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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 11, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 28:16-20
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The Gospel lesson we just heard is traditionally called “the Great Commission,” but I noticed this week that the commission is just one of the three important things in this passage.  Three things, and they are all interrelated.

First, there is the wonderful line about doubt.  The resurrection has happened.  The disciples have experienced the presence of Jesus even though he’d been killed.  Matthew has the disciples gather on a mountain top, a location of holy events throughout the Bible.  They see Jesus and they worship him; “but, Matthew says, “some doubted.”

How glorious is that?!  There they are in the very presence of the resurrected Christ, and some of them doubt.

Doubt is part of the life of a disciple.  Doubt is normal and as much a part of the life of a disciple as trust is.  In fact, the famous theological Paul Tillich said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.…  Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  16th century reformer John Calvin said, “Surely … we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”  Madeleine L’Engle said, “The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions, and we become smug like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men.…  Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.”  And, perhaps my favorite quote about doubt comes from Frederick Buechner:  “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”[1]

Getting back to the scripture lesson, there they are on the mountain top, worshipping Jesus, and some of them doubting, and Jesus gives them a job to do.  This “great commission” is the second thing in this passage.  “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” Jesus tells them.  This is one of several passages used by the church through the ages to inform their sense of mission.

Now, I suspect I am not the only one here who has some resistance to a call to go into all the world to make and baptize disciples.  It sounds too – what? – too aggressively Christian, maybe?  It sounds too much like going out to save souls.  But when I can get past that knee-jerk reaction, I can hear an invitation – for me to go extend the invitation, within and beyond the community of Jesus-followers, to a deeper and deeper life of discipleship.  Figuring out what it looks like to love God and neighbor in any given situation is not always easy to do, and I need people who are on the journey to help me figure that stuff out.  That’s what the line about “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” means to me.  I need to come together in prayer and worship, in study and fellowship and service to figure out how to best obey the most basic thing that Jesus taught:  That the law and the prophets can be summed up in these two commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s one of the reasons it is important to pause and say thank you to all the people who make our coming together on Sunday mornings possible and meaningful.

And then there’s the third thing:  a promise.  Jesus comes to his disciples despite – or maybe even because of – their doubt.  And he commissions them to keep going deeper into their own discipleship even as they invite others to discipleship with them.  And he finishes with a promise:  “And I am with you always, to the end of the age.

“Notice Jesus’ language:  it’s not just future tense.  Christ is with us.  Even now.  Even here.  Even amid our struggles at home or at work or at our congregations or in the world.  Christ is with us.   Encouraging us, comforting us, working with us, guiding us, granting us the grace and courage necessary to be the people of God in the world right now.”[2]

“The very last thing Matthew records of everything Jesus said and did is a promise:  ‘And I am with you always, to the end of the age.’  Right here, right now, and forever.”[3]

This sermon started out as being for our high school graduates and I was going to focus on doubt, because doubts are such a normal part of the faith journey, especially for young adults.  It became something for us all.  We all experience doubts in the midst of our faith, and we can use those doubts to encourage our journeys.  We are all called to mission, often in different forms, for we are different people, often in different forms at different stages of our lives, for we are evolving people.  And we all are recipients of Jesus’ promise, that he is with us, present tense, to the end of time.

“Go ahead and doubt,” Jesus says.  “I’ve got work for you to do anyway.  And don’t sweat it because I’m still around.”

Amen.

[1] These quotes taken from Tim Suttle, “Ten Great Quotes About Doubt & the Christian Experience,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2016/04/ten-great-quotes-about-doubt-the-christian-experience.html (posted 25 April 2016; accessed 7 June 2017).

[2] David Lose, “Trinity Sunday A: ‘The Great Promise,’” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/06/trinity-sunday-a-the-great-promise/ (posted and accessed 7 June 2017).

[3] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 1, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-19
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

OurFather_white_part2Welcome to part 2 of our five-part sermon series focusing on themes that come out of the Lord’s Prayer. Last week we focused on identity. Today, we focus on purpose. This theme comes out of the line, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Though this line is directed to God and could be heard and said as a request for God to act, I hear it as a call to action. It is a statement of desire – for the establishment of the realm of justice and peace and enough and love here on earth. If I thought it was all up to God to make happen, I’d pray for it differently: “Establish your kin-dom here and now” (and maybe I’d add “please”). But as a statement of hope and desire, I hear it calling me to action, to be about the work of establishing that kin-dom.

There are plenty of scriptures one could look to to help understand one’s purpose. We heard two today and I can think of plenty more. There’s Mark’s summary of Jesus’ mission we heard last week. There’s the passage from Isaiah that Luke tells us Jesus read when he first preached. There’s the hymn Luke tells us Mary sang during her pregnancy. There’s a passage from Matthew called “the Great Commission.” There’s a passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about the Great Commandments. And that’s a list I came up with in a matter of minutes, so I’m sure there are more. But let’s take a few minutes to look at a few that I just mentioned. We’ll start with the scriptures we heard today.

Our Micah reading is the beginning of the summation of the book. In the previous five chapters, Micah has been prophesying the destruction of Judah and Samaria as a punishment for the really lousy job the leaders have been doing. They have been unjust. They have followed false prophets. It’s a real mess. Micah also offers a word of hope, that a righteous remnant will survive and, one day, Jerusalem will be restored.

Micah 6 starts off with a summons – a legal summons to court. God, the prosecutor and judge, is going to make a case against the people. But when God starts talking, God doesn’t accuse; God pleads with the people: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you?” Then God goes on to list all the ways God has saved the people, from the Exodus on up to today. God is not likely to get a conviction. But that isn’t what God is after.

The people respond: “With what shall I come before Yahweh and bow myself before God on high?” And they list all these offerings – thousands of rams, rivers of oil, their firstborn children – they could bring.

And Micah reminds them of what God really wants. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” There’s the beginnings of a mission statement. There’s a foundation for a purpose in life.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes about the challenges and hopes of living as disciples of Jesus. He writes about having confidence in his walk with Jesus, knowing that he will (as we all will) eventually “appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” That is his motivation to persuade people to follow Jesus. And we get to today’s reading, where Paul says that being “in Christ” makes one a “new creation.” I hear this as transformation, that following Jesus changes who we are.

Paul would say that the change (at least that part of the change) is that we are reconciled with God. In fact, Paul says reconciliation was the big thing God was doing in Christ. And he goes on to say that this ministry of reconciliation is now ours. And that is another way for Christians to understand their purpose.

Micah says that our purpose is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Paul says our purpose is about bringing people into right relationship with God (with some part of that being a concern about the life that’s after this one). So, is our purpose more concerned about this world or the next one? Maybe we should look at what Jesus had to say. Let’s look at two passages from the Gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew 22, Jesus is questioned by a lawyer. What’s the greatest commandment? Matthew presents this questioning as a orthodoxy test. For some reason, the questioners think Jesus won’t tow the party line. Jesus answers by reciting the beginning of the Shema, the prayer Jews say at the beginning and end of each day. Love God, he tells them, with all of your heart, soul, and mind. Then Jesus says there’s a second commandment that is also important: to love your neighbor as yourself.

There are plenty of Christians who hear in this Great Commandment their purpose: to help people grow in their love of God, neighbor, and self.

Just six chapters later, but after some very important events, Matthew quotes Jesus saying something else that some Christians look to to find their purpose. The important things that happen between Matthew 22 and 28 are an arrest, a crucifixion, and a resurrection. So, chapter 28 is the end of Matthew’s gospel, and, in fact, this is how Matthew ends that final chapter. The resurrected Christ is speaking to his disciples: “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.

This is called the Great Commission, and plenty of Christians hear a mandate to recruit, to make disciples, to get people to change whatever it is that they believe and start believing in Jesus.

Great Commandment Christians and Great Commission Christians see their purpose very differently. Just as Micah seems more interested in the here and now than Paul, Great Commandment Christians are more interested in the here and now than Great Commission Christians. This can cause real rifts.

The church where I did my internship went through a split in the months before I got there. The split was over power, as church conflicts almost always are. The groups that were in competition for power aligned themselves into groups that I would now recognize as the Commission Camp and the Commandment Camp. And when one group grabbed leadership and power, the other group left. What I find ironic in all this is that neither groups took seriously the mission of the church that Paul identifies, the ministry of reconciliation.

I realize that all of this has been very theoretical – biblical, yes, but theoretical – and you might be wondering, “So what?” Consider this.

When I was a kid, an advertising campaign focused (if you’ll pardon the pun) on capturing your life’s “Kodak moments.” Some of you will remember it. After all, “Kodak dominated the photographic scene for over 100 years. It commanded an 89 percent market share of photographic film sales in the United States.”[1] In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. What happened?

On the surface, one could say that Kodak was a “casualty in the wake of digital photography – a technology that Kodak invented. That’s right. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975. He later said, ‘But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, “That’s cute, but don’t tell anyone about it.”’ And the company entered into decades of agonizing decline, unable to perceive and respond to the advancing digital revolution.”[2] In other words, they didn’t keep pace with changing culture, particularly the digital revolution.

Kodak also feared losing what they had. They had this huge market share in the film market and they were afraid that if digital worked, they’d lose their lucrative film sales. Oops. Others pursued digital photography and Kodak lost their film business anyway.

I think the real issue was that Kodak lost track of their mission. They lost track of their purpose. Kodak thought they were in the film business. They weren’t. Maybe they were in the imaging business. But I think more accurately, they were in the memory keeping business. That’s what their “Kodak moment” campaign was all about. They told people not to miss capturing their important memories.

The exact same thing can happen to a congregation and to an individual Christian. Ben Guess, an Executive Minister in the United Church of Christ, shared a story this week about a church he once served. A member wanted to enlist the whole congregation in selling pre-paid phone cards in order to raise money for the church. Ben describes how it would work this way:

“A certain percentage of each card sold would come back to the church. ‘Ten percent,’ implying a tithe, so the whole transaction would be very ‘biblical.’ Another percentage, of course, would go to her, and to me and others, too, if we would get in on the ground floor. She was just sure this pyramiding scheme would provide the church with all the cash it would ever need and, on top of that, we would all be getting very rich.

“To her great dismay, I told her I was not interested. Because, apart from the fuzzy math and the serious ethical considerations – not to mention the obvious IRS investigation she would be inviting upon us – it was also a complete distraction from the core mission of the church,… Anything that takes our attention wholesale away from that focus is a hindrance, not a help, to the church and its people.”[3]

Now, I skipped over part of a sentence in Ben’s email. Ben says what he thinks the core mission of the church is. I skipped it because, as Ben goes on to say, “Sometimes collectively as the church, not just in our personal lives, we need to stop and clarify the purpose behind what we’re doing.”[4] I just think this work should be done free from preconceived notions of what the answer is.

The work is important because it keeps us focused. Ben offers an interesting comparison: “Just as distracted driving can lead us into a ditch, or much worse, distracted discipleship can lead us into dangerous territory, too. We can become so busy and preoccupied with saving the institution of the church that what it’s supposed to be about becomes almost impossible for us, much less outsiders, to distinguish. It’s why the prayer of the church has always been ‘Give us ears to hear, and eyes to see,’ because without that clarity in mission – why, and for what purpose we exist – sure enough, we will find ourselves listening for and looking after the wrong things.”[5]

We, as a community, are about to make a shift. In two weeks (provided there aren’t any unforeseen roadblocks), we will begin our life together in a new facility. I know there is a shorthand that gets used to refer to these sorts of buildings. They get called “the church” even though they’re only a building. The church, as we know, is the people, the gathered community. The building cannot carry out the mission of the church; only the people can do that. So I’ve been toying around with other words for the building. My old New England Congregationalist roots want to call it “the Meeting House.”[6] Lately, however, I’ve been enjoying calling it our “worship and mission center.”

While the building can’t carry out the church’s mission, it is the facility out of which we will do the church’s mission. So it’s important for us to consider what that mission is. In the most general terms, are we a Great Commission or a Great Commandment church? I don’t think it will take us long to determine that. And once we know that, how specifically are we going to carry out that mission?

That’s our homework as a community.

I mentioned last week that you get individual homework assignments with this sermon series, too. Here’s your assignment – in three parts:

  1. Identify a scripture you look to to help you understand your purpose.
  2. Make a list of ways you are carrying out your purpose.
  3. Engage in some practice this week to help you reflect on and more deeply understand your purpose.

Undertaking this assignment will, I think, help you feel like you are living more authentically as a disciple of Jesus.

Amen.

[1] Thom Schultz, “The Church’s Frightful Kodak Moment,” Holy Soup, http://holysoup.com/2014/01/15/the-churchs-frightful-kodak-moment/ (posted 15 January 2014; accessed most recently on 28 February 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Bennett Guess, “Give It Up, Church,” Stillspeaking Weekly email from the United Church of Christ (dated 25 February 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In colonial Massachusetts, each town had a Meeting House in the center of town. On Sundays, it was where the church met. And it was where civic assemblies were held – Town Meeting for governance or other gatherings. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonial_meeting_house for more information.

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