Following Jesus

Passage: Matthew 4:12-23
Date: January 22, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

As bona fide soccer parents, Gregg and I have finally figured out what “off sides” means. It has been a conundrum for a while, since the Sabin Bees have morphed from an amoeba pack of little girls running together, maybe or maybe not after a ball, to a well-structured team that understands offense, defense, corner kicks, and all of it.

"Off sides” is called when there are fewer than two defensive players between the offensive player and the goal. You would think this is the point – that the offense gets beyond the defense and scores. But in soccer – and field hockey which I played in my youth – you can’t do that. With one poor goalkeeper as the last line of defense, safeguards are needed. And so, the off-sides rule.

I’ve been thinking about that this week as I’ve worked on this text from Matthew when Jesus calls his disciples with two simple words: Follow me. I’ve been thinking about what it means to follow Jesus, and if sometimes we get off-sides with him, meaning that we get ahead of him and start leading the leader instead of following him.

Getting off-sides with Jesus means choosing something that doesn’t have to do with his message of love; it means living life because of money or power or prestige and not because of faith and love. When we come to one of those hard intersections of life, we know which way to go: the one where we see Jesus ahead of us.

But let’s take one step back and ask a basic question: what does it mean to follow Jesus? You probably have an answer for that; I have a complicated answer for that, and a somewhat simple one, so let’s go with the simple one. Following Jesus means that we care for one another, and we care about one another.

Simple as that may be, some explanation is required. What does it mean to care for one another? We know the answer. Caring for one another means offering help in trouble – a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, a ride to the doctor, a companion in the pew. Sometimes caring for another means having a hard conversation, concern about choices being made or facing tensions in the relationship. Caring for one another does not cost anything, nor require any special education or expertise. Caring for one another does require compassion and empathy, so selflessness, some time, and some energy are needed.

Caring about one another is a little different than caring for one another. Caring about one another means wanting a good life for someone else. At its most basic, caring about one another means caring about their well-being, about their having the basics – food, shelter, friends – and things a step up from the basics – work, preferably work that is meaningful; access to medical care; access to education. Caring about one another means thinking about the community and not simply the individual, asking “is this good for me only, or is it also good for the community?” Caring about one another means choosing something that is not good for me personally but is good for the overall community.

But the hardest part about following Jesus in caring for and about one another is the “one another” part. We’re becoming a tribal society; we hang out with those who are like us, in political outlook, in the color of our skin, in education levels. Retirees tend to hang out with retirees, and folks with kids tend to hang out with other folks with kids.

I think Jesus is clear that “one another” does not mean only folks who are like us. If you look at whom he called to be his first disciples, that point becomes clear. He called two pairs of brothers who were fishermen, the lowest of the low when it came to honored professions. Then he called a tax collector. Everyone hated tax collectors, flunkies of Rome that they were. He called a zealot, a religious extremist. This is a group of men who, if they lived here today, would not be friends on Facebook and might call each other out in Twitter wars.

What if “one another” meant ¬everyone at Westminster – those people you don’t know, or those people whom you’ve had one too many meetings with? What if “one another” meant everyone in Portland – the corporate CEOs and the people living on the streets, east siders and west siders, Black Lives Matter people, All Lives Matter people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and the Nones? What if “one another” meant everyone in Oregon – hipsters in the city and farmers in the country, the Malheur occupier folks and the birdwatchers?

What if “one another” meant everyone living right now? We might not be able to care for them but we can care about them – care about their well-being; care about their ability to have food and shelter; care about their being able to live in peace and not violence, with justice and without fear. What if our tribe was the whole world?

As we think about our situation it might help to remember the situation of those first disciples whom Jesus called. At the beginning of today’s lesson we read that Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested by King Herod, and in response, Jesus “withdrew” to Galilee. “Withdrew” is not the best translation of the Greek word, because it implies a retreat, a move to a safe place, and the region of Galilee was not that. If anything, Jesus’ going to Galilee was like walking into the lion’s den.

Jesus lived in the time when the Roman empire was at its peak. The empire stretched across the Mediterranean basin, and Galilee was one of the farthest outposts of the empire. That pocket of the world was used to being run over by superpowers – Babylon, Assyria, Greece, and now Rome. Rome took whatever they wanted – even the fish in the sea, caught by peasant fishermen, were considered the revenue of the empire.

Jesus goes to Galilee where the brutality of the empire was felt most keenly. Capernaum was a small, rural fishing village of no account. Peasants lived there, people who were poor, marginalized, and powerless. It was, for the people who lived there, a dark place: there were few prospects for betterment and copious prospects for exploitation.

Capernaum was the place where the ancient Israelite tribe of Naphtali lived, and so the quotation from Isaiah is appropriate: “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….”

Once again, the light of God is coming to people who sat in darkness. As a people powerless against the forces of Rome, they are seeking the light of God. Jesus brings it. He tells them that the empire of God – “empire” being another way to translate the Greek word we usually translate as “kingdom” – the empire of God was drawing near.

And that meant something. It meant not only that light was coming into that deadly, fearful darkness, but also that they had to live differently in God’s empire than they did in the Roman empire. They would need to repent; they would need to change their hearts and minds so that their way of being fit in the context of God.

Jesus wants help to inaugurate that empire and so to whom does he go? The mayor of Capernaum? The ruler of the Galilean province? The local priest? None of the above. He goes to fishermen, two brothers named Simon Peter and Andrew. He could not have chosen two more socially inferior, economically disadvantaged people in the whole of the region. Jesus deliberately chooses the most vulnerable to help him change the world.

And they dropped their nets, which I still find unbelievable. To follow Jesus came at considerable social and economic cost. I always wonder how their families felt about that decision. When Jesus calls the next pair of brothers, James and John, the story mentions three times that they are the sons of Zebedee. But when they too leave their fishing to follow Jesus, they leave their father behind, and in so doing, disregard cherished household values.

I don’t think I have that kind of unwavering commitment in me, but I was pacified a little by what one commentator wrote. “Commitment to Jesus takes precedence over all other allegiances but it does not mean that all ties are broken. Wholehearted allegiance to Jesus also involves continuing participation in socioeconomic structures.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins)

In other words, you and I follow Jesus; we care for another and we care about one another within many contexts. It may be easiest to care for and about one another here at church, where we remind each other all the time of our call to change our hearts and minds so we too can help usher in God’s empire.

But we care for and about one another in other circles that do not necessarily share those values. We care for and about one another in school and at our work places. We care for and about one another as we navigate politics. We care for and about one another as we work with other organizations to make this city better. We care for and about one another as Portlanders and as Oregonians and as Americans. And sometimes it’s hard to live in two realities at once.

On this Sunday, when at last we are gathering and there’s no ice or snow and it’s not a holiday; on this Sunday when we ordain and install deacons and ruling elders who have answered the call to serve; on this Sunday when we hold our annual meeting and look back at and look forward to the ministry of Westminster, I hope we will continue to lean on each other as we follow Jesus.

I think we do a very good job of caring for one another here, and I know a lot of you – really, most of you, or even all of you – care about one another too. If there is new work for us, I think it is to expand the circle on who “one another” is. I think all of us – myself definitely included – need to stretch a little further, reach out a little more, seek out someone who scares us or angers us or bewilders us – and find a way to say to them, “I care about you.” And when we say that sentence, perhaps we will know that what we really mean is this:

“I care about you because I follow Jesus.”

The Reverend Beth Neel
Westminster Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2017
Ordination and Installation of Officers