Then he tells them to “Do.” Do the very things they’ve seen him do. Cure the sick. Raise the Dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons. Tasks that seem so far beyond their ability. Hard enough when a person is fully outfitted, and harder still with no sandals on your feet and no coins in your purse.
Which is how Jesus sent them out. In Matthew’s account, the disciples are not simply asked to go, and do, they are also asked to leave…to leave everything behind. “There are no Uhauls on this journey,” Jesus seems to say. Mark and Luke each make it a little easier on them. Mark lets them keep their shoes and Luke says, “Shed your possessions,” but only for the time being. But in Matthew, the charge is unabashedly “Leave. Take no copper in your purse. Take no bag to carry your provisions and precautions. Carry no staff to protect yourself from the things you encounter on the road.”
Go. Do. Leave.
Just think of what a journey like that would do to a person – traveling vulnerable, barefoot, wandering from town to town, depending on the kindness of others for a cup of water and a corner in which to sleep. When you travel like that – when you live like that – you can never return home the same person.
To be loose with the gospel in this world is jarring, demanding, abrupt. But we might recall that the love of Christ that we proclaim has never been safe. It’s never been a call to settle down. It calls us to set out, to move forward.
It’s love that says that just when we’re enjoying security and protection within the fencelines we’ve constructed, the Good Shepherd turns to all of us 99: “There’s this part of me that just can’t rest. I’m going out beyond the border to search for the 1 and bring him home, bring her home, again and again.”
It’s love that’s experienced by those who approach a tomb early one morning carrying spices, arriving for a funeral, wanting to make sure the tomb was sealed and the body of Jesus is contained, only to hear from the figure in white “He is not here. He’s not encased here. He’s not where you expect him to be. He is gone. He’s gone out ahead of you.”
It’s always been a call to go, as it has also been a call to leave – leaving the settled, familiar terrain. Leaving the trades we’ve practiced and the nets we’ve thrown into the same waters again and again. Leaving the stories we’ve rehearsed and internalized of this world that limits our imaginations, where our best hopes die and stay dead. Leaving to go and become more than we knew we could be.
In fact, that’s the incarnation itself. It’s about “going.” Maybe you’ve heard, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And when given the chance, the love of Christ did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself. He left that safety so that we might know fully the love of God and learn to take it on in our own lives.
So to follow in this way of Christ, is to learn these motions of the disciples, which turn out to be the motions of Christ himself: Go. Do. Leave.
It’s the motion of Christ’s church. Church is not so much a place to which we come as it is a place form which we go. Will we go, hearing this call of Jesus, accepting this challenge, hearing our names among all of those sent out, and believing that anyone can do it.
In September, as I shared with you previously, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of The New Baptist Covenant in Atlanta. Started in 2007 by former President Jimmy Carter, New Baptist Covenant seeks to promote community and cooperation and shared ministry among Baptist churches across racial lines. I attended with my friend Rev. Dr. Darryl Aaron of Providence Baptist here in Greensboro, as we shared about what our friendship meant to us.
Among the other speakers at the event was Tony Campolo, a longtime professor at Eastern Seminary in Pennsylvania, who spoke about encounters he will sometimes have with his students’ families. It seems that every now and then one of Campolo’s students will not only recount the words of Jesus on a test or paper, but will actually try to live them out. So they will do things like go from seminary and live in communal houses where rooms are given to the vulnerable in society. They don’t worry about paychecks because they commit to giving everything away. They take the red letters of Jesus seriously and make the Sermon on the Mount their guide.
One of these student’s parents came in to Tony’s office with some opinions about this. A father began to talk about his son and how he was living in a shared space with a few others students and then a woman who was homeless and a man who was mentally ill, neither of whom were paying their share of rent on time. The father was not very happy about this. He was not happy that his son was giving so much away, and he began to rant about Tony’s interpretation of Christianity and his son’s understanding of the call of Jesus and it came to a head when the father brought his hands down on the desk and said, “I am all for living a Christian life… up to a point and then it’s enough.” (1)
And the truth is, I think I slam my hands down and pray that prayer every single day. I hear this call. I look at the way of Jesus. And I say, “Jesus I am all for following your way of life…. up to a point and then it’s enough.”
And I can see so many “up to a point” moments in my life. See I have other commitments. Other things to take care of. Jesus, I’ll follow you, just let me stop having all these kids first. Jesus, I’ll follow, just let me hold on to this valuable thing. Jesus, I know you want me to give you everything, but I’m going to need to reduce the amount I give to your kingdom this year, I mean, we’ve got to put in that extra bedroom at some point. Jesus, I hear you telling me to serve you among the least of these, but look at how much our church is growing as it is. Jesus, I know you call me not to insulate myself, but I’m tired of all the conflict and I just want to surround myself with people who think like me rather than sit across from those who are different.
Jesus, I will follow you, but up to a point and then it’s enough.
I guess when it comes to following Jesus, we all have our up to a point moment. But here’s the gospel truth. You reach your up to a point moment and you look out ahead and there he is. Jesus is still out ahead of you, calling you forward from where you feel so proud to be. You can give more of yourself to my kingdom, I know you can. You can live more simply and offer more readily. You can live your life sitting down at the table with those who think differently to offer love and care and common cause of the Kingdom. You can give more of yourself to this way I proclaim.
So leave the staff. Sure, it can come in handy, protecting you on the road. You can use it for warding off the suspicious things that approach and seem to threaten you, but leave it.
And leave the sandals. They insulate you from the road and make you forget what it is to walk free and uninhibited.
And leave the bag. You can carry a lot of provisions and precautions in it, but you can never carry enough.
And take no copper in your purse. Leave it. It jingles around and tells you that you can rely on yourself. Set it down, and with it the notion that you are self-made.
But when you set these things down, when you leave them, remember what you take with you. You still carry with you the things you have been given by God – the grace that redeems us, the love shared in the community of Christ, the power of resurrection and new life. And the really good news of the gospel is this: that’s still enough to go and do the things God is calling us to do.
To cure the sick, working together to create a world where all people receive the care that they need.
To raise the dead, finding those people who are asleep in their tombs – really really dying – and telling them what it is to be alive in Christ.
To go cleanse the lepers, finding those cast out and being a part of restoration to community.
To go cast out demons, refusing to accept the systems of the world as it is, and proclaiming the power of God to bring about something new.
Anyone can do it. And the work – the call – starts with one word. That’s why the question that really interests God is the question that we hear in that beautiful narrative of call that we find in the 6th chapter of Isaiah. Do you remember it? “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord high and lofty…” And the voice of the Lord comes to the prophet and asks a question. Not who will preach or who will teach? Not who will cast our or call out? Not who will cure or cleanse or spend?
No, the important question is the same one we might hear in our souls even now: “Who will go?”
- Thanks to Griff Martin, who summarized this story in his sermon “The Ideal Candidate” at First Baptist Church of Austin, September 26, 2016.