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The Rev. Heidi Torgerson's Sermon for the 2018 Synod Assembly
Saturday, May 19
Deuteronomy 26:5-9 & Matthew 28:16-20
I had only been in Mexico a handful of weeks on the day that I got hopelessly lost on the streets of Mexico City. I had moved there as a 27-year-old first call pastor, serving as a missionary on behalf of the ELCA. I remember feeling a comforting sense of growing confidence as I’d set out for the market that particular morning. My Spanish language skills were deepening, I knew the walk down Revolucion toward Eje 10 which would bring me to the entrance door I wanted, and I’d been to this market enough times by now that a few of the puesteros – the vendors – recognized me and called out greetings as I walked past. I snaked my way ever deeper into the labyrinth of the market, buying some tomatoes, some jalapenos, some eggs, and a few strawberries along the way. I was feeling so confident by the end of my little excursion that I decided to leave the market through the back rather than the front entrance to which I was accustomed. Well, that back exit spit me out not onto a main road, but into the outdoor extension of the market. Vendors lined the narrow winding streets, selling pretty much everything you could imagine – pirated DVDs, single cigarettes out of open packs, secondhand clothing, plastic food storage containers, you name it. It only took me a few blocks before I realized I had no idea where I was anymore. So, I started to ask for directions.
Now, my Spanish had gotten way better than when I’d first landed in Mexico, but there were a number of things happening here that were decidedly not in the favor of this lost gringa. First, the street Spanish being spoken around me was peppered with all sorts of idioms and slang that I didn’t yet know how to use in my daily life. Second, lots of the street names in Mexico City come not from Spanish, but from the indigenous language of Nahuat’l, and let’s be real. My ear was not yet attuned to just catching words like “Nezahualcoytl” on the fly. So, I took a deep breath and resigned myself to the probability that I was going to be out here for awhile, and to the certainty that I was going to need to ask a new person for help approximately every block and a half. I’d been at this game for probably 20 minutes when I came across an elderly woman, sitting on a blanket with small candies and gum spread out in front of her for sale. Her long, white hair was pulled back into a thin braid, and the thick callouses on her bare feet suggested to me that she probably didn’t own shoes. I must have looked as bewildered as I felt in that moment because she called to me from her blanket. When I told her I was lost and gave her the general direction of where I was trying to go, she stood up and, in a beautifully intimate gesture, took my face in her hands as she said to me, “Ay, mi vida, mi corazon, mi amor, yo te enseno el camino.” Ay, my life, my heart, my love, I’ll show you the way.
She did, in fact, show me the way home that day. But without even knowing it, she also showed me so much more. She – a poor, elderly Mexican woman selling penny candy on the streets of Mexico City, whose name I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even think to ask for – showed me the face of Jesus. And as she set me on the path for home, she also set me on a path of discipleship. I thought about this woman for days afterward…I still think about her. Something about her simple act of love and care in my own moment of need was so profound that it set me on the path to which Jesus was calling me in that particular ministry in Mexico – a path that involved a daily struggle to set aside my pride, my fierce independence, my trust in my degrees and my answers and my resources and my self-assuredness and even my ability to articulate myself capably – and instead to take my lead from the poor, learning how to lean into a kind of vulnerability that I had never had reason to experience in my life in the United States. This kind woman with the face of Jesus – and so many others like her who would enter my life over the next four years in Mexico – made me a better disciple.
The text we just heard from the very end of the gospel of Matthew often gets shorthanded as the Great Commission. “Go make disciples of all nations,” Jesus tells his friends, “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.” It’s a classic missionary text. I mentioned to you in my report yesterday that the ELCA has approximately 230 missionaries in service around the world right now. And though it’s my job to recruit, call, train, and support these folks in service, I’m going to tell you a big secret this morning. Sometimes it’s hard for me to get up and talk about it, because the word “missionary” is such a fraught one.
In the name of this Great Commission, U.S. and European missionaries have witnessed to the love of God in other parts of the world. They’ve planted churches, started schools, developed health ministries, and supported community development projects. But we who follow Jesus also need to be honest with ourselves. In the name of this Great Commission, missionaries have also trampled all over other people’s cultures, jacked up entire communities by imposing Western ways of doing things that don’t make sense in the local context, and created legacies of dependency by throwing money at perceived problems rather than investing in local leaders and international advocacy. “Missionary.” It’s a fraught word, and this Great Commission text can be a fraught one as well. So what are we to do with all of this? Well, I think we look to Jesus.
In this text, Jesus speaks with cosmic authority, calling us to make disciples, calling us to teach others to follow the way of humble service and love that so characterized his ministry throughout the gospel of Matthew. In the original Greek, the only command in this passage is the “make disciples” part, but the making of disciples happens not in isolation. It happens in community. Just like we are baptized into community, we make disciples in the context of community. And that community is formed in the going.
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” the Old Testament writer reminds us. We have been a people on the move since the time of Abraham and Sarah. From the beginning God has been calling us to go…to move beyond the boundaries of our own homes, our own cultures, our own comfort zones, our own fears, our own pride – and into relationship with other people. And dear friends in Christ, it is in the context of these relationships that the face of Jesus is revealed to us. It is in the context of these relationships through which we not only make disciples, but through which we are made disciples. Just like happened with the woman who walked me home that day, our encounters with people and communities beyond the boundaries of our safe little lives can draw us deeper into relationship with Jesus. Jesus, the one who shows up in the faces of the poor, the meek, the grieving, the merciful. Jesus, who promises to be with us always, to the very end of the age. Jesus, who promises to come alongside us as we cross the boundaries of our own comfort and safety so that we can be made into disciples.
So, restless and resolute ones. With whom is Jesus calling you to be in relationship when you leave this place? Where is Jesus calling you to go? It certainly doesn’t have to be as far as Mexico, or Guatemala, or Tanzania, though it might be. It might also just be a call to go into the bedroom of your moody teenager. It might be a call to enter into the living room of the friend or family member with whom you disagree about every possible political issue. It might be a call to enter into your public official’s office to talk about why yet more kids have been gunned down in school. It might be a call to visit with your neighbors who’ve just moved here from another part of the world.
Go and make disciples, friends. And in the going, look for the face of Jesus in the ones around you. Look for the ways that these relationships make you a better disciple. Because at the end of the day, in the company of Jesus, aren’t we all just walking each other home? Amen.