Gathered and Scattered

On a sunny summer day in 2007, I woke up bleary-eyed in a nearly-empty dorm building. I took down the posters that were stuck to the wall with blue putty. I packed up books, choir scores, graded papers and bound copies of my thesis; I rolled up my foam mattress topper; I packed away my shower caddy. Finally, I added to the last box my new diploma. My parents had driven separately to my graduation the day before and then carpooled home, leaving me their minivan. So I loaded up the minivan with all of my things, the very last of my roommates to leave our room. As I drove myself home from college for the last time, I put in a CD, the soundtrack of the Broadway show everyone was raving about at the time. Maybe you know these words:

            What do you do with a B.A. in English?

            What is my life going to be?

            Four years of college and plenty of knowledge

            Have earned me this useless degree

            I can’t pay the bills yet

            ‘Cause I have no skills yet

            The world is a big scary place

            But somehow I can’t shake

            The feeling I might make

            A difference to the human race.

I drove myself home, the day after college graduation, crying my eyes out to the soundtrack of Avenue Q.

The Broadway musical tells the story of the residents of Avenue Q, an imaginary street somewhere in New York. Like the children’s television show Sesame Street, the characters include both humans and puppets. Unlike Sesame Street, though, they address some very mature themes around early adulthood in the big city, as the characters search for romance, self-actualization, and financial solvency. Driving home the day after graduation with tears streaming down my face, I listened to the characters Princeton and Kate Monster reminisce about their undergraduate years in the song, “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” Princeton and Kate reminisce about meal plans, white boards on their dorm doors, and late nights writing papers. Finally, they acknowledge that if they could go back to college, it wouldn’t be the same: “I would walk the Quad, and think, ‘Oh my God, these kids are so much younger than me.” The truth for Kate and Princeton, and for me, and for the disciples in today’s Gospel reading, is that the end has been an inevitable part of the story from the moment it began.

Today’s Gospel reading finds us at the very end of the Gospel according to Matthew, and geographically in the same place where Jesus’ ministry began. Galilee is the rural agricultural region of fields, flocks, and fishermen where Jesus grows up. It’s where he gathers his twelve disciples, calling them to leave behind their boats and nets in order to follow him. It’s where he teaches, preaches, and heals before journeying to Jerusalem, where his teachings so provoke the religious and civil authorities that they try to put a violent end to his movement. The disciples look on in horror, then scatter, as he is arrested, tortured, crucified, and buried. And then word comes to the disciples from Mary Magdalene: at the tomb, early on Sunday morning, they have seen the risen Lord, who has sent word to the disciples to return to Galilee, where they will see him again.

The disciples (specifically, the eleven remaining after Judas’s betrayal) rush home to Galilee, and at the top of a mountain, they too encounter the risen Christ. Some doubt, the text tells us. But the doubters and the trusters alike are there, with Christ, worshiping him, and he gives them these directions: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” With those words, the disciples — which means “students” — become apostles — which means “those who are sent.”

From the very beginning of the biblical narrative, God is constantly sending people out into the world for holy work. From Abraham sent to a new land, to the Israelites led out of slavery, to the prophets sent to God’s people with a word from God, the people of God are always on the move, being gathered and scattered, called and sent. The greatest commandment may be “love,” but perhaps the most frequent commandment is “go.” And so, from the moment the disciples entered the story, this mountaintop moment has been inevitable. Because Jesus did not call the disciples to be his fan club. He did not call them to be a little clique of like-minded folks, secluded from the world. Jesus called the disciples with the words, “follow me and I will make you fish for people.” From the very beginning of the story, Jesus has gathered the disciples in order to send them out, scattered through the world to grow flourishing communities of faith.

God’s people are always on the move, and that is good news for this community that has been on the move so often since our founding members gathered a hundred and seventy-five years ago. As we celebrated our anniversary a couple years ago, we heard the stories of Broadway church moving to increasingly larger buildings as we grew with the city we call home. We remembered the stories of this congregation discerning a call to be a congregation without walls, giving up the security of a building, and setting out on the new adventure that has taken us over forty years from St. Paul's to Rutgers to St. Michael’s to Advent Lutheran, and now to this space, which we share with the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Andrew. We sometimes lament the nomadic nature of this congregation we love — and it’s true that moving from one place to another consumes valuable time, energy, and money, and makes it more challenging for us to establish a sense of home, identity, and mission. But in that challenge, we are not alone: the whole of scripture tells us stories of communities on the move, forging identity and doing God’s work in the midst of the challenges of transition and travel.

Even as the text reminds us that we are not alone in our wandering, though, it also challenges us, pushing us out the door to continue the work that Christ and the first disciples began. Those disciples have been together for years, members of a close-knit little community gathered around their beloved teacher and Messiah. Jesus’s commandment to “Go and make disciples of all the world” scatters that gathered group: they are sent out into the world, to bring the good news of Jesus Christ. They are not called to huddle in an upper room, spending time with the same people as always — and neither are we. Church has never been about being happy and comfortable and safe with the same familiar faces. It’s about being sent out to change the world, and spread the gospel. It’s about going out to march for women’s rights or LGBT justice or environmental stewardship. It’s about going out to care for people who are homeless, hungry, incarcerated, or undocumented. It’s about taking the risk of speaking openly about our faith, inviting others to come and see this community and consider whether they’d like to be part of it.

“Follow me,” Jesus says, “And I will make you fish for people.” And from that first moment, this eventual farewell is inevitable. Jesus didn’t gather the disciples in order to have an insular group of like-minded folks. He gathered them in order to prepare them to go out and share God's love.

From the day I stepped onto campus, that last farewell was inevitable, because college is not a destination — it is a place we go to be equipped for the rest of our lives. Those days are precious in part because they cannot last forever.

And from the day I stepped into Broadway UCC, it was almost inevitable that we would someday say goodbye. I first came here as a seminarian, newly moved to New York, just a few weeks after that day when I drove myself home from college. I was searching for a UCC church to call home in this city that seemed so daunting, and this place was home from the moment I stepped through the doors. A year later, it was time for a seminary field education internship. Broadway has a long and proud history of training people for ministry, and it seemed only natural that I would learn and serve here. A few years later, I had graduated from seminary and was seeking my first call, when a message came from James: the associate pastor position was about to open; would I consider applying? Not long after that, I became your associate pastor.

It has been an honor and a joy to be one of the pastors of this church. From sandwich line to confirmation classes to bible study to singing with the choir, my time here has been full of blessings. I’ve had the privilege of learning from, and serving with, Pastor Campbell, whose wisdom, leadership, and faith make him not only a wonderful colleague, but an incomparable role model. I’ve been blessed to work with talented, faithful and dedicated lay leaders — those who serve and have served on the Board of Stewards, those who taught first hour, those who volunteered with the sandwich line, and others, many more than I could possibly name. Our time together has been a living experience of how God gathers us into community and sends us out, united in purpose, to transform the world.

Jesus gathers us in order to scatter us into the world, seeds of grace, love, and justice. He gathered the disciples, and then sent them out to go and make disciples. He has gathered us, to worship and serve, to be transformed by community and the grace of God. And he sends us out again, always on the move, to be God’s people in our homes and neighborhoods, our places of work or study, wherever we find ourselves. And no matter where this journey takes us, we are united by what we’ve shared, transformed by the ways God has moved among us. We are gathered in community, and then we are sent out to find our purpose: loving and serving, being people of justice and mercy, making disciples and being disciples.

Thanks be to God.