Sermon: “Following Jesus” (Mark 1:14-20)

I want to begin this morning by sharing a story that Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell in their most recent book, A Path Appears, which if you don’t know it, is a book about how to be an engaged global citizen, and make a difference here and abroad.

I recommend it to you very highly.

The story I’d like to share from it today, however, is a story that is, in many respects, not all that remarkable.

Anyway, it’s not remarkable, if by “remarkable,” you think of people trying to cure malaria in all of Africa, or to provide bicycles so every girl in Pakistan can get to school quickly and safely.

But it’s remarkable, nonetheless.

Back in the 1950’s in rural Arkansas, Kristof and WuDunn explain, “Olly Neal was a poor kid with an attitude and no obvious prospects. He was rebellious and resisted help” — so much so that by his senior year, most of his teachers had pretty much written him off.

The only person who still tried to help him, who still believed in his potential, was the school librarian, Mrs. Grady, and for her trouble, he mocked her openly and reduced her to tears in front of other students on a regular basis.

Things were not on a good path.

And then one day….right?

And then one day, Olly was skipping class and ended up in the library, such as it was, for no particular reason, and he saw among the small collection of books there something that piqued his interest.

It was a book “with a risque cover of a scantily dressed woman,” and it was called The Treasure of Pleasant Valley.

(Kind of makes you wonder what the treasure was, right?)

Anyway, Olly was too proud to take the book out officially, which would have felt like…what? Caving in? Buying into the whole idea of school? Doing something right by Mrs. Grady the librarian?

Whatever it was, Olly didn’t take out the book. Instead, he stole it.

To his surprise, he loved it. And when he snuck it back, he was also surprised to see another book right there on the same shelf by the same author that he had not noticed before.

So he stole that one.

Strangely, the same thing happened. Actually, it happened four more times.

In any case, Olly became a reader, then engaged with the news and the issues of the day, and he blossomed. Eventually, he made his way to college and law school, and a prominent career.

And so it was, many years later, at a high school reunion, that he ran into his old librarian, Mrs. Grady, and he told her how much the books in that little school library had meant to him.

She nodded. Then she admitted that she had seen him steal the very first book, and had been about to confront him when she realized that he was embarrassed to be seen as a reader.

And then it came out that, even more importantly, the very next Saturday, she had driven 70 miles to Memphis to see if she could find another book by the same author. There was no budget for that. There was no reimbursement for mileage. There would have been nobody who said the trouble was worth it for a kid like Olly Neal. It was all on her.

She had to go to four different bookstores. And, of course, when he snapped up the second book, she’d gone back to Memphis two more times to track down other titles by that author.

Safe to say, Olly Neal owed Mrs. Grady the librarian even more than he realized.

But she saw something in him that other people could not or could no longer quite see.

And she was right.


This morning, Mark’s Gospel shows us the early ministry of Jesus in the midst of an important new phase.

At the outset, Jesus has been on sort of a “solo mission” — maybe even a kind of “vision quest,” of sorts, leaving the known world and seeking God at the edge of the wilderness.

But now we are hearing of a new phase. In this morning’s Scripture, Jesus is calling the disciples–and specifically, Peter and his brother Andrew, and then James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were fishermen in the Sea of Galilee.

In fact, when they encounter Jesus, they are actively involved in the work of fishermen–casting their nets, or sitting in their boat with their father and a host of others, mending nets.

There is this quality of “There I was, going about my business, another typical day as a fisherman, when all of a sudden….”

Or as we might put it, “And then one day….” there’s Jesus.

It isn’t clear that they’ve heard him before; it isn’t clear that they’ve met or even that they’ve heard about him….There is no reported “Oh…it’s you….”

It’s just: here he is.

Here he is, and here he is, with his first words, making this outlandish request: “Cast off your nets, and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

In a way that reminds me of Mrs. Grady and Olly Neal, Jesus seems to see something in these men that they can’t quite see in themselves.

Mark puts great emphasis on how quickly the whole thing happened.

He reports that “immediately, they left their nets and followed him.” And then, just two lines later, when Jesus sees the sons of Zebedee, Mark says, “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

Most of us were raised with the idea “act in haste, repent at leisure.”

It seems entirely likely that the disciples would have been raised with that idea, too.

But thankfully, they don’t follow that advice, and there is no indication that later on, they particularly regretted it, even though, clearly, this moment ended up bringing them so much more than they bargained for.

Maybe it’s a little like Olly Neal didn’t come to regret stealing books from that library, because stealing books turned him into a reader, and that ended up bringing him so much more than he bargained for.

The disciples steal away to Jesus, and eventually, at some point along the way, they end up being turned into disciples.

They are transformed.

Did they see it all then, as they saw Jesus?

I don’t think so.

I don’t think they saw it any more clearly than Olly Neal saw himself becoming a state appellate court judge because he decided to read The Treasure of Pleasant Valley.

The point is not that they saw it. The point is that it was there, waiting to be seen.


And that’s where I’d like to focus our attention for a few moments this morning.

Because we in the Church most typically tell this story as a way of talking about the notion of being called by God.

That makes sense because in Jesus, God is literally calling his disciples to come join him.

We also tell the story as a way of highlighting the importance of obedience — that when God calls, you don’t put Him on hold. Ever.

But reading the story again this week, I was struck by how much it is also a story about expectations.

What is out there in God’s world that is waiting to be seen?

Jesus sees more to these men than their situations might suggest, and he invites them to share not simply his journey, but more importantly, to learn his way of seeing.

He is not limited or blinded by the expectations of identity or social circumstances…and his point is that we must not be, either.

Maybe you saw the thoughtful interview in the New York Times yesterday with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is currently attending a church conference in New York City on income inequality.

And he observed, “We see within the life and ministry of Jesus a challenge to the rich to love the poor as God loves the poor: in the same way, with the same intention, and with the same generosity.”

One of the great spiritual challenges of inequality, he suggests, is how it lures us into believing that all people are not equal before God, that all people are not cherished and important and fascinating to God.

It is a temptation for all of us, rich and poor alike. Men and women. And for people of all backgrounds and races. Believers and unbelievers.

As the Archbishop puts it, “The human being for whom Christ died is of equal value, whoever they are.”

Part of our challenge as faithful people is learning to see each person as the one for whom Jesus gave his life–as someone who is just that important in the eyes of God.

And that’s why Christians have always understood ourselves to be under a particular obligation to seek out the least and the lost.

That’s why we have always felt a call to go out search of anyone and anything out there in God’s world that is waiting to be seen.

Sadly, two thousand years after Jesus’ arrival, we still don’t have to go too far to find people and places that are waiting to be noticed.

Even you and I may be waiting to be noticed–waiting for our hurts and our challenges to get the attention they need and deserve.

And yet, this morning’s Gospel reminds us not to wait until all our affairs are in order before we set out.

The work of serving others, becoming fishers of men, is not something that depends on our perfection–actually, it’s God’s peculiar strategy for making something of us, after all.


I’m glad that serving others does not depend on our perfection, and particularly mine.

I’m also glad to report to you that at this very moment, fourteen members of our congregation are on their way to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi for a week of service at a United Church of Christ ministry that began as a ministry of racial reconciliation back in the 1950s and has come to include service to veterans, economically vulnerable families, and people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Always its vision has expanded, and more people in need–people with so much to offer–have come into its view.

I can’t promise that we will find a young man like Olly Neal and put a book in his hand.

But I can promise that for a few days, a group of us will make time and space and energy for people who are waiting to be seen.

With God’s help, we will do the work of suspending our own expectations and open ourselves up to seeing the people with something a little closer to the eyes of God.

Kristof and WuDunn’s book is titled, A Path Appears.

With the grace of God, may a path appear for all of us.


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