January 14, 2024 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
John 1:43-51 The Federated Church, UCC
“Hi,” I say to the grocery store clerk. “Do you have bread and butter pickles?” “Why, yes we do,” they say. “Follow me.” And off we traipse to find the pickles. Maybe you’ve signed up for a birding excursion in a new area. And everyone shows up. And as it comes time to head out, the guide says, “Follow me.” And off you go to see and discover. Years ago, as my family and I were traveling across the country, at a stretch of road in South Dakota there was a massive amount of road construction. And to get through the construction mess, we were led by a vehicle with a simple sign affixed to its back end: “Follow me.”
When we’re looking for something, we’re eager to find someone who knows the way, who knows where they’re going and how to get there. We need to trust the person in order to put ourselves in their hands. And then, if all goes well, we will be led to some destination or vista that shows us something new or engages us in a way we hadn’t known before. If we follow, it’s because we trust that life will be made better.
Jesus, too, invites people to follow him. To follow him. Which means he doesn’t ask them to do other things. He doesn’t, for example, ask them to believe certain things about him. He doesn’t say, “You must affirm that I was born literally of a virgin mother.” He doesn’t say, “You must have an experience of rebirth, of being born again, before you can properly call yourself a Christian.” He doesn’t say, “You must believe in a doctrine of substitutionary atonement, declaring that my death buys you a salvation that you can’t possibly earn any other way.”
Jesus doesn’t say any of those things, popular as those beliefs may be in wide swaths of our culture. What Jesus says is simply: “Follow me.” And while we may say “simply,” it’s probably not as simple as it may sound. Because following Jesus has to do with some qualities that most of us find off-putting or frightening or that seem just plain wrong. Following Jesus has something to do with relinquishing, doesn’t it. It has to do with emptying ourselves. It has to do with denying ourselves. It has to do with focusing on someone other than just the person we see in the mirror. “Follow me,” says Jesus. And probably most of are always within an inch or two of saying, “That’s a bit much for me. I’m harried and discouraged and lonely enough that I don’t have a lot of energy for much more than getting through the day. One more requirement,” we may think, “one more demand, and it’s going to push me over the edge.”
So this is where we begin. We begin with an acknowledgement that many of us, maybe most of us, have little energy or strength to do much more than simply get through our days. Maybe this is just me, but I suspect not. Life can seem like a slog. So the notion of following Jesus, of taking on some new responsibilities and duties can seem like just the burden that makes us go, “Uh-uh. Sorry. Not today.”
Which is why the very first thing we need to hear, again and again, is that following Jesus is not just one more in a long list of chores that we’re expected to take on. Following Jesus—and this is the good news, this is what we call the “gospel”—following Jesus is first of all this: it’s inviting this Jesus, this kind and gentle and forgiving Jesus, into the hearth of our hearts. When we follow Jesus, we say, “Jesus, you are the very pulse of the universe. In you, everything comes together and finds its place. The very reason you are at all is as the preeminent messenger of God’s good news, which is that no matter who we are or what we’ve done, no matter how sad or overburdened or discouraged or resentful or guilt-ridden we may be, your ‘yoke is easy and your burden is light’” (Matthew 11:30). As Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
When Jesus says, “Follow me,” this is what he is saying before he is saying anything else. Follow me to peace. Follow me to acceptance. Follow me to that place where every insecurity of yours, every foible, every exhausted fiber of your being is welcomed into the deepest of all contentments. Because Jesus’ very first word to us is, ‘I’m so glad to see you. The party wouldn’t be complete without you. I totally adore you.’
Follow Jesus? That’s what we’re following first. The one who says excitedly when he sees us, “You’re here!” That’s not all, though, is it. Because the one who invites us to follow is the very same one who knows that our joy, our contentment, our sense of fulfillment will only be enhanced by our offering that same welcome, that same invitation to all to join the party. Jesus knows that following entails joining in the dance, the chorus, the shared work of making all things new.
To follow Jesus is to employ the gifts we’ve been given to share the joy of God’s endless favor with those around us. To follow Jesus is to extend ourselves for the sake of something larger than ourselves. To follow Jesus is to offer ourselves for the work of ensuring grace and peace where it is needed. And we each do this in our own ways.
Several weeks ago, a Mexico City police officer named Arizbeth Dionisio Ambrosio was deployed to Acapulco in the aftermath of Hurricane Otis. While there, she encountered a woman who was unable to breastfeed her four-month-old son. Dionisio herself has a year-old-son, and she ached at seeing this baby, who hadn’t eaten for a prolonged period and was crying of hunger. So the kindly police officer asked the mother if she might nurse the baby for her. And while she was on duty there, she nursed the baby. And we might say Dionisio was following Jesus.
My friend and UCC clergy colleague Jared Wortman tells this story: “She was up before the crack of dawn. She was doing what she knew how to do best. In those early morning hours, she was an artist at work before the rest of the world woke. She could envision her masterpieces even before they were created. Her medium was pie. She made a mean apple pie, and her peach pie was delectable. But hands down, the crowd favorite was her sweet potato pie. Morning after morning and day after day, she mashed the cooked sweet potatoes, and blended in the sugar and blended in the eggs and blended in the butter. Then came the ginger and the nutmeg, the cinnamon and the vanilla. She didn’t even have to think about the recipe. Her hands stirred and sifted and moved and measured with years of muscle memory guiding the process.
“Those who knew her knew that she hummed gospel music as she whisked and worked, making pies from her little kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama. Her name was Georgia Gilmore. If you know her story, you know that she is often attributed as one of the behind-the-scenes leaders who made the Montgomery bus boycott a success. What began with the courage of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955, led to a bus boycott that eventually resulted in the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
“What is sometimes glossed over is that the Black population of Montgomery still had to get to and from work. And since not everyone could walk to work, this wasn’t an easy proposition. As time went on, avoiding the bus wasn’t cheap or affordable for many. In time, a carpool system emerged where cars were purchased and rides were shared.
“And this was funded in part by Georgia Gilmore’s kitchen. Among other sweet and savory delicacies, those apple and peach and sweet potato pies were sold all over Montgomery. The story goes that many restaurants didn’t realize who was making the pies that they were buying or what Georgia was doing with all the profits. Without fail, every Monday and Thursday evening, Georgia would take the proceeds from her pies with her to church, which in turn went to fund an alternative transportation system and strategy.
“For Georgia, baking was an act of love. It was also an art of kitchen table diplomacy and advocacy. With every slice of pie that was paid for and plated, dignity and respect were a little bit closer at hand. All over Montgomery, you could taste the sweet, sweet justice that came from Georgia’s kitchen. In the words of Rev. Thomas Jordan, ‘Georgia Gilmore was one of the unsung [heroes] of the Civil Rights Movement.’ Historians say her home was a haven for Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders. In the words of Rev. Al Dixon, Dr. Martin Luther King needed a place where he could go where he could not only trust the people around him, but also trust the food. In time, professors and politicians, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and plain hungry people would sit at Georgia’s table. She didn’t just fund a boycott. She also helped a nation recognize that hope for something better could be and should be on the table for everyone. She reminded a city and a country that justice should always be baked into our lives” (sermon, Nov. 19, 2023).
To follow Jesus is to know that right relations matter, and that we each have a role to play in that. It may be that, in a personal conflict, we seek to understand rather than to judge. Or that we write letters to our representative about issues that matter. Or that we knit lap blankets for people who are without homes. It may be that we practice a habit of gratitude even when we may not always feel grateful. It may be that we develop a practice of generosity even when we feel beset by endless challenges. Following Jesus entails doing not just big things, but the little things that make for peace.
In the movie version of “The Hobbit,” Gandalf at one point says, “Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I’ve found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay, simple acts of kindness and love.” Or, as Dr. King once put it, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
Follow Jesus? Yes, that’s what it takes—“the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay, simple acts of kindness and love”—“small things [done] in a great way.” We can do that. God has loved us with an everlasting love, and given us the strange and wonderful ability to make just that sort of difference. May we follow Jesus with passion and trust and love.