Sermon Text: Just Keep Following!
If we go back several verses in chapter 8 of Mark, we would learn that Jesus has taken his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Before that, they were moving all around Galilee – Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida – back and forth across the Sea of Galilee numerous times – to places where they have been very busy enacting the kingdom of God, their days filled with teaching, preaching, healing, feeding hungry people, telling stories, and performing miracles. Caesarea Philippi appears lovely, with springs of clean water and lushness, so the disciples might be anticipating a retreat of sorts after all their ministry throughout Galilee. But to their surprise, they find that this is no vacation spot and most definitely not a place for respite and relaxation! For all its physical beauty, Caesarea Philippi is a tainted area with a very shady past, so the men may be wondering why Jesus has brought them here to a place where there had once been pagan worship and idolatrous activities. It is a mystery unfolding as the faithful disciples learn that Jesus has some very serious issues on his mind and in his spirit, things to reveal to them about who he is and about who God is calling them to be in their growing discipleship with Jesus.
This story reminds me of Father Ashford, a Catholic priest at St. Elizabeth School in Timau, Kenya in Africa where I did volunteer work several years ago. Like Jesus calling his disciples to follow him, Father Ashford invited my friend Cindy and me to follow him as he ministered each day to the children and their families and teachers of this very poor community. We faithfully and eagerly trailed him into his church every morning for worship, we sat quietly listening as he taught in the classrooms, and we even knelt alongside him as he prayed comfort and healing for people we visited in their homes during the dusty afternoons in Timau. Then one day Father Ashford announced that we needed to see more of Kenya, “the other side of the mountain” in his words. We piled into his old car and took off to visit towns, friends, and family in that new land, telling stories, laughing, and shopping for giant yams and bananas all along the way.
Our last stop that day before heading back to Timau was a coffee grove Father Ashford’s family had once owned. It was beautifully sculpted and terraced down the side of a steep hill; the gentle trees were laden with ripening beans, providing an idyllic scene, perfected and drawn in gorgeous proportions. Gazing far down from the coffee grove, we could see three women picking tea leaves and tossing them into huge baskets strapped to their backs. Father Ashford said, “Come, follow me down to meet the women.” It was so beautiful and green and lush that I could not resist heading down. Well, it soon became apparent that this was one treacherous trek moving down that steep hill. I fell numerous times, slicing my right foot twice (sandals!) from the wiry vines and roots woven through the floor of the coffee grove. Each time I fell, Father Ashford would stretch out his big hand to pull me to my feet, then he would burst on ahead, hurrying down to the tea field. I was aching and dirty from frequent falls, and the gash on my foot was becoming infected. I lost hold of my tote bag, and all the contents went flying everywhere. I fell again, scrambling to retrieve all the contents. At some point, I began to think, “Why did I agree to follow Father Ashford down the side of this mountain? What was I thinking? Why did he call me to this place?” I did hear him call back from time to time, “Just keep following me, you will be fine!”
Later, I realized that Father Ashford had brought me to what was not a harsh, but a very sacred place. Like Jesus, he encouraged me to enter an uneasy, uncomfortable place, one that challenged everything human in me. He later said, “I wanted you to actually meet the women, talk with them, watch them work, understand something about their daily lives. They have to go down that hill every day of every week and return only when the baskets are heavily filled with tea leaves. This is how they support their families.” The women were happy and beautiful, even as they struggled, and it was a gift to witness them in that field, much like entering into God’s kingdom.
Jesus longs to have his disciples learn similar lessons revealing truth about him, that he was sent by God to share our humanity, our daily existence, about life in its mysterious positioning of beauty alongside hard struggles, suffering, and all kinds of crises in the present and the future. He talks to them and to us about how to become a tenacious and faithful disciple. Jesus unfolds his best miracle right before the disciples, the miracle being himself, Messiah, savior, in the flesh and the unlikely person and insight of Peter! We too are those unlikely persons God chooses for discipleship, ambassadors to confront the best and the worst situations in life around us – school shootings, violence, uneasiness in countless forms. Yet we have the assurance even as Jesus says, “This is what life will be like following me. You will stumble, feel scattered and wounded, cut your feet, watch others suffer, you may even be like me and lose your life. But in the end, you will experience real life!”
This was the climax of Jesus’ ministry, a road across the bridge between security and comfort, to Jerusalem, to Jesus’ and our own deaths, to resurrection and new life, salvation, and eternal security – stretched out like a gorgeous tea field before us. The hand of God is open, “Follow me, you will be fine!” AMEN.