Tag Archives: Follow Jesus


A Sermon for 28 January 2020 – Installation of Officers

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 4:12-25. I’m reading from the Common English Bible. Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said: 15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali: alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light, and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death. 17 From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” 18 As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 20 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21 Continuing on, Jesus saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and 22 immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 23 Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all those who had various kinds of diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed, and Jesus healed them. 25 Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from the areas beyond the Jordan River.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


If Advent and Christmas are the liturgical seasons when the Church is aiming at and celebrating the birth of Christ. And Lent and Easter are the times we’re getting ready to remember his death and resurrection. Then what’s the focus of Ordinary Time? Though the special seasons of the liturgical cycle get all the hype, Ordinary Time makes up 33 to 34 weeks every year. Week after week of green gets its time. So, we best know what it’s all about! One biblical commentator explains that Ordinary Time is the time when we, like the first disciples, are asked “to follow Jesus, not because of the star that announced his birth, nor, yet, because of the excitement conjured by the promise of a trip to Jerusalem, but simply because Jesus has said, ‘Follow me’” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1, David Toole, p. 284-286).

How exactly do we follow Jesus today? We live in a world some have called a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous place. And we certainly see that put before us every day. Which reminds me of the very context in which Jesus lived. Because our own historical understanding of the land in which Jesus’ lived may be a bit vague, we easily could miss what biblical commentator Stanley P. Saunders points out about the places named here in the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus hears of John the Baptist’s arrest, he takes his leave from the area where John had been baptizing in the Jordan River. Though the gospel of Matthew alone emphasizes the historic names, Saunders writes: “Zebulun, where Nazareth is located, and Naphtali, where Capernaum is found, were according to Jewish Christian traditions the first of the twelve tribes to go into exile under Assyria (as recorded in 2 Kings 15:29) and thus the first who might expect to be restored” (Connections Yr. A, Vol. 1, pp. 204-5). We believe the gospel of Matthew is the gospel written primarily to those who were Jewish and would have known the history of Jesus’ people. When they heard that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a stone’s throw from the King’s paranoid palace in Jerusalem, they would have remembered the promise of a new king destined to be born from the throne of David. When they heard the story of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan, echoes of ancestors wading through to the Promised Land would have been fresh in their minds. When they heard of a man being driven into the wilderness only to be tempted forty days, reminders of those forty wilderness years and all the ways the people’s faithfulness was tempted would have rung in their ears. And, when those first Jews to become followers of Christ’s Way heard this very One deliberately set out for Galilee to make his home by the sea in Capernaum in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, they would have known that at last the prophet’s words had been fulfilled that “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” (Is. 9:2). They would have connected the references to the invasion of their land by Assyria, the dispersion of their northern ancestors all across the known world, with the invasion of Rome, the latest empire occupying the land. As Saunders writes: “these place names are not incidental, but signify the beginnings of the reversals that attend the coming of the son” – the heir of the Davidic throne. “Both Matthew 4 and Isaiah 9,” Saunders writes, “affirm that God brings about justice not through the powerful, but for and by means of the lowliest” (Ibid., p. 205).

Enter fishermen named Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, and even brothers James and John. These men worked the sea of Galilee. Their stately shoulders rowed the water each day. Their rugged hands hauled nets full of fish. If you were looking for a way to begin God’s reversal, you might as well start with ones such as these. For all we know, these are brothers busy with their everyday lives, far from the halls of the power propped up in Jerusalem. Maybe not quite as concerned about following the prescribed religion as being sure their families got their daily bread. It’s ones such as these Jesus tells to follow as he goes about remaking the world – bringing light all throughout the land. Which should give us hope as we think about this VUCA, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world in which we live. Because it is people like us who Christ still calls to follow – furthering God’s reversal, joining the Spirit of God as together we go about remaking the world. Us, common folk: bringing light all throughout the land.

In a few minutes, we’re going to turn in this service to the liturgy used in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to ordain and install leaders into offices of the church. We’ll hear again how each of us has been called in our baptisms – how that very act clothed us with Christ. Calling us to live as those whose lives keep God’s great reversal going today. I love how the version of the Bible called The Message puts this in Colossians 3. Listen: “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. 3-4 Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. . . . So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. 15-17 Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God . . . every step of the way” (Col. 3:1-3, 12-17).

In other words: we are to follow right where we are in our regular old lives, which actually have become new lives – our real lives, according to the epistle – in which every detail – words, actions, whatever – are to be done like Christ – according to his Way. It’s the beginning of the reversal, God’s work in our own lives. Which really is the continuation of the reversal, the re-making of the world. The kingdom of God spread right out here in the midst of our everyday lives. This is the Way we are to follow. Carrying on God’s great reversal. Our lives: like Light never to be overcome

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2020 (All rights reserved.)


A Sermon for 9 April 2017 — Palm Sunday

A reading of the entrance into Jerusalem from the gospel of Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’  And he will send them immediately.”  This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,  “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,  “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

A reading from the prophet Isaiah 50:4-9a (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.  Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.  The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.  I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.  The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.  Who will contend with me?  Let us stand up together.  Who are my adversaries?  Let them confront me.  It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


Upheaval.  If any word sums it all up well today, it is upheaval!  Upheaval in that Jerusalem entry.  Upheaval in the Psalm over God’s steadfast love.  Upheaval from Isaiah for the One who gives his back over to be struck.  Even this service is an upheaval.  Maybe you expected it, but the choir wasn’t up front when we started today.  I read the gospel text for the day right after the opening hymn.  Which in itself was an upheaval, with a procession and all.  Calling us to do something out of the ordinary – particularly for Presbyterians who like to keep things decently and in order, especially in worship!  But the band came by, the palms were waving, and we all were invited to leave the safety of our pews – eek!  To walk around the sanctuary.  Waving palm branches no less???!!!  What an upheaval – getting us to worship before God – at least once a year – with our full body, soul, and spirit!  It’s an upheaval!

It had to feel that way that day.  Like an upheaval!  Down came Jesus, winding along the path on a donkey and a colt, at least according to Matthew’s gospel.  Down he rode that steep slope from the Mount of Olives, east of the city; through Gethsemane and the Kidron Valley, right into the old city gates.  Though we don’t know for sure, it’s likely he entered through the Lion’s Gate.  A road that would have taken this upheaval right past Pilate’s palace on the right and the Temple mount on the left.  All the while, as the gospel of Matthew records it, a throng of people crowded round.  Before and behind him men, women, and children too, I suspect.  They threw down their outer cloaks.  Some cut branches from the trees to involve all creation in an uproarious parade.  As our processional hymn said, we could call them the saints that were marching in.  Running and dancing and celebrating chaotic-like more than marching in in-line like obedient soldiers.  And they shouted:  “Hosanna!  Hosanna to the Son of David!”  Save us!  Words neither appreciated by Rome or the Temple leaders.  All of whom are within earshot.  Son:  of the great King David?  Descending into the city?  Humbly on a donkey and colt, as the prophet Zechariah foretold.  Entering the city as the triumphant King, come to “command peace to the nations;” the prophet wrote.  “His dominion . . . from sea to sea, and from the River (likely the Jordan) to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:9-10).  According to the prophet Zechariah, war will be no more once this King arrives.  For domination, control, fear, force-over-another shall not be his way.

Talk about an upheaval!  The gospel records that this first, unruly palm parade left “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” (Mt. 21:10).  One commentator points out that the Greek word used for turmoil literally means to tremble.  Used too of “the earthquakes at Jesus’ final breath upon the cross and at the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb.  The shaking of the earth is associated with the ‘day of the LORD’ and the presence of God” (Audrey West, Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2, p. 157).  The commentator further explains:  “Although the people of Jerusalem do not fully comprehend the significance of Jesus’ arrival, their reaction to him is fitting:  when the Messiah comes, it is an earthshaking event” (Ibid.).  Upheaval.  100% total upheaval to the powers of this world, to entrenched religious ways, to our very lives.  . . .  We can celebrate joyously all we want today.  But before too long, this One will enact in full what he demands of all.  Emptying himself for the sake of Love, he shows us the only path that leads to Life.  With a wink and a smile from that donkey and her colt; he nods:  “Come walk it.  Follow me.”

Upheaval.  Total upheaval.  Because he will not let us claim him Christ, then go on as if nothing much in life really needs to change – like the orientation of our hearts, the direction of our actions, and the will of our desires.  . . .  It takes courage to jump in on his parade, going where the Spirit leads like wind that cannot be controlled.  If we’re brave enough to tag along, we’ll be tossed to and fro through the events that mark this Holy Week.  The joy of today.  The awe of a table on his last night.  The chill of what happens one Friday because of what’s in us that will not tolerate pure Love.  Few of us will keep a fast from sundown Friday until sun-up Sunday morning as some devout followers used to do – and certain traditions today continue yet.  Most of us don’t like that kind of upheaval to our bodies.  Or our schedules.  We’re too busy getting ready for special Easter afternoon feasts to slow down enough Saturday to consider why it is classified as Holy.  . . .  I’ll never forget how the chapel at my college campus marked the week.  Imagine a sanctuary able to seat 3,500 people.  Everyone waving palm branches together one Sunday, only to gather right before sundown the very next Friday.  As we heard the whole story from God’s covenant in the creation of the world, through the enslaved’s liberation, to the waiting and watching and calling back to faithfulness, until at last a baby cried from a Bethlehem animal trough.  He grew.  And taught.  And fed.  And formed.  And angered.  And, for the sake of Love, he would not change his course.  As we sat those Good Fridays in that college sanctuary that naturally darkened as the sun went to bed for the night; at last the paschal candle was snuffed out.  “It is finished,” we heard.  The One on the cross breaths his last to surrender himself in full.  Not an eye was dry as we fumbled through the dark night out of that flame-less sanctuary where a pin drop alone would crash through the stunned silence.  Something about the way those college chaplains did Holy Week for us brought us to the wrenching ache of death.  It was as if the gloom of collective grief hung over campus beginning the night of Good Friday – the night they sent us out in silence into a star-less, dark world.  Can you feel the emotional upheaval deep within?  And who could imagine what it might be like to gather just before morning Sunday.  Outside, still in the dark.  Until, one match is struck.  A new candle lit.  A whisper begins:  “Upheaval!  The forces that obliterate the Light do not have the last say.  The path of Life leads through death.  . . .  Upheaval.  Total upheaval!  For which we will give great thanks!

But first, the turmoil.  First, the last.  First, learning the self-emptying path.  As he heads full force to his death, hear him nod, “come walk it.  Follow me.”

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Intent Focus

A  Sermon for 26 June 2016 

A reading from the gospel of Luke 9:51-62. Listen for God’s word to us.

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.””

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


Here we in the season after Pentecost – getting ready to settle into the long stretch of Ordinary Time before coming full-circle to return to the start of the church year with Advent sometime around Thanksgiving. And today the lectionary has turned us to the gospel of Luke and to an epistle texts too that teaches us about being church. Galatians is a wonderful example of the kind of living together that gives witness to the already-present kingdom of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The beautiful fruits of spirits attuned to the very Spirit of God. . . . And then we get our gospel text for today. Not so much beautiful fruits, but a knock-ya-off-your feet kinda text.

A turning takes place at this point of the gospel, at least the way it’s recorded in Luke. Jesus now intently has set his face on a journey to Jerusalem. He’s on the move – out of his home region of Galilee for the last time. He is ready to head to Jerusalem to take on all that awaits there. No sooner does he resolutely set off, than he encounters a couple of characters we might know something about. Like: have you ever met an overly eager beaver? “I will follow you wherever you go,” earnestly announces this enthusiast. Always ready to go. Always moved by the impassioned plea. The clip flashes across the television about children starving half way around the world and eager beaver’s all set – bags of canned goods in hand. Ready to pitch in, this eager beaver enthusiast suddenly learns: those children are on the other side of the earth. It’s gonna take a boat, or one expensive plane-ride to get where those children are who need his helping hands. . . . “Foxes have holes,” says Jesus, “and the birds of the air have nests. Me? I don’t know the comforts of a cozy home. Nonetheless, follow me and we’ll see where the journey leads – no matter the inconveniences that come.”

A few steps later another chap is met. “Follow me!” Jesus joyfully beckons. Obviously he cannot see that this son has his hands full. Dad’s been pretty sick lately. It’s been quite a burden. You know how that can be. Aging parents can be a handful. Obligations to fulfill. Oh not that we mind. Dad always was there when we were young. Doing what had to be done – frequently for our own benefit. Sticking with him now, tending through illness even onto death – well, certainly Jesus can understand that. . . . We’re not told in Luke whether this son’s father already has passed or not. According to the custom of the day, the man meeting Jesus may be concerned with one of two ancient commandments of Israel (Green, The Gospel of Luke, 1997, pp. 407-8). It’s possible that his dad’s still alive which, according to law, would bind the son to proper care of him until the end occurs. It’s not just that they didn’t have nursing homes. Rather, such farmed-out care was against Jewish law. The son was responsible to tend his aging parent. Jesus either expects the man to turn from that Jewish law – or possible another. If the father had died already, the law of their ancestors required that the son dutifully care from the time of death until as long as a year after. Burial was a two-step process for Jesus’ people. At the time of death, the body was wrapped to be laid in a tomb – tears were shed as the mourning began. But it wasn’t business as usual one mere week after the funeral – a widow with picked over casseroles the sole sign that something had happened here. A year after the initial burial, someone had to finish the job. Returning to the tomb, the body now decayed, a bone box was taken. A faithful son gathered the remains to be laid to final rest with other deceased ancestors (Green, The Gospel of Luke, 1997, pp. 407-8). Whatever point this son stood within that period of care before and beyond the grave, Jesus has one charge. “Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you: go. Proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).

I don’t know about you, but I’m not so sure I wanna hear Jesus’ summons to a third. “I’ll follow you Lord. I will. But just give me a moment while I go on back to kiss the loved ones goodbye.” Now we gotta admit: on the journey to Jerusalem, this one might be a pretty decent prospect. This one’s got a lot of commitment. Ready to wave farewell to the folks at home, this person truly is set to sacrifice. Unfortunately, Jesus replies: “No looking back.” As one version of scripture I’ve heard puts it: “If you turn around once your hand is on the plow, we’ll end up with a crooked row of corn.” Leave it – whatever it is back there – that person, or thing, or possession, which keeps us captive in the past. We’re to let it go. With it we’re unfit for God’s kingdom.

These are some rough words rolling off the lips of our Lord. Its summer and it’s been so hot so you’d think he could cut us a little slack. . . . He can’t though. Remember: the gospel of Luke explained at the beginning of our reading for today. Thus far in the gospel, Jesus has been busy teaching, healing, taking in dinner parties, choosing and sending apostles, praying; feeding thousands, restoring life to dead ones, stilling storms – you know all that just another ole’day at the office kinda stuff. Certainly these were moments filled with great passion. But it’s not quite the same intensity as we now get here. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Serious focus begins at this point in Jesus’ life. Popularity may be swelling. Perhaps the phone is ringing off the hook with potential preaching engagements. No matter. He’s got no time for distractions now. It’s like with a champion athlete – absolutely intent on reaching the goal. Un-distractible focus is required. . . . As the days draw near for Jesus to be taken up, he sets his face. Soon the streets of Jerusalem will swarm with Passover pilgrims. The lamb must be slain. God’s deliverance re-enacted. . . . Intently focused – no time, nor concern for the fire of judgement to be rained down on Samaritans who won’t receive – Jesus knows his purpose: the road of suffering, rejection, death. He’s intent on it not because he necessarily wants to undergo such pain. Just because he knows such self-giving is the way – the only way that leads to true Life.

Would-be followers must have their Lord’s same self-giving focus. That’s his message to the church in this text today. According to Jesus, even the best of all priorities like physical need, fulfilled duty, family love. Right doctrine, pure standards, beloved traditions. We cannot be distracted – tossed to and fro; this way and that like a wave of the sea driven wherever by the wind (James 1:6). We cannot be distracted from Christ’s primary focus of giving of self for the benefit of others. In word and in deed, that’s how we ensure the kingdom is proclaimed! . . . When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face. Now, now is the time for his followers to do likewise.

In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)