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.
I disliked the orthodontist. Every month I would see the appointment on the calendar and I dreaded moving closer and closer to the date. I often thought of excuses that could get me out of going, but I would inevitably have to return at some point to have my braces examined, shifted, and adjusted. Going to the orthodontist was dreadful because I knew, no matter what, I would walk out with my mouth hurting. Going to the dentist was fine, you get you teeth checked and cleaned, but the orthodontist… he was going to put pliers into my mouth and adjust all the little metal bits that were stretching all over my teeth.
When I think back on the orthodontist, it wasn’t so much the pain that I dreaded, but the entire experience. I can vividly recall the frighteningly exaggerated images of people smiling with dreadful teeth in a “before” image alongside of the perfectly straight and whitened smile in the “after” picture. I remember the orthodontist doing magic tricks in the waiting room in order to calm down the terrified children that only went to further their anxieties. But most of all, I remember the poster on the wall by the chair I sat in every month.
When it was my turn to take the seat, I would be propped back and told to wait for a few moments. From that position I could only see one thing, month after month, mocking me from the wall: The popular poem “Footprints”
I am sure that many of you are familiar with the poem; the text is often set above an image of a beach or a sunset. But in case you’ve never been lucky enough to experience the poem I will share it with you now…
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it, “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.” The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
I disliked the orthodontist, but I loathed this poem. Month after month it sneered down from the wall as if it was mocking me and challenging me to accept my fate. What kind of twisted orthodontist places a poem about being carried through suffering on the wall by the chair with knobs, pliers, and wires with a bright light hanging above as if to interrogate you? But there was the poem. Even when I closed my eyes I could still see the text, the badly cropped image of the footprints in the sand, never leaving me alone.
As I grew older I continued to resent the poem, perhaps because of my mental association of the words with the orthodontist, but I also came to dismiss the poem in light of its cliche and trite claims. To me, it always sounded like the type of thing that an incompetent and bored pastor would offer a grieving family in the wake of a loss.
I can’t stand the poem. But what drives me craziest about it, is the fact that its true. Even with its overly simplistic explanation, with its trite metaphorical conclusions, with its cliche affirmations, it is absolutely true. In the midst of our sufferings it can be very difficult to experience God’s presence, but when we look back, when we reflect on the troublesome moments of life, we can see that it was God who carried us through. “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
The end of the gospel according to Matthew. Mark ends abruptly with the women running from the tomb say nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Luke ends with the people constantly praising in the temple for all they had seen and witnessed. John ends saying the gospel could not contain everything that Christ said and did. But Matthew’s gospel ends with the promise of the never-failing presence of Christ.
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, as they had been told to do, and there on the mountain the saw the risen Christ and they worshipped him, though some doubted. And Jesus told his friends, “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 lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Even though they were in the presence in the resurrected Christ, even though many of them worshipped him, some doubted. There will always be those who question what they worship. Faith is never as perfect and clear as we like it to be; our ways our cloudy and the ways of God are a great and deep mystery. With worship and reverence, doubt is almost always waiting in the shadows, prepared to creep in at our most vulnerable moments.
However, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Show me a person without doubt and I will show you their lack of faith. Doubt helps fuel our faith because it encourages us to question and ponder. Doubt cannot be overcome with arguments, logic, speech, sermons, and reason; the best bible studies and preaching cannot erase our most fundamental doubts. Instead, we need to bring our doubts out of the shadowy recesses of our minds, and venture with them toward God in prayer.
And while some doubted, Jesus gave them their final commandment: Go therefore and make disciples. The church that is not going out, the church that is not on the move sharing the story, is not the trinitarian and believing church that Christ is talking to. We were not told to build a nice and beautiful church in the Shenandoah valley, show up for an hour on Sunday mornings, remember the same story over and over, surround ourselves with people who look, act, and talk just like us, and then return home until the following week. We have been told to GO! Share this incredible story with people who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
We often treat this building/sanctuary like our home. We find comfort here. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard some of you say, “When I sit in these pews, when I see the Good Shepherd stained glass, it feels like I’m home.” But my friends, if we hear anything that God is saying today it is this: home is on the go, home is where we meet God in others outside of this place.
Even when you feel like God is gone, when you feel lonely and abandoned by your Creator, God is still there. There are always days of faith, and days of doubt; days of peace, and days of war; days of joy, and days of sorrow. The end of Matthew reminds us that Jesus is still Emmanuel, “God with us.” Even when we share the story with someone and feel as if we have failed to convey the gospel, we are not alone. God is with us, even to the end of the age. We have been baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we have been brought into the protection and possession of God, we are incorporated into the church and have been surrounded by a new family that has vowed to keep us close, raise us in faith, and nurture us in love.
The disciples’ journey to share the good news with the nations was not an easy adventure. The books of Acts reminds us again and again how often the disciples were harassed, ignored, and persecuted. I am sure that, at the ends of their lives, many of them wondered why God had abandoned them at their worst moments. Perhaps some of them were fortunate enough to hear those familiar words: “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Many years ago a man named Samuel Morrison spent 25 years of his life as a Christian missionary in Africa. Maybe, while a younger man, he had heard the words that we read today: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Maybe he felt the call of God to do exactly that and left behind the familiarity of home to be Christ’s body for the world.
After 25 years of giving it his all, it was time to return home. There had been days of great success where Samuel had brought many to the knowledge and love of God, but there were also days of great suffering and fruitlessness. When it came time to go home, he boarded his ship and bid farewell to his missionary field of Africa.
And so it came to pass that Teddy Roosevelt was on the same ship with Samuel Morrison returning from a three-week hunting adventure in Africa. Whether they knew about one another’s presence or not, they both sailed across the Atlantic back to the United States.
When the boat arrived in New York City, Samuel was thrilled to discover countless individuals who had gathered at the port with banners and signs echoing cries of “welcome home!” He even noticed a band playing on the dock in celebration of a successful voyage. Samuel’s spirits were high and he truly felt the love of God in his soul.
However, when Samuel made his way down the steps off of the ship, he was disappointed to discover that the crowds, and the signs, and the band were all for Teddy Roosevelt. Thousands had gathered to welcome home a man who had been hunting and killing animals for three weeks; Samuel Morrison had spent 25 years sharing the Word of God, and no one was waiting for him.
He weaved his way in and out of the crowd, disappearing into the shadows, and was quickly lost in the multitudes. Samuel Morrison felt abandoned by God. He found himself walking through the empty streets and alleys of New York praying and disappointed in God. “Why God? Why have you left me alone? Where are you now? I did what you called me to do. I left everything behind to follow your Son and this is what happens when I return home? I gave 25 years of my life for your kingdom! Where are you!?”
Silence. Samuel Morrison walked in silence after screaming out to the Lord and demanding to know what had happened. He continued to walk alone until he heard a small voice, as light as the wind: “I am right here my Son, and you are not home yet.”