Follow the leader
A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard on the 5th Sunday in Lent
Most of you as children probably played the game “Follow the Leader.” I know I did. It’s a very simple game: all that happens is that one person sets off on some course and everyone else tags along after them and does exactly what they do. So the leader might walk on the curb with one hand on his head, then jump off, and everyone all the way back through the line has to do exactly that.
It’s a simple game, but there are a few requirements.One, to be obvious, is that you be there, where the leader is. You can’t play Follow the Leader at a distance. There is no absentee balloting. Another is that you pay attention to the path the leader is setting, and be ready for any twists and turns, any surprises that may come up, so that when the leader suddenly zigs you won’t zag. And one more requirement: you have to keep moving. You can’t play Follow the Leader sitting on the couch. You have to be part of what is going on. You have to say: OK, wherever that leader goes, whatever he does, I’m going to be right behind. I’m on it.
This seems to be one of the ways Jesus understood himself in reference to God. It wasn’t part of this morning’s reading, but earlier in this Gospel, he says, “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” In other words, the Son – Jesus – watches the Father and imitates him.
Hebrews today tells us, “Although Jesus was a Son, he learned obedience.” He was God the Son, but he was also human, and so like us he had to pray and listen, see what God the Father was doing and where God the Father was leading, and then put himself in line with that. And it’s this profound obedience, this willingness to enact God’s agenda, that gives Jesus credibility – at least that’s how whoever wrote Hebrews sees it.
Jesus followed God perfectly, with total attention; he never slipped up, he never went off on his own way, but he did have to choose to follow. He could at any moment have said: I don’t like where this is heading; I’m going to strike out on my own. But he didn’t. He kept following. And because of that Jesus can make a difference for us in a way a deity who hadn’t been human could never do. And so he knows exactly what he is speaking of today when he turns around and tells us: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” As individuals and as a church, we can only really claim to be serving Christ if we are following. Imitating. Doing what we see him doing. Going for what we see him going for. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”
Now there are two parts to this sentence, so let’s start with the first one. Whoever serves me must follow me. Who are you following, functionally, as you walk through the days and minutes of your life?
I once heard a man who wasn’t raised in the church, like so many people aren’t now, tell the story of before he became a Christian, seeing a would be evangelist out on the street corner with a signboard that said “I’m a fool for Christ.” And you know, this man who wasn’t raised in the church did what many of us would do. You kind of roll your eyes and move to the other half of the sidewalk. I’m a fool for Christ. Yeah, buddy, you sure are. I’m a fool for Christ, you can say that again. …But then the guy turned around and revealed the back of the sign and it said: Whose fool are you?
I’m a fool for Christ; whose fool are you? Who are you following? Who have you apprenticed yourself to to learn how the world works? Who do you have your eye on to take your cues from in life? Your dad? A mentor or teacher you admired? The boss you work for? A celebrity you want to emulate? Whose voice is it that you really in your heart of hearts want to hear say to you, “Hey, good job, kid.”
Who are we following? And I don’t think just because we’re sitting in a church we can assume the answer is obvious. Honestly one of the dangers of organized religion, and this is a danger I see not just for other people, but for myself, is that we can use it as a buffer so we don’t have to take the risk of actually following Christ. Instead, we can follow the church. We can follow some sense of guilt or duty instilled by the institution’s need for survival. We can follow whatever we consider the traditional way of our own denomination. And I confess right now that I have strayed into all three of these at one time or another. When all along what we are actually called to do is follow Christ. He’s the leader. That is where the freshness is. That is where the future is. That is where the life is.
Don’t get me wrong; I believe it is absolutely vital and a key part of Christ’s plan for his followers to be regularly active in spiritual community. If you want to live as a Christian and don’t have Christian community built into the foundation of your life, you are really missing out.
But it can be all too easy to twist things about that participation so that you are actually following some intermediary. So that your eyes are on the priest, or the bishops, or the way we’ve always done it, instead of on the leader, on Jesus, on the one who is at the head of the line and is completely trustworthy because he has an unbroken, perfect union with God. I’m sure this is not news to any of you, but I do not have an unbroken perfect union with God. Please, in the name of all that is holy, do not follow me. Nor does any human institution have an unbroken perfect union with God. But Jesus does, you know? Jesus does. We have to watch where he is going, not where anyone or anything else is.
And so that leads us to the second part of the sentence. “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”
There are two possible meanings there, one a challenge and one a promise. Let’s take the challenge first. Sometimes people pose the question, what situations do you think Jesus would be concerned about today. And it’s not hard to answer that: Hunger, poverty, inequality, broken families, depression, hypocrisy, greed, racism, violence, loneliness… if you stop and think, the answers just come pouring out. It’s not hard to come up with things Jesus would want to take action on.
But see, the thing is, that there isn’t any “would” to this. He does want to take action on these things. He is concerned about these things. Because Jesus is real. He does want to feed the hungry and empower the poor and heal families. He just wants to do it through you. He wants to challenge the subtle racism at your workplace through you. He wants to make sure the girls at the diocesan school in Tabora Tanzania get a dorm built for them through you. He wants to offer food delivery to families from the Empty Tomb pantry through you. He wants to build up the fabric of this parish through you. He wants to comfort those suffering from a loss or a disappointment through you.
It’s really not that hard to figure out some things Jesus is concerned about and is at work on in the world and where, you know, he’s looking for some partners. Where he’s hoping we his apprentices will follow his lead. I know we can’t figure it all out, but we can certainly figure out enough to keep us busy for the next 50- 60 years if we’ll just keep our eyes on Jesus.
“Where I am, there will my servant be also.” So that’s one meaning, the challenge. But the other way you can hear that sentence is as a promise. Right now, other than at the side of the outcasts and working for a better world, where is Jesus? He is at the right hand of the Father, praying for the world, for you and for me. He is fully into that new life which we call the Kingdom of God and which we so far have only tasted in part. He is already totally immersed in and empowered by that new life.
If we are following him, we get access to that. St Paul writes over and over and over about how we should think of ourselves as being IN Christ. So that when Christ offers himself to God we are included in that offering. So that when he passes through death into new life, we pass through in him. So that when he is accepted by God, we experience that full acceptance with him. “Where I am, there will my servant be also.”
This is one final similarity to that old game of Follow the Leader. There’s no way to lose. Your only choice is to participate or not. Once you decide to participate, you’re in. And in the same way, once you set your eyes on Christ and start following, you don’t have to fear failure anymore. Where he is, in the heart of God, that’s where we’ll be fully one day and where we are as a foretaste now. And that’s where we get the energy to go back out and follow him in our daily decisions, from the biggest global issues to the smallest personal habits.
“Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Amen.
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