Dick Murray taught at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas for twenty-nine years. A big bear of a man, Dick’s passion for Christian Education, especially biblical literacy, made him beloved among laity and clergy alike. Working in partnership with others, Dick developed both the content and praxis of Disciple Bible Study, an intensive experience in biblical formation. Hundreds of thousands of people, including some of us here today; studying together in English, Spanish, and Korean, in countries all around the world, have experienced Disciple.

Unconventional, sometimes downright cantankerous, Dick Murray loved to shock for the sake of the Gospel. Toward the end of his life, slowed by a debilitating illness, walking with a cane, Dick let loose with a favorite opening line: “Jesus was a hooker.” Having managed to get almost everyone’s attention, Dick explained. “Jesus,” he said, “caught, captured, and captivated ordinary people with the extraordinary reality of holy possibility.”

Telling a parable, posing a question, restoring a soul, Jesus pulled people into the inbreaking Kingdom of Heaven, reeled them in with grace, caught them up in the net of hope. Using his cane for emphasis, Dick would repeat himself. “Jesus was a hooker. And I’m going to help you become hookers too.”

Jesus comes to Capernaum, to the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. Matthew identifies for us a place like Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo: places of desperation and destruction, of suffering and anguish, of darkness and despair. Citing Isaiah, Matthew creates a spiritual as well as a geographical setting for the epiphany of God.

Jesus comes to those who felt God’s wrath in the exile—to those who have waited, waited, waited for the arrival of the Messiah of God. Jesus comes as the light of Isaiah’s prophecy. Only Matthew chooses a stronger verb. Jesus, says Matthew, comes as dawn, as the breaking of a new day, as the inbreaking of God’s new reign.

In order to do his work, in order to establish his reign, Jesus needs companions. Moving around the Galilee, Jesus calls four fishermen. Simon and Andrew leave their nets and their boat; James and John leave their father and quit their net mending. Decisively, and apparently without hesitation, they follow him.

What about him hooks them? Matthew gives no indication that they know Jesus, know anything about Jesus, know what following Jesus will mean. Only this one thing he tells them: “Follow me. Now you will fish for people.” And with that they follow him.

My friend Trevor, a pastor from South Africa, commented when he visited the states that following seems highly undervalued in American culture. “I am amazed,” he said, “at how many conferences you have about leadership and not a single one on followership. Seems to me that when I forget I am a follower, everything goes wrong. Jesus comes to us saying, ‘I want to include you in a life that I know about.’ We follow Jesus, and we invite others into a life where we follow Jesus together.”

I wonder: when did we last consider the importance of following? as God’s call to the heart? as an imperative of faith? as the work of a disciple?

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that to be a follower means to take “a position slightly behind the leader. To be a follower means to be someone other than the one we follow.”

So: we are not Jesus. Intellectually we know that. Yet often we behave as if the Gospel begins with us, emanates from us, and bears no fruit without us. Often we behave as if following is not necessary—only our leadership.

Faithful followers remember that the good news begins in the heart of God. We do not generate the light that shines in the darkness; the new heaven and new earth receive birth in the imagination of God; the power of Jesus to heal and teach and proclaim the good news flows from loving connection with the one he calls Abba.

Jesus comes to lead us into God’s dream of a radically, re-arranged reality, to induct us into a way of living and loving that requires us to follow God’s lead.

We follow the light and leadership of Christ because the darkness proves very strong. We avoid it whenever we can. Petula Dvorak, columnist at the Washington Post has a writing voice that hooks me. She articulates with compelling clarity things what we would rather not see. In her column this week, she shines light on our neglect of the mentally ill.

Aaron Alexis kills twelve at the navy yard. He believes himself controlled by low frequency electro-magnetic waves. Miriam Carey, struggling with post-partum depression and psychosis rams the gates of the White House with her car, then careens around the city, her one year old in the back seat, until the police shoot her. Child killings in Germantown; patricide in Georgetown: Dvorak builds her case—nineteen bodies in five months. And that’s not including a spiking suicide rate among young veterans and the smaller shooting sprees we now tolerate.

“So why is it,” Dvorak says, “we speak shamelessly about herniated disks, celiac disease, and plantar fasciitis, but depression, bi-polar disorder; psychosis and post-traumatic stress are taboo?”

“Violence,” she continues, “is not an inevitable characteristic of mental illness, but it is a pretty loud alarm bell that should have us listening.”

To be hooked by the good news means something profoundly more than feeling vaguely spiritual. It asks for more from us than a fleeting or neurotic desire to do a good thing. Following Jesus means every day, every day, every day walking slightly behind him, being inducted into his life, inviting others to follow us in seeing what he sees. In the words of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, we seek to close the gap between what we are and what God wants of us (Bernadin, The Gift of Peace).

Sometimes, we meet a person from whom the joy of following radiates. Something about the way they go about their work has the quality of God in it. Somehow, following Jesus, they have learned to cast the net of their lives broad and deep, looking for something in others that God would have expressed.

I think of Nancy Coward, my high school English teacher, the person who taught me how to write. I encountered her in ninth grade. Mrs. Coward had a red pen, which she applied generously to her student’s work. The first theme she returned to me looked like someone had bled all over it.

Yet, she hooked me! Hooked me and gathered me in. And so began a relationship that would develop and unfold over four years. I would offer up the work of my blue pen. She would decorate liberally with her red one. I learned more about prepositions with no objects, topic sentences, and paragraph formation than I ever imagined possible.

Mrs. Coward remained challenging, demanding, loving. As long as I would write, she would comment and edit. I wrote and rewrote almost every theme in high school five or six times. Her insistence that we discipline ourselves to continue writing every day, every day, every day: unwavering.

I can still see her sitting across from me, the desk tops of two student chairs touching, heads bent low and close. “This …this what, Gina? This must refer to something, you understand.”

I don’t see Mrs. Coward very often. We still correspond; share our writing. She continually reminds me to choose words carefully; encourages me to appreciate the art and craft of writing.

Sometimes she tells me she has used one of my sermons as the Sunday school lesson in her Southern Baptist Church. She chuckles as she says, “I tell them one of my students wrote our lesson. My student is a minister. My student is a woman.”

Nancy Coward hooked me for the writing life. And years later, I realized that I glimpsed the first possibilities of a sermon writing, preaching life in her classroom.

Sometimes, following Jesus, it helps to notice the coincidences, relationships, strange happenings; the thing you cannot shake, the little things, the things that just click.

Expect Jesus to show up, my friends: any time, any place. And notice what happens when he does. He extends an invitation, invites a response. “Follow me. Now you will fish for people.”

These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell

Resources

Trevor Hudson, Companions in Ministry lecture, 10-21-06

Barbara Brown Taylor, “Something About Jesus”, Christian Century, 4-3-07

Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, The Gift of Peace

Petula Dvorak, “Ignoring mental illness won’t make it go away”, The Washington Post, week of January 19, 2014

Dick Murray, Talbot School of Protestant Education, online obituary

Additional Resources: