"Benediction and Going Forth"
Scripture - Matthew 28:16-20
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, June 15, 2014

During the last part of high school and most of college, I worked in a grocery store. I had started as a bagger, but before I left, had stocked dairy cases, been a cashier and supervised the front end of the store.

In that store customers had the option of driving around to a pick up lane in front of the store and having the bagger load their groceries in their car. Only a few customers took advantage of this service, mostly older adults and people that had some significant physical issues. While our salaries in that grocery store in those days were way above minimum wage and we weren't dependent upon the tips we received for loading groceries into cars, all of us deeply appreciated it when a customer pressed something into our palms.

I remember one woman who shopped occasionally at our store. She would purchase a significant amount of groceries and at least on one occasion decided to drive through the pick-up lane for the bagger on duty, who happened to be me, to load them up for her. As I placed the bags in the trunk of her large, new, white car she stood beside the car, dressed in a fur coat that was far too heavy for an Atlanta winter, fishing around in her purse. Typically, a customer fishing around in their purse or pocket while I was putting bags into their car was a sign there would be a tip when I was done. Sure enough, when I closed this woman's trunk, she extended her hand and pressed a tip into my palm. She smiled a genuine smile and said, "Thank you so much for helping me." Feeling that it was rude to count the tip in front of the customer, I quickly slipped the tip into my pocket, looked her back in the eye and said, "You're welcome. Come back to see us again soon."

But as I slipped it into my pocket I was aware that something felt odd about it. I knew the tip wasn't coinage, and given the weight and size and texture, it surely didn't feel like paper money either. When her car had disappeared from sight, I put my hand back in my pocket, pulled out the tip she had given me, and found that she had rewarded my grocery loading efforts with a pamphlet that screamed in big letters, "Are You Saved?" No cash, no coins, only a scary religious tract that wasted no time in making sure the reader realized they were the scum of the earth and that if they didn't turn around quickly hell would be nipping at their heels.

I don't know if she ever gave another bagger this kind of tip or not. And I have no idea why she chose me for such an "honor". After all, my appearance was neat and tidy - I had on the required dress shirt and tie, and that was in the days before I sported a pony tail. And I had treated her with respect and kindness. Why me?

I wondered if there was some reason she particularly chose me, or did she just assume that all college kids were heathens who had either totally rejected God or never heard of Jesus Christ?

She didn't know me. She didn't know that my faith was important to me. She didn't know that I was a very active member of a church. She didn't know that I had been baptized, that I had grown up attending Sunday School and worship in a place where you didn't disband for the summer. She didn't know that I prayed and read scripture regularly. She didn't know me at all.

And furthermore, she had no idea how I might react to a religious pamphlet that told me what a wretched sinner I was. She didn't engage in any conversation, in any follow up, or seek to build a relationship of trust and care.

She just placed the odd tip in my hand and drove off. "Drive by evangelism," I call it.

Although her actions seemed then, as they seem now, to me to be somewhat misguided, I suspect her motives were good. I mean, Jesus told the disciples to go, and she went. She went from her home to the grocery store. And Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations, and this woman drove right into the middle of the nation of college age male grocery baggers to deliver her strange tip.

In Matthew's account of Easter, Mary Magdalene and the "other Mary" were told by the resurrected Jesus that they were to tell the disciples that Jesus was alive and that he would meet them back in Galilee, back in the place where it had all started. Apparently the women did as they were told and the scene quickly shifts to Galilee.

Matthew tells us that they went to a mountain there. The name of the mountain isn't important - in fact, we are never told the mountain's name. But what is important is that they went to a mountain. Mountains were places of worship. Mountains were considered to be places of divine revelation. Mountains were places where people experienced God's presence and majesty. Mountains were where people received God's instructions. The 10 Commandments were given on a mountain. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, including the beatitudes (the "blessed are you's") was preached on a mountain.

So the 11 remaining disciples went to a mountain to worship, and Jesus was present with them in their service of worship. Matthew tells us that while they worshipped, some doubted, or hesitated. Who can blame them for that? After all, they witnessed Jesus' crucifixion and it was surely almost unbelievable that Jesus might now be standing among them. And on that mountain, with the 11 demonstrating a mixture of certainty and doubt, exuberance and hesitation, Jesus gave them a charge - to go forth from that mountain and make disciples everywhere. And having given them some last instructions, he pronounced a benediction...and lo, I am with you always, to the end of time.

They had encountered the presence of God. They had been commissioned to serve. The benediction pronounced. The service was over. All that was left was to go forth from that mountain into the world and do as Jesus asked.

Were they frightened by the task that lay before them? Probably. They knew they didn't have all the answers. They knew they might face rejection. They knew the road ahead was fraught with danger.

Were they overwhelmed by the reality that it was a great big world and only 11 of them? I suspect. Maybe it was so overwhelming as to become laughable event.

But the reality of it is, they could not stay on the mountain forever, just as we can't stay in the chapel or sanctuary forever either. At some point, worship services end, the benediction is pronounced, and we go forth into the world. We go forth in the world, however, as disciples, with the charge to make other disciples.

But when Jesus said to go forth and make disciples he suggested a very specific methodology. Make disciples by baptizing and teaching. Baptism is the entrance rite into the community of faith. It's the point that someone becomes connected with a group of people who can love them, support them, care for them, nurture their faith and demonstrate what it means to call Jesus Christ Lord and Savior.

Make disciples, Jesus told them, by baptizing and also by teaching. The best teachers are those who know us best, those who understand where we are coming from, those who stick by us even if we fail, those who communicate respect, acceptance and care. Indeed, it's hard to learn from a teacher who doesn't know us, doesn't care about us, and doesn't stick beside us.

Make disciples by ushering people into a community of faith and engaging in the ongoing and long term task of teaching about God, about forgiveness, and love and grace. That's what Jesus said to do. No scary pamphlets are required. No messages of doom are needed. And neither coercion nor condemnation is anywhere in sight.

My very first piano teacher was a woman who seemed to be as old as the hills to my young mind, although truly she was likely to be younger than I am now. She was a devout Southern Baptist woman who happened not just to love Jesus, but to love the piano, and to love to help children learn to enjoy that instrument. Mrs. Anderson was patient, and kind; I remember sitting at her piano and feeling welcomed by her. She believed that the best curriculum for teaching children to play the piano was the hymnbook. While she did include other piano literature in her lessons, the hymnal formed the backbone of her teaching.

She knew that my family was Presbyterian so she suggested she use the Presbyterian hymnal for my instruction rather than the Baptist one she loved, although I think she wasn't wild about the selection of hymns in it. She would have preferred more gospel hymns than the Presbyterian hymnbook of the time had in it.

Through those years of lessons with her and countless hours of practicing a multitude of hymns, I learned a whole lot of hymns; and through the music and lyrics of those hymns, I learned a lot about God. I have to believe that those experiences laid a foundation for the faith I came to embrace as an adult. And even today I still find myself singing some of those hymns in times of trial or sadness, or when hope seems hard to grasp, or when joy is overflowing. Those hymns shaped my faith as a child, and they continue to shape my faith today.

In many ways, I've come to see that Mrs. Anderson lived out Jesus' instructions. Yes a southern Baptist piano teacher made disciples of children, not through theological argument, or by delivering frightening message, but through her love and patience and generous welcome; and by using her God given skills to teach me about God's love through the songs of my faith. She didn't have to go far from home to do it either. In fact, she did it right in her own living room.

In the hymnal Mrs. Anderson used with me there was a section entitled, "Missions" Among the hymns in that section, one I certainly practiced as a child, was called "We Have Heard the Joyful Sound": "We have heard the joyful sound, Jesus saves. Jesus saves/ Spread the tidings all around, Jesus saves. Jesus saves."

We are recipients of joyful news: God loves us - each and every one of us. God welcomes us, all of us. God is with us, now and forever.

And like those initial 11 disciples who gathered on a mountain to worship, we who have gathered to worship today have that same charge from Jesus - to make disciples by creating a welcoming community faith, and by teaching God's love. And we do it knowing that Jesus is with us, now and to the end of time.

{Westminster Choir Sings} Give the winds a mighty voice, Jesus saves, Jesus saves./Let the nations now rejoice, Jesus saves, Jesus saves./Shout salvation full and free, To each strand that ocean laves,/This our song of victory, Jesus saves, Jesus saves.

So when the benediction has been said today, go forth and make disciples. And remember, Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age.