A few years ago, I was studying the gospel of Matthew to prepare for a sermon, and what seems like just an introductory line of a story hit me over the head. It was the first part of Matthew 9:9; “As Jesus was walking along …” What struck me was how infrequently I do that.

In a couple of ways: First, so often, I go from the house to the car, to church, to the next appointment or meeting, or my daughters’ school events, or sports events, or practices, and so on. It’s all about the “to do” list I have for the day. Sure, there will always be those days where there’s an emergency, or a curve thrown that may throw a wrench in my agenda, but it’s still my (or the family) schedule, keeping control of what needs to be done, and to have space for what I want to achieve, or need to get done, or want to do. And second, even during those times I’m walking along, it’s usually not the way the Jesus did it; he walked along with the intention of AWARENESS, he was paying attention to what was coming his way, and he purposefully walked along to be open to who God would place in his path. When I walk, it’s often on a defined path, or has a purpose, even if that purpose is to “get away from it all,” like a nice hike off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, or to walk the dog in my neighborhood.

All through the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Jesus calls the disciples and says “follow me.” They are called to follow this Jesus who PAYS ATTENTION to the world around him. In John’s gospel there are four times that we hear the phrase, “come and see.” It’s a call to “walk along” for a specific reason, and that’s to pay attention to what Jesus pays attention to. What does Jesus pay attention to? And where does Jesus walk?

In Matthew 9, he sees a tax collector, someone that most everyone else would have instantly judged as someone unworthy to follow. And yet, Jesus invites him to do just that. Jesus didn’t take the easy path, but took the time to see beyond a label and an easy judgment. That takes time, awareness.

Jesus goes outside of familiar areas. He crosses the Sea of Galilee outside of familiar territory to the places where people of other races live, where people live who are looked upon suspiciously because of “what everyone knows,” he sits and talks with women on equal terms. And if you look at the book of Acts, you’ll hear story after story of the disciples walking along, open — and GOING — where God’s Spirit directs them to go. Which is almost always in an unexpected direction.

This time of year school starts. Our grade school and high school children will have already started, or are just a week or two away. Soon, many of our children will be off to technical school, community college or other colleges or universities. I think back to those years, and remember entering a new school, or a new grade, with an openness or hope toward those new people whom I would meet. Or there were other times where it was much easier to fall into familiar patterns with familiar people, or the paths my group was already on, and find it easier NOT to pay attention, or to choose the easier path, or even to judge those who I thought I knew, but actually didn’t know at all. And we know it gets easier — or more manageable in a busy life — as we get older to stick to familiar paths.

Any careful reading of the Gospels, however, shows Jesus constantly walking around with the purpose of engaging all kinds of different people — for the sake of healing, breaking down preconceived notions, and most of all to introduce people to the intentions God has for this world, THIS world that God so loves, that he sent his Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:16-17). And he always took his disciples along, for the purpose of teaching them to do the same.

An observant congregation member told me the other day that we live in a world and nation “on edge.” So much information is always coming our way, so many things distract us from day to day, that we feel on edge. The temptation is to close down, or to make our world small enough that we think we can control it, for ourselves, and perhaps for our children. Our teacher Jesus, however, invites us on a much different path. For our children in their learning, for each of us in our learning, may God bless us, as followers of Jesus, as we walk along.

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The Rev. Paul Pingel, pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waynesboro, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published the second Friday of the month.

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