WILL YOU COME AND FOLLOW ME
Matthew 4: 12-23
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
This is the last question in our series of “I’ve been meaning to ask. We’ve spent some time locating ourselves: Where are you from? Where does it hurt? What do you need? And, Where do you go from here? These questions are introspective, pastoral and connecting. Now we ask the explicitly Christian question—-Will you come and follow me? None of us get through life without following. We need protection, guidance and examples. Even terrible examples teach by contrast. No child can survive ex nihilo. The question becomes how we will choose to live our lives. What will be a life that matters? There are plenty of competing choices.
The scripture passage describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, his gathering disciples and a hint of what it would mean to follow him. I want to comment on three elements of this passage. Repent
This sounds a lot like a street corner preacher that most of us would avoid. Repent has all kinds of associations that suggest wrong doing that must be righted in order to be saved. But more than remorsefully cataloging lists of our failings, the call is to turn toward a life that gives life. Our life choices say a lot about what we believe is most important. Most of us seek security and some measure of wealth. Most of us seek to provide for and protect our children. Most of us spend a chunk of our lives trying to maintain our health and fitness. Some seek power; some pleasure. Some, all of the above. Our real life choices reveal our priorities. It was no different in the first century.
When Jesus says repent, he is saying, stop living a reactive life, self serving life. Think about how you want to live. Turn towards a life that will last. What isn’t said—but what real life will teach—is that most of the things we strive for may be very important but we don’t get to keep them. We don’t get to keep our health, the people we love and most certainly we do not get to keep the things we acquire. No mortal nor earthly kingdom survives the test of time. So the simple but very difficult call is to repent. Turn toward what actually matters. . For the kingdom of heaven has come near.
This is a very radical statement. Almost every early image of the kingdom of heaven is someplace, usually very luxurious, that is up in the sky somewhere waiting for the good people. The apparent promise is that the kingdom of heaven provides relief and reward for a life well lived. But instead of ‘out there somewhere’ Jesus says the kingdom of God is near. It is right here. Later we get more flesh on these bones—we learn the kingdom of heaven is in the face of every person you meet. It is across the table, across the aisle and across the border. If you want to live a life that matters, indeed, a life that is eternal, you must live in the here and now and you must be mindful of others. You must trust that your life and every other is cherished and treasured. Their lives are every bit as important as ours and if we do not treat people that way, the kingdom of heaven becomes further and further away. In Jesus’ kingdom we do not get relief from the hardships of living, we are called to engage real life and real people. And that is just plain hard. . Immediately they left…
The story is dramatic. When I was coming up, this story was the gold standard of responding to God’s call. Drop everything. Step into the unknown. Trust your God. There is some kind of flash point and the faith to follow is suddenly infused into these disciples. In FIRL, as we wondered aloud about the backstory that might help us understand such a transformation, Linda Lebron suggested an entirely different process. These guys may have heard about Jesus. They may have felt curiosity; they may have felt a vague dissatisfaction with the direction of their lives; they may have needed a change of pace. We don’t really know but in real life, there are lots of times we feel rudderless and uncertain and welcome someone saying,”Break your routine.” Come follow me, I have something you might be interested in. Take a personal day, come and see. That suggests a process that is far more common in our real lives. They may have planned to follow Jesus for the day and ended up following him the rest of their lives. We have plenty of biblical evidence that they were very slow to understand what Jesus was actually teaching. Their understanding and faith grew by degrees. They followed Jesus one day at a time. We are called to do likewise.
We live in a time of great uncertainty—in our personal lives, our church and our society. Todd frequently asks: What in the church needs to be changed and how can we be part of it? It is a good question. It requires a lot of reflection but I haven’t heard an answer yet. We don’t know what it means to come and follow in this new era. But we do know we are called into mindfulness and care for others. Perhaps each of us need to proactively love the person in front of us—whoever that might be and to whatever degree we are actually capable. I believe that is what the disciples witnessed each day they spent with Jesus. There is no telling where such faith will lead. In the end, I believe our focus is less about what we do or what we understand, than it is about changing the direction of our lives—toward mindfulness and regard.
I know that in counseling, most people enter the relationship looking for an answer and/or relief from some personal pain. There is almost never such an answer. What is possible, however, is to learn new directions. My faith and my experience have taught me that the way out is through the bottom. We must fully engage our lives to move forward with our lives. Most of us are far more capable of dealing with what actually is —even when how it actually is, is extraordinarily uncomfortable or painful. Whether personally or corporately, it is nearly impossible to know what we should do. It is more possible to know how we can be.
The bible is full of people of faith, stepping forward into an unknown future. It really doesn’t matter if we step forward out of curiosity, desperation or hope. What matters is taking the next step, however tiny, towards caring for one another. That is easier to teach than to live.
This past weekend we went to see the Vincent van Gogh exhibit here in Atlanta. It was far more wonderful than I expected. Throughout the exhibit, there were quotes from van Gogh about his life and painting. One stood out enough for me that I wrote it down. It reads: “You must start by experiencing what you wish to express.” Faith is about experiencing, not about knowing or doing. We believe God saves by sharing our experience, by fully engaging us in our lives. There is no greater love and it is very expensive. We call it incarnation. It is the word made flesh. We need more than the proclamation that we are loved. We need the experience of such love. Without it, our attempts at love will not be sustainable.
The problem is that if it is true that uncertainty characterizes the dilemma of the church, as well as our personal lives, how do we engage not knowing. If we had an answer we wouldn’t be asking the question so often. How can we claim what is (i.e. We don’t know. We are scrambling in the dark.) and take a step forward. It is wonderful and inspirational to see the disciples take those steps into a lifetime of service (by way of frequent misunderstanding) but how can we choose to live in uncertainty.
As many of you know, my wife and I are trying to care for my 97 year old parents in our home. Even though I spent eight years providing Hospice care, there was no way to get ready for what is required. We all knew my mother’s dementia was advancing but I was stunned to hear her talking to my sister after church, reporting she liked the ‘nice man who took her to church and sang with her.’ I had no idea that at least part of the time, she doesn’t have a clue who I am. We spend enormous amounts of time problem solving intractable problems. It turns out we must live in the knowledge that almost anything we do is helpful and nothing that we do will be enough. Such a conundrum is exhausting but it is not unique. Many other people have walked this path. We will do what we can, while we can. If I think beyond that I will be paralyzed.
All of that said, in FIRL, Dora Jackson had a wonderful story about her husband’s dementia. It got to the place where he could not remember who he was talking to—even if it was family. He would be surprised, even if told. But he always commented on ‘What a nice person—what a kind man.” that he had met that day. This is a familiar experience for any of you who have interacted with someone with dementia. I tell the story because long after our faces are forgotten, kindness is remembered. And after we are dead and gone, our love will still matter. That is what it means to come and follow him. That is the life that Jesus lived.
Very rarely do we know what to do in the big questions of living—in our church or in our nation. Most of you who read this, are already struggling with how to love in real life. The reality is always ambiguous and is often costly. Do not think otherwise. Turn toward such a life. The kingdom of heaven is near.
This is the life Jesus calls us to engage. This is the life Jesus shared with us. Live and love in the not knowing. This is the way to life—one day at a time, one act of kindness at a time. Let it be so.