Kids: let’s talk about listening. The disciples really weren’t listening to Jesus. Today is the third time in a row he told them something. He said: don’t try to be the biggest or the best. Try to serve each other. And guess what? They got into another argument about who was the biggest and the best! I brought some dishes today. In our house, the parents usually do the cooking and load the dishwasher. But we ask the kids to help set the table and clear away the dishes when we’re done eating. The person setting the table doesn’t just bring over their own plate. They bring over everyone’s plate, and cup and silverware. And the person clearing brings over all the dishes, not just the ones they used. That’s one way we serve each other. How do you serve each other in your family?
Getting back to the disciples, I think we’re like them. It’s hard work, learning to listen, to really listen to Jesus’ teachings. As I drove around town this week, I listened to the recording of the debate at North High School on the public safety amendment in Minneapolis. Minister JaNae Bates, communications director of Yes for Minneapolis, argued in favor of the amendment and longtime north Minneapolis pastor and activist Rev. Jerry McAfee spoke against it. To be honest, listening to Rev. McAfee was a big effort for me. Not simply because I disagree with his position. As Minister Bates pointed out, there is no one “Black voice” or “Northside voice.” And yet he seemed to want to represent everyone, and to expect that he and a handful of his colleagues would be the gatekeepers for all decisions. He continually questioned the integrity of organizations like ISAIAH, Black Visions, Reclaim the Block, and Unions. I heard a lot of patriarchy in operation in his remarks.
Today’s Gospel reading follows directly after Jesus teaches the disciples for the third time that he will face suffering and death in Jerusalem. Jesus tells his followers he will be mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed. James and John respond by envisioning a victory banquet. They ask if they be appointed to places of honor, if they can sit to Jesus’ right and left. “You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus replied. There was no glory to be had, no status to fight over. Only the “cup” of servanthood, the “baptism” of the cross.
I wonder if the disciples failed to listen and understand because they were overwhelmed. After all, Jesus’ teachings sought to change everything familiar to them—to redefine and reimagine power and greatness, gender roles and family, economics, and politics. At our board meeting last Tuesday, I shared an article by clergy coach and church consultant Susan Beaumont. She describes how many of her clients right now feel overwhelmed, feel like something is broken that they cannot fix, feel like they are failing as leaders. She argues that “overwhelm isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s an invitation to shift perspective.” I believe Beaumont really gets to the heart of what’s going on, in the church and in the world, when she says,
We are in a liminal season: something has ended, but a new thing is not yet ready to begin. In liminal seasons, systems and processes break down because they are supposed to. We cannot discover a new beginning until something ends or dies. Much of our overwhelm comes from trying to preserve or adapt things that are meant to fail.
We are certainly in a liminal season when it comes to public safety. I heard a lot of agreement in the debate: racist, violent policing must change; the current level of community violence is unacceptable; safety is more than policing; we all want to live in a safe community. What people cannot agree about is the path that will lead to safety. I’m not surprised. We come to the table with such diverse life experiences, cultural perspectives, and levels of privilege. And what we’re really trying to do is heal a deep and painful wound—our nation’s original sin of white supremacy. No wonder we can’t agree about who to trust, about what is meant to fail and what we must adapt and preserve.
For Valarie Kaur, listening is an essential part of loving our opponents. We listen to our opponents, she says,
to understand them—not to change them, or persuade them, not to compromise with them, or legitimize them. Listening to our opponents preserves their humanity—and our own.
“Deep listening,” she writes,
is an act of surrender. We risk being changed by what we hear. Empathy is cognitive and emotional—to inhabit another person’s view of the world is to feel the world with them. But I also know that it’s okay if I don’t feel very much for them at all. I just need to feel enough to stay curious. The most important part of listening is asking what is at stake for the other person. (See No Stranger, pp.143–44)
Despite the fact that I disagree with Rev. McAfee, I listened to him. I have not lived with the trauma of gun violence in the intimate way he has. I’ve never ministered to a family torn apart by a shooting. I’ve never walked around in a Black body. I’ve never experienced poverty. And though our family has lived in a less safe neighborhood, we recently used our privilege to relocate to a safer area. So I take to heart Rev. McAfee’s blunt critique of folks who are reinforcing white supremacy by refusing to listen to the constituency he represents. I heard in his voice the pain of generations of grief. I heard the frustration of being discounted time and again. I heard the strength of a self-reliant person who has not been able to trust folks outside his community to help. I heard his pride in the relationships he’s built with powerful people. I heard his conviction that the real change he has been working for over an entire lifetime is beginning to happen, and it just needs a bit more time and support.
Despite the disciples’ persistent vying for status, Jesus continues to teach them about a new understanding of power and a new kind of belonging. In the community he is building, he says, no one will exercise the power of tyranny. Leaders will be servants. The word “ransom” in this text has often been interpreted to mean that Jesus’ suffering is some kind of a payment to God for sin. However, there’s no mention of sin here. Theologian Ched Myers says that a ransom, in the context of the ancient world, referred specifically to “the price required to redeem captives or purchase freedom for indentured servants.” In other words, Jesus’ path of non-violence and mutual servanthood—though it passes through suffering—ultimately leads to life and freedom for the whole creation.
Susan Beaumont describes a spiritual shift, “from striving to surrender.”
We are striving when we work harder and faster, doing the same things we have always done, to overcome obstacles. Striving assumes that you are in control and can overcome chaos with resolve. Striving is not an effective leadership stance in a liminal season. No amount of skill or hard work on your part will resolve the deep disorientation. . . . It will only leave you feeling exhausted. We surrender when we yield to the disorientation. We acknowledge that some conditions are beyond our control. No amount of problem-solving will fix what is breaking. Some part of what is breaking now is meant to—so that something new might emerge. Yielding is an active stance, not a passive one. You pay attention, stay connected to your Source, and discern new pathways forward.
I have had my mind made up for a while: I am voting “yes” for a new department of public safety. However, I learned a whole lot by listening to the public safety debate, by listening to an “opponent.” And whether or not the amendment passes we are still going to be navigating a moment of overwhelm and disorientation. We will still be tempted to strive, to problem solve and to fix, rather than to surrender, to yield and to welcome the new thing that is emerging. And listening will be utterly necessary in this time of transformation. Let us listen to understand and listen to serve so that God can bring life and liberation into our hearts, our homes, and our city. Amen.