How We Follow

One of the great joys of working as a camp counselor in the summers during my college years was introducing kids to the beauty of God’s creation and encouraging them to try things they had never tried before.

Our weekly schedule at camp included the opportunity each Thursday to take our kids on an outing somewhere fairly close to camp.  So, we counselors would load up three or four long, yellow school buses with children and head to Pisgah National Forest, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or one of the many various nature preserves in the area.  Even if we also went to a swimming hole or on a creek walk, we almost always planned a long hike as the centerpiece of the outing, mostly because by Thursday, at the end of the week, we needed to wear the kids out so that we could get some rest ourselves.

A lot of kids were nervous about going on a long hike because they had never been before.  “We’re going to hike 10 miles… in one day?!”  They would ask in disbelief, but as their counselors we would reassure them it was possible.  They might have blisters but they would live.

There were lots of rules for the hike of course: stay on the path, don’t throw rocks or sticks, the trees don’t pull on you so don’t pull on them.  But the hardest rule for the kids to follow by far was that everyone had to stay behind the leader.

One counselor would be appointed as the first to start from the trailhead down the path and would walk at a gentle pace we could all follow. And the rule was you couldn’t get in front of that counselor.

It wasn’t to put a lid on the kids’ fun.  It was just to keep them from getting lost if the trail diverged, to keep the group together, and to keep the kids’ safe if there was a rattlesnake or a bear or a wild pig on the trail.

I’ll tell you this, even after we told the kids about all the dangers of the wilderness: very single summer, every single week, every single hike, every single group would have kids who wanted to get out front.  We would take a water break and no sooner turn around but the kids would get talking and forget and all of a sudden, they were out hiking on their own down the path.  Sometimes the counselor would kind of let it slide and a few times kids got too far in front and took a wrong path.

 We didn’t lose any kids but there were a couple times we got pretty worried.

To clearest way to describe being a Christian is to say it means to follow Jesus.  It is to endeavor to stay behind Jesus and let his words and his example and his Spirit guide us in the decisions and conversations and work and relationships that we navigate each day.  

Jesus stands at the trailhead and leads us on the path into freedom and joy and the rescue that comes from God’s favor.  With kindness he invites us to follow him so that we are walking in the way of life, but even still, we often want to get out in front of Jesus.  We want to go our own way.  We want to do things the way we want them done.

In other words, its one thing to know we’re called to follow Jesus and another thing altogether to do it.

You can hear Paul’s exasperation as writes to people of Corinth who know Jesus but still want to do things their own way.  They have splint into factions and subgroups.  They have decided there is some kind of hierarchy of inclusion.  They have closed their selves off to patiently listening to the other person’s perspective and the work of God in the lives of the other members of their community.

But Jesus’ mission is to extend welcome to all.

Jesus fulfills the vision of Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – 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.”

Jesus fulfills this scripture as he steps into the land of the Gentiles to bring not only the Hebrews but all the nations of the world into God’s embrace.  Jesus has come to bring light to all the dark corners of the world and to bring life to every human community.

Jesus invites those he meets, Jews and Gentiles, and us, to enter into this process of repentance; into the daily discipline of “turning around,” and “changing direction” so that we are always working on getting back behind Jesus so that  aren’t wandering out into the dark and danger of the wilderness, but instead seeing the light of God in Jesus and recalling that we are all welcomed equally by God.

In popular parlance, “repent” can be a scary word that conjures feelings of fear at God’s supposed threat of eternal punishment, but repentance is, simply put, all about direction. 

Repentance does not mean that we have to change who we are, or that we are somehow bad or unworthy people.  It simply means that the direction we are facing, because of our sin, is always away from God, so we confess and receive God’s forgiveness and God reorients us to see God at the center.  God turns us again toward the light, toward himself, and we find as we turn that we are looking into a circle of all humanity where we see one another face to face, without fear, without judgement, without the need to exclude, without divisions.

When we hear of Jesus’ call to his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee, we understand concretely what it looks like to follow him.

We don’t know much about these fisherman, James and John and Andrew and Peter.  We don’t know if they were from the city or the county, whether they were successful entrepreneurs or barely eking it out.  We don’t know how smart they were, what their personalities were like, or what dreams and hopes they may have had, if any.

We do know that Jesus invites them to follow him and they do.  They leave everything and immediately follow Jesus.  Right away.  Without delay.  Johnny on the spot, as they say in the mountains.

Andrew and Peter leave their nets and follow immediately.

James and John leave their boat and their father and follow immediately.

In this particular call story Jesus is presented as almost irresistible.  In John’s gospel the Baptist gives testimony that tips the scale down and the first disciples are convinced by John and decide to follow.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus performs a number of miracles that help the first disciples decide to sign on the dotted line.  But here, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus simply extends the call and the disciples respond with radical obedience.

It makes you wonder what happened that these disciples would leave everything, even their father in the case of James and John, and follow Jesus.

But I think these disciples are compelled to follow because Jesus really saw them for who they really were.  Jesus sees these four men so intimately, with such love, and asks them to follow in such a way, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” couching the invitation in language that gives them the sense that Jesus already knew them and that the choice had strangely already been made.

Jesus invites them to do what they were already skilled at doing, and what their whole life has formed them to do, so that Jesus affirms them and their gift and gives it a higher purpose, so that they really can’t say no because Jesus has already said yes.

Jesus calls to us and invites us to do what we love and what we are gifted for, for God.  We don’t have to change who we are.  Jesus sees you and me and the gifts we bring and invites us to use who we are and the skills we have gathered to serve the world he loves.

Everyone of us is called.

Not everyone has to change vocations, leave home, or sever family ties, but these disciples do show us that when we receive the call, we do leave an old world behind and enter into a whole new world.  We get to use our gifts, but now we use them for God as Jesus directs us in the power of the Spirit.

These fishermen can now cast their nets for God, far and wide to include as many people as possible. 

And ultimately, God’s message begun in Jesus here beside the Sea of Galilee and passed to the church in Corinth and all of Paul’s communities and to every gathering of people trying to follow behind Jesus to you and me today, is that God’s love is for all people, no matter what.

I was reading this story out of the Spark Children’s bible with our four year old this past week and he asked, “Dad, if you have made bad decisions (because we try to talk not about good people and bad people, but just people who make good decisions and bad decisions)…”Dad, if you have made bad decisions, can you still be a disciple?”

And of course, the answer to this insightful question is YES!  When we make bad decisions, God turns all of us around, forgives us, sets our feet back on the path, and we follow again.

Sometimes we get lulled, in our modern world of entertainment and comfort, at what wonderful good news this is, and we lose our sense of urgency to follow.  We lose the sense of this following with immediacy.  But then there are times that the Holy Spirit gives witness again to how radically wonderful the grace of Jesus is and how it changes our life and the Spirit shows us what urgency to share the life changing, life-saving, life-direction-reorienting love of God looks like.

Several weeks ago, a group of people who are not members of this congregation were meeting in the Star Lodge.  A man we will call Mr. Brown had a heart attack and his heart stopped beating.

Mr. Brown lost consciousness and several of his friends rushed immediately to action.  Luckily there were several people in that meeting trained as EMTs and nurses and their response to Mr. Brown was fast. Someone came to the church office and asked about an AED on site and Hanne was able to direct him to it. They used the AED defibrillator device and it re-started Mr. Brown’s heart so that by the time the emergency personnel arrived at church he was sitting up.  He was okay, and he went into the ambulance under his own power. 

Our AED device here in the hall has been re-charged and readied for use again.  But Mr. Brown subsequently researched the cost of an AED defibulator.  He found out they cost $1,300, and upon release from the hospital, he immediately went to his ATM, withdrew $1,300 and brought that money to our church office for the purchase an AED device for the Star Lodge so that, if needed, another life can be saved.

Immediacy.  Urgency.  To save others as we have been saved. To share the good news that we have heard.  To make sure others are taken care of as we have been taken care of.  To make sure others can walk the path of life God has firmly placed our feet on.  

We are called to tell the news with urgency that Jesus and his cross, which is the clearest sign of God’s love, is for us, for the whole world, and for all people.  This cross of Jesus is the power of God to save our life, not just at the end of this life, so that we are secure in the world that comes after this world – although that is true – but that this cross is the power of God to save and direct and enliven our lives now, and here. 

Here’s the thing:  on some level we choose to follow Jesus.  We choose to get on the path behind him, to come to worship and we choose to be a part of a Christian community, or to study the scriptures and try to live a life that explicates them.  But on a deeper level, at least in my own experience, particularly as I look back on life, we realize that before we chose him, he chose us and called us to himself.  Before we could seek him, he had already seen us and loves us and sought us out.  He has already said yes to me and to you. 

So rejoicing that in our baptism we belong to Christ, may we be counselors who invite others to hike the path with us behind the leader who blazes the trail to life, may we be bus drivers who carry others to the trailhead where the cross shows us the way to go, and may the joy of Jesus send us on our way to the ATM to withdraw our compassion and kindness and service to make a way for others to be rescued as we have been rescued by the God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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