We have had a week. For most of us, the Coronavirus alone would be enough – the suffering of those infected, the over 100,000 deaths in our country from the virus, the economic hardship on our communities, and the chafing reality of staying distanced from one another. But in the midst of a pandemic, our country has also exploded with civil unrest as we grapple with the death of another man of color under the hands of a police officer. We have witnessed daily peaceful protests, violent, destructive rioting, unsettling debates about the extent of national executive power over state’s rights, renewed conversations about systemic racism, and vivid images of police officers and National Guard members trying to balance their genuine support for the content of the protests with needing to keep crowds safe. And whether he meant to our not, by the aggressive clearing of peaceful protesters in order to take a photograph in front of an Episcopal Church with a Bible in hand, our President has forced Episcopalians and all Christians to take a hard look at what being a Christian means and what Christian witness looks like. Like I said, it has been a week.
At the end of a week like this, I had been hoping for a comforting word from scripture – maybe something about the Good Shepherd, or some pastoral scene of Jesus gathered in loving community. Instead, our gospel lesson today from Matthew is the Great Commission – the very last words of Matthew’s gospel – which are not words of comfort and rest, but words of sending out. Jesus says, “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.” These are not words of retreat and rest. In these last words of Jesus, Jesus sends us out into the world, encourages us to do work that requires relationship-building, listening, and teaching.[i] These are words of engagement, witness, and connection.
I do not know about you, but I was not ready to hear these words today. The idea of venturing out in public still feels fraught with danger in this time of pandemic. The idea of witnessing Christ’s love, particularly with our brothers and sisters of color, feels fraught with danger because of the volatility and justified anger of many of the protestors. The idea of relationship building required in the act of “making disciples” feels fraught with hypocrisy as our brothers and sisters of color remind us how deeply our own racism runs. When Jesus says, “Go!” to us today, I find myself hesitating at the door. Go how? Go where? Go to whom?
So how do we go? The good news is that Jesus tells us how we will go. After the words of the Great Commission, Jesus says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We can cross that threshold because Jesus is with us – always – to the end of the age. And where shall we go? Jesus says we should go to all the nations. In other words, everyone needs God’s message of love and hope. The good news today is going to the nations is, surprisingly, still possible. Even in this pandemic’s limitations on our movement, we can still share God’s love – in our prayers from home, in our words to our neighbors, in our letters to elected officials, in our public witness on social media, and in our calls of support to police officers trying to do the work of reconciliation in their own sphere. And to whom shall we go? To our neighbors of color who need our support, to our political opponents (and yes, I recognize those opponents are different for each of us) who need us to stay engaged in honest, calm, productive relationship, to our political allies, who need us to not be an echo chamber, but need us to hold up a mirror to ensure we are actually sharing truth with love.
I know many of you may be thinking, “I can’t. Even with Jesus’ promise to be with me, I just can’t. It’s too hard.” But here’s what I can tell you: you already are. I watched this week as over twenty parishioners reclaimed the gospel message of love on the front porch of our historic chapel. I watched this week as many of you offered up your prayers – for peace, for understanding, for love. I watched this week as many of you joined peaceful protests – witnessing Christ’s love for all. I watched this week as many of you searched for reading materials – whether you were looking for books and articles about race, or whether you were ordering your Bibles to join in our 90-day Bible Reading Challenge, looking for ways to hone your ability to make disciples, to build relationships. Jesus’ Great Commission today may feel like more work instead of the salve you were hoping for today. But I can tell you the fact that you are already living the Great Commission in your own way, with your own gifts, and your own abilities, is your salve today. Keep going. Keep building relationships. Keep witnessing God’s love. It’s not too hard – because Jesus is with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.
[i] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 326.