Right before today’s reading from Matthew, there’s another story. In this story, some soldiers discover that the tomb where Jesus was laid is empty, and they go to the chief priests and the elders and tell them. And the chief priests and the elders give the soldiers some money and tell them, “When people ask what happened, you must say, ‘His disciples came in the night, while we were asleep, and stole the body.”
And the soldiers did that. They had a story about Jesus. It was a false story, but it gained traction. Matthew tells us that it is still told to this day.
And in today’s reading, we are in Galilee with the disciples, who have seen their friend and teacher arrested and tried and crucified and buried, and who are meeting their risen lord for the first time. And Jesus tells them something revolutionary… as usual.
Imagine for a moment that America had a god, and that all Americans worshipped that god according to the traditions of that god. And imagine that Canadians had a different god, and Germans had a different god, and Nigerians had a different god, and so on. Imagine that every nation had its own god and followed the traditions of that god. Imagine that being American or Canadian or German or Nigerian meant worshipping the god of your people according to the traditions of your people.
That is something like what the ancient world was like.
Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. They belonged to the Jewish nation. They followed the Jewish religion.
And other nations were a lot like that, too. Parthians and Medes and Elamites and Phrygians had their own gods and worshipped those gods according to their traditions. That was part of what it meant to be a Parthian or a Mede or an Elamite or a Phrygian.
And here is Jesus, saying something crazy to his disciples:
“Go to all the nations—all of those people who worship the gods of their ancestors according to the traditions of their ancestors—and tell them the good news. Tell them our story. Make disciples of them. Tell them that they can be part of this, too…”
Jesus is telling the disciples to do something that just isn’t done: to evangelize.
And they did. I am sure that they were afraid. I am sure that they were nervous. I am sure that a few of them thought, “Maybe we can just keep doing our thing, and people will find us. And if they ask us about the good news, we’ll tell them. But we can just lead nice peaceful lives.”
But they overcome their fear and their nervousness and their desire for nice peaceful lives. They go out to the nations. They go to Jews and gentiles. They go to men and women. They go to the rich and the poor. They go to adults and children. They go to free people and to slaves. They go to the everybody. And they tell them the gospel; they tell them the good news.
And the people they tell, tell others. And they tell others. And they tell others. And they tell others.
And, day by day, the community of believers grows. And, eventually, the good news comes to us. We are baptized. We grow in faith. We hear the good news again and again: You are loved and worthy of love.
Because of them, we heard the story of a God who became one of us; a God who showed us a better way; a God who we crucified; a God who got up again.
And if they hadn’t told that story, we might have heard the other one: a criminal who was crucified; a body that was stolen from a tomb; a fraud and a fake.
And where would we be? Who would we be?
Today is our annual celebration of extravagant welcome.
Today is a day when we take a moment—just a moment—to remember that the people of this congregation made a covenant to be open and affirming. We made a covenant to be a congregation that embraces differences of race, ethnicity, culture, faith, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital and family status, age, and ability; and to celebrate and welcome all to share equally in the life of our church family.
And I know that it hasn’t been easy. Forging that covenant was contentious and there are people who still bear the wounds of the battles that were fought over it. We’re still figuring out what it means to be an open and affirming congregation.
But that’s how covenants work.
Twelve years ago—twelve years ago, today, in fact—Mariah and I got married. We stood in front of family and friends, and we made promises to each other: to have and hold each other, to love and cherish each other, in wealth and in poverty, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad.
And we’ve had a good marriage. I’m thankful that we haven’t had any big crises. But I also know that not every moment of every day has been easy. But that is how covenants work. There’s no guarantee that everything will be perfect forever; there’s every guarantee that, sometimes, things will fall apart. But, in covenant, we promise to celebrate the good times together… and work through the hard times together.
Every day, we promise to be in wealth or poverty together, in sickness or health together, in good times and bad times together. And thank God, because two are better than one. When we fall, we can lift each other up.
And celebrating our anniversary is a way to remember those promises. And remembering those promises is something that helps us live those promises on all the other days of the year.
Covenants aren’t easy. They aren’t meant to be easy. They are meant to bind us together even when things aren’t easy. They are meant to keep us together through the times that are hard.
And we mark anniversaries to remember our covenants. We do it in our marriages. And we do it when we celebrate a Sunday of extravagant welcome. We remember our covenant to be open an affirming so that we can work together every day to live that covenant. And we take a Sunday to celebrate extravagant welcome so that we can work together every day to be a church of extravagant welcome.
And I want you to understand how strange that is. It can be hard for us to see.
It can be hard for us to see because we are used to First Congregational United Church of Christ.
When we look at our church, we see a church that celebrates all people. We see a church that has women in leadership and that has had women serve as pastors (and that had a woman as a pastor in 1918). We see a church that embraces the LGBTQIA+ community. We see a church that invites people to think and doubt and struggle with our faith.
And it can be easy for us to think that this is what Christianity is. It can be easy for us to think that this is what a church is. It can be easy for us to think that the cross on our steeple delivers the good news: you are loved and you are worthy of love, and this is a community that will love you.
But I can tell you that for too many people, the cross on our steeple is not a symbol of love. For too many people, it is a symbol of hypocrisy and judgmentalism and homophobia and patriarchy and abuse and tyranny.
It is a symbol of those things because too many churches have told a story about a god who is hypocritical and judgmental and homophobic and patriarchal and abusive and tyrannical. It is a symbol of those things because people have listened to those stories and believed them.
And because it has become a symbol of those things—because the church has told that story—people have walked away from the church… from every church. Because it has become a symbol of those things—because the church has told that story—a lot of people have never even darkened the door of a church… any church.
Once upon a time, there were two stories.
The Roman soldiers told this story: Jesus was a rabble-rouser who was arrested and crucified and buried, and his followers stole his body from the tomb, and it was best not to listen to a rebel’s loser followers.
That is a story of sorrow and defeat.
The disciples told another story: Jesus was God-become-one-of-us, and he was arrested and crucified and buried; and then he got back up, destroying the shroud that is cast over all peoples and swallowing up death forever; and he will come back to wipe away every tear and remove the disgrace of his people.
That is a story of good news. That is a gospel. That is our story.
And I can tell you that right now, there are two stories.
Some churches are telling this story: God could love you. You could be loved and worthy of love. And God will love you… when you beat the addiction, or get your act together, or tithe, or believe without doubt, or learn to be straight, or learn to be cis-gender, or learn to be good.
And for a whole lot of people, that isn’t a story that they can be part of. It isn’t good news.
Some churches are telling this story: You are loved. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved and worthy of love. God loves you exactly as you are, and too much to leave you in your brokenness. You are welcome here. You are celebrated here. Come be broken with us. Come be made whole with us.
That is a story of good news. That is a gospel. That is our story.
But here’s the thing…
If no one went away from that mountain of Galilee and told the story, Jesus might just be a footnote in a history textbook, a rabble-rouser whose body was stolen by his followers. No one would know the good news of the God-who-became-one-of-us. We wouldn’t be here this morning.
And if no one goes out and tells our story, no one will know that a church like this, a congregation like this, a community like this, exists; no one will know that they are welcome here; people will not hear the good news; people will not hear the gospel.
Go, therefore, and tell the story. Tell it to people of every race, ethnicity, culture, faith, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital and family status, age, and ability.
Go and tell everyone: You are loved and worthy of love. God loves you exactly as you are, and too much to leave you in your brokenness. You are welcome here. You are celebrated here. Come be broken with us. Come be made whole with us.
Because there are people who are yearning for good news. And that is good news. And people should know it.