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A Common Purpose

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Matthew 28:16-20

How many of you have been to an escape room? How many of you know what an escape room is? For those who don’t, escape rooms are a popular form of entertainment. You pay $20-$30 per person, and you and friends and sometimes strangers are all put in a room together to solve a mystery. There are clues and riddles and things you can only do with the help of others. You have one hour to solve the whole mystery and get out of the room. The room is not actually locked, and you can leave at any time. But you don’t get to have your picture taken with the sign saying you escaped if you don’t solve the riddles in one hour.

Our senior high youth group went to an escape room last week. Nine teenagers participated, and this is what Jill Saxby had to say about the experience: “Well, we did it — solved the Escape Room in about 52 minutes! These are some wicked smart kids — I saw them use their skills and talents in math, music, logic, language, persistence and leadership —but most of all working together as a team, having a sense of humor and having fun. You should all be proud of these awesome young people.”

Jill also gave me an article about escape rooms, which a parishioner had given her. The author, Rachel Sugar, attempts to explain why they’re so popular. She says that the escape in “escape room” is really about escaping reality. In an escape room, with all of its puzzles and riddles, you may not know what’s going on. You may not be able to see a pattern. “But you can rest assured there is one. For one hour, if you think hard enough, you get to live in a world that makes sense.”[1] Doesn’t that sound wonderful? I want to live in a world that makes sense! Because I watch the news, and this one does not make sense right now. So people pay $25 or $30 for an hour in a world that has challenges, but they are guaranteed there is a way to solve their problems. I’ll take that kind of escape, please.

Some video games are like that. I play Angry Birds, and I know that if I use the right slingshot to launch the right bird at the right time at exactly the right target, the building will fall and the piggies will pop. It’s logical, and it all makes sense. But in that world, I play alone. (Frankly, it’s why I like it—it’s my introvert time!) But I don’t always like to play alone, which brings us to the author’s second point:

She writes: “We didn’t use to trap ourselves in $30 rooms and now we do, and it doesn’t feel like an accident that the rise of escape rooms in the first half of this decade corresponds almost exactly with a seismic shift in how we relate to technology (intimately, all the time). Escape rooms are an antidote: They require you to exist, in real life, with other real-life people, in the same place, at the same time…. But you only have to do it for an hour! High intensity, low commitment. You get the thrill of deep connection, but you don’t have to, like, talk about your feelings.”[2]

She was talking about escape rooms. But it kind of feels like she could be talking about the church. Perhaps church is or can be an antidote to our overly technological lives. After all churches also “require you to exist, in real life, with other real-life people, in the same place, at the same time…. But you only have to do it for an hour! High intensity, low commitment. You get the thrill of deep connection, but you don’t have to, like, talk about your feelings.” (Except when I make you break into small groups and, you know, talk about your feelings!)

So what does the rise popularity of escape rooms tell us about the church? I could suggest that we put riddles around the room and I don’t let you out until you solve them! But seriously, the rise of escape rooms tells us that people are hungry for human connection, for interaction beyond a screen. They want to participate with others, and help solve problems. Those are pretty wonderful reasons to be part of a church. Of course, the author also suggests that these same people are leery of commitment and true intimacy so it won’t be easy. But we offer something the world needs.

There was one other reason the author gave for people liking escape rooms. She says that “Everyone, for one hour, has exactly the same self-contained mission, and that is magical.”[3]

Hear that again: “Everyone has exactly the same self-contained mission.” And that’s hard to find in this day and age. We all have our own agendas, our own goals, our own struggles to consider, our own lives to lead. The idea that you could go into a room with friends or even strangers and share a common goal? Not a common desire, like that your sports team will win, but a common purpose. That’s powerful!

And finally I have reached our scripture reading for today. So take all that escape room stuff and put it on the back burner of your brain while I give you something else to consider.

Our scripture is Matthew 28:16-20. This story takes place after the resurrection and after Jesus has appeared to the women. This is Jesus’ final appearance in the Gospel According to Matthew—in fact, these are the final words in that gospel and are often referred to as the Great Commission.

Matthew 28:16-20. “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

The Rev. Dr. David Lose, Biblical scholar and all-round church guru, has this to say about our text for today. He writes: “I’ll admit, I don’t have statistics to back this up yet, but I’m still willing to wager a considerable sum on the proposition that most of our hearers, when they hear the ‘Great Commission’ in Matthew, feel neither inspired nor encouraged but instead just a tad guilty. Why? Because day in and day out they do not perceive themselves as called and sent to bear witness to their faith and, even more, do not feel equipped to do so. So when they hear Jesus’ very clear instructions they are reminded of one more thing they should, but regularly do not, do — which is as sure a recipe for guilt as I know.”[4]

I agree with the esteemed scholar except for one thing: I don’t think we’re uncomfortable with this text only because we think we should be out there witnessing to our faith and we’re not. I think we’re uncomfortable because we’re not sure we agree with it. It’s not consistent with our worldview. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands.” This implies that whatever religion the people of these other nations currently practice is not sufficient. Although individual beliefs may vary, as a whole in the United Church of Christ we don’t tend to believe that anyone who is not a Christian will go to hell. Plus, lots of damage has been done by missionaries who ignored cultural context and went into other nations to colonize them and turn them into American Christians. And when I read this sermon to Jackie last night, she had the nerve to remind me that this is the weekend our nation has historically celebrated the exact problem of ignoring the faith of indigenous peoples and imposing our own beliefs and way of life.

So what do we do with what we call the great commission? It matters because in some portions of the church at large, this is the church’s clear mission. Go out and make disciples. Bring people to Jesus. Help them get to heaven. Their mission is clear. But if we don’t believe that—if we don’t believe that we need to convert people to our religion—then what is our mission? Why are we here?

Okay, take that escape room stuff off the back burner now. Escape rooms are popular because people want connection, they want to work together to solve problems, and they want the experience of having a shared mission. The church offers all of this—well, the first two, anyway. We offer connection and we offer many ways to work together to solve the problems in our community and our world. But it’s that last one—the shared mission—that trips us up.

What is the mission of the church? Many scholars have weighed in on the question, and many of them gave reiterations of the Great Commission, only in bigger words and more complex sentence structure. So, out of curiosity I posted the question on a Facebook group for UCC clergy. I asked, “What, in your words, is the mission of the church?”

My favorite answer was from someone you know. She said the mission of the church was to argue over the right kind of beans to use for the bean supper! The rest of the answers were all serious. Take a look at the insert in your bulletin. The first is from our scripture passage for today, and the rest are from my colleagues and friends. The mission of the church is:

  1. To go into all the world and make disciples.
  2. To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
  3. To be the body of Christ in the world.
  4. To transform lives so that they do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God while following Jesus as his disciples.
  5. To live fully, love wastefully, and lead courageously.
  6. To spread the Good News of God’s irrepressible love for all that God has created.
  7. To dethrone the rules and weapons of Empire by walking in Jesus’ radical, nonviolent, humanizing path
  8. To exist from a place of grace and love, knowing it can be transformative, knowing it will upset the status quo; and living that way in order to make the table bigger, so that there’s always plenty of room.
  9. To bring Jesus’ prayer to life: to manifest God’s kingdom on earth, so that “God’s will” will be done on earth as in heaven.

Which ones do you like? What’s your favorite? Call out the number. Or add your own. I want to make it clear that I’m not dismissing the Bible here. I’m not dismissing Matthew 28 and its relevance. But it was only in 1909 that this passage of scripture was given the name of the Great Commission, prioritizing it over other things Jesus is quoted as saying.

Our church has a mission statement. It’s lovely, and it can be found on our website. But I’m talking big picture, the liberal church at large. What is our reason for existing? It better not be to get more members. It can’t be to have worship that meets all MY needs. It must not be to hide from the world.

I’m inclined to accept what Jesus called “the greatest commandments” as our great commission: to love God and love our neighbor. What if we go into all the world and instead of converting them to our view of God, we learn from theirs? What if we go into all the world and share the good news of God’s love for all? What if we go into all the world and baptize them with mercy? What if we go into all the world and just love? Can we try that? Because if we love, we will work for the well-being of all. If we love, we will dethrone the weapons of the Empire. If we love, we will live fully and lead courageously. If we love first, and last, and every moment in-between, we will be the body of Christ. To quote the old song: What the world needs now is love, sweet love. That’s almost right, but not quite. The world doesn’t need sweet love, for sweet love can turn bitter when it doesn’t get its way. What the world needs now is tenacious love. Persistent, insistent, irrepressible love. It doesn’t quite fit in the song. But it sure fits the world’s needs.

[1] [1] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/8/7/20749177/escape-room-game

[2] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/8/7/20749177/escape-room-game

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1584

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