“The Boyhood of Raleigh” by Sir John Everett Millais (1870). Here a sailor tells a young Sir Walter Raleigh and his brother a big fish story.
Matthew 28:16-20* New King James Version
16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.
18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
Statistics play an important part in many sports. My brother and I collected baseball cards growing up, and I can remember spending hours going through decks of cards and looking at their backs, where lines of numbers represented the quality of player and season. When I was little, Kirby Puckett was my favorite player, and I remember that there was a lot of bold font used for the numbers on his cards, showing all the times he led the league in hits, runs batted in or batting average. From the numbers, my brother and I could learn to tell whether a player was good, bad, or average.
But statistics in baseball rarely have the final say. Kirk Gibson’s numbers from the 1988 season were terrific. In his first year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he managed to hit .290 with 25 home runs, and 76 Runs batted in on his way to a Most Valuable Player Award. But during the playoffs, his body had broken down. By the time the Dodgers made it to the World Series, Gibson had a torn hamstring tendon in his left leg and a strained MCL in his right. Before Game 1 against the Oakland Athletics, he received injections in both legs, and he spent most of the game in the clubhouse icing and watching the game on the television.
The game looked to be in the bag for the Athletics by the ninth inning. Jose Canseco had crushed a grand slam in the second inning, and pitcher Dave Stewart had held the Dodger’s hitters in check. Pitcher Dennis Eckersley, arguably the best closing pitcher at the time, entered the game with a 4-3 lead. With two outs and a runner on first, Kirk Gibson was called on to pinch-hit. Gibson limped up to the plate. A lengthy at-bat with several awful looking swings got Gibson to the moment every baseball and softball player can recite: bottom of the ninth, full count, two outs, runner on and down by one. Eckersley delivered a backdoor slider low and away. Gibson swung, and the ball sailed high into the air and over the right-field wall. Kirk Gibson had done it! A game-winning pinch-hit home run to win the first game of the 1988 World Series. Gibson hobbled around the bases, pumping his fist while the crowd at Dodger Stadium went crazy. The Dodgers would go on to win the 1988 world series over the Oakland Athletics, 4 games to 1, and Gibson’s home run would become, perhaps, the most iconic hit in baseball history.
The stories we tell do more for us than statistics. When we remember the people who are no longer in our lives, we recount our stories with them, not the year they graduated or the number of jobs or list of achievements. The stories we carry with us keep the memory of them alive, and when we get to tell those stories to others, a part of him continues on.
In many churches, this Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a time that we acknowledge and explore the mysteries of our Triune God. Matthew 28:16-20 is today’s gospel lesson because it’s the clearest Scriptural reference to the Trinity, God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Espousing a trinitarian theology, however, is not the primary or even secondary concern of this passage. Often labeled the Great Commission, Matthew 28:16-20 contains Jesus’ last words to his disciple in this gospel. His message is twofold: go make disciples, and I will always be with you.
What does it mean to make disciples? The word “disciples” can be a little confusing and even loaded. But when we look at the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul, it seems that the primary action of disciple-making was to tell the stories of Jesus. In Acts 2, Peter stands in front of a large crowd for the first time and tells stories of miraculous works, teaching, oppression and injustice, death and resurrection, and situates the story of Jesus in the broader context of human suffering and liberation. Later, Peter and John retell the story to the local religious council. In fact, the story is told over and over in the Book of Acts. In the letters of the New Testament, Paul does the same, mixing advice and ethical sayings with stories Jesus’s life and ministry. Becoming a disciple then involved responding to the stories of Jesus.
I am a fan of St. Francis of Assisi’s most famous quote, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It, I think, points to the ways we are to live out the teachings of Jesus, to embody the practices of healing, generosity, and peacemaking. But telling the story of Jesus is important too. Telling the gospel stories remind us that the principles of good and justice are bigger than us and that we participate in a rich heritage of those that have worked to make the world better for centuries. Telling the stories of Jesus also keep Jesus with us, perhaps something he perceived when he promised to be with his disciples all their days.
Stories are vital for human existence and shape the way we understand the world around us. Recently, we’ve been confronted with the story of George Floyd, who was killed on May 25, 2020, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Video has helped to tell the story of a black man who was held on the ground by police officers. One officer pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe. Throughout the ordeal, Mr. Floyd tells the officer that he cannot breathe, and the video shows him crying out for this mother before he slips into unconsciousness. Mr. Floyd would later die on his way to the hospital.
Would we consider a similar retelling of Jesus’ last day, perhaps an obituary from the gospel of Mark?
Jesus of Nazareth (December 25, 0 – April 3, 33) was killed while in the custody of Roman imperial soldiers last Friday. He was arrested at Gethsemane, a garden overlooking the city the previous night. Before his arrest, onlookers said he did not look well and overheard him say, “Daddy (Abba), Father, remove this cup from me.” He did not resist arrest. Later that evening, he was brought to a religious tribunal where he was beaten. Without being tried, Jesus was beaten again when he was remanded into the custody of the Roman imperial guard. Pilate, the official in charge, decided to kill Jesus by crucifixion. Because of the severity of his beatings, Jesus was unable to carry his cross all the way to Golgotha. Simon of Cyrene, a black man from western Africa, was forced to carry the cross the rest of the way. Once they arrived, Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross, and he was hung up as onlookers gathered. The soldiers mocked him while he hung there, dying. So did some that watched. Jesus breathed his last breath around 3pm.
Some of those familiar with Jesus said that he was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors, and other sinners. Others, those close to him, said he was kind and compassionate, a healer and teacher. For fear of reprisal, none of his family or friends could be reached at this time. A brief vigil will be held Sunday morning at the tomb by Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome. The Empire has promised to violently crackdown on any protests.
At some point every year, churches across the US are confronted with yet another death of a black or brown person at the hands of authorities, or white supremacists. The killing of unarmed people of color has become part of the Christian Liturgical year, a time, or season where we observe our racist history and the ongoing outcomes of failing to address it. Many churches fail to observe the season, either feeling too much pressure from the white base our lacking the courage needed to move from faith to action. Churches that do keep the season will serve as resources to their community, no matter how imperfect, and will march, retrain, confess and speak out against police brutality, racism, and the systems that perpetuate ongoing oppression. It goes without saying that this liturgical observance is a penitential one where churches offer more opportunities for truth-telling, confession, repentance, and direct action.
This penitential season is different than other seasons under the same category, however. The penitential season of Advent ends in the good news of the Christmas announcement that Jesus has been born, God is with us. The penitential season of Lent culminates in the good news of the Easter declaration that Christ is risen. As of yet, the penitential season that marks the death of people of color by the hands of white people lacks good news or divine presence. We are still waiting. Until then, there can be no redemption, only the shame of this grievous sin.
We know the stories of racism and white supremacy in the United States. Those stories should be enough to inspire action to change our laws, weed out bad guys from places of authority, and educate our children properly. These stories should be enough for us to stop using excuses like, “but this was how I was raised,” or “this doesn’t really affect me.” I wonder why it’s so easy for us to forget that our Lord and Savior died in much the same way, or how we can confess Christ and still hate our human siblings of color in violent and oppressive ways.
It would be helpful for us to read the stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others like Philando Castile, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice from the people that loved them. The podcast show notes have links to their obituaries, which, in many cases, were written by those closest to them. I pray that, when we hear their stories in the broader context of oppression and the fight for life, equality, and dignity, we respond, becoming disciples of a better way. We will be deeply troubled and divided people until we do. Amen.