Alan Sherouse, Alliance of Baptists
Text: Matthew 9:36-10:10
Some of you might have experienced a conversion in your life. I’ve experienced many.
One occurred sometime during my Divinity School days at Wake Forest, in part through friendship with a classmate, Brian Ammons, who frequently spoke of a church named Pullen. And at some point in those Div School days, the leftover, embedded assumptions I’d carried with me into that place – assumptions about just who should and should not be welcomed and affirmed in our Christian community – were converted. And through the work of the Spirit that weaves our lives together, I know Pullen was a part of that. So count me among those who know more about the grace of God and more about the gospel of Christ because of the witness and work of this church.
I’m honored to be here. And I thank you all: Nancy, other ministers, Brooks and Pat my hosts. Thank you for your bold and animated ministry, and you need to know that it extends well beyond you to places like a divinity school in Winston-Salem…and even north to a church in Midtown Manhattan.
I do want to greet you on behalf of Metro Baptist in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan. That same Spirit that weaves our lives together has connected us through the work of the Alliance of Baptists. Metro – like Pullen – is an Alliance partner congregation, and our community ministry – Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries – is among those that benefit from the Alliance Mission Offering that you collect this morning.
Since this morning is a Sunday of Mission emphasis and Mission offering, I was drawn to a Missional text: Jesus sending out his disciples in Matthew.
“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” It’s an early 80s punk rock question, first posed by The Clash in 1981, and asked again on many a Pandora Station these days. It must have been a question asked by the followers featured in our passage this morning. It is after all a question posed again and again by the gospel.
The New Testament gives us images of both: staying and going. From disciples so compelled, that they leave their homes to follow the itinerant man from Nazareth, to a closing scene where Jesus is said to ascend into heaven and to those who have re-routed their lives and followed him this far he says, “stay here.”
Should I stay or should I go? In some ways, the question is disingenuous. We are where we are. We live where we live. Of course, we can relocate. But that’s rarely an answer for our restlessness in and of itself. Life has some going in it. But life also has some staying put. Some staying at it. Our lives are often necessarily sedentary & stable. And that is also a calling.
So with respect to The Clash, it’s a false dichotomy for many of us. Not either/or but both/and. Even if physically located in a particular place, can we consider our existential, spiritual, missional movements in this world? Can we go while we stay? Can we bring some traces of the passion and mobility we see and hear in this story of Jesus into our stories? Into our often stable lives?
You’ll notice that our passage today – the sending out of these disciples – is at first a singular charge: “Go.” Before the instructions to cure and cleanse, to cast out and call out, to preach and teach, the very first word is “Go.”
When I think of “going,” I remember an early morning in June not so long ago. Jenny and I joined our lives together just over ten years ago. After our honeymoon, we returned to our childhood homes in Lakeland, FL, where we packed the things we loved and left the things we felt we’d outgrown, hugged our parents and siblings, and then came to the time to set out. Bound for North Carolina…and then who knew where…we drove a 17-foot UHAUL, filled up with our clothes, our furniture, the new mattress we bought with some wedding cash, and the box my mom had packed full of my Christmas ornaments and a few old little league jerseys. It struck me as we went: “Everything we own is loaded in this UHAUL Thrifty Mover!!” And, as if nature wanted to accent my sentimental mood, somewhere out beyond Interstate 4, the sun began to rise.
Of course, much of our “going” occurs without dramatic light cues. Most of it’s not so thick with romance. Journeys that start out with confidence and boldness can end with consequences, wounds, dejection. And we’ve heard these travel stories, too. Which is why this charge to “go” can clash with our better judgment.
We know too much. We’ve seen what this real world can do to the wandering and wildeyed – to people that fail to take the necessary precautions. It is a world that can be frightening and unforgiving. The kind of world that rolls stones in front of tombs. Where broken people stay broken. Dead people stay dead. And when you see enough of that story, you begin to internalize it and live your life by its cues.
So how tempting it is for us not simply to stay, but to spend our lives in safe and settled spaces. Such is the tendency of disciples in any age…
Imagine what must have been racing through the minds of Jesus’ early followers that day.
A curious, recently compelled group of followers, they’ve witnessed powerful things: A demoniac freed from his demons. A man with leprosy made clean with a touch. But then Jesus comes around one day and rather abruptly tells them to go. They’ve already left behind their homes, and now, on top of that, he asks for their tunics and walking sticks as well. “Leave it all behind,” he says, “and go.”
And as they go, he wants them to do…to do remarkable things. The very things they’ve seen him do. Cure the sick. Raise the Dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons. Tasks that seem so far beyond their ability. Hard enough when a person is fully outfitted, and harder still with no sandals on your feet and no coins in your purse.
And, as Matthew tells it, that’s how he sent them out.
Jarring. Demanding. Abrupt. But we might recall that the grand old story we tell…the story in which we find ourselves…that helps us make sense of our lives and struggles…it’s never been a safe story. It’s never been a story about settling down. It’s a story of setting out. Moving forward.
A story about how just when we’re enjoying security and protection within the fencelines we’ve constructed, the Good Shepherd turns to all of us 99: “there’s this part of me that just can’t rest. I’m going out beyond to search for the 1 and bring him home, bring her home, again and again.”
A story of disciples who approach a tomb early one morning carrying spices…arriving for a funeral…wanting to make sure the tomb was sealed and the body contained…only to hear “he is not here…he’s not encased here…he is gone…gone out ahead of you…”
The incarnation itself is a story about “going.” Maybe you’ve heard, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It has always been a story with some going in it, as it has also been a story with some leaving. Leaving the settled, familiar terrain…leaving the trades we’ve practiced and the nets we’ve thrown again and again…leaving the stories we’ve rehearsed and internalized of this world that limits our imaginations, where our best hopes die and stay dead…leaving to go and become more than we knew we could be.
So in Matthew’s account, the disciples are not simply asked to go, they are also asked to leave…to leave everything behind. Mark and Luke each make it a little easier on them. Mark lets them keep their shoes and Luke says, “shed your possessions,” but only for the time being. But in Matthew, the charge is unabashedly “Leave. Take no copper in your purse. Take no bag to carry your provisions and precautions. Carry no staff to protect yourself from the things you encounter on the road.” There are no UHAULS on this journey.
Just think of what a journey like that would do to a person. Then again, maybe you already know. Maybe in your own life you’ve know something of what they came to know…of what it is to be vulnerable, barefoot, wandering from town to town, depending on the kindness of others for a cup of water and a corner in which to sleep. When you travel like that – when you live like that – you can never return home the same person.
I see so much of this mobility and vulnerability in the mission efforts of the Alliance of Baptists. Like other progressive Christian organizations and churches, the Alliance faces the challenge of reinterpreting mission and presenting it to all of us who are awfully suspicious of anything that bears resemblance to the neo-colonial forms of Christian mission we know, in which the church participates in a larger program of Westernization and conquest that puts the gospel in league with McDonald’s and serves up something no less greasy. With the Alliance, so much effort is made to ensure that your contribution is part of a program based on values of partnership, collaboration, empowerment, mutuality.
It’s the kind of mutually transformative mission I’ve experienced at Metro. Metro is housed in an old Polish Catholic Church building. 5 stories of aging brick, and yet so much life in the multifaceted programs, and the communities of people who come through our constantly revolving door. Through the Alliance’s Summer Communities of Service program we have been privileged to host young adult volunteers the last 2 summer. 2 years ago, one of our volunteers – Chris Hughes, who is now a 3rd yr student at Wake Div – described some of his impressions after a couple weeks with us: “I’m used to church being a singular community of people. But at Metro it seems like there are so many different communities just layered on top of each other.” I loved the description. And if you’ve visited us you know that from the basement that houses our Clothes Closet & Food Pantry, up to the roof that’s home to our recently developed small-scale vegetable farm, and on the 4 floors in between, every day there are different communities drawn for different reasons, but all creating community and finding sanctuary together.
It’s the same kind of ethic I see reflected in the work and witness of this church. Consider your Hope Center. I’ve been so impressed with what I’ve read of it and the dignity and power it instills in participants. No action occurs without partnership and mutuality, and everything begins with listening.
And you’ve found what I’ve found. Like when I met Diane on the street outside the church not long ago. She had been sitting along the wall of one of the buildings on our block for several afternoons in a row. Several of us noticed her, so being the “urban pastor” I went out to meet her. I crouched down and in my most pastoral tone of voice said, “Ma’am…what is your greatest need today?” And she looked at me and said quite decisively: “Some sweet n’ sour chicken!”
How often – in our well-intentioned efforts of mission – have we presumed to know what is needed? When sometimes what we have most readily available to give is not what is needed at all.
At Metro and RMM, our portion of the Alliance offering is applied directly to our Page Turner’s after-school program. And if you have never tutored a 3rd-grader, I promise you nothing will make you feel more stupid or useless. I was tutoring Bridget recently in math. I was stumped and she knew it, and she said, “Don’t you know how to do this?” And she kept at it, “Where did you go to school?” I lost an inch of height with every insult. I was about 4 ft tall by the time I got up and went back to my office.
So we followers of Christ dare not assume that the something we want to give is always better than nothing at all. That we have the answers, much less the correct formulas, the meal, the handout, the offering of such value, the crouched posture, the patronizing tone.
No, when we’ve fashioned our lives around these travel plans of Jesus…when we have embodied the type of mobility that Jesus describes…we can never again volunteer at the food pantry, hand the grocery bag across the table, and assume that makes us a hero.
After a mission trip like that, we can’t return with a slideshow and talk about how the people we served had nothing before you arrived! After we’ve depended on another’s hospitality, we can never again take our turn volunteering on the soup line and hold ourselves apart from the person on the other side. No, when we look at her, we would see ourselves.
As we go, we realize we need one another. Need to be related. Need to hear one another’s stories. Need to give to one another whatever we have to give.
For when we have shed what we’ve accumulated – the copper in our belts that let’s us think we are self-made, the sandals on our feet that insulate us from the road, the staffs in our hands that keep unwanted things at a distance – we find all that’s left are the things we’ve been given. The grace that redeems us. The love shared in the community of Christ. The power of resurrection and new life. And the really good news of the gospel is this: that’s still enough to go and do the things God is calling us to do.
“To go cure the sick” – Jesus says – working together to create a world where all people receive the care that they need.
To go raise the dead, finding those people who are asleep in their tombs…really really dying…and telling them we know about a place where they can be alive.
To go cleanse the lepers, finding those cast out and being a part of their restoration to community.
To go cast out demons, refusing to accept the systems of oppression and domination in our world, and proclaiming the power of God to cast them out.
And before long, it starts to look like the wildeyed man from Nazareth might have known something – might have been onto something – when he arrived on the scene and announced with his words and threw his life into his belief: the kingdom of God is near!
And it starts with one word. That’s why the question that really interests God is the question that is asked in that beautiful narrative of call that we find in the 6th chapter of Isaiah. Do you remember it? “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord high and lofty…” And the voice of the Lord comes to the prophet, asking not “who will preach or who will teach?” Not “who will cast out or call out?” Not “who will cure or cleanse or spend?”
No, the important question is the same one we might hear in our souls even now: “Who will go?” Amen.