Saturday, January 24, 2009

On Following

On Following
Mark 1:14-20
3rd Sunday After Pentecost
25 January 2008

From a very young age, most of us are taught that being a leader is a most desirable thing. It starts in preschool, with the game “Follow the Leader.” It is mildly enjoyable to follow the leader, but the real fun comes when it’s your turn to lead. You walk around with a string of children behind you, ready to do anything you say. You flap your arms – they flap their arms. You hop on one foot – they hop on one foot. You quack like a duck – they quack like ducks. You realize right away that you can make them do anything. Anything! The possibilities are endless. The power can be intoxicating!

The very young are content to be told when it’s their turn to lead. But if you watch a group of, say, 4 year-olds, you will notice that some of them no longer want to wait patiently for their turn. They will demand to be the leader. It goes from a collaborative game to a competitive sport. In my house, I have even heard the words, “I won at Follow the Leader.” I have asked, “How do you win at Follow the Leader?” I have so far not gotten a satisfactory answer, though I have imagined that if I were to play, winning might look like all the children in my home doing exactly what I said the first time I said it.

Power struggles begin at tender age. And many of us spend the rest of our lives jockeying for position. We are taught that leadership is valued and having power is good. Parents and teachers try to groom children to become good leaders. Teenagers and young adults may even participate in leadership training. College admissions officers look for evidence that applicants have leadership skills and experience.

To my knowledge, there are no equivalent workshops on “followship” training. And while teachers and parents do hope that children learn to at least follow directions, not many speak to their young about being a good follower. In fact, being a follower has a negative connotation in our culture. We fear that in following we may be lemmings, going along unquestioningly with the crowd to our detriment. While not everyone aspires to be a leader, I know of now one who sets out to be a good follower.

I once knew a woman who was a member of a very progressive new church full of people with passion and vision and commitment. She told the story of the first Christmas this congregation celebrated together. They were decorating a large tree in the sanctuary, and they each had been given one Christmon ornament to hang. They all set about putting their ornament on, and when they stepped back from the tree they noticed something startling: every single ornament was near the top of the tree – the bottom of the tree was completely bare. The woman declared that was the perfect metaphor for the congregation – they were all chiefs, no followers.

Choosing to do what someone else tells us to is just not as much fun as doing exactly what we want. More fun still is having other people do what we want, too. And into this tangle of desire and self-will, come these two words from Jesus: Follow me.

The fishermen were casting a net into the sea. They were minding their own business, doing their job, making their living. And Jesus walks by and says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they leave their nets and follow. He goes a little further, and there are James and John, mending their nets in a boat. And Jesus says, “Follow me,” and they do, leaving their father and their employees in the boat, as they go.

Can you imagine? A stranger walks up, no introduction, no spiel, no business plan to show them how following him will get them what they want. None of that. Just those words: Follow me. And they do.

A reasonable response would be, “Where are you going?” Or “Who are you?” Or, “Go away.” Reasonable people do not just lay aside their old lives and take up with a street preacher just because he says, “Come on.” But this is not a reasonable story. And his is no reasonable request. He is asking them to drop everything, to leave their families, their work, and everything they know, and to join him on a road that will ultimately lead to suffering and death - and later, to resurrection. This is a mind-bending, life-altering invitation, and they don’t even stop to ask a single question. They just go.

Did they have any idea what they were signing up for? Difficulty. Disappointment. Persecutions. Executions. Later in life they would all four be led where they would rather not have gone. And still, they followed. As if all they knew was that wherever this man was, they wanted to be. So they dropped their nets, their lives, and their plans, and followed.

This story stands at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, immediately after the baptism of Jesus. It is as if to say, no matter what comes next, this is where it begins, keep coming back to this – Follow me. This is everything distilled into two words. Follow me.

And every day, they got up, and followed all over again. None of them stepped forward and said, “Wait a minute. The life I left was better than this one. I liked things better when I was in charge.” Sure, they struggled with selfishness and pettiness. They made mistakes, and sometimes they failed in spectacularly awful ways. But they still just kept on following. One step at a time.

And this is how it works. This is the only way to follow. Just one step at a time. Just each day choosing to drop our own plans and follow the leader we’ve said we’ll follow. Things will happen that we never anticipated or prepared for. We will make mistakes. We will get discouraged and disappointed. We will have long stretches where it feels like we are running down a dark alley or stumbling through a mysterious landscape. We will wish we had a map, or a plan, or anything to tell us how things would work out.

We don’t get any of that. We get what they got, this man with fire in his eyes and thunder in his throat, saying, “Follow me.” And if we can let go of wondering where we’re headed and worrying about how we’ll make it, and instead focus on the One who is calling us, we will be all right. What is true for the disciples is true for us – we don’t have to see all the way down that narrow road in order to make the choice each day to take one more step towards the One who leads. As E.L. Doctorow once said, “The headlights only reach so far – but it’s enough to lead us all the way home.” When Jesus says, “Follow!” there is enough light in him for us to see by.

There’s not denying that it’s hard. It’s hard to be a follower. It’s hard to lay aside self-will. It’s hard to trust. We do not have the power on our own to make it work. What we have the power to do is decide each day, “Yes, today I will follow Jesus.” And then to say, “Jesus, help me with that. Help me let go of my nets. Help me let go of my plans. Help me to die to myself. You’re the one I want to follow, but I can’t do it without your help.”

God knows it’s a big enough calling. It asks for all our strength and all our faith and all our love. It requests radical openness, because we don’t know a fraction yet of who he really is and where he wants to take us. It requires discipline to keep thinking of Christ, to keep looking to Christ, to keep praying, and to keep choosing. And it means the willingness to change and to keep changing.

And we do not follow alone. We follow in a long line of people who have already followed him to another shore. And we follow with each other. His call is not just for you and me, as individuals, but us together, as the church. There is a lot of angst and confusion these days about what it takes to be the church in the new millennium. There are experts who can draw up marketing models and growth plans. But what was true 2000 years ago is still true today. All we really need to know is what we’ve already known: Follow Jesus. Belong to Jesus. Keep our eyes on Jesus. Keep letting go of anything that keeps us from following Jesus. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and choosing him one step at a time.

“Follow me,” he said. And they did.

What about us?