June 7, 2020

Only the Lonely, VI: Even to Close of the Age

Passage: Matthew 28:16–20

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Lo, I am with you always—ALL THE TIME—even to the close of the age. —Matthew 28:20

That passage which concludes Matthew’s Gospel is a beloved and integral text that’s often called “The Great Commission.” The Common Lectionary often assigns this text to Trinity Sunday because it is one of the few places in the Bible where the three persons of the Trinity are listed in the formulaic nomenclature we still use two thousand years later: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We recite this text every time we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism because The Great Commission is the reason we celebrate Baptism two thousand years later.

You’ll notice that this brief passage of five verses is crowded with the quantitative adjective “All.” So I want to talk to you about The Four All’s in The Great Commission.  Richard Beaton from Fuller Theological Seminary taught me this: (1) All authority, (2) All nations, (3) All I have taught you, and (4) Always, even to the close of the age.[1]

The First All: All Authority. It’s a scary and challenging time, isn’t it? Otis Moss from Trinity UCC in Chicago talks about two pandemics: Covid-19 and 1619. In 1619 the first African slaves landed on this continent near Jamestown, Virginia. Ironically there were 19 of them. African slaves beat the English Pilgrims to this continent. We’ve been sick for 400 years.

Covid-19 and 1619 are both powerful, stubborn viruses. Once the former gets into your bloodstream, or the latter enters the lungs of a nation’s culture, it is hard to get rid of it. The morbidity rate is high with both viruses. People die.

There was a wonderful article in the Science Section of The New York Times on Tuesday about how the coronavirus works. Alan Burdick crafted a textbook example of lucid, lively, elegant science writing.

He pointed out that viruses are terrifying in their rudimentary simplicity. They cannot move, grow, persist, or perpetuate. A virus, nothing more than a packet of information, needs a host.

This is not a war, because the virus has no agency. It is a machine, not a monster, nothing more than a microscopic copy machine; it’s just a tiny Xerox photocopier. All it does is make copies of itself.

Yet this tiny “wisp of data” has “grounded half the world’s commercial airplanes, doubled the stock price of Zoom, infiltrated our language—‘social distancing,’ ‘immunocompromised’—and our dreams. It has postponed sports, political conventions, and the premiers of the next Spider Man, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, and James Bond films. Wild boars roam the streets of Barcelona.” One microbiologist said, “This is a pretty efficient pathogen. It is very good at what it does.”[2]  You almost admire its shapely simplicity.

And when you put covid-19 together with 1619, it seems as if our world is out of control. It doesn’t look like anyone is in charge. It doesn’t seem as if God is in charge. God seems gone.

But God’s not gone. This is still God’s stunning masterpiece. Maybe there is something to learn even in the harrowing, perfect efficiency of the coronavirus. Over immeasurable eons God has been shrewdly crafting a cosmic panoply of exquisite diversity with the single chisel of natural selection—from the tiniest virus to the greatest blue whale.

God is not gone, and Jesus is Lord. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Jesus, says Matthew. Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and Prime Minister of the Netherlands at the turn of the twentieth century, said, “There is not one single inch of all creation over which Jesus does not cry ‘Mine!’ Mine! he cries, like those seagulls in Finding Nemo. Through Christ our Lord, God is working God’s purpose out as year succeeds to year.

So All Authority. Also, all nations, all peoples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” “Make disciples? Seriously, Jesus? Who do you think you’re talking to? St. Paul? Billy Graham? Joel Osteen? You want me to evangelize?”

Yes, he does, he really does want you to share your faith, but let’s start with something easier for now, okay? Go therefore and make neighbors of all nations. Go therefore and make friends of all peoples, all ethnicities, all languages, all shades of complexion, from Scandinavian alabaster to African mahogany. If you can’t make disciples, at least make neighbors, make friends, of all peoples. Be no respecter of persons. Without a trace of partiality.

Name white privilege for what it is. Know that George Floyd and Amy Cooper and Ahmaud Abery and Breonna Taylor are just a few of the casualties of this sweeping infection. Confess that this contagion props up the pale and persecutes the dark, for no other reason than the amount of sunlight at their places of origin a million years ago.

And black got here first—right?—in the birthplace of the species at the equator? White didn’t show up till our distant ancestors finally made it to Norway.

And remember that black people are not the only victims of white privilege. It’s making white people sick too. Amy Cooper lost her job and her dog. Derek Chauvin’s wife divorced him. Wouldn’t you? We shrink our lives and our minds when we sequester into pinched, private, pygmy precincts.

You know what was so disturbing about that almost-nine-minute video? Those four police officers knew they were on camera, and they did not flinch; they never for a moment feared the consequences. “What? This is standard operating procedure here in Minneapolis. We choke and shoot black men. This is just the way we do things here. Have for generations.”  They operated in the contaminated atmosphere of an unfair, unequal system, from sub-cognitive, unexamined assumptions.

So what are you going to do to stop the spread? Here’s a suggestion. If you don’t know any black people, start with something simpler, somebody who’s different from you, somebody you’re not sure you can trust. Maybe it’s just a Democrat. Go have coffee with a Democrat. Heaven forfend! Maybe it’s your brother-in-law. Give him a call and make an overture.

Maybe you saw this story floating around the internet about JaqueRae Hill and Doug Parker. John Hales sent it to me. Thanks, John!

Doug Parker was on a Southwest Airlines flight from Dallas to Panama City, Florida. As you might guess, the flight was not crowded, so Doug had Row 25 all to himself.

He settled in to read the book he was working on—White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. This is one of the books Jo Forrest recommends for us at this fraught time.

Just then the flight attendant JacqueRae Hill sits down in the seat next to Doug. Doug Parker is white, by the way, and JacqueRae Hill is black.

Doug thought she’d sat down with him for a moment because she’d recognized him, but she hadn’t recognized him; she’d stopped to talk because she noticed his book. Later, Doug was a little embarrassed by his slightly conceited confidence in his own recognizability.

She said, “I’ve been meaning to read that book. Is it any good?” And Doug said, “It’s very good. I’m only halfway through, but it is really, really important. But ma’am, this book isn’t for you. This book is for people like me. We’re the ones with the problem.”

And when she heard that, JacqueRae burst into tears. She’d been overwhelmed by George Floyd’s death and all the riots, so her feelings were raw anyway, but it was mostly because she’d heard what she’d needed to hear from this distinguished white man. They talked for ten minutes and ended their conversation with a mutually masked embrace.

When the flight landed in Florida and Doug exited the plane, he introduced himself to the flight attendant. “My name is Doug Parker. I’m the CEO of American Airlines.”

JacqueRae’s face lit up. She said, “My mother is a flight attendant for American out of Reagan International.” Afterward, Doug wrote beautiful notes to JacqueRae and her mother. To JacqueRae’s mother, Doug wrote, “How did we let that spectacular woman get away to Southwest Airlines?”[3]

Not earth-shattering or life-changing; just a quiet, brief convergence of two very different human beings with very similar hopes and dreams. If you can’t make disciples of all nations, how about making friends with the other?

All authority. All nations. All that I have taught you. Because when we stray too far from Jesus, we get lost—right?—we get afraid, we get confused, we become a menace to our village. Morally, we must stay proximate to his being, his will, his way, his teaching.

This is not what you do with a Bible.  This is what you do with a Bible. Don’t brandish it. It doesn’t do any good if you don’t open it. You read it. You take notes. You learn from it. You memorize it.

You live your life based upon his unique existence. As far as possible you keep your life, and your habits, and your virtues, and your courtesies, and your decencies proximate to his, because when you don’t, your life jumps the tracks and the runaway train of your prejudice endangers your village.

Like him, you are no respecter of persons. Like him, you live your life without a trace of partiality. Like him, you treat all people exactly the same: rich and poor, you don’t care, you don’t know; the weak and the strong; the unknown and the Hollywood celebrity; the CEO and the janitor; black and white; always the same.

All authority. All nations. All that I have taught you. Always. All the time. Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.

Jesus has just given his friends this huge, impossible task. He knows they will fail without him. He knows they will despair without him. So he stays close.

Both pandemics—covid-19 and 1619—both pandemics drive us apart. They’ve conspired to scatter us into private seclusions. There is nothing more effective at social distancing than naked racism.

And some people are enduring quarantine all by themselves.There is so much loneliness around us; maybe some of it is within us.

And so Jesus promises to stay close. “Lo, I am with you always—ALL THE TIME—even to the close of the age.”

Long after I am gone, and my great-great grandchildren too; long after America and China and Russia and every artificial boundary line and foreboding border wall on earth have vanished; when the Grand Canyon is once again covered under an inland sea; when Everest itself has been worn down by time to the flat plain below and some other 30,000-foot peak has risen up instead; when the sun’s fires flare out to torch the earth and it is no more, we will be safe in his care beyond the end of time.

Even the long loves you have personally lost to death or dementia, even the covid-19 victims who died alone hooked up to a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit now flourish in the safekeeping of Christ the King of all space and time. Even to the close of the age.

[1]Richard Beaton,“Commentary on Matthew 28:16–20,” Working Preacher, May 18, 2008.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=86

[2]Alan Burdick, “Monster or Machine: A Profile of the Coronavirus at Six Months,” The New York Times, June 23, 2020.

[3]“American CEO Doug Parker Has Earned My Respect,” Matthew Klint, Live and Let’s Fly, June 1, 2020.