Text: Mark 1:16-20
Jimmy was a life-long Southerner who moved to a small town in Minnesota just as winter cranking up, leaving him no time to prepare for driving in the snow. Worried about being away from home when the flakes began falling, he asked the locals for advice. Olaf told him that if he were ever caught in a snow storm, he should wait for a snow plow to come by and follow it. That way he’d never get stuck in a snow drift. So when it started snowing like crazy one afternoon while Jimmy was at work, he followed Olaf’s advice. He left the store, crossed the parking lot, got in his car, and waited. Sure enough, after a few minutes a snow plow went by. Smiling, he began to follow it. As he drove, he was feeling a little smug and couldn’t wait to tell Olaf how he had taken his advice and got home without getting stuck.
After following the snow plow for quite a while, the plow stopped and the driver got out. He walked back to Jimmy’s car and asked if he was all right. “Sure,” said Jimmy, and he explained how Olaf had told him if he ever got caught in a blizzard, he should follow a snow plow. A little confused, the driver said, “OK. You can follow me if you want to. But I’m finished with the Kmart parking lot and I’m headed for Wal-Mart next.”
Knowing who to follow and how to follow is important in many situations. We watch anxiously when we see teenagers get attached to people we think aren’t good for them and follow their “friends” into troubled places. Every few years we read about a religious cult in which seemingly intelligent people get caught up in bizarre, if not deadly behavior by following a self-proclaimed savior of some sort. I’m always curious when I’m driving on an interstate and two cars fly by me in the other lane. Every time this happens, I wonder if the drivers know each other, or if the second driver just decided that going 90 miles an hour down the highway looked like fun and decided to follow the first. Who and how we follow matters.
Today’s text is that well-known passage in Mark’s gospel where Jesus begins to call his disciples. He’s walking beside the Sea of Galilee and sees some fishermen casting their nets into the lake. “Come, follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately brothers Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow him. Together they walk on down the beach and see another group of fishermen mending their nets. He calls two of them, brothers James and John, and they, too, drop everything to join Jesus. Our text ends there, but we know that before he’s finished, Jesus has called twelve named men to follow him and be his disciples.
From our contemporary perspective, we wonder about these guys. A stranger appears, says “Come with me,” and they leave everything to follow him? What about their families? What about the fishing business? Did these men have wives and children who survived on the income from selling fish? Parents who needed their care? We know from other passages that Simon Peter was married and his mother-in-law lived with him. James and John worked in the fishing business with their father Zebedee, and they left him holding the nets—probably with his mouth hanging open. This tale is a typical biblical “call story” in which abruptness and total commitment are the norm. Whether or not it happened exactly like this really isn’t the point. What matters is the lesson the tale was meant to convey. As Marcus Borg says, the issue is not what happened as a factual matter. The real question is what does it mean? Today, right now, what does it mean to leave a comfortable life you know and follow Jesus?
If you grew up Southern Baptist, or in a similar tradition theology-wise, you heard the term “following Jesus” a lot. We were taught that we should accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior and then “follow” him. The hymns we sang were full of this idea: “Follow, follow, I will follow Jesus”… “I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so”… “Where He leads me I will follow”… And then there was that perennial summer camp favorite: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” We talked a lot about following Jesus when I was growing up, yet I’m also aware that some of you seldom heard that phrase in church.
Regardless of your background, the term may make you uncomfortable. If you heard it a lot as a child, it may be associated with a theology you now reject. If you never heard it in church as a child, it may represent a theology you never adopted. I expect that there are some of you out there who are drawn to this topic, some who definitely aren’t, and some who wonder why we are talking about following Jesus at all. If I’m right, you’re just a typical Sunday crowd at Pullen! Most Sundays we know there are many different reactions to the words and the ideas proclaimed from this pulpit.
In Pullen 101, the 8-week series we offer for people who are exploring our church, I talk with the participants about Pullen’s theology – which is a risky endeavor indeed. What I try to share with the newcomers in the class is some general themes that are common to Pullen people. I’m always careful to say that we are a lot more diverse theologically than some people think, but we do hold some things in common. One of them is this: In spite of the range in belief about who Jesus was regarding his divinity or lack of same, Pullen people typically believe – with some exceptions, of course – that Jesus is a good model for our behavior. That his life, the way he treated people, how he took risks on behalf of the poor and marginalized, how he cared about physical as well as spiritual well-being – that this life is one worth emulating. It sets a high standard for us, but it’s a good one if we want to be a loving, just person in a troubled, unjust world. Our scripture says Jesus found some people he thought could be helpful to his ministry – people who would be changed by his ministry – and said, “Follow me.” So we need to understand what this means.
I have my own ideas and I’ll offer a few of them. I also want to share what some members of our Peace and Justice Mission Group told me when I asked them at their recent retreat what the term “following Jesus” means to them. They offered several clear ideas and images for us to ponder this morning. Call this a “sermon by committee.”
One P&J member suggested that following Jesus means loving and caring for all of God’s creation, saying:
“I heard this song from Neil Diamond and the words were so powerful that this spoke to me about what it meant to follow Jesus. It’s really about the journey — the ups and downs and how we use our love for all creation to make the world a better place. Indigenous cultures feel we are all family (humans, animals, plant beings, all species) connected to each other and when one fails, we all fail. It’s never easy to do the work of caring for others, of caring for this planet, but there is such passion, love, joy and strength in knowing this is what we are meant to do. It has always been about the we, not about the me!”
Most of you know the song by Neil Diamond well. Listen again to the words.
The road is long with many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where, who knows when
But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
So on we go, his welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear, we’ll get there
For I know he would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another.
It’s a long, long road from which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there why not share?
And the load doesn’t weigh me down at all.
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
Bobby Russell wrote this pop song and Neil Diamond made it famous. This is a place where culture speaks prophetically to the church because it’s hard to describe following Jesus any better than this: “His welfare is my concern…While we’re on the road to there why not share?”
Following Jesus also means taking risks for justice. One P&J member said: “following Jesus means standing up for justice for all people even when others ridicule you…it means forgiving your enemies.” For Peter, Andrew, James, and John, following Jesus had a cost. For three years they left their families and followed an itinerant preacher around the country. Then they had to stand by and watch the government execute him. We just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. His followers saw him lose his life as well. Archbishop Oscar Romero stood up for the poor in El Salvador. He was assassinated as he raised the cup to bless it in the middle of communion by soldiers our government supported. Being a martyr isn’t the only role for people who are serious about following Jesus, but standing up and taking risks is part of the deal.
Another person said this about following Jesus: “As I ponder the question you posed during the recent Peace & Justice retreat, I keep returning to a quotation sent recently by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. This is what I understand that it means to follow Jesus.” It’s a poem by Howard Thurman, African American theologian and civil rights leader, and it’s especially apt in this third week of January.
When the song of the angel is still,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their sheep,
The work of Christmas begins:
· To find the lost
· To heal the broken,
· To feed the hungry,
· To release the prisoner,
· To rebuild the nations,
· To bring peace among people,
· To make music in the heart.
Such strong active verbs here: find, heal, feed, release, rebuild, bring peace, make music in the heart. This, says Thurman, is the work of Christmas. This is also the work of following Jesus.
The response of one person who answered my question suggests that we also have to understand Jesus’ life well to follow him today. She said, “There are things we are called to do today that weren’t issues in his day, like end of life questions, threats to humans and the environment, and others. We have to discern from what he did what we should do about these things.” This means we need to name what he did and what he didn’t do. He always promoted abundant life for all, especially the poor and marginalized of his day. This included women and children who were the property of men; persons will all kinds of illnesses and conditions, mental and physical; those who had made mistakes in the past; and – if we use former fisherman Peter as an example – even those who would deny him in the future. Jesus prayed often and was open to what God wanted him to do. He loved God above all else. For one Peace and Justice member and probably many of us, following Jesus means doing all of these things as best we can.
A final, creative response to my question was this: “We can’t follow Jesus alone. He had his support group in the disciples and we need one as well.” Until I heard this comment, I never thought about the disciples as Jesus’ “support group.” They were sometimes a bumbling, clueless support group, but they were his support nonetheless. We can take an important cue from his calling of Simon, Andrew, James, John, and the others. If Jesus didn’t think he could do what he was called by God to do by himself, we certainly can’t. We need a community of support. If we are going to take seriously the things that Jesus took seriously, it helps a lot to keep company with people who share this goal. Despite our good hearts and best intentions, along the way our brothers can get heavy; trying to bring peace wears us out; discerning how to answer questions Jesus never, ever considered is tricky; trying to love God above all else can make us weary and confused.
So we need help. We don’t always need advice. Sometimes it’s enough to know that others feel weary and confused, too. It’s said that misery loves company, which is often true. But it’s important to admit that followers of Jesus love company as well and need it to hang in for the long haul. I hope that this church is a place where this happens for you. I have this image of a new sign out front. The “Followers of Jesus Support Group” meets at 1801 Hillsborough Street at 11:00 AM on Sunday morning—and 5:15 PM on Wednesday nights—and any other time when 2-3 of us are gathered to do the work of carrying and releasing and discerning what Jesus called, and still calls his disciples to do. People who ride by would think Pullen finally got religion!
I want to close by offering you one more image of what following Jesus looks like. It’s painted beautifully in a poem by Naomi Nye that Dick Hester shared with the church staff. Much like “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” it’s called “Shoulders.”
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ears fill up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
Holding life as fragile. Handling all of life with care. Having strong shoulders. This, I believe, is what it means to follow Jesus.