A couple of weeks ago I was north of San Antonio doing Kim McCallum’s wedding – a child of this church, daughter of Jan and Rex, who moved a couple of years ago. It was at 6pm on Saturday, so that morning I drove south into town and was able to check out the heart of the city, spend some time at the Alamo, stroll upon the Riverwalk, get the feel of the place.
I got the audio tour and walked the grounds of the Alamo – first a Spanish mission dating from 1724, then a fort before the battle in 1836 that made it famous, inspiring the later successful Texas Revolution. After I walked through the church, on the way to the long barracks that has all sorts of interesting exhibits on the Spanish and American history in the region. But out in one courtyard I spotted a stone, it looked like a taller, thin gravestone, standing up in the corner. It had Japanese characters all over it. It turns out a Japanese geography professor, deep in the midst of research, came across the story of the Alamo. The heroism of those troops fighting against all odds, the narrative that has inspired Americans, was powerful to him. He also heard echoes of a battle in Japan in 1575 that felt very similar, and plays a similar role in their history. So he presented this monument to the Alamo in 1914. But if you look closely, you also see some pock-marks, some indentations towards the bottom. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor an angry gentlemen went into the courtyard and fired a gun at the monument, sparking a lively debate around the city about whether they should keep this gift from Japan up or take it down. After much debate they decided, to keep it up.1 It came as a gift of friendship, they said, and would stand as a hope for peace.
It is always interesting how we think about our differences. Too often, throughout the course of human history we have leapt to notice what makes us different. Some of this has been fine, for good reasons, rooted in our biology, for survival. But others… My clan, your clan. My language, your language. My land, your land. Religious differences – my God, your God – have been used to particularly painful effect, from the battles between ancient Israelite worshippers of Yahweh and worshippers of Baal, to the crusades, to the wars between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, all the way to the painful violence in the middle east, even this week. Much of the heart of that conflict, boiling in Syria and Iraq, is Sunni Muslim vs. Shia Muslim, a division within the Muslim community going back to the death of the Muhammad in 632.
There are seasons where we learn to live in the midst of differences well – immediately post-9/11 Christians and Muslims did some great work together. Right after the shootings at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin the Sikh community here in Durham hosted a powerful interfaith gathering. In response to crises we can be our best selves. But we can just as easily slide into continued division, even demagoguery. When we are anxious we tend to look for someone to be afraid of, and of someone to blame. In communities like ours sometimes the differences can be a bit more subtle, but just as painful. Differences in where you live, in what you do for a living, in the neighborhood you live in. Political differences loom large. Where your kids go to school, the social circles you run in. Even if we don’t point them out to others, we notice them. We take note ourselves, so we can feel superior, maybe not even fully aware of what we are doing.
But Jesus, as you might have noticed, is free of difference in a way we are not. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there seems to be an opening up, a broadness growing, moving towards this triumphant final passage. Earlier on Matthew, as David Bosch notes in his really amazing book, Transforming Mission, Matthew, as a community of Jews likely split off from the Temple, is keen on differences. The split was painful, as any of you who have been through a church split know. He quotes a document from the year 85 written by some Pharisees against Jewish Christians. They say, "Let the Nazarenes and the heretics be destroyed in a moment…Let their names be expurgated from the Book of Life, and not be entered with those of the just."2
Matthew, from his own community and for understandable reasons, is quick to mention tough things about the Jewish leaders, religious zealots that he feels led the charge against his community. He says some things that we cringe at about the Jews, even has the crowds claim responsibility for Jesus’ death. Some pretty horrific things in our history, including blood libels and pogroms, have been justified by Christians who point to these texts.
But that is what makes it all the more amazing, Bosch argues, that in the Great Commission Matthew’s Jesus says ALL. Go to ALL THE NATIONS, panta ta ethne. Even before Pentecost, before the unleashing of the Spirit when people spoke different languages yet understood each other, Jesus says ALL. It was right after the resurrection, that same day, the Risen Christ points the disciples to Galilee. The eleven go meet him there, and they worshipped him. It gives me great comfort that even then some doubted. Jesus claims His authority and tells them to GO and make disciples of ALL nations. ALL. See how amazing it is that at the end of a gospel, that has, itself, grappled with division, Jesus says, ALL? The Matthean community knows the pain of being labeled, "other," of being excluded, but Jesus still challenges them. He says this news is for ALL. He says, "Go." Near and far, friends and neighbors and across the globe. Go tell people what I have done in your life. We could even, I think, begin with folks close by, maybe even those in the pews right around you who you don’t know as well as you should. Talk with others about what Jesus is doing among them, listen and learn. I am so glad you all from La Nueva are here today – it has taken us too long to offer this kind of hospitality to you. It is a gift to be your partner in ministry, and look forward to getting to know you, to listening and learning your stories, hearing how God is at work among you.
"Go therefore," Jesus said, "and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." And even as you meet differences, as you listen and learn – and sometimes you will do it well, and sometimes you will do it poorly – do not let those differences claim you. Remember I claim you, he says. "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Thanks be to God for this good, good news. Amen.
1. More info at The Historical Marker Database and The Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio
2. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, twelfth printing, 2005), p 58. This whole chapter on Matthew is pretty amazing, and informs much of the way I read Matthew.