Making Disciples – audio available
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Fairfax Presbyterian Church
26 August 2012 • Final Sunday as Associate Pastor
16 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.”
It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon. Things were mostly quiet at the church. A small group of Companions in Christ gathered for a dreaded lesson on footwashing. They stared at the basin of water, everyone self conscious of her feet, layering this ancient ritual with all kinds of modern-day baggage, no one willing to actually have her feet washed. Finally, in an act of impatience more than reverence, one of them said, “Let’s just do this.” And tenderly, gently she poured water on her friend’s feet and lovingly cleansed them and dried them. The stalemate broken, one by one they washed each other’s feet. And in so doing washed away self-consciousness, embarrassment, pride, fear…leaving love in their wake.
It was dinner time and excitement brewed in the lobby outside Fellowship Hall. Suddenly a giant came out to welcome everyone to Hogwarts Academy and with delight kids (of all ages) entered the banquet hall, donned the Sorting Hat, and were served dinner by elves (who looked suspiciously like the good sports of the Member Connection Ministry.) Throughout the week children learned music, youth studied relationships, adults reflected on the power of community. We laughed, we played, we broke bread. We discovered that old and young and everyone in between has something to teach us in our journey of faith. We learned the re-creating power of play and enjoyed one another’s company.
At dusk we gathered out on the Glebe, in a circle around a camp fire. We lifted our voices in beautiful harmonies and found centering in the cacophony of cicadas and rustling leaves, birdsongs and crickets. We prayed the joys and heartbreaks that populate our lives. In place of a sermon we reflected on scripture together and asked ourselves: if this is the living word of God, what message will I take away that will change my life this very week.
Teachers waited nervously and expectantly in their classrooms for the first children to arrive. Soon the quiet of the second floor was filled with the laughter and voices of the children as they learn God’s stories and the clomping of their feet as they run and play. In the relationships formed, here in this place and in their homes and at their baseball games…. the children of this church come to know that they are known and welcomed and loved by you and by God.
The snow was falling in earnest now. Though the guests bunking here for the week offered to help, no shovel could keep up with the accumulating flakes. Volunteers called to say they were sorry, but they couldn’t get here; the storm was too severe. It was clear that although this wasn’t supposed to be a 24-hour shelter, in this weather, no one was going anywhere. So the tired volunteers scrambled to put together a meal, to keep things clean, to assure that guests had what they needed. And then a few church members trudged in, having hiked through the foot of snow to help. Showing up, demonstrating that when Jesus is asked, “who is my neighbor?” They know the answer.
It was a chilly morning. We donned our winter coats and moved outside to the Glebe, down to the memorial garden. Henry reminded us that when we live, we live to the Lord and when we die, we die to the Lord. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer. With tear-filled eyes, we commended our beloved to the Lord and returned their ashes to the earth. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Our grief met by some small measure of comfort in the gathering of community, the hope of resurrection, and trust in God’s promises never to let us go.
These scenes are familiar. You have been part of them. They are memories over the last five years for which I am very grateful. What were we doing in each of these snapshots?
Over and over we were opening ourselves to the presence of God in our lives.
We were responding to God’s call upon our lives.
In short: we were making disciples.
We often think of “making disciples” as a radical conversion experience in someone’s life. We think of “making disciples” as knocking on strangers’ doors to ask them if they’ve been saved. We think of “making disciples” as the arduous reading of the bible cover-to-cover or memorizing countless lines of scripture.
But “making disciples” as the risen Jesus commands his friends to do in his last encounter with them, isn’t any of those. Making disciples “[is the] long, slow and never-ending process of formation, of learning the way of the kingdom at each stage of life and through all human experiences.” [i]
My New Testament professor Frances Taylor Gench preached on this text from Matthew’s gospel the day I was installed as your associate pastor, and she told us, “disciples are made, not born — which means that the church engages in the task of [making disciples] through the whole of life, … It’s not glamorous work,” she said, “to which the risen Lord calls all of you at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. It is continuous, never-ending work that requires taking your time with each other day in, day out . . .”
That’s what these moments we remember and celebrate today really are–the continuous, never-ending work of taking time with each other day in, day out, to make us into disciples.
We don’t often pause to reflect on our lives in that way. We are just going about the business of teaching Sunday school or developing a stewardship campaign, weeding the Glebe or delivering communion to someone who’s homebound. We are simply fixing hot meals or packing up supplies for soldiers, dealing with the church finances or attending a circle meeting. But in all of those acts, something deeper is at work. God’s Spirit is working and we are being formed, in this never-ending give and take, into the disciples we are called to be.
That’s what this passage is all about–calling us to be attentive to the ways in which we are being made into disciples, calling us to be attentive to the ways in which we experience God’s presence in our lives and calling us to respond to that presence.
But we don’t get to stop there, Jesus tells us to GO OUT, and make disciples of all the nations, of everyone, teaching them all that Jesus has taught us. That is how the good news of God’s saving love is spread around the world and right here in our own neighborhood and in our own homes. That’s how God’s kingdom comes to be on earth.
People like you, like me, have decided that we’re going to join God in making disciples.
We’re going to work for justice,
and show compassion,
to seek Jesus in others
and start to live God’s kingdom now.
Start living abundant life now.
And we’re not just going to do that ourselves, but we’re going to make disciples of others by telling of God’s grace and love and how that has changed our lives, how it has saved us.
So when you leave this place today, talk with your family about what happened here. That you actually listened to the sermon and sang the hymns and prayed the prayers. That we celebrated our life together and that your faith is stronger because of it.
Go and tell your friends at school or work that this community has become a place where people can be real with each other, to finally get out from under the pressures and the masks that we wear so much of the time.
Go out and find ways to do exactly what Jesus commands us to do: to feed the hungry, to comfort the broken-hearted, to stand with the oppressed, to find ways to make real community where you live.
That’s what this is all about.
It’s about making disciples.
And we do that by telling other people about the good news that we have heard and felt and that has changed our lives–made our lives more abundant.
Five years ago, Frances told us that she appreciated that Matthew’s gospel points out that there are eleven disciples who gather in Galilee to meet their risen Lord. Eleven, not twelve. One of them is missing; he’d chosen another path. Now they are not a perfect dozen. They are not whole anymore. They are elevenish, she said.
Five years later, I am sure she is right. Jesus’ disciples, then and now, are elevenish. We are not perfect–in faith or in action. As much as we might like the church to be perfect, it is not. It is elevenish. We are elevenish.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, to be elevenish.
Henry told me early on in my time here, as I was frantically trying to do all the right things and get everything done at once and to perfection, that ministry is much less about what you do; it is about who you are.
I remember nodding gravely at this wisdom while in my head I was thinking, “yes but there are important things we must do and there are right ways to do them.”
I didn’t understand then, but I understand better now.
And perhaps much to your chagrin, Henry, my dog GiGi has helped me to learn the truth in what you told me.
You know she has bounded down the hall to joyfully greet you, despite my commands for her to show some decorum. She has snooped into every purse or bag you’ve put on the floor, despite my pleading for her to show some manners. She even ate the baby Jesus doll in my office. She’s unapologetically herself, in all her elevenishness, and she has made us laugh and loosen up in the process. Her wagging tail has welcomed us. She’s comforted us. She’s freed us up to be who we are. In all our elevenish ways.
Making disciples is much less about what you do; it’s who you are.
Our programs are important, but more important still is our commitment to nurturing our own growth in faith. The cleanliness and invitation of our building is important, but more important still is whether we extend grace. Our mission projects are important, but more important still is whether we are serving others’ need and being reconcilers in a fractured world. Our worship services are important, but more important still is whether God’s love and grace is shown in all that we do.
As I reflect on our elevenishness, I find myself much less idealistic about the church (this particular one and Church with a big “c”) and yet I’m more hopeful than ever. Less idealistic but much more hopeful.
We are never going to get every decision right. We are never going to have the perfect program for every person or just the right communication strategy. We’re going to be too slow moving on a lot of things and miss the boat entirely on others. We’re going to say things to one another that aren’t all together nice and we’re going to unintentionally hurt one another from time to time. My high ideals of the perfect community of faith no longer hold. We are elevenish.
And yet. Over five years I have seen that this community is shot through with grace. There are acts of incredible kindness. There are moments of courage and sacrifice. There are glimmers of immense faith and irrepressible beauty. There is belly-splitting laughter. And in those moments lies my hope. Because in those moments we bear witness to something holy, something beyond ourselves.
It is because of those moments that God would tell the likes of us to go out and make disciples of others, to entrust us with the good news of God’s love and grace. It is because of those moments that God would use us elevenish creatures to help usher in God’s kingdom. And it is because of those moments that I believe it is true when Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” for how else can we explain those glints of grace?
Dear friends, the promise still holds. He is here with us. In all of us together, joyous and doubting, faith-full and elevenish. He is here with us. And remains with us always.
Thanks be to God.