As You Go, Make of All Disciples

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Matthew 28:16-20
One who hears a witness becomes a witness.

Professor Elie Wiesel has taught us this at Boston University over the years.

To hear a witness is to become a witness yourself.  In that sense, every Sunday on which we stand to hear the witness of the Gospel, we again become witnesses.  We stand up, and becoming upstanding, in bearing witness.

Our Gospel today, the sacramental and hospitable conclusion to the First Gospel, that of St. Matthew, addresses us as a community about our witness.

What then shall your witness be?  To whom, to what, to whom shall you bear witness?

Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres, say the Spanish:  Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.

Wiesel again spoke to us this past year, as he has for 34 years at Boston University.  He spoke about Deborah, in the Book of Judges.  He spoke that is about the Scripture and about the interpretation of the Scripture.  He spoke about meaning, justice, and truth in our time and all time.  He delivered his meditative lecture as a witness to an earlier witness, the witness of Deborah.

Around us this past school year have swirled other such witnesses.  Professors Prothero and Bacevich recalled and reflected, one evening, upon Jonathan Winthrop’s famous sermon from the Massachusetts Bay in 1630, ‘a city set on a hill’.  They were recalling earlier witnesses.  Downtown, earlier in the year, during the meeting of a civic club, a woman remembered the sermon series on ‘Darwin and Faith’ which we provided here at Marsh Chapel two summers ago.  She was recalling a form of witness.  One evening in our Gottlieb center, four people who were children in Europe in the Second World War gave witness to the searing, tragic experiences of their childhoods, and those who helped save them.  They were recalling the people who got them to where they are, who got them to whom they are.  Various BU alumni have appeared to visit this year and have spent some time in reverie and reminiscence.  They have been recalling those who made them the kind of disciples they are.  Two visitors brought a video recollection of Howard Thurman, our predecessor here at Marsh Chapel.  They recalled his witness.  A man wrote from Oregon, not long ago remembering a sermon of Thurman’s from that era:  ‘Fear not the Fallow’.  Did we have a copy?  We have not discovered it yet, but, that title pretty much preaches the sermon, a good early summer reminder;  ‘Fear Not the Fallow’.  Our students and staff, including some from Marsh Chapel have remembered this year their experiences growing up gay, and the ‘fightings without and fears within’ which they experienced, including those who encouraged and sustained them.  They were recalling witnesses.

In our Gospel Lesson, St. Matthew too offers a word about bearing witness.  The original frames the Matthean exhortation in the shape of a journey:  “As you go, make…” We hear the Gospel and we are reminded, recalled to a rightful mind.  We are reminded that we are children of God. The Gospel reminds us that the good news is for people, about people, within people.  We have rehearsed before us today again the ethic of love in the teaching of the church, the ethic of Jesus in the teaching of the church.

In a few minutes, we shall close our service, singing a familiar hymn, “Go Make of All Disciples”.  Every hymn has a story, every hymn is itself a witness.  This one was written and first used for a June Sunday service like ours today, back in 1955.  It was composed by the minister of University Methodist Church, in Syracuse, NY (twenty years after Norman Vincent Peale had left that pulpit for Marble Collegiate Church in NYC).  The hymn was lifted on a day of great celebration, with many hundreds of children, that Children’s Sunday, singing their way into the summer, with a reminder:  ‘as you go, make’.

Our capacity to understand and then to embody such a gospel and such an ethic depends in a practical way upon those whom we know well enough and admire fully enough to choose as mentors.  The church has recognized this need, over the years, by remembering, in particular, particular persons who have led, exemplary lives.  One tradition may hallow and revere individuals, chosen and examined over time.  Another tradition may emphasize in the communion of saints, the COMMUNION more than the individual saints.  You may find that there is some wisdom in both.  But when we are touched by the communion of SAINTS or by the COMMUNION of saints, we are influenced, shaped and changed.  To hear a witness is to become a witness.

Over this past year, you have perhaps experienced some loss.  The cloud of witnesses to whom you turn in heaven for guidance on earth may have grown. One—only one—part of your work in grieving their loss will evolve through your own assessment of their helpful examples.  You will want to find ways to hold up and to hold on to the gifts, graces and goodness of their lives, as time goes by.  My family joined your grieving in the labors of love when our Dad died last June.  The manifold, multiple kindnesses which were extended to us, through a season of bereavement, for which we are deeply thankful, have connected us to you, one to another, in a deep, and personal, way.  Bereavement is a sacrament.  Bereavement is a kind of sacrament.  There is a grace, a deep river of grace, running through it all.  In particular, this year, I have been impressed by the memories which men have shared, of their own fathers, memories which men have recalled and related, concerning the deaths of their dads, of your dads.  They come to mind this Father’s Day.

A part of grace in bereavement arises from the communal capacity to remember.  As a graduate of BUSTH in the class of 1953, my father could appreciate that communal capacity of memory.  To hear a witness is to become one yourself.  The ethic of love in the teaching of the church, the ethic of Jesus in the teaching of the church, becomes personal and real when we can identify persons who witness to that ethic and that teaching, and so teach us how to live.  Another generation heard the witness of Earl Marlatt, then professor and Dean in our BU School of Theology, who asked a question:  Are Ye Able…said, to remember, when the shadows, still the master.

In the spring of 1973 six freshmen from Ohio Wesleyan University (as we have noted before, a small Methodist college for small Methodists) drove a large Oldsmobile in the rain, across eastern Ohio and Central Pennsylvania, bound for a lake cottage in upstate New York.  We had planned to meet my father there for a late dinner, and the beginning of a summer break.  In the rain on route 80, the car went over an embankment.  Passengers and luggage went in all directions.  I had been bringing two white lab mice, in an open bucket equipped with a drip water dispenser, as some sort of gift for my sister Cynthia.  After the crash the mice were gone, the car drivable but without windshield wipers, and the six freshmen rightly frightened.  We inched along in the rain in silence.  About an hour into the silence a roommate in the front seat started shouting and screaming at the top of his lungs.  At least one of the mice had survived, and was crawling up his left leg.  We inched along in the rain in further silence, one headlight, no wipers.  Near dawn we turned down the camp road to see lights burning, and a little smoke coming from the chimney.

Dad had paced all night, after we had called to tell him our delay, and greeted us with a fierce joy.  He fixed us a lumberjack breakfast.  As we went to sleep, I could see him stoking the fire, before going off to work, to meet the challenges of 1973, after a sleepless night.  Just before dosing off I heard him singing:  “Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will pray.  Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will pray”.

That song at the hearth and from the heart still resounds, rings out, true of his life and faith.  It is important for us, for the coming generations, the remember the witness of those who taught us how to bear witness.   Unhappy are those who lose access to their own best past.  Happy are those who find access to their own best past.  In that personal song of spirit, experience, and prayer were many of the cherished beliefs and values for which he lived, by which he lived.  Let me name some of them.

He and his companions in the ministry lived in the openness, the magnanimous freedom of grace, the freedom for which Christ sets us free, on which we are to stand fast, and not to be enslaved again.

He lived convinced of the lasting worth, the ultimate value of persons and personality.
He lived and taught that love means taking responsibility.
He placed the highest premiums on marriage, family, children, and friends.
He had a rare, great capacity for friendship.

He could be restless with and critical of those perspectives which narrow the wideness of God’s mercy.  And he could be restless with and critical of those practices in personal and institutional life which did not become the gospel, were not becoming to the gospel.

He trusted that wherever there is a way, there is Christ, wherever there is truth, there is Christ, wherever there is life, there is Christ.

He honored his own conscience and heart, and expected others to do the same.  The conscience of the believer is inviolable.

Many of you remember today those who helped you become a disciple, with  toughness in love and love in  toughness.

And as I heard him say, circa 1990,during a meeting in the Oneida church sanctuary, ‘because I am loved, I can love’.

Given Matthew 28:16, and given this particular Sunday, and given the venerable pulpit here the stewardship of which in these years is our shared responsibility, it is fitting to remember his poem about preaching:

Preaching is not Bible study, but
It does require Biblical understanding

Preaching is not theology, but
There must be theology in it.

Preaching is not biography, but
It does require an understanding of people.

Preaching is not teaching, but
It is instructional.

Preaching is not social ethics, but
It must point to social responsibility.

Preaching is one vehicle God has chosen
That can g
row life.

Preaching is humbling,
And Rewarding!

As you probably suspect, I believe these words fit more than preaching.  They really ask us about our witness to what most matters, counts, lasts, and works.  They ask us about our journey in faith.  “As you go…’ What?

Does your way of living have some root and grounding in ancient, holy, inspired Scripture?  Well then, as you go, read the Bible some and set an example for those growing up to become students, that is disciples, with you.

Does your way of living, your going as you go, afford a place for thoughtful reflection, for putting things in the light of divine love?  Well then, as you go, you might want to share your regard for thoughtful living, for theological reflection, and so set an example for those growing up to become students, that is disciples, with you.

Does your path, your journey involve some other, interesting people?  Some colorful characters?  I hope so!  Tell their stories to those you are making as disciples.

Does your own experience leave you with something to pass on to others, some life learning?  Well then, as you go, find some creative ways to leave a trail of bread crumbs for others to follow.

Does your way of living in faith bear the weight of responsibility we share for the common good?  What about justice, and mercy, and humility?  Do you have a cause or three?  (Like refugee resettlement, or employment for all, or care for those in military service?)  Well then, as you go, let us know.

On this Father’s day, to conclude, is your way of living a kind of living that grows life for others, and sets an example that is humbling, challenging and rewarding?  My marine friend says this:  ‘Leadership is example. Period.’ 

As you go, make of all disciples…

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel

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