I was honored to preach last night at my good friend Oscar Rozo's installation as Chaplain to the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry at UW-Whitewater and Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. It was a wonderful evening and a joyful celebration. Here is the sermon I preached.
In the Name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Friends! Bishop Miller, Bishop Froiland, my sister and brother clergy, my dear friend and brother, Oscar: grace and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.
So, it's late. Later than we're usually assembled like this. Nearing bedtime, maybe, for some of you. I know, me too. But are you happy to be here? Yes? Turn and tell a neighbor, "I'm happy to be here!" I am happy to be here, too, with dear friends and for this celebration. As I was driving the winding roads to get here tonight, with the anticipation of the evening and the time change thrown in, making it overly dark, it felt almost like preparing for the Easter Vigil. What a gift to be gathered now, as then, called together by the Spirit of God.
Bishop Froiland, you and I were in the same room a couple of weeks ago, at the retirement party for my good friend and colleague, Pastor Brent Christiansen, at UW-Madison; he was celebrating the end - 21 remarkable years of ministry spent there with students. You and I didn’t meet that night, but it is wonderful and appropriate to be sharing another room with you just now, this time to mark a beginning, as another minister of the Gospel takes up the mantle of ministry among students and as priest-in-charge at St. Luke’s.
In fact. Presumably. Just now. Word is. We are among students. Students, where are you?
I bring the love and prayers of the Episcopal community at UW-Madison for you tonight. We are cheering you on with our whole hearts as you continue the good work God’s begun in you, lovingly calling you to grow as a community of belonging and blessing for others. To the people of St. Luke’s and you students, it is a real joy to be with you.
I don’t know what you students make of being a Christian on campus in 2014, what it’s about. Whatever else it means, you probably assume it means doing service projects or something similarly impressive, in order to be vaguely useful to those around you. But I hope you know the blessing you are already, by virtue of your having risked the vulnerability required to gather as this community of belonging. Your growing imagination for life together, knowing and being known, seeking Christ in one another and others, is a beautiful gift for which the outside world deeply longs. True fact.
Enough flattery. Let’s get to the gospel. Someone’s given us the Great Commission to talk about tonight, so there’s no point putting it off. I mean, I’m clearly putting it off. Eh. It’s not that I don’t like the Great Commission. God knows, I’m for it. Bishops, I’m for it! The Great Commission, for Christians, is the top of the list. The best. It’s just that, well. An African Bible scholar one time said, “You white, Western Christians and your infatuation with the Great Commission - it must be nice,” he said. (I’m paraphrasing.) “To have the luxury of assuming the power necessary to exercise these words of Jesus in the peculiar ways you do… Who else on this planet is in a position to take for granted, as a given of the Gospel, the freedom, the wherewithal, to go out and conquer to the ends of the earth, the power to make, to shape, to mold the social order as you deem best, even if you don’t know best? You assume the role of baptizer, teacher, leader to those you may or may not take the good time to know first. And, then,” he said, “if you have taken for yourself the role of the colonizer in all that comes before it, of course it makes sense to remember that Christ is with you to the end of the age; that God has legitimated your efforts to be salvation for others.” What the bishop didn't say is that such a vision depends on a presumption to power which even the while Western church may no longer find itself comfortable assuming.
“But,” he said, cheering up some, “did you know that the original Bible did not come with tidy bold headlines at the top of every section? That is, there’s nothing to stop us from finding another commission in the scriptures and calling it the great one instead. I would suggest, for example,” he said, “the interaction between the risen Christ and Peter around that charcoal fire on the beach in those early morning hours. Jesus, re-meeting the friend who denied him. ‘Simon Peter, do you love me more than these?’ Three times he asks him. Peter, engulfed by humiliation and grief, crying out from the depths, ‘Yes, Lord! You know that I love you.’ Jesus’ commission to Peter: ‘Feed my sheep.’”
I share this African scholar’s observation not only because his suggested great commission closely resembles the mission statement painted on your parish hall wall - We feed people! - and far less to question the Great Commission itself. Let’s be clear about that. What I want us to question is not the Great Commission but the way we have, says this scholar, sometimes read and militarized the Great Commission in ways that forget that the one who gave it in the first place had holes in his hands when he said it, and that the ones to whom he gave it were the ones he had to first forgive.
When we remember that the one who is with us is the crucified and risen Jesus; when we remember that the one who is with us came back to those who left him because he loved them; when we remember that the one who is with us calls the merciful blessed and the peacemakers children of God; when we remember that the one who is with us put a tax collector and a zealot in the same room together in his posse of friends and called that the Kingdom of God; then, and only then, can the action verbs of Matthew’s gospel reclaim their true selves again. For, read in this context, we cannot imagine going to others apart from an ocean-deep longing to seek and serve Christ in them, joyfully anticipating God’s meeting us in realms beyond ourselves; read in this context, we cannot imagine making disciples apart from reconciliation, which may involve our own confession of sin - sometimes “mission” means saying, “I’m sorry” for the ways we’ve put our own conditions on the unity of the Gospel; read in this context, we cannot imagine baptizing as anything other than delight in the sheer grace of God, not a power of ourselves; read in this context, we cannot imagine teaching, for example, forgiveness, apart from living lives of public gratitude and trusting that we ourselves have been forgiven. And read in this context, we cannot imagine remembering the ongoing presence of Christ as validation for what we’ve done so much as the truth about who we are and who we will become. The truth about who you are is deeply loved by God. The truth about who you will become is reconciled to God and all things, all things, reconciled to God in Christ. Go, make, baptize, teach, remember. Live the mercy you’ve, in Christ, received. Live a trust with God and all God’s friends.
It is helpful tonight to remember that the Great Commission is given by Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the one and the same Jesus who spoke the Beatitudes, because only then can we begin to make sense of a priest and pastor like Oscar. Oscar is not a colonizing presence; Oscar loves CPE! Oscar is gentle. Moreover, Oscar is gentle not in a vaguely polite, pseudo-Christian kind of way but in the way Paul talks about gentleness: as a witness to the nearness of the Lord. Oscar loves Jesus, and is committed to speaking the truth to and for all those Jesus loves and receiving the truth from the same. This does not mean that Oscar is perfect, but that Oscar knows and cherishes his need of God’s Spirit. There are few greater gifts.
Live the mercy you’ve, in Christ, received. Live a trust with God and all God’s friends. Go, make, baptize, teach, remember.
Oscar has told me so much about the ways you at St. Luke’s and in the LECM live this mercy already and are seeking to grow in holy friendship with those around you. Reconciliation is close to your heart. Look at you: Lutherans and Episcopalians - reconciliation; young and not so young - reconciliation; around fire pits and dinner tables - reconciliation; in countless conversations at so, so many coffee shops - reconciliation; in the newly planted dream for an interfaith chapel to be a place of welcome for all people - reconciliation; in coming efforts to organize communities of faith around dialogue and support of LGBTQ communities - reconciliation. At every turn, living the mercy you have received. Learning and living a trust with God and God’s friends. You go, make, baptize, teach, and remember every time you engage Christ’s work of reconciliation in this world, giving and generously receiving gifts in God’s Name.
But if the preacher’s word so far is to demilitarize Matthew’s Great Commission and read it less as marching orders and more as an invitation to live into the reconciling community called together by the crucified and risen Christ, we need, before we’re done, to say a word about courage.
In tonight’s Old Testament lesson, the LORD tells Joshua to “Be strong and courageous.” The context, this time, is military invasion, but the courage required of Joshua is not the traditional, stoic courage of the warrior; it is the courage of one God has promised to be with, so it is a courage not of self-sufficiency and might but of trust and surrender. It’s the same promise God gave Moses, when Moses told God that he’d rather be a slave in Egypt than free apart from the presence of God. It’s the promise God first gave Moses, in that awkward, somewhat clumsy, first-date elevator pitch beside the burning bush. Moses objects, “Who am I for an adventure like this one?” “You are,” says the LORD, “the one I am with.” From that moment on, Moses is asked to find his identity and take his courage only from the promise that he does not go alone.
Moses and Joshua remind us that courage, to be courage, doesn't require the absence of fear, but courage does require the trust of the company with which we travel. Another word for such a trust is friendship. In Christ, we have been made friends of God and one another. So the same Christ who gives the great commission sends them out in pairs, as friends. Courage, of course, involves the trust of those around you - that they will be with you and for you and tell you the truth - and also of those behind you - that they will protect you in your blind spots as you go forward beyond what you can see - and of those before you - that, in the moment of your testing, the training you've received from the communities that raised you will be sufficient for the task at hand - and of those who follow you - that the sacrifices you have made, or are about to make, will be valued and furthered, and not rendered inconsequential.
Such trusts, of course, takes time. Oscar, be patient. With others and yourself. God has given you all the time in the world to grow in this trust. Cherish the time. For Christians, there is above all the deep trust that God will provide, beyond all imagining and asking, even God’s self. We believe this because we have seen, in Christ, how God loves us. And somewhere in that space where God invites us to a trust of this love, we likewise discover that all fear's been cast out, and there is more than enough. Do not be afraid. Be strong and courageous! Wait on the Lord.
And, finally then, taking our cue from St. Paul - and on a night like tonight, how could we not? - Rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.