January 22, 2017: "Will You Follow?
“Will You Follow?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK January 22, 2017
Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matthew 4:12-23
This past week we remembered and celebrated the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. On November 16, 1956, King wrote a memo to the Montgomery, Alabama, Improvement Association, suggesting guidelines for how the Association would handle the newly desegregated bus system. When the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional, King wrote, “This places upon us all a tremendous responsibility of maintaining…a calm and loving dignity befitting good citizens…”
These are some of the guidelines King offered to the Association:
“Not all white people are opposed to integrated buses. Accept goodwill on the part of many.”
“The whole bus is now for all people. Take a vacant seat. Pray for guidance and commit yourself to complete non-violence in word and action as you enter the bus.”
“In all things observe ordinary rules of courtesy and good behavior.”
“Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the South. Do not boast! Do not brag!”
“Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.”
I share these with you today because they are a profound example of how one man, in his own unique life and context, answered a question that we all have at one time or another: “What does it mean to be a Christian?” King was a very faithful follower of Jesus, and though he was anything but perfect, his understanding of the Gospel was the foundation of his work in the Civil Rights Movement. King read the Scriptures, and particularly the Gospels, as the story of God’s liberation of people…from sin, from darkness, from evil. King saw and knew racism and segregation in America as a sin, an evil, a darkness that God, through Jesus Christ, could confront and destroy. But what we see and hear in this memo from 1956, and in almost all of his writings, is a man who not only writes and thinks about what is right and just, but also a man who was willing to do what is right and just and lead others in doing the same. What we see in King’s life and work is equal parts belief in Christ and action for Christ.
What does it mean to be a Christian? In the gospel lesson today, one answer is very clear: a follower of Jesus Christ. Literally. As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Peter and Andrew. Peter and Andrew were fisherman, and they were casting their nets into the sea as Jesus walked by. Without any real introduction or small-talk, Jesus says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Though it is unclear what it means to fish for people, Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets and followed him.
Now, a little further down the shore, with Peter and Andrew in tow, Jesus sees two more brothers: James and John. James and John were out a little ways on the lake in a boat, mending their nets with their father Zebedee. From the shore, Jesus called James and John to follow him, and they immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Following Jesus Christ is what it means to be a Christian. That is what we see in Peter and Andrew and James and John. It is hard to know what those four men were thinking when Jesus called them to follow—Matthew doesn’t narrate their thoughts or conversations. But we could guess a few things. It is likely that Peter and Andrew and James and John knew of Jesus. It is likely that they had heard John the Baptist preach about Jesus. It is likely that they had heard about Jesus’s baptism, when a dove came down from heaven and danced on his head as a voice from heaven called out, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is likely that they had some hope of meeting him, though it was highly unlikely.
And then there he is, standing on the shore, calling them to leave their nets and boats and families to follow him. Here is the man they had heard about. Here is the man who baptizes with fire and water. Here is the man with whom God is well pleased. It would be foolish if they continued doing what they were doing. When Christ calls, the men go—they make the decision with heart and head to follow wherever he leads. This means they had a certain amount of faith and belief in Jesus. Many false prophets had come before Jesus, and one had to be careful. Maybe it was the way he spoke to them; maybe it was the way he was dressed; maybe it was their instinct in that moment—whatever it was, the four men dropped what they were doing and followed Christ.
Christians follow Jesus; that is what it means to be a Christian. Christians drop what they are doing, and they go when and where Jesus says, “Follow me.” But there’s more.
Right after Peter and Andrew and James and John drop everything to follow Jesus, Jesus goes to all the regions of Galilee. He teaches in synagogues, preaches the good news of God, and cures every disease and sickness among the people. This is how Christ fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah. He was the light of the world, breaking the darkness of sin, evil, sickness, and unbelief. The people who walked in darkness saw a great light, and that light was Christ. He came to save them, to heal them, to teach them the good news of God’s love. It was intense work, to be certain. It was hard work. It was holy work. And with him, in every place he went with the light of God, was Peter, Andrew, James, John and the other disciples.
Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, his followers, “You are the light of the world…no one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” This was Christ’s way of passing on his ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing to those who dropped everything to follow him. This is the ‘something more’ about being a Christian. Christians are people who do things, particularly the things that Jesus did: teaching, preaching, and healing; Christians are people who shine the light of God into darkness.
This is what we see and celebrate in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose belief and faith in Jesus Christ engaged his heart and his mind, who was then moved to use his hands and feet and gifts and talents and passions to really shine Christ’s light into darkness. For our Lord, it is good that we believe in him and put our faith and trust in him. But to really be his followers there has to be more…there has to be movement, there has to be action. The invitation to follow is issued to all of us in baptism, and then again each day we are alive and filled with the breath of God. It is up to us each day to accept that invitation, to drop what we are doing, give our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ, and then do everything we can with everything we have to bring his light into the world.
How we go about doing this will be holy and unique to each one of us. Each of us has a different way of following Christ and living the good news of the Gospel. God will show each of us the way. But let me suggest one way that all of us can bring Christ’s light into the world at this very moment in time.
In 2015 the Roman Catholic Church reported that membership in the worldwide Catholic church had reached 1.27 billion people. In the same year, the social media giant Facebook reported a worldwide membership of 1.788 billion people. That’s not a huge different in numbers. The main difference is that the Catholic church was founded almost 2,000 years ago and Facebook about 12 years ago. Facebook’s meteoric rise to popularity is due mostly to the fact that it helps its users fulfill a most basic human need: connection. When I joined Facebook in 2006, it was a way for me to network with college classmates, search for jobs, and stay connected with friends. When Facebook expanded a few years later to include more than just college students, it became a way for me and the world to stay in touch with friends and family, near and far away. When I was India in 2011, it gave me a free way to stay in touch with my family and friends back home. In the past few years, it has helped me to watch my nieces and nephews grow, and it can now be used to locate people in emergencies and natural disasters.
But here’s the problem. Facebook and other social media platforms charged onto the world stage without any moral or ethical frameworks in place. Yes, there are some rules, but nothing of substance. Anil Dash, the man who was in the delivery room when social media was born, points out that this is a huge problem. No matter how good users may be, or how good their intentions may be, there will be chaos if rules and guidelines aren’t in place. And that is exactly what has happened. The apple in the garden of Eden was not bad; what made it bad, an instrument of evil, was how it was used. The same is true of social media. And the most painful and sad consequence of the nose dive of social media is human separation—deep, deep divides between the people God created in God’s image. The very thing social media was invented to create is the very thing it has destroyed.
I watched it happen this weekend. A classmate of mine from seminary offered an opinion on social media about the inauguration. Another classmate of mine from seminary did not like or agree with this opinion. There was name-calling and they were using words that most people have to look up in a dictionary, and the whole thing was covered in venom and nastiness. After this went on for a while, yet another classmate of mine jumped in with a question. She wrote, “Don’t you two live in the same town? Why don’t you get a coffee and talk it out like adults?” They do live in the same town. But why get together and have a civil, productive conversation, when you can tear each other apart in the privacy of your living room?
That’s what our digital age is doing to us; it is allowing us to fight and bicker and argue, not because we want to understand, but because we want to be right. It is helping us to forget that disagreement is OK, but that disrespect is not. It has sold us a fake version of relationships, and we’re buying it like mad. And the reason I’m talking about it today, as a preacher and a follower of Jesus, is that it is helping us to forget that all people, all people, are created in God’s image and worthy of great dignity and sacred respect. Keyboards and computer screens give us courage to say things most times we would never say to a person’s face. Even if you have never used any form of social or electronic media, you are still effected. Print and television media are doing the same thing. And I believe that it is breaking God’s heart. It is breaking God’s heart that we have turned each other into issues, problems that must be argued into submission or exhaustion. It is breaking God’s heart that we have forgotten how to speak to one another. And it is breaking God’s heart that all of this has led to the greatest and most deadly sin of all: separation, from one another and from God.
This is something all of us can confront as followers of Jesus; this is a darkness that all of us can scatter with our beliefs and our faith and our actions. We can and we must restore dignity to our relationships, a dignity that God gave to us at the beginning. We can and we must return to a place where we can disagree without drawing blood. We can and we must return to a way of peace that seeks unity, not uniformity. We can and we must come to everything from a place of love instead of from a place of skepticism or hatred or fear. We can and we must work to restore our relationships with each other, because the face of God is in the face of every person we meet. If this means giving up social media, so be it. If this means turning off the news for a while, fine. If this means that we have some apologies to make, or some repentance to do, than I pray that God gives us the courage and grace to do so. Restored relationships—real and honest relationships— is a light that all of us can shine into the darkness.
Mr friends, there is a tremendous amount of darkness all around us, but there is also a tremendous potential for light. We have hope because we have Jesus Christ. Will you follow? Will you follow Jesus Christ? Will you follow him with your heart and your mind, with your emotions and your intellect? Will you follow him with your hands and your feet, with your gifts and skills and talents and passions? Will you open your eyes to see that unique and particular place where your light can shine? It may be in restoring relationships. It may be something else. My prayer today is that you answer ‘yes,’ that you say ‘yes’ when Christ invites you to come. My prayer today is that your ‘yes’ turns into a life lived for him, words spoken for him, deeds done in him and for him. My friends, when we say ‘yes’, we will not be alone—Christ will be with us and with him, whom, what, shall we fear? Nothing. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. And then we’ll sing:
He leadeth me: O blessed thought!
O words with heavenly comfort fraught!
Whate'er I do, where'er I be,
still 'tis God's hand that leadeth me.
He leadeth me, he leadeth me,
by his own hand he leadeth me;
his faithful follower I would be,
for by his hand he leadeth me.
And when my task on earth is done,
when by thy grace the victory's won,
e'en death's cold wave I will not flee,
since God through Jordan leadeth me.