Life is a series of endings and beginnings. One pastor I know called these “chapters,” a term I liked so much that I have adopted it in my own life. We all have chapters in our lives. Sometimes these chapters are beautiful and full, so we want to sustain them as long as we can. Sometimes these chapters are challenging and painful, so we do our best to finish that chapter and get to the next one. We are in the middle of a chapter now, I speculate – a chapter that we’d like to get through as quickly as possible. A pandemic. A hurting economy. Unrest in our streets. Each of us has felt the impact of these things in our own, personal way. I won’t even begin to guess how this all has been for you. I know it hasn’t been easy for me. Now that some things are opening again, I know I’ve noticed in myself some trauma that I’m surprised is there. It’s been so long since I’ve related to people outside of my house that when I have begun seeing others in the community, I’m at a loss of how to appropriately respond. I’m sure I’ll get over this sooner than later, but for now, it’s just a sign to me that this chapter has been a hard one. Matthew’s gospel ends with a new beginning for the disciples. Here at the end of chapter 28, the disciples have been with Jesus through it all. They’ve heard his amazing teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. They’ve watched him heal and feed. They were there when he calmed the stormy seas. They were there through the troubling end – the arrest and crucifixion. Now, at Matthew’s end, we hear from Jesus his commission for all who would follow Jesus. They are words we still use today with frequency in worship, particularly before baptisms. Jesus’ parting words to them and to us are these, “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.” This is an ending and a beginning. It is an ending of the time the disciples will have interpersonally with Jesus, but it is a beginning of their new calling – to be the church for the world, to teach the way of Jesus, to expand the work that Jesus began in them to others. Matthew doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to this. Were they excited for the challenge? Were they fearful that they didn’t have what they needed for the task? The gospel just ends, and we are left to read on from other sources about what the disciples did with this charge. Yet, I think Matthew ended with this charge because he knew that the future was wide open for what the disciples would do with it next. Rather than define it all, he handed the baton off to the next generation of runners, who handed it off to the next (and so on), to let the church develop into what it needed to be in each time and place. Jesus does leave them with the command to obey everything he commanded. I think “obedience” is a word that we are really uncomfortable with. In America we are enthralled with the idea of “freedom,” but we struggle with what that means not just for individuals but for the whole of society. For sure, we don’t like being told what to do. Yet, we work on obedience in other ways that are essential to living well. We certainly do this as we parent our children. We expect them to listen to our rules and to adhere to them. I’ve been personally experiencing this over the past week since we adopted an 18-month-old border collie named “Bandit.” Our previous dog, Laila, had been with us for twelve years. She knew the drill around the house. We knew her patterns. She would obey our commands, and this made life pretty balanced around our house. But now Bandit has come into our home and disrupted everything. He didn’t really know us. We didn’t really know him, and so the first few days we all were on edge. Bandit had a history of running away, so we were scared he’d get into the yard and bolt. We’ve finally bought some nice furniture. We worried, would he chew it? He could smell our last dog all over the house, and so he wanted to mark his territory. How could we keep him from doing that? We’ve gotten way too much use out of that bottle of urine cleaner. Now, the great news is that Bandit is an awesome dog. He’s smart. He’s active. And he wants to please us. He knew some commands already, but he’s picking up on others really fast. He sits. He shakes. He even hugs. He’s still learning, as are we. He’s doing a great job on walks, but sometimes he gets distracted by other animals. Sometimes he barks at people, so we’re working with him to get him to obey us. He got too excited at seeing the Amazon delivery guy and bolted out of our front door, scaring him. It’s a work in progress. But the good news is that he wants to please us. We want him to have a full life in our house. And so, we work on obedience with him, which will give him the fullest life he can have with us. We’re not his overlords. But we do have dominion over him. Now, obviously there is a difference between humans and dogs. Yet, as much freedom as we like to think we have, in the end we all have a Master (with a capital “M”) or perhaps many masters. The Bible is starkly honest about that. We all serve somebody. The Bible also points consistently to the path of life – serving the God who loves the world. In Eugene Peterson’s book on discipleship called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, he writes, “We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs.” In other words, you’re going to serve somebody. It might be yourself. It might be God. He also writes, “Christian discipleship is a process of paying more and more attention to God’s righteousness and less and less attention to our own.” In other words, as we obey Christ, we become more and more Christlike. This Christlikeness is what we need. It’s what the world needs. It challenges some of the things that we think are normal just because we were raised that way or because they worked for us. It’s found in taking Jesus at his word and living in the manner of Christ. We are not obedient just for the sake of blind obedience. We follow the commands of Jesus because we know that he is trustworthy. We obey because we know this is for our benefit. To go back to how I relate to my dog, part of the reason he learns to obey me is because he knows that I am safe and that I will feed him! We’re not all that different. When we learn to trust Jesus, we learn we are safe. We know that he provides for our needs. And so we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We learn to love our neighbor as ourselves. We learn how to love our enemies. We learn how to care for the suffering in our communities. We begin to obey not because we fear getting in trouble. Rather, we obey because we trust and love God. So, Jesus has handed the baton on to us. How are we going to going to handle this gift that we’ve been given? That really is the challenge we face individually and as a church today. We’re holding this baton. Do we trust the One who handed it to us? Are we ready to listen to Jesus and trust him on the road ahead? One of the gifts of this chapter of life has been that we’ve been forced to slow down. For weeks it felt like we had nothing but time, and so we learned to relish new activities and space in our lives. As things reopen, I really hope we don’t lose this space for mindfulness. The psalm for today asks us all a great question. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (Psalm 8:3-4)? The psalm then continues on about how God is not only mindful of us but also entrusts us to care for this magnificent world. We see that same creative care in the words of Jesus. Living in this manner – in obedience to God – will allow us to live the fullest life, the most purposeful life on offer. God is mindful of us. God knows us. God calls us into the abundance of discipleship. Life is filled with beginnings and endings. Perhaps even each day is an opportunity to conclude one chapter and start another. In this chapter, we’ve had much to grieve – the loss of much of what felt normal, the ability to share life as we used to, the chance to worship side by side in this beautiful space. In this chapter, we’ve also seen that the pain of previous chapters is nowhere close to resolution – particularly in the unrest in our streets over racial inequities. Let’s not grieve the endings too much because they offer us the opportunity to do better and to be better. Together, let’s venture into this new beginning, aware that God is in control, God is at work, and God is with us. Together, let us hold fast to what is good, stand against what is evil, and work to love God and our neighbors. Together, let us learn day-by-day what it means to live in the abundance of following Jesus. The road ahead is open. God is with us. And we have each other. Thanks be to God.