Year A; FB.Proper 6; 6.14.2020
Willie James Jennings begins his seminal theological work with a story about his mother Mary, whose grandmother was a freed South Carolina slave and a dirt farmer. Part of the migration north, Jennings’ family settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan where Mary worked the soil of her Michigan garden with the same passion her grandmother did in South Carolina.
One day, while Mary was working in her garden and 12-year-old Willie was playing nearby in the yard, two white men came into their yard. Quickly, Mary moved to put her body between her son and the two men. The story describes the two men delivering, as Jennings calls it, a “wooden” speech about being from the church down the street; that they had a lot of activities for kids. The one man went on and on while the other stooped a little too low to the 12-year-old and spoke to him as if he were in second grade.
They asked no questions. They didn’t engage, other than to talk, until Mary stopped them by saying, “I am already a Christian. I believe in Jesus and I attend New Hope Missionary Baptist Church where Rev. J. V. Williams is the pastor.” Those of us who know and love the deep neighbor listening of “Living Local” might see this as a lost relational opportunity.
Willie James Jennings is the associate professor of systematic theology and Africana Studies at Yale University. The question that has followed him from this adolescent experience is, “Why did these men not know us? Their church was just down the street. They should have known us very well.” He writes, “The foreignness and formality of their speech in our backyard signaled a wider and deeper order of not knowing, of not seeing, of not imagining.”
This morning I want to set this “wooden presentation” and the formality of these two “missionaries” in Grand Rapids, Michigan against Jesus’ orders to the 12 apostles in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel. I’m calling them “apostles” because that is what they are, from the perfect Greek word: “Apo” meaning away from, and “stellein”, to send.
“Apostle:” To send away from. Jesus gave them some pretty hefty instructions and then sent them away from him to proclaim God’s kingdom, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons and do it all without any expectation of reward or being paid.
I compare the Grand Rapids missionaries to this daunting assignment Jesus gave his followers. Before Jesus gave them the instructions, he gave them his authority. For any of us who love Jesus and wish to follow him, what does Jesus’ authority look like? “Wooden and formal?” Timid and scared?
I think Jesus’ authority looks like grace and love and forgiveness. Authority, not as a dictator or ruler or king or boss. But as one who rides on a donkey into Jerusalem; as one who teaches, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” or as one who says, “Father, forgive them…”
Jesus had good reason to pass along his authority. He saw how harried and worried and persecuted and oppressed the people were, running around like sheep without a shepherd. He felt gut-wrenching compassion for them. They needed someone to follow; someone they could trust; someone who proclaimed the truth of God’s free, liberating, life-giving love.
Jesus said, “I give you authority to cure the sick, raise the dead (honestly, RAISE THE DEAD), cleanse the crusty debilitated limbs of the lepers, cast out demons (LORD, HAVE MERCY, THEY ARE LEGION!), and don’t expect to receive anything in return.”
I discovered in my study of this passage that some bible scholars have second-guessed the meaning of Jesus’ instructions. There is a kind of dismissal, “Jesus probably didn’t mean HIS kind of authority. And really, the list of miracles was probably too daunting for the apostles to apprehend, much less carry out.” Some of these scholars questioned whether the hearers of these instructions then and now, might become paralyzed under the pressure.
But I’m in favor of Matthew’s list of instructions, the most comprehensive list in all the gospels. I am in favor of spelling out what it was that followers of Jesus were to do. I’m in favor or erring on the side of, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”…those hopeful words from our Genesis reading that the Lord said to elderly Abraham and laughing, barren Sarah when the visitors predicted she would become pregnant.
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
Whatever authority and instruction Jesus gave the apostles, surely their hearts and souls were captured by the life-giving, in-breaking of God’s power acting in their lives. Jesus gave them power to act on behalf of the harassed and oppressed people. Their mission was to go out and pass it on.
When I think of Christian missionaries I think of history and the centuries of Christianity that sought to make non-Christians in foreign lands in an image that was contrary to their God-given culture. Willie James Jennings gives an example in his theology text of early Portuguese slave traders handing over 235 slaves to the prince. The prince desired to give a “tithe” to the church so had 2 slaves peeled off to give to the “glory of God” to the Franciscan Order.
In our day, as our country comes to terms with the systems that for centuries have kept people of color in a “less than equal” status, I wonder what “missionary instructions” we might receive from Jesus. What kind of authority is Jesus giving us in order to heal, cast out demons, raise the dead and cleanse the sores of oozing wounds?
As a person in the dominant culture of our country, I’m imagining what my missionary work looks like when I don’t have to worry about being pulled over by the police and falsely arrested, or being second-guessed in my work place, or ridiculed for my accent or behavior or clothing.
I’ll never forget the training I took one weekend in the Diocese of New Jersey. Anti-racism training was offered over a weekend free. I went with Mary our Senior Warden who is a Black woman my age. I remember the first day, the facilitators filled the room with butcher paper and marked in sequence from the 15th century in this country, key moments of history and laws that had been enacted to reduce the humanity of Black people and favor white people. We learned that race was a late social construct developed in the 18th Century.
Mary was elated to learn that there was in fact a system that had kept her from being equal under the law. I remember her tears of joy as she realized that the invisible system holding her back came into the light of day.
I believe that for me, a white person, I am receiving the authority from Jesus to be an agent of dismantling a system in this country that favors me over others.
I believe that Jesus is sending out people of faith to do the work of racial justice.
Does this seem like a tall order now in a pandemic?
But remember the words God said to Abraham and Sarah of the impossible,
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”