A Meditation on Matthew 9 and 10
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Several years ago, on a gorgeous fall afternoon, I baptized Tiffany Smith in the restless surf of the Pacific. The sun was warm, the sea was cold. Tiffany was 18 at the time, newly arrived for her first year at UCSC and the first in her Vallejo family to attend college of any kind. As she stepped out to join me, knee deep in the surf, somebody on the beach started singing
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s a-gonna trouble the water!
There was liberation in the breeze that day, and wonder in the sunlight dancing on the sea. As you probably know by now, I love those moments, the meeting of earth and heaven in sacrament. Worship as gratitude, as resistance, as embodiment.
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s a-gonna trouble the water!
I can honestly say there was a certain look in Tiffany’s eye that afternoon, a look that caught me by surprise, a look that said: “I’m serious about this, dude. This is the moment that changes my life.” And then we baptized her: once in the deep, all the way down, twice in the deep, all the way down, three times in the love of God. I told her: “Jesus will never let you go, Tiffany.” And she made eye contact again, no words, just a look that said again: “This is the moment that changes my life.”
Soon, Tiffany was swept up in your many arms, dried off in bright towels and celebrated among us as a gift from God. In no time she was meeting regularly with our high school youth group and singing in our gospel choir. About a year later, she visited in my office and told me that she was transitioning, female to male, and that she cherished the church’s blessing and love on that remarkable journey of faith. She was nervous that day, in my office, but resolute. Determined.
Throughout that journey, from Tiffany to Taj, Taj continued preaching and growing here at church and continued agitating on campus for racial justice and queer visibility. He taught us what faith and integrity are all about, showed us what they look like in a human life. Along the way, he challenged many of us to think about our own transitions, what it means to embrace the evolving image of God in our own lives, and how Jesus calls us to radical trust.
Because, when you think about it, we’re all in transition, in one way or another, all the time. A PhD program or an undergraduate degree. Launching a new marriage or moving through divorce. Recovering from cancer or raising a teenager. Life is all about transitions. Taj taught many of us to trust God through the shifting seasons of our lives, through bright days of joy and confidence, and darker days of unsettling uncertainty. The ground we stand on is vibrating all the time, he said, cracking and quaking and tossing us about. But God is with us all the way, in every vibration, on every step of the journey. Indeed, Taj said to me once, God is the journey itself.
Which is quite a thing for a young man in transition to say, really. For Taj to say as his journey took shape, as he faced doubts in his family and curious looks from friends, as he encountered some Christians who questioned the morality, the wisdom of the journey he’d chosen. God is the journey itself, Taj would say, the journey of discovery as a human being comes to embrace his dreams and honor his passions. And every time Taj’d say something like that, I’d see the same look in his eye, the same look I saw on the beach years before, the look that says: “I’m serious about this, you know. This is my life.” Talk about trust. Talk about faith. Talk about courage.
And so we pivot back to this morning’s reading (Matthew 9:35-10:23). Jesus and his friends. On the road. It strikes me this morning that Jesus is not satisfied to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven alone, by himself, in acts of singular courage. He’s got this audacious vision of the kingdom, he’s got this compelling sense of God’s immediacy in human affairs, in the ebb and flow of ordinary lives. But Jesus is not satisfied to inaugurate the kingdom alone. He’s always building a community of sisters and brothers, a community of disciples and seekers—a community capable of generating courage together. That’s the courage Jesus stakes his life on, and his ministry on, and his vision on. So he sends them out in teams. He sends them out in collaborative partnerships. He sends them out in communities and churches and choirs and cohorts. To cure the sick and raise the dead and cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. To preach and then to enact abundant life for all. Talk about faith. Talk about courage.
You know, for several years, we’ve included ‘evangelical courage’ among our eight core values here at Peace. And inevitably ‘evangelical courage’ makes some of us uneasy, because we’re understandably skeptical of ‘evangelicalism’—a Christian trend that prioritizes individual conversion and personal salvation above all else. ‘Evangelicals’ can come off as kind of smug and rigid, and sometimes there’s an anti-intellectual edge in their preaching. But ‘evangelical courage’ is different. Here in the UCC, at least, I think it’s altogether different. So let’s talk about how.
‘Evangelical courage’ is driven by Jesus’ conviction—right here in this morning’s text—that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” ‘Evangelical courage’ is driven by Jesus’ commitment to living his life as if it’s true. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Good news! Abundant life! God’s gifts! You read this text, top to bottom, a couple of times; and you’ll never find a single word about converting the lost soul or saving the sinking sinner. Not even a hint. Good news! Abundant life! God’s gifts! ‘Evangelical courage’ is courage to act in faith, courage to risk in faith, courage to change our lives if need be, because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The love of God is here and now, in these villages, in our dreams, in ordinary time. The grace of God is here and now, in the ways we touch one another and lift one another and bless one another. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” So don’t wait: live now, love now.
When I think about ‘evangelical courage’—I think about Taj Smith and his transformation here, and his commitment to integrity on the way, and his trust in God, and in you and in me. I think about Taj’ theological conviction: that God is the journey itself, his journey from Tiffany to Taj; and my journey from privileged pastor to straight ally; and your journey as an advocate for inclusion in your neighborhood or workplace or school. If the kingdom of heaven has come near, if the kingdom of heaven is the ground of all being, if the kingdom of heaven is the very air that we breath—then God is the journey itself. And that’s where ‘evangelical courage’ begins. Don’t wait, live now, love now.
But even that’s not all of it. There’s more to ‘evangelical courage; there’s more to the ‘kingdom of heaven.’ In the same text, in almost the same breath, Jesus sends disciples into the world to do his work and preach his gospel and encourage his people. It turns out that ‘evangelical courage’ isn’t the solitary work of a savior or the heroic achievement of a superhero: it’s the work we do in communities, together; it’s the capacity for forgiveness and justice we cultivate, together; it’s the building up of a church, the collaboration of leaders, our commitment to compassion and celebration. And all this we do together.
In the long arc of Matthew’s gospel, and maybe you’ll read it this summer, in the long arc of the gospel, you might even say that this right here is where the rubber hits the road. Matthew 9 and 10. This is where the gospel gets real. Jesus and the twelve. Jesus and his own beloved community.
If you’re going to raise the dead, he seems to say, you’re going to need a community. If you’re going to cast out demons, you’re going to need a community. If you’re going to heal broken hearts and challenge oppression and offer alternatives, you’re going to need a community. “It’s going to be hard,” he seems to say. “There’s sure to be conflict, and division, and pain. So live simply. And serve generously. And be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”
With Jesus, it’s all about—it’s always about—community, beloved community, a brotherhood, a sisterhood of courage and compassion risking everything to spread the good news of God’s love. So don’t be fooled. Everything Jesus believes about mercy, everything Jesus believes about justice, everything Jesus believes about nonviolence and generosity and prayer: it all gets embodied in relationships, in friendships and in a community of believers and seekers and practitioners. Paul calls it the Body of Christ. Martin Luther King calls it the beloved community. Sometimes, you and I call it church.
And this gets back to my story, I think, about Taj and his baptism and the many arms that swept him up that day on the beach. Our many journeys evolve in communion, in community. Our vocations evolve in a thick network of loving support and moral accountability. Taj’s journey—from female to male, of course, but also from teenager to young adult, from college student to Harvard graduate, from spiritual seeker to daring pastor—evolved in this place, at Peace United Church, in this thick network of loving support and moral accountability. He grew as he sang with you. He matured as he marched with you. He embraced his journey, he transformed his life, he heard the voice of God as he worshiped and studied and prayed with you.
It reminds me of something Thomas Merton wrote years ago: “Love is our true destiny,” Merton wrote from his monastic cell in Kentucky. “Love is our true destiny. [But] we do not find the true meaning of our life alone—we find it with another.” Did you catch that? We do not find the true meaning of our life alone—we find it with another. The gospel and the church go hand in hand. Vocation and community are two sides of the same coin.
So the good news of God’s love is about freedom yes, and liberation yes, and sweet joy yes. But it’s also, it’s always an urgent invitation to invest in relationships, to collaborate with other believers, to build a beloved community. Don’t mistake what Jesus is doing in our text this morning. When he says “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he means take this message to world; and go together, and rely on one another, and build a church as bold and beautiful as the kingdom itself.
You see what I mean? ‘Evangelical courage’ generates ministry and resistance and witness around the extravagant hospitality of Jesus and the radically renewing grace of God. ‘Evangelical courage’ generates community, communion, compassion among us. I dare say this morning that Taj’ sacred journey as a transgender Christian, as a transgender pastor, as a transgender theologian—has derived its power, its creativity, and yes its courage from this beloved community, from this church, from you. Your ‘evangelical courage’ became his path to God.
These days, Taj is in Boston, where last year he earned his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School. He told me, just this week, that he and three friends are planting a whole new church, a queer church he said, in the city. It’ll be a place where young people, particularly young people of color, can come to hear good news and receive all kinds of blessing and celebrate their unique journeys in the world. I wish I could convey to you the energy, the hopefulness, the determination in Taj’ voice. Maybe you can imagine. He and his friends imagine a beloved community for so many of their friends who’ve been harassed by other churches and demeaned by other Christians and rendered invisible in their families. They imagine a church where extravagant welcome and evangelical courage are powerfully in play. And the kingdom of heaven has come near. For everybody.
Friends, if love is our destiny, and I believe that it is, if love is our destiny, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it Taj to cherish the community we’ve built together. If compassion is our mission and justice is our vision, we owe it to ourselves and the many who will follow to build up this Body of Christ. This is where we discern vocation and shape identity and empower ministry. This is where we generate courage for the resistance and pilgrimage and all kinds of creativity. Peace United Church of Christ!
So I know it’s summer time, and I know our lives take off now, in a hundred exciting directions. But remember your church. Wherever you go. And pray for your church. Wherever you go. And come back to your church in the fall, maybe even through the summer, to love it big and serve it well. For Christians like us, you see, there’s no other way. The gospel and the church go hand in hand. Vocation and community are two sides of the same coin. We do not find the true meaning of our lives alone; we find it with one another. Amen.