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There’s a lot of leaving in today’s gospel reading. 
Jesus leaves Judea when he hears that John the Baptist has been arrested.
- Jesus leaves the small town of Nazareth and goes to Capernaum, a bigger city.
- Peter and Andrew leave their nets to follow Jesus.
- James and John leave their boat and their father behind to follow Jesus.
What have you left behind to follow Jesus?
What might you need to leave behind to keep following him?
There’s a novel by Cindy Maddox called In the Neighborhood of Normal in which a widow named Mish is following Jesus by following the love. She got started on this mission when her granddaughter talked her into getting a cell phone and she got a text inviting her to meet someone for breakfast. She didn’t know who it was from, but she went anyway.
Nobody showed up, but while she was waiting, a woman came in and noticed Mish anxiously watching the door. The woman stopped to talk to Mish, and when Mish told her why she was there, the woman suggested that Mish keep her eyes open because maybe she’d get a visit from an angel. And then she winked that secret kind of wink that adds mysterious meaning. That got Mish thinking. Maybe this woman was an angel?
Mish remembers the verse in Hebrews that says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13:2)
The woman moved on into the diner. Mish could hear her talking to the waitress, but Mish wasn’t wearing her hearing aids, so she could only catch a word here and there.
“Random words and phrases kept reaching her straining ears. Twelve… Increase in followers… Fishing efforts… Believe in me… Some kind of miracle… Raise the dead…”
“Mish couldn’t wait any longer. She got up and sidled up next to the lady. “Excuse me,” she began, “but you said something about a message. Do…do you have a message for me?” The lady was so pretty when she smiled back. “A message? Why, sure. Follow the love. That will never lead you wrong.” She looked away…but Mish couldn’t wait any more. She just had to ask. “Who are you?” Mish whispered. The woman turned back toward Mish but didn’t quite meet her gaze. Her eyes widened and she whispered urgently, “Jesus Christ!” Then she grabbed her box and was out the door in a flash.”
After Mish lets this sink in for a few days, she is convinced that she has received a message from Jesus. “Follow the love.” It sounds like something Jesus would say, doesn’t it? He said the greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. On his last night with the disciples before he was arrested, Jesus commanded us to love one another. Not surprisingly, the rest of the book is about how Mish does that. She follows the love, and she helps some people in surprising ways, but her pastor and some of her friends think she’s lost her marbles.
People probably thought the disciples in today’s gospel reading had also lost their marbles. Looking back, knowing the rest of the story, we might think it was obviously the right thing to do, but they didn’t know what was going to happen. Jesus wasn’t popular yet. In fact, he was a fugitive. Jesus has left Judea so that he won’t get arrested like John the Baptist did. He’s taking refuge in Galilee, and leaving the small town where he grew up behind so that he can spread the word of God in a bigger town, Capernaum.
Matthew assures us that this was part of God’s plan by giving us the quote from Isaiah. Galilee is in the land of Zebulun and of Naphtali. And it’s an area that’s full of gentiles, people who aren’t Jewish, and who may not know God. But they will, because Jesus, the light, has come.
Matthew tells us that Jesus is preaching the same thing John the Baptist was preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt. 4:17)
That word “repent” sounds rather harsh and negative, but it simply means to change your mind. Be open to thinking about things in new ways. Be open to thinking about God in new ways. People would need to be able to do that to see that Jesus is God, and to see that the kingdom of heaven was near.
We need to be open to thinking in new ways to see what God is doing today. We might need to leave some old ways behind in order to follow the love, like Mish, and to follow Jesus, like the disciples. Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their jobs and their families to follow Jesus. It couldn’t have been easy. They probably even made some people angry.
This past week we celebrated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. There were lots of Facebook posts and tweets with quotes from King’s speeches. It’s very popular these days to follow MLK. But in the 1960s when King was making those speeches, he wasn’t so popular. He made many people angry, and at least one angry enough to assassinate him on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. That happened on a Thursday. The following Sunday, a well-known Christian college in Illinois, Wheaton College, hosted a community memorial service for the slain civil rights leader. News of the event spread, and some white evangelicals were not happy. Timothy LaHaye, who would become famous decades later as the co-author of the Left Behind book series, wrote a letter to the president of Wheaton College. LaHaye had seen a report in the newspaper about the community memorial service, and says in the letter, “It seems incredible that a Christian college could participate in honoring an out-right theological liberal heretic whose ‘non-violent’ demonstrations have resulted in the deaths of seventeen people.”
That was 1968. Since then, opinions about the civil rights movement have changed, and it’s now unpopular to have such a negative view of Dr. King. Did LaHaye change his views in later decades? Or did he just become silent?
In Galveston, where I lived before coming to Kansas, many of the churches would gather together each year on Dr. King’s birthday for a prayer circle. More than once, someone would leave the circle angry that we were only remembering and quoting the more palatable parts of King’s speeches, and not the radical calls for justice and change. They were frustrated because we still need change. We still need to leave behind abuse, oppression, and hate, and the systems that perpetuate racism and poverty.
What if following the love, following Jesus, means standing up against the hate? Jesus did go to the synagogues and speak to the people in those congregations, but most of his work of teaching and healing was out among people who were not so welcome in the synagogues.
To go forward we often have to leave something behind. We have to let go of ideas that are getting in our way.
For a small church in North Carolina, that meant leaving behind the idea that they were too small to make a difference. Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church, a small church in rural Warren County, is credited with being the church that started the environmental justice movement.
It started back in 1976 when the Raleigh-based Ward Transformer Company was looking to get rid of a warehouse full of oil tainted with PCBs, a group of cancer-causing chemicals that had been recently banned by the federal government. Ward hired a New York trucking company to dispose of the oil. That company sprayed 31,000 gallons along approximately 240 miles of rural roads in 14 North Carolina counties.
The scheme was soon uncovered, and executives of both companies eventually served prison terms, but that didn’t solve the tainted-soil problem that remained. After much deliberation and controversy, the state chose to build a landfill in Warren County and dump it there. The landfill site was in Afton, a community about 2 1/2 miles from the church.
Residents of Warren County believed then — and still believe — that state officials chose their county for the landfill thinking it would be an easy target. A woman named Dollie Burwell was determined to prove them wrong. She talked to community and state leaders and pastors, and the Coley Springs church became the base of operations for fighting the landfill. They gathered at the church to march the two miles out to the landfill site in protest. They protested for six weeks, and over 400 of them got arrested.
They weren’t able to prevent the landfill, but it was eventually closed down and cleaned up. The protests got national attention and helped to bring awareness to similar action happening around the country. Last year, when the head of the EPA Michael Regan announced the launch of the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, he came to Warren County to make the announcement.
They left behind the idea that they were too small and they made a significant impact.
What ideas do we need to leave behind to make a difference in our community and our world?
“Isaiah speaks of God doing a new thing—and fashioning a New Jerusalem with justice as its cornerstone is a centerpiece of his vision. In this New City swords will be melted into garden tools to feed the hungry and war colleges will be put out of business. Jubilee policies will recalibrate the economics of the city, creating equity for those who lived under the poverty line for too long. The eunuchs and foreigners, the widows and orphans, and all those surviving on the edges of society will experience durable hospitality. Women will survive childbirth, babies will reliably live beyond their second birthday, and people will see old age because there will be adequate health care. The prophet envisions the ever-open city gates welcoming people into the neighborliness of shalom and a shared worship space before God. Imagine such a place!”
What if we need to leave behind the idea that this is some far off future that happens only after the world ends?
What if we are called to be a part of making this vision a reality?
What do we need to leave behind to keep following Jesus?
How can we follow the love?
 Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash
 Photo by Lee Cartledge on Unsplash
 Maddox, Cindy. In the Neighborhood of Normal (pp. 8-9). Regal House Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash
 Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash
 Dan Holly, Faith & Leadership https://faithandleadership.com/coley-springs-missionary-baptist-church-works-the-environment-and-community-well-being?fbclid=IwAR1RaM-g4WIpBHH3vuk-DO4azpMfuWqQAnnTGC30bhcDhgMllnqWLZfVS78#.Y8WNg9zNvoQ.facebook
 Kelley Nikondema in A Rhythm of Prayer (p. 131). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.