A Sermon about Listening and What It Means to Be a Disciple

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augustana pulpit.cropped

photo credit: Alex Witt

 

 

 

This is the first sermon preached at my internship site. Click here and here to learn more about the congregation I will be serving for the next year in the city of Omaha, Nebraska.


Augustana Lutheran Church
17 July 2016 + Lectionary 16C
Luke 10.38-42



It’s been a hard couple of weeks. I’ve found that one of the ways I cope with tragedies is by showing up to vigils and protests to stand and to grieve and to be angry in solidarity with the community. Last Friday, I was able to join demonstrators at the corner of 120th and Center in what was an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in response to the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. Many of those gathered carried signs:

“Black lives matter.”

“No justice, no peace.”

“Racism kills.”

And one particularly poignant sign held by a young Black woman: “I am Sandra Bland.”

That rally Friday night reminded me of another. It was November 24, 2014, and I was in Chicago. It was the night that St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch would announce that the grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson earlier that year. What I remember most about that night is all of the waiting for those of us gathered in vigil outside of police headquarters — and then the silent, and nervous, listening as we huddled around a radio to hear McCulloch’s announcement.

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outside Chicago police headquarters, November 24, 2014


Listening has indeed been on my mind since I began reading the gospel text for this week. Mary, Luke tells us, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” But Martha, left by herself to coordinate her sudden out-of-town guests, is understandably upset and tries to get Jesus to tell her sister to help. But Jesus instead commends Mary for listening.

Is Jesus suggesting that Martha’s acts of hospitality toward him are unwelcome? Is he being a bad guest? To read it that way, and understandably so, we might come to the conclusion that Jesus is placing a higher value on one sister’s expression of love over the other.

But, in a blog post this week, Karoline Lewis warns us against falling into the trap of comparing these two sisters and assigning value to their actions. Instead, she suggests that this is a text about discipleship and about who gets to be called a disciple of Jesus.

Consider last week: The Samaritan, a foreigner despised by the Jews for his ethnic identity, is the one who shows us what it means to love our neighbor. And now: Mary, a woman, takes the place of a male disciple, transgressing social boundaries to show us what it means be devoted to God’s Word. Representatives of two marginalized groups that Jesus lifts up as the model for discipleship — a discipleship that means being attentive to God’s Word and to the needs of others. Being and doing.

But again, it’s not about choosing Mary over Martha. The kind of hospitality that Martha shows is indeed important: that much Luke makes clear. But it is a matter of from where her actions flow:

Martha does what she does because it’s what society has told and conditioned her to do. It serves to maintain the status quo — in this case, trying to keep Martha distracted from claiming her place as a disciple by virtue of her gender.

But Mary chooses to disregard those social boundaries. She recognizes that loving God and being attentive to God’s Word take precedence, and Jesus commends her for this — essentially putting his seal of approval on an act of “civil disobedience.”

And then Luke helps us connect the dots: Together, the parable of the good Samaritan and the story about Martha and Mary highlight what it means to be a disciple — to “hear the Word of God and do it.” Devotion and service. Both are important, but one will naturally flow from the other.


Jesus’s commendation highlights the first of these: listening. Because it is what is being listened to that is important. And that, namely, is God’s Word — the good news, as Paul reminds us, that “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things” (Colossians 1.20). That, dear people, is the bedrock of our faith, and it is only that we are freed from sin that we are also freed for the service of our neighbor. Doing flows from being.

Luther puts in this way in a letter to the pope in 1520:

“This is a truly Christian life. Here faith is truly active through love, that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a [person] willingly serves another without hope of reward… Although the Christian is thus free from all works, [we] ought in this liberty to empty [ourselves], take upon [ourselves] the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of [humankind], be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with [our] neighbor as we see that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with [us].” [1]

Faith active in love is the gentle corrective Jesus offers to Martha, and to us, in his commendation of Mary’s devotion. Faith active in love is what it looks like when we combine Mary’s devotion and Martha’s service. Faith active in love is another way of saying that we are a public church — a church beyond the four walls of a sanctuary, immersed in service to our community.

wordsacramentBut we are also still, above all, church, rooted in Word and Sacrament. Emily Heath, a UCC pastor in New Hampshire, writes this:

“I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.” [2]

What we need to reclaim, says Heath, is discipleship. Indeed, she even goes so far as to call it “the next big thing” she envisions for the church.

It’s when we lose sight of “the church’s one foundation,” as the hymn puts it, that we become just another public advocacy group. Because when the church is reduced to a public advocacy group, then the church has nothing to say:

when an unarmed Black man is shot to death by police;

or even when an armed Black man is shot for trying to tell police he had a legal concealed weapon on his person when he’s just trying to reach for his ID;

or when a truck plows through a crowd in France and kills dozens, including at least ten children, celebrating a national holiday.

But the church does have something to say. The church has a message worth listening t0 — and worth proclaiming.

The church proclaims Christ crucified for the sake of the world.

The church gathers to confess its sin and trust in the promise of God’s forgiveness.

The church listens to the Word that promises a God who has been, is, and ever shall be with her peoples to wipe away every tear from their eyes.

The church attends to the mysteries at table and font.

And certainly not least of all, the church, so filled with these things, is sent into the world to strive for justice and peace.

In other words, the bedrock of our faith — the gospel of Jesus Christ — comes first. And upon that foundation, like a garden of fertile soil, spring forth the fruits of peace and justice. Doing flows from being.

The disciples of the church of Christ — you and me — hear the Word of God and do it. It starts with hearing, really listening, for when we listen to the gospel, we hear a message of God’s extravagant grace for us and for the whole world.


[1] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 74-75.

[2] https://emilycheath.com/2014/09/16/the-next-big-thing-for-the-progressive-church-putting-the-horse-before-the-cart/

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Some Thoughts on Charleston

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I haven’t really said anything about Charleston because, really, what more can I say that hasn’t already been said? I first heard the story on NPR on my way to CPE Thursday morning. To say I was horrified, like so many others, would be an understatement.

The next thought that came to my mind was that not one year ago I was on vacation in Charleston and fell in love with the city. I looked up the church on Google maps and saw that it’s only a few blocks away from the hotel I stayed at. Suddenly I realized it’s very possible that I may have unknowingly walked by one of Mother Emanuel’s members during my week-long stay.

Now, Charleston’s a big city, and the likelihood of that possibility is slim–but it exists. And it serves to underscore the reality that those killed Wednesday night are not just crime statistics but actual flesh-and-blood human beings. The age range of the victims goes from 26 to 87. These are people’s children, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends. I may have never met any of them, but those who did know them will live with irreplaceable loss for the rest of their lives.

I also read that two of the pastors killed were graduates of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, a sister institution of my own seminary in Chicago. The beloved community of Emanuel AME lost their spiritual leaders this week–the very people that they should be able to turn to when tragedies like this happen.

But this runs deeper than personal and institutional loss. This is about a problem in our country that just won’t go away. Ferguson. Staten Island. Cleveland. Baltimore. Charleston. It’s a litany of incidents of violence and disregard done to black bodies in this country, and it goes back to the very beginning. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. Mass incarceration. This is a systemic problem.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Charleston case as a federal hate crime, and I applaud that decision. But this case seems to be more the exception than the rule. Not to mention that, as painful as it is to utter, Charleston will happen again. The only question is where and when.

So what do we do?

Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, urges us to get to work:

Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage. [1]

But how? Among those of us who have been in the trenches doing this work for a while, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who asks, “What more can we do?” Or to echo the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”  How many more Fergusons and Charlestons do we have to go through?


This week, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts about Charleston. I read a few articles and watched a couple videos, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Not because I didn’t want to or because I didn’t care. I just don’t know what to say anymore. And frankly, I’m tired of all this crap.

But I do know that we the church need to keep showing up. We need to keep showing up where the pain is, where the suffering is, where the brokenness is. And we need to keep witnessing to the radically inclusive Gospel that declares Black Lives Matter. We need to be the ones to declare to the evil of racism, no matter how many times it takes, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped!” (Job 38.11)

When the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor and one of those killed on Wednesday night, was elected state senator, he was asked how he could reconcile being involved in politics with being a religious leader. He said, “Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are part of the life and community in which our condition resides.” [2]

I don’t know if Rev. Pinckney knew how prophetic his words would be, but I think the best way to honor his memory and the memory of the other eight beloved children of God is to never forget those words. For indeed, whether we like it or not, our community is bound up in an inescapable network of mutuality. I only pray that all people might come to recognize that.


[1] http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7753

[2] http://www.npr.org/2015/06/18/415537203/when-charleston-s-c-pastor-spoke-people-listened