January 15, 2012 Gospel: John 1:43-51 Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1st Reading: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
When I was growing up, we lived in Albany and my grandparents lived in Lebanon. It is about a 20 minute drive between the two. About once a week we’d go to my grandparents’ house for dinner. What a blessing to live that close to family! We’d drive home at what seemed like late at night but was probably more like 8 pm. It was so dark on Highway 34. My dad always made us feel safe, driving us carefully home—our car full of sleepy children. I always wondered how he did it on those dark nights. He always kept his eye on the white line on the side of the road. But even better was when he could get behind another vehicle and let them lead the way.
Jesus said, “Follow me.”
In today's Old Testament reading, Samuel is called to be a leader. Sometimes we might be reluctant to call ourselves leaders—at church or in our communities. We are humble. We can think of a hundred reasons why not to be. Many people feel uncomfortable speaking in public. In fact, that is one of the greatest fears people face. We’re afraid of letting other people down—that maybe we can’t meet their expectations or we might not be able to get everything done that we’re committed to. No one can anticipate every possible situation we might face, so it isn’t possible to be prepared for anything and everything. Being a leader means thinking on your feet.
But I would argue that we are all leaders. Some of you serve on church Council or Mutual Ministry or Endowment Board or one of our committees. I would count parents as leaders, too. And grandparents are leaders. There isn't one of you that I haven't seen being a leader at one time or another.
Some people have used the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” I don’t think it could hurt anything to think of that phrase when making decisions. Maybe it got thrown around a little too much and may have become a little trite. I started seeing jewelry with it written on there, “WWJD?” I thought to myself that if you want to ask what Jesus would do, you could start with Jesus certainly wouldn’t wear that bracelet!
I could never have become a pastor if I thought I’d be expected to do what Jesus would do. There are probably some people that expect that of me. And I think of that sometimes when I see someone asking for money on freeway overpass and other times I am not as generous as I’d like to be. It is an expectation that I will never live up to, not even for a moment.
If we could do what Jesus did, why would we need Jesus? And Jesus doesn’t ask us to be him. But he does ask us to follow him.
I think there is a difference. For one thing, he’s already been there, so we’re not alone. Jesus probably felt alone at certain times in his life, especially as he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“WWJD?” comes a little close to works righteousness. If we could just do as Jesus would do, we might think we could save ourselves—from regret, from despair, from the fires of hell. But Jesus did as Jesus would do, and he still endured suffering. He descended into hell according to some. He even occasionally had regrets. If we could just do as Jesus would do, we might think we could save others—from hunger, from suffering. Jesus did as Jesus would do although he did some miracle healings and casting out demons, he did not eradicate disease and pain. That was one question that Dick Morris asked me plenty of times. If Jesus said, “You will do greater things than these,” why can’t we just go cure hospitals full of people? He was really grappling with this gift of healing because he’d seen it working in India, but it wasn’t always immediate or complete like he thought it would be. Instead of eradicating all diseases and pain, Jesus promised to accompany us on our journey through pain and disease and suffering. Jesus promised to be with us through that and to bring us through that to new life.
Maybe a better question would be, “What would Jesus have us do now that we have new life because of him?” Or Martin Luther would put it this what, “What are we freed for? Now that we are free because of God’s gift of love and grace, who are we freed to be?” We are partly freed to be a follower.
Freedom was a word that meant a lot to Martin Luther King, Jr. The slaves had been freed long before, God had freed Christians through Jesus death and resurrection, and yet the freedom he experienced, as an African American was limited because of unjust laws in this country. Some call him a prophet. We would all think of him as a leader who took this country forward toward justice and equality.
But I think he was only doing what Jesus asks this morning, following him. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. was unable to do what Jesus would do. We know he had affairs. He hurt his family. He sinned. He took advantage of people who respected him. He put himself above the rules.
But despite his shortcomings and failures, Martin Luther King, Jr. did follow Jesus, experience God’s grace and forgiveness, and become a leader who I would say walked with Jesus as his follower. It was because he was following Jesus that he took a non-violence approach. It was because he was following Jesus that he wasn’t afraid to be arrested for standing up for what was right. It was because he was following Jesus that he took risks to go where he wasn’t welcome and to say what wasn’t popular to say. He faced the authorities and he wasn’t alone, because he was following Jesus.
When you are following someone, you don’t always know where it will lead. Jesus says later to pick up our cross and follow him. As a follower, we don’t know what that cross might be. For Jesus it was literal. For the rest of us, we won’t be sure what our particular cross is until we find ourselves carrying a heavy burden and great suffering. Following Jesus also means following him through the grave to eternal life, to great joy, and to relationship with him and all of God’s Creation. Maybe we focus on the cross too much, but certainly Jesus experienced great joy in life and satisfaction and pleasure, too—he liked a good party as much as anyone, especially when he was providing the good wine.
Phillip also extends an open-ended invitation. He says, “Come and see.” He doesn’t tell us what to expect. He doesn’t say what a life of faith looks like because it is different for every person. He just extends the invitation and leaves it open so that whatever happens happens. A life of faith means coming and seeing and being open to whatever happens. And it means extending the invitation to others. It might mean inviting people to church, but more than that it is inviting them into relationship and connection, just as God has invited us into relationship and connection. That’s what I often think of as I pass those people holding signs by the freeway off ramps—not about the money I’m not giving them, but about the conversation I am not having with them and the relationship I’m not building. But there are other places where I can build those connections in a safer environment, like the pantry or with folks that call the church asking for help and maybe that it is more appropriate.
Jesus calls us today to follow him. He is saying to you, “Follow me.” As we leave this church this morning, Jesus is saying to you, “Follow me.” I can’t tell you what that looks like, because he’s saying it to you. It is your life. It is your particular context. But know that when you’re driving those back roads, your stomach full from the generous table God provides, and your hearts full from time with family and friends, to give thanks to God. And when the night is dark, and you’re afraid you might go off the road, to let God light the way home and to be the kind of leader that is also a follower.