Will You Come and Follow Me?

Our Hymn of the Day this morning entitled “Will You Come and Follow Me?” by composer John Bell holds a very special place in my heart. It was played at the service where I received my Master’s hood for my Master of Divinity Degree. It was the last time I danced with Amazing Grace, the liturgical dance ministry I co-founded with two other students at Wake Divinity two years prior. The words spoke deeply to my sense of call then and perhaps even much more so now that the song was also sung at my Ordination service. I get emotional each time I sing it, especially the 4th verse whose words I hold particularly close, but this week the questions the Triune God asks in the hymn challenged me in a new way. 

The verse begins: Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?1

This is something that I have found particularly hard to do recently, if I’m being honest. We are called to love ourselves as God first loved us and to love one another because each and every one of us is created in the Image of God. But if you take a look at the world today it’s hard to see evidence of that message. Loving ourselves means taking a good look inside ourselves and recognizing that we are broken, imperfect people, who create broken, imperfect systems. It means taking a good look and recognizing that in this calling, we will mess up, we will make mistakes over and over just as the disciples did, as individuals, as a church, and as a denomination. 

It is for this reason that we confessed the sin of racism as we worship today, why we cry out for justice in the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis, justice in of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, of Breonna Taylor who would have celebrated her birthday this past week, we cry out for justice for Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, and Tony McDade all of whom were killed last month alone. It is why we will use our prayer time this Wednesday to commemorate the Emanuel 9 who were gunned down on June 17, 2015 when they welcomed a white, young adult into their bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Epissopal Church in Charleston S.C. We will pray, say their names, and lament our denomination’s complicity in racism, because the gunman was born and raised in the ELCA, the whitest religious denomination in the United States.2 We lament the sin of racism because Martin Luther, the man whose writings our Lutheran theology is based on also wrote incredibly racist essays including “On the Jews and their Lies”, which was used to justify the genocide of Jewish People and others during the Holocaust. But Luther also reminds us  we are simultaneously sinner and saint, and none of us is perfect.  To quote author Anne Lamott “perfection is the voice of the oppressor.” and so we must take responsibility for our shortcomings and look for ways to change and do better in the future. 

Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?3 It is never too early to start, but it is too late to go back to normal. Jesus was 30 years old when he began his public ministry, and many of the disciples were younger, even the ages of our middle and high school youth. They were instructed to go and cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons….and to not take a thing with them when they do so.4 The call Jesus issues is vast and it’s scary. That hasn’t changed much in the last 2000 or so years. 

I confess that I was scared to speak out when I learned of Dylann Roof’s connection to the ELCA five years ago and I was scared to speak out with every post I made condemning the sin of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death. I confess agonizing for for two days, losing sleep in the process over the statement I posted to the Holy Trinity Facebook Page as well as my own. I confess that this is the sermon that I should have preached two weeks ago and was too afraid to do so.  And I confess it as a multi-ethnic person who benefits from the white privilege steeped in the color of the skin that my Norwegian and European ancestors gave me, the privilege that allows me to make the choice to keep silent when my siblings of color have no choice to do so. And I apologize, for failing in that. I apologize for not living into my calling as a minister of Word and Sacrament when the ELCA constitution states that it is the responsibility of  “Every minister of Word and Sacrament to speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.”5  Keeping silent is complicity in that racism, but beloved people, there is still time to change. 

Will you use the faith you’ve found, to reshape the world around…6

Dismantling the sin of racism takes many forms, the first of which is taking the responsibility to educate ourselves about it rather than asking our siblings of color to do the work for us. It means speaking out when we witness racism and other forms of oppression around us or contributing financially to organizations that work to eradicate the racism present in our country before it’s founding and is still present today. It means remembering that Jesus wasn’t white like so many Christian artworks depict, but a man of color.  It means finding ways to be creative. For example, just this week murals of equality and acceptance erected downtown in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina were desecrated with messages of hate, and so the community came out in droves to repair the damage and expand the project, not with hate, but with love. You can find pictures in the sermon section of the interactive bulletin for today’s service. Yes, for many, dismantling racism can involve protesting, but as you can see, it’s far from the only option and there’s something that each and every one of us can do. 

The Hymn concludes with God’s reminder that this work is done through my sight, and touch, and sound in you, and you in me?7 The work is vast, beloveds, and we will mess up, maybe even a lot, but that is never an excuse not to try. Individually, we each may be but one person, but we are reminded that Jesus had only 12 followers when he started his ministry and that he called to share in his work in our Gospel reading this morning. And look how far that Good News has spread. When we look inside and come face to face with our own imperfections as individuals, a church and a denomination, the Triune God present within us. When the fear of what it will mean to speak up for our siblings of color and amplify their voices the Triune God is present within us. When we take up our calling as people of faith to do this work to reshape the world the Triune God is with us. And then, we truly join in the beloved community of Christ’s disciples called, equipped, and commissioned to share God’s love to all the world.


Footnotes

1 Bell, John. “Will You Come and Follow Me?” b. 1949 (ELW #798)
Text © 1987 Iona Community, GIA Publications, Inc., agent 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638. http://www.giamusic.com. 
2  https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/
3  John Bell.
4 Matthew 10:8. NRSV.
5 ELCA Constitution. Responsibilities of Ministers of Word and Sacrament. 7.31.02.A.8 (Pg. 28)
6 John Bell.
7 John Bell.


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