Follow Me – Second Sunday after Pentecost June 11, 2023

Preacher:  Rev. Stephen McPeek

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him,

“Follow me.” Matthew 9:9

We have our faith today because these simple people took heed to these two words. Not only did they take heed, but people all through the centuries since Jesus lived on earth took heed. The word follow me is a Greek word akoloutheō which means to follow one who precedes, to join him as his attendant, accompany him, to side with and to imitate him, to join and follow as a disciple. It is related to the word keleuthose which means road, and to the word akouo which means to hear and obey (similar to the German word gehorsam which has to do with hearing and responding to what was heard.) Akoloutheō is used over 90 times in the NT.

Jesus often combined the use of this word, this call, with difficult words:

      • Deny yourselves and take up your cross
      • Fishers of humans
      • Go and sell what you possess and give it to the poor.
      • Let the dead bury their dead.

It seems that those who lived simple lives followed him readily – fisher people and tax collectors. It also seemed that women who had been touched by Jesus followed him readily and generously. There were two categories of people that found it difficult to respond to his simple call: those who had a lot of resources and those who were religious. Most of us have resources and even if we don’t think we are rich, compared to a majority of the world’s population, we are rich. It is much harder but not impossible (if you know how to fit yourself through the eye of a needle) to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit when you have resources or a career to protect. As a church, even if we think we don’t have a lot, we are rich compared to most churches in the world. I don’t think owning big buildings and beautiful structures was or is a part of God’s equation because in so many ways, it prevents us from responding when he leads. It takes a lot more spiritual discernment and discipline to truly follow the call of God when you have money and possessions as we do. This is something to ponder.

When Jesus called people then and when Jesus calls people today, it is a simple call, yet an all-encompassing call, one that demands loyalty and trust, one that requires the willingness to follow into unknown territory, a call that generally pushes us out of our comfort zone.  It is the call to join him on a life-changing path and requires listening and responding with action.

And why do we follow? It’s because we have been touched by God and because we have recognized that God is good and trustworthy, that it is worth it to lay down our lives for such a God.

I began to consciously follow Jesus when I was 17. I had been dedicated to God as a baby and grew up being aware of God and having a deep respect for God. But when I was 17, I heard the call, and it was all-encompassing. It led me to give up my homeland, one of the most beautiful places on the earth, and devote a big chunk of my life to the land God sent me to, Germany. I did not choose Germany. As an exchange student, I was sent to Germany and had only 2 weeks to prepare myself for the immersion into a culture that could not have been more different than my own. During my second year in Germany, I performed the main role of a pantomime dance production called The Lamb. We were preparing ourselves for a performance at the University in Tuebingen where communist activity among the students was very strong and we were afraid they might interrupt the performance, which was a creative, multi-media, but very jarring presentation of the Gospel. In a time of prayer backstage, I heard God asking me if I would be willing to let go of Hawaii and follow Jesus by laying my life down in Germany. In those few minutes on my knees, it became clear to me that if I said yes, it might mean never going back to be with my family and the place I loved. With tears running down my cheeks, I said yes. When I got up off the ground, I was changed. I knew that I would spend a big part of my life serving in Germany.

There have been so many other moments along the way where I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit challenging me to take further steps on this road with Jesus. Each of them was connected to a big change in the status quo which required uncomfortable change, often sacrifice, and always letting go. At the same time, they were steps I was able to take because I believed in the goodness of God, and I trusted him to take care of us and bless us. I believed in God.

I had spent years in Christian ministry, leading many efforts – the call to North Germany, the call to Albania, the call to leave Germany and return to Hawaii where I spent years caring for my family after the death of my wife, working, building up and running businesses. And then came the call to the ordained priesthood. Once again, it required leaving the comfort of family, and my newfound security of my homeland where I owned our family house on a gorgeous property with ocean view and had a couple of thriving businesses. It seemed like God’s time had come again to stir the pot of comfort and thrust me back out into the world. It meant hitting the road again at age 58 and living in a college studio apartment and studying with a group of people much younger than me. It meant packing everything up twice, once in Hawaii, and then again in Austin,  and moving to Germany. When the day came on July 11, 2020 for me to be ordained as an Anglican/Episcopal priest, I prostrated myself on the cold stone floor of St. Augustine of Canterbury in Wiesbaden, and with weeping and tears, once again pledged my love and obedience to the Lord, committed to follow him as a priest and to love and serve his people. It was this moment that led me to CtK. The journey to CtK did not start in Wiesbaden, it started in 2015 on my first day of training as a priest in Honolulu, Hawaii where I was a part of a local training program for priests. I had dinner with the former Bishop of Hawaii, Dick Chang, and he told me about the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Immediately after dinner, I ran upstairs to my room and did an Internet search and found the modern church building of CtK in Frankfurt. In that moment, I thought I heard the Holy Spirit whisper to me – “This will be your church.” From that moment, I knew, without really knowing for sure, that I would serve here.

On the day before my ordination in Wiesbaden, Bishop Mark asked me if I would be willing to serve in Frankfurt. I didn’t need any time to contemplate because I already knew. Yet, it meant leaving our magical corner on the Rhine and moving to the A 66. It meant tearing Alexis away from her newfound friendships and growing comfort in Wiesbaden and thrusting her into a very unfriendly environment in Frankfurt.

On October 1, 2020, I began my term as the priest-in-charge under full lockdown. I did not see most of you for a whole year while we held all our services and meetings on ZOOM. In my first sermon on October 4th, I committed to love and serve you and I told you emphatically that I would be a blessing to you, no matter what. I was convinced that I would be here for the rest of my ministry life. I should have known better because I know how God has worked in my life.

Most of you know that I was appointed as priest-in-charge on a 3-year contract which ends on September 30th, 2023. The purpose of a limited contract was to give you a chance to check me out and to give me a chance to check you out, to see if we would be a good fit with each other for the long term. I really thought it was a good fit and I grew to love you so deeply and I know that many of you feel the same. Even if things were hard coming out of Covid, and even if there were times of challenge and loneliness, I could see a good path into the future and I looked forward to so many good things together.

But once again, God is stirring the pot and upsetting the status quo. The time has come for me to share with you that I will not be extending my contract at CtK. It became very clear to me while we were away at Kur, through much prayer, deliberation with spiritual advisors, doctors, and therapists that a change is necessary for the sake of the long-term mental health of both me and Alexis. I had no idea when I started here that our lives would change so drastically through the loss of yet two more close family members, my oldest daughter Michelle on April 20, 2022, and my beloved husband Vinny on June 18th, 2022. This trauma of two losses so close together (in addition to all of the other losses), the violent nature of Michelle’s death, and the disarray in my family because of it have deeply impacted us. My own grief is deep and complex, and I need the time and space to come to grips with the changes in my life. Being an old single parent, and a full-time priest is daunting and leaves little time and space for healing. I have found a wonderful school in Spain where Alexis feels really nurtured and welcomed. We will be moving to Spain where school starts on September 6th. This will give me a chance to be fully present to her and nurture her the way she deserves to be nurtured. For me, it means settling into a slower pace of life with much more time to process, pray, read, exercise, and heal.

I do believe that Jesus is calling me to follow him on this path. It is not what I envisioned, and it is not what I would have chosen on my own. It totally pulls me out of my comfort zone. But I know it is good because I know God is good and faithful. I know we will experience God’s goodness in Spain, and I know that God will show you at CtK his faithfulness and goodness. Let us all choose to follow and trust Jesus.

Your vestry is poised to lead you through this transition and the Bishop and his team have pledged their full support as well. The next 2 months will be months of transition with much to do and much to sort out. My commitment to you is that I will be faithful and continue to serve you with a full heart as long as I have time left here. This is not yet my farewell speech, but it is the signaling of the change to come. My request to you is that you also remain faithful and perhaps even increase your faithfulness. Sometimes the insecurity of such a situation causes people to withdraw and back away, even financially. I beg you not to do that. We are doing so well in so many aspects and it would be a great comfort to me to know that the work I have done here is not in vain.

In our reading from Romans today, we heard about Abraham who believed in God. “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore, his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Let us together be as Abraham and trust in God’s promise to bless us, let us be strong in faith in God and follow Jesus. Amen.