A Sermon about Change and Being Called as Dearly Beloved Disciples

Augustana Lutheran Church
22 January 2017 + Third Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 3A)
Matthew 4.12-23

How are your New Year’s resolutions going? I won’t make us do a show of hands (though that would be kind of fun), but I’m willing to bet most of us who made some sort of resolution for 2017 will likely fail, if not already. In fact, there’s even an unofficial holiday, observed every January 17th: “Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day.” (Who knew?!)

A statistic I stumbled across in Forbes magazine suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their intended resolutions. The reasons for failure are varied, from making too many resolutions to setting goals that are simply unachievable. In short, our resolutions often set us up for failure. And of course, as we all know, change is hard.

Change, it seems, is the order of the day in our gospel text. John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus retreats and moves to Galilee. He begins to proclaim that the dominion of heaven has come near, and he starts recruiting followers. Followers who experience drastic change, immediately leaving their occupations, families, and livelihoods. And they go throughout Galilee, as Jesus only intensifies his public ministry of teaching and preaching and healing.

If the calling of these first few followers is any indication, it’s a given that change is caught up in what it means to be a disciple. Indeed, discipleship demands transformation.

Last Monday, in the thick of the ice storm, I happened upon an episode of the daytime talkshow The View. One of their guests that day was Arno Michaelis. His story began in an alcoholic household with parents who would often fight. By his own admission, he reacted by lashing out and turning to bullying and violence as an outlet. By the time he was a teenager, he had gotten into the punk rock music scene, an interest which led him to fall in with the white supremacist movement. Eventually, he would become a founding member of one of the largest white supremacist organizations in the world, using his own band as a platform for his hate-filled agenda.

Then, slowly, his life began to be interrupted.  He attributes his gradual awakening to people he claimed to hate—people of color and sexual orientations different from his own—who showed him kindness when he least deserved it. At 24, he became a single parent to his young daughter. A few months after that, he lost a second friend in a violent street fight. “It was the slap-in-the-face moment,” he said, that gave him the opportunity to leave a life of hate behind.

Today, Arno has become an anti-hate activist. In 2012, one of the members of the hate group he had previously helped form killed six people at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Following the shooting, the son of one of the victims reached out to Arno in an attempt to better understand what had happened at his place of worship. The two have since become close friends.

It’s an inspiring story of transformation. Though most of us have never and probably will never experience a change quite that dramatic in our own lives, the call of discipleship is nonetheless caught up with change.

One pastor (T. Denise Anderson) writes of this week’s gospel text and the abrupt call of these disciples, “[Their] assignments have to change because the culture—indeed, the world—has changed. God’s call often seems to be directly related to some major shift that requires a strong witness.”

In the aftermath of the most divisive election in recent history and a new administration that has left many of us feeling afraid and angry—indeed, in the midst of national change—our call as disciples only intensifies our public witness to a radically inclusive, justice-seeking gospel that proclaims love, not hate. Just last night, I participated in the Women’s March downtown, with hundreds of thousands of others around the world who did the same. It was a powerful witness that love can and does indeed trump hate.

Women’s March through the Old Market in Omaha, NE (photo credit: Josh Evans)

Often, though, I fear that we lose sight of the why in favor of the what, focusing on the work itself and its results and not our calling and identity that compel us.

I suspect this is also why so many New Year’s resolutions fail: We are coerced into making commitments to better ourselves that are not really goals that are important for us and who we authentically are. When you’re not in touch with your own identity, it’s easy to suffer burnout and lose energy for the things we think we’re supposed to be doing.

Yes, change is demanded in the life of a disciple, but it is a call to change systems that are hurting people, because indeed we are already changed through the work of Christ. The Reformers called this idea the third use of the law in our book of Lutheran Confessions. For the Beloved Community of the Church, the law—God’s unchangeable will for justice—becomes “a sure guide, according to which [we] can orient and conduct [our] entire lives” (FC Ep VI.1). The call of the disciple, therefore, is to do those things which the law requires—to do justice and to love kindness—freely and without compulsion, and most especially in the face of hatred and all the forces that tell marginalized communities they don’t matter.

We can follow this path of discipleship—Jesus’s call to “follow me”—precisely because of who we are as beloved children of God, made in the divine image, with inherent sacred worth and dignity. These first followers of Jesus most assuredly had no idea what on earth he meant by becoming “fishers of people.” But the fact they were called to begin with indicates that Jesus saw something of value, some potential, in them.

This is true for us, as well. As another preacher (David Lose) writes, even when we don’t know what being a child of God exactly means, or when we’re not confident of what precisely we’re being called to do in the world, we can rest in the assurance that God values, honors, and loves us, just as we are.

This is a truth that we need to be reminded of, regularly. Being a disciple is hard work, and we need to be fed in that work. We are fed every Sunday at this table. We are fed in fellowship during adult forum, coffee hour, and our potluck meals. We are fed in small group book studies, and we are fed in relationship with other people, both within and outside of these walls.

Once we are fed, I suspect we will find that the rest will follow.

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