Year A, Epiphany 3
January 26, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
The calling of the first disciples… This is a story about following. About being called to follow. Does anyone else here find following hard? Why? Why do you find it hard?
We have to give up a lot. Our own judgment, will, our power is handed over to another, even if in slight ways. We loose freedom of our own choices if we have decided to follow the choices of another, be it personal choices, or choices laid out by a system (think dietary restrictions in Judaism, seasons of feasts or fasts).
Culturally, followership is certainly not a valued trait. Leadership positions are higher ranked than membership on our resumes. Is there school out there with the mission: “To educate the next generation of followers?” Of course there are religious schools that overtly prepare students for discipleship, but even the Army, a culture where followership is enforced by the rule of law, had that marketing campaign “The Army of One.” And parents don’t often brag, “Oh our little Johnny, he’s such a follower, we’re so proud!”
I am a very mediocre follower, mediocre to poor, which makes being an Episcopal priest complicated at times. Episcopal referring to of course ____ ? Bishops. Just checking. I tend towards being a purist ideologically and theologically, and with even slight deviations from what I consider to be the “right way,” I am far too hasty to throw the whole follower relationship away and go it on my own. Not a quality that endears one to bishops, but I’m working on it. Really, I am, and Bishop Michael is good; he’s subtle, he’s good. I am learning. I am glad to be learning about followership under his Episcopacy here in the Diocese of Oregon.
What has really bummed me out in most of my follower relationships is the disappointment that I always felt when those I tried to follow fell short. Short of what? Mostly my unreasonable expectations, but in any case, short. Do you know what I mean? For me, it has mostly been religious leaders. In the Marines and in business, but as for religious leaders, in the modern era, it does have a lot to do with choice; we choose our leaders, we choose our church, mostly. And I have encountered over my life men and women that I have wanted to believe in, that I have wanted to follow, that I have wanted to lead me to the moon, or the Promised Land, that I have wanted to follow to the end of times and each and every time, in the end they revealed themselves to be what, flawed, broken? A sinner of God’s own redeeming? Or, heaven forbid, Human? Urrgh, the worst! And my following heart has been broken time and time and time again by the humanity of those I have tried to follow. You follow?
But oh, I want to follow. Remember the X-Files? Fox Mulder, the protagonist, had a poster hanging behind his desk. It one of the famous UFO photos on it framed above and below by the words, “I want to believe.” Me too, though not in UFOs. I want to follow. Many of us want to follow. Stronger, I think, than our impulse to lead is our impulse to follow; maybe not follow an individual, probably not follow an individual, I suspect many if not most of our historical problems have arise by mistakenly following the will of individuals. But the impulse to follow the will of something larger, the will the pack, the group, the will of the collective, I dare say the will of God, that is strong in humans. It is a gift, but it is a gift that leaves us hanging far too often, hanging, wishing for something better than we are usually offered. And this obviously includes my leadership here. I am, alas, terminally human.
When I encounter this story in Scripture, the story of the calling of the first disciples, I long for that clarity. I long, many of us long for that blessed assurance that this is the one we are to follow, with no doubt at all in our hearts or minds. Drop your nets and follow Him, now. Immediately. Leave your boat and your father and everything in your life as you know it, now. Immediately. I want that clarity. I want that surety. Most of us do, most of us want that in some form, though that desire is not usually on the tips of our tongues. Followership is counter-cultural.
And for many of us who are consigned to, who are forced into followership by the principalities, powers and patriarchies of the world, following is risky business. For women, gay, lesbian and transgendered folks, the poor, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, children, following to often leads to abuse, predation and suffering simply because the system that is gives some people power over other people for no good reason at all. It can be dangerous to follow, and yet we are each called to follow the will of God as finite, mortal creatures utterly immersed in this material world which makes discerning the will of God oh so complicated and oh so risky. But that is the human condition. So given that, what, who are we to follow?
Jesus Christ. Obviously. Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savor. Obviously. That is whom we are called to follow. Jesus Christ is as real, as present in our hearts as He was present in bodily form to Peter and Andrew, James and John. And we can follow Him immediately, He is that real. Or He can be, He can be as real as He was to those who encountered Him in His earthly ministry. As real as we experience Him, or try to experience Him in the Eucharist, the real spiritual presence of Christ. The question is, “How?”
First of all, we have to be our full, broken, sinful selves, leaning in to God, having faith, trying to have faith, following, trying to follow a Lord and Savior. Without our whole selves, we can follow no one authentically. There is an story that the 18th century Polish Rabbi, Zusya of Hanipol tells, that at the last days he will not be asked why was he not more like Abraham, or why was he not more like Moses, but rather he will be asked, “Why were you not more like Zusya?” Why were you not more like the person that God created? We can follow Jesus Christ only when we are fully our selves in all our broken, fallible humanity. Like Leonard Cohen writes, “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” Have faith that when all of you is present, you will know what you need, what you need to follow, and whom. And know that the leaders we follow in this realm are at least as broken as we are. Jesus Christ will be present to us when we are present to Him and each other. That is the essence of Christian faith.
Following that, you’ve got to have faith. As Annie Lamont writes, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is certainty. You have to have faith that the Jesus Christ you meet in your heart, the same Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture, the same Jesus Christ proclaimed by the Church, the same Jesus Christ encountered in this community in the Sacraments, He is the one you are to follow. However, beware, following what your heart reveals may seem foolish. The call to follow Jesus rarely fits neatly into career plans or weekly schedules, but have faith that the impulse you have to being irresponsibly kind, negligently forgiving, outrageously welcoming, inadvisably generous, that impulse probably comes from God. Follow it, not blindly, but not suspiciously, either.
See the great thing about following Jesus Christ, to submitting to the will of the God Almighty is that all are called to bow down before that same Lord. The least of these and the greatest, the weakest and the most powerful are leveled before God in Christ. If you are used to power and influence, in being heard and heeded, submission to God in Christ is a practice of humility. It’s good for you to bow, low. If you are the subaltern, the beaten down, oppressed, not heard, not seen, you have an audience with the Ground of Being. That’s good for you, too. You have a place at the table as esteemed as anyone else, maybe even better than the high and mighty, the first will be last and the last will be first, right?
Practice. All things worth our time take practice. Practice following. Observe a religious discipline: develop a Friday fast (like eating no meat), pray, even subtly, before eating, like we’re supposed to. I’m practicing following the Bishop by really giving him the benefit of the doubt. That is a big step for me. Maybe that is too low a bar, but that is where I am. Find some way to practice following, so that when something truly worth following to the end of the earth comes along, you’ll know it when you see it, and will know what to do about it it.
Most importantly, trust yourself. Your discerning heart and mind can tell the blowhard from the prophet, a charlatan from the Savior. Peter and the three followed the Messiah that presented Himself to them, and immediately. Jesus Christ is just waiting for your true self to emerge, for the cracks you have in your façade, in your hearts to be revealed so that the full light of Christ can shine in. AMEN