Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

1,800 preachers in a room, and what do you say?

This is the challenge that faces each of the presenters at the annual Festival of Homiletics—homiletics being just a highbrow way to say ‘preaching.’ The festival gathers each May, and a couple of dozen people—mostly preachers and professors—are tasked with addressing this troublesome lot.

I say troublesome, because when we hear a presentation or a sermon, we tend to be critical. Share that sermon or presentation near the end of the church year, and troublesome becomes tired and cranky, so God bless anyone brave enough to stand up and speak.

Some presenters seem to understand, and offer collective pastoral care. Nadia Bolz-Weber and Barbara Brown Taylor (do all presenters have three names?) were gentle with us, pastors to the pastors, or “pastrix” as Nadia Bolz-Weber describes herself in her New York Times bestselling book.

Some presenters—like Rob Bell—made us laugh, knowing that humour is always a balm for the weak and weary. Others, like Walter Brueggemann toss out ideas like homiletical bouillon cubes, crammed into pockets for later use. And some even tackle readings that will come up in the weeks between the festival and summer holidays, like life-preservers thrown to shipwrecked preachers.

Others are less helpful. Like the minister of the very-large-pulpit in Manhattan who brought along a sack of “shoulds and oughts,” way too much super-ego for me. Or the former evangelical superstar who recently discovered social justice preaching, selling it to a crowd of mainline pastors who have been doing it for decades. Or the megachurch pastor who suggested we take a film-crew with us the next time we travel to Israel, because thousands of your parishioners will want to watch.

Then, thankfully, there is Will Willimon. Preaching professor and retired bishop, Dr. Willimon is a storyteller from Alabama, who evokes laughter and tears as he to moves from homespun warmth to cutting wit. And in preaching to preachers he can be more than a little mischievous. Take for example, his rewriting of the end of our passage:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, (he sounds just like Jeff Sessions) baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always (and I am quoting) “to damn-well make sure that you do it.”

So why is Jesus with us always? According to Dr. Willimon, it’s to make sure we follow through on everything we were commanded to do, particularly to make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the proper way. Now, the good doctor was being a little facetious, but generally trying to underline that this was not a case of creating a movement and pushing the “go” button, it was (and is) a case of active supervision.

So how does this work? Well, first of all, as the church we become the “body of Christ,” literally his hands and feet as we care for others. The presence of Christ surrounds us, in the sacraments and in the ministry we each undertake. And today—Trinity Sunday—we believe that God’s presence, and the Risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit are one—leading and guiding us as we do the work of the divine.

So it’s active supervision, and partnership (Psalm 8 calls us “little less than angels”) and even mutual accountability as we call on God to continue to bless us and hear our prayers. That’s what it is. What it’s not, is some sort of divine ‘office of compliance’ or heavenly auditor at keeps track of nations and baptisms. God allows that we will do the best we can with our limited resources and built-in human limitations, limitations that come to the fore far too often.

So speaking of limitations, we can take as an example Matthew 28.16ff (and following). The command to make disciples of all nations (the Great Commission) is considered by many scholars to be a later addition to the text, an add-on, and (in the opinion of these scholars) unlikely to be the words of Jesus. So we have a problem.

But before we get into the problem, we have to enter a debate. On one hand, there is the (relentless) search for the authentic Jesus, words and deeds that are most likely his. This is the basis for modern biblical scholarship, and a foundation of the liberal church. But on the other hand, there is the idea of canon, and the Spirit-driven work of recording and authorizing the words contained in scripture. If scripture is divinely-inspired, and blessed by the church through the ages, we should take it seriously, even if we are unwilling to take it literally.

So you have heard the debate, and now the problem. Whenever your professor tells you that something might be an addition, or an add-on, you have a tendency to put it in a different category, with a different weighting. So we have the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbour) which everyone agrees Jesus said and we have the Great Commission (make disciples of all nations) which some label an add-on, maybe a case of scribal enthusiasm. So which one will we emphasize?

Naturally, the former. And being the liberal church, we love the idea of the ethical Jesus giving us instructions on how to be better believers, how to meet the world and make it a better place. And that’s awesome, as awesome any purpose-driven-divinely-sanctioned-world-bettering program we can imagine. But the Great Commission is scripture too. So what do we do?

Well, we’re a persistent lot, us liberal Christians, so the next move is point to context and history and say “too much harm has come from the application of the Great Commission ‘all nations’ command” and therefore we should set it aside. And it’s a good argument, even as it’s hard to hear.

For you see, here, on the traditional lands of the Mississauga’s of the New Credit, we live with a legacy of taking a colonial project and missionary zeal and applying them with an enthusiasm that led to great damage. As the text of the United Church apology to First Nations says:

In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel.
We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.

The statement that the Very Rev. Bob Smith read 31 years ago, concludes by asking for forgiveness, something that we hope may come in time. And part of asking for forgiveness is assessing and reassessing our tradition, setting aside some things and reimagining others.

So converting people was largely set aside. We still try to convert people to the latest issue the church takes up, but that’s another sermon. By-in-large, the liberal church decided that trying to actively convert people was something to be abandoned, along with the Great Commission of Jesus from Matthew 28.

But I’m going to argue we need to take it up again, and I have three groups in mind, three groups that are ripe for conversion, done in the most humble way possible.

The first group is people to are immersed in a culture of success, acquisition, quid pro quo and self-preservation. Spend an evening watching television and you will discover that life is a competition with winners and losers—those who will themselves to success and those who are the authors of their own misfortune. Jesus’ massage of forgiveness and grace, and compassion in the face of suffering is needed in the public square now more than ever. That is the first group.

The second group is other Christians. Too many Christians feel that their faith is an excuse to hate and divide, to impose their will on others, and generally condemn a majority of people to a fiery hell. They are ripe for reconversion to the message that you should get the log out of your own eye before you reach for the speck in the eye of others.

The final group for conversion is us. As you have heard again and again from this pulpit, we are great doers and lousy be-ers. We love our neighbours until we wear ourselves (and them) out, but we struggle to confess our love for God, our delight in God’s word, and our view that God is still at work in the world, making miracles each day. We need to reconvert to glorify God each day.

This was supposed to be a short beginning-of-summer sermon, and something happened, so I will leave off, trusting that you will sense God’s presence each blessed day of the summer, that you will walk with Christ where ever you go, and you will be open to the Spirit and the Spirit’s urging. Amen.


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