[I delivered this sermon at the First Congregational Church of Holliston on Sunday, July 22, 2012. I was one of several individuals who filled in at the pulpit for our pastor while she was on vacation.]
morning. Especially for those of you visiting us this morning, welcome!
And I stand here as evidence that you’re visiting a church that
sometimes invites sinners and non-churchgoers to preach. I’m going to
venture that that’s a good thing.
New Testament reading comes from Mark, the oldest gospel and the most
pared-down. We don’t know who wrote it, or precisely where or when. It
is not a piece of straight reporting, as I’m sure many of you know.
was probably written during what was an especially bad time for
Jerusalem. The Roman army began an attack on the city in the year 66,
trying to put down a Jewish revolt.
Romans didn’t do things halfway, as you’re probably aware. When they
were besieging your city, you knew it. One of the things they liked to
do was dig a deep trench all the way around cities they were besieging,
to keep supplies out, and the inhabitants in. They finally crushed the
defense and the city in the year 70, and desecrated the temple in the
these verses that we have today were written before, during, or after
the fall of Jerusalem, no one knows. People back then could certainly
think that events on earth all had to be pointing towards a great cosmic
cataclysm, where they could expect to see, as a deliverance out of
their suffering, “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and
glory,” as it says later on in Mark.
way, the fall of Jerusalem and the temple had a purpose, in line with
the coming of Jesus. One age ending, another one beginning. This is the
time out of which Mark comes.
verses we’ve heard today are fitted around some of the more memorable
stories in Mark: the death of John the baptizer, the feeding of the
5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes. I’d like to focus on verse 34: “As
Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them,
because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
sheep without a shepherd.” What do you think about that? The gospel
makes the crowd sound like farm animals, needing to be herded and led
around, and protected at all times. Without a leader, they’d wander
aimlessly in a “deserted place,” as it says several times here — easy
pickings for predators.
one thing the author of Mark wants to do here is establish Jesus’
pedigree — sheep and shepherds is a reference to old verses in scripture
his audience would already know, including Psalm 23, of course, and
Numbers, and Zechariah, and Ezekiel, where it says “I will seek out my
sheep. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them
lie down, says the Lord God.”
and following… well, I say, let’s not get too serious here on a Sunday
in July. I think we can relax a little bit. If I were you, I would want
to be hearing less Bible study and more stories…
some of you know, I am an artist, and I paint when I’m not at work. I
do this because I want to, and because I’m good at it, and I like it
when the picture’s done… you might say I have a gift for it. Sometimes I
have showings, and there’s wine and cheese, which is sort of like
loaves and fishes.
the time of the week that works out best for me just happens to be
Sunday morning. It’s the time of the week with the fewest demands. It
wasn’t always like this. Years ago, I’d be here, most Sundays, so it’s
different, for right now. And, to be honest, I am a little bit like a
sheep without a shepherd, following only my own path, except…
do have a church service, of sorts. There I am, painting on a Sunday
morning, with the radio on for background noise, listening to WBUR,
usually, and at 11 o’clock, on comes the live service from Marsh Chapel
at BU [Boston University]. I have found that I can listen to it and
paint at the same time, sort of like walking and chewing gum. It’s a
straight-down-the-middle Methodist service on the whole, with readings
and a big choir with a rich, warm sound. And a big, sumptuous pipe organ
pounding out the anthems. Lots of leading going on in there: leading in
responsive anthems, leading in song and meditations, following along in
your pew Bible….
not saying you should stay home and listen to it! No! It’s not the same
as being physically present in church! However! Near the end of the
service, every week, the choir sings a beautiful recessional. We have it
here, in our hymnal, it’s number 4-7-3, “Lead Me, Lord”; would you
please open your hymnal to it? Number 4-7-3. We don’t sing it very often
in this church, maybe because there’s only one verse…
[sing and play]
Lead me Lord, lead me in thy righteousness
Make thy way plain, before my face.
For it is thou, Lord… thou, Lord only
That makest me dwell in safety.
funny, isn’t it? “Safety.” We don’t sing a lot about safety. A lot of
our hymns focus on what’s going to happen after we die, the paradise
we’re going to call home. I imagine that the people in Mark’s time were
thinking a lot about both.
hymn is an appeal to being led. “Lead me in your righteouness,” not
mine, God knows, I don’t have any. Make my way plain, please! I can’t
see to do it by myself, you know the way. It’s your way, anyway, it’s
not mine. I’d be lost without you.
we sing this, we are asking for guidance in a dangerous world.
Somewhere inside each striving individual of modern times, all fully in
control of their life, is a sheep needing some shelter.
Following… it’s a touchy subject with a lot of us. A blogger I’ve been
reading – you know what a blogger is, it’s someone who writes a
personal journal on the internet called a web-log — a blogger I’ve been
reading, a young mother who writes about parenting, was going on about
instilling in her school-age son the virtues of leadership: she says,
“I’ve had this idea that I have to raise a leader. That following is
weak. ‘Be a leader. Blaze the trail. Set the trends.’ Leaders are strong
and successful, and followers are something… less."
That was the way things went, until her son asked her one day, if all
parents taught all their children to be leaders, who would be around for
the leaders to lead? A little light went on in her head, and she asked,
well, what did he think children should be taught to be? And he came
back with a one-word answer: “themselves.”
we’re uncomfortable with being compared to sheep; my goodness, it
sounds so passive and spineless. We say, “We were being led around like
sheep! Like sheep to slaughter! Geez, are you kidding me? Get out of
here, I’m no sheep! I’m a leader! I’m the top dog! I get things done!
... Step aside, pal...”
don’t like being led, am I right? It goes against our nature. You take a
look in the library or online, there’s all kinds of books and videos
and articles about how to be decisive, be a savvy leader, an effective
boss, calculating and free of emotion… very few books on how to be led,
how to be a good follower (maybe with the exception of the Bible). But,
if you’re not actively leading, you’re following, aren’t you? You follow
us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Do you follow the Red Sox? And
we, here, are followers of Jesus…
may be that leadership is seen as something really cool, something
really worth knowing about, whereas following… isn’t, really. You could
do it in your sleep — isn’t that what people say? “That cult leader had
people ‘blindly following him’”. Or, it may be that very few people
know how to lead. You have to learn it, you can’t just wing it. While
following… seems relatively easy; you already know how to do it.
back years ago, when Annie and I were first getting to know each other,
we went backpacking and camping one April weekend with eight other
people, up on Mount Greylock in western Massachusetts. Have any of you
ever been out that way? — do you know it? Well, we started early in the
morning and went on up:
“We are off to Timbuktu, would you like to go there too, all the way and back again, you must follow our leader then…”
had two leaders, actually, Ron and Ashanti, both of them experienced
backpackers, as were many on the trip. And follow them we did. We had
our backpacks, & we were carrying our tents & sleeping bags, all
the food we would need, & camp stoves & fuel. And extra
clothing, because it was, after all, April in the Berkshires. Greylock
is a popular place in the summer, but this was pretty early in the
season, and we had the mountain to ourselves. You could say it was… a
Well, it was a sunny spring day. It was
a sunny spring day, and then as afternoon turned towards evening, and
we got up near the summit, we kind of went off the script…
the weather can turn quite suddenly in the Berkshires, as you may know,
and as we should have known. We struggled to pitch our tents and get
our camp stoves going in the rising wind and falling temperatures, and
then the falling sleet. The stoves didn’t want to stay lit, so everybody
had a cold dinner and went to bed early, but I don’t think too many of
us slept very well that night. The freezing rain rattled against our
tents, like showers of pebbles, all night long.
the morning, the world had turned white, and everything was wrapped in a
smooth, hard coating of ice. A freezing drizzle was coming down.
Everyone was shivering. We packed up as well as we could, and headed for
the stone shelter at the top. Ever into the group dynamic, we all
walked at the pace of the slowest one among us, who was not very tall,
and walked so slowly that the rest of us weren’t going fast enough to
we thought is, we would find the auto road that goes from the base to
the summit and just walk down it, but when we got there, we found that
the pavement was coated with ice, too, and that we couldn’t walk along
it without slipping and falling. So we crawled across it on our hands
and knees, up to the shelter, and stood around inside it, and wondered
what to do.
we lost our leaders at that point. They were still with us, but they
had lost their capacity to lead through the general disintegration of
the trip, so really, nobody was leading. We had become 10 people trying
to survive, truly like sheep without a shepherd, stranded on top of a
mountain in winter weather, and no way out…
a while, after quite a while, someone noticed that bits of ice were
beginning to fall from the roof and from some of the taller trees
around. So the temperature had gone above freezing, and the ice was
melting. Somebody else went out to look at the road, and found it wasn’t
icy anymore. We shouldered our packs, and crossed the road, and then by
sheer luck found an old ski trail, which we followed straight down the
mountainside… to safety.
and following, always such a dynamic story. Things can seem one way and
then they can change overnight, and then change again with a little
uptick in the mercury. When we started up the mountain, everyone was
following their assigned roles, but by the next day, we were all
trooping down to safety by a trail we hadn’t planned to take, or even
known about, but which was so clearly the one we were meant to take.
One last digression for you. Let me ask —
many folks here this morning… know of someone who lives alone — all by
themselves? Anyone? Could be you, could be someone you know?
Did you know that you’re part of an “Unprecedented Social Experiment?”
his popular new book, ”Going Solo,” Eric Klinenberg describes a recent
development among adults, people of every faith and persuasion, all over
the world. “For the first time in human history,” he writes, “great
numbers of people, hungering for the benefits of individual freedom,
have begun settling down, on purpose, as singles…”
says that marrying or grouping together may promise companionship and
security, but increasingly, the only toothbrush people want to see on
their bathroom sink is their own.
Let me paraphrase a little more:
2012, more than half of American adults are single (more than half!),
and 31 million – about one in seven – live alone. And that’s not
counting people in prisons, places like that. The big cities is where
this is mostly happening, but, for some reason, Knoxville, Tennessee,
leads the way: a third of the households there have just one person in
them. Just one.
of all the ways / the people in developed nations / could use their
money and their influence, why are they using them / to separate from
we get to ask again, as it seems we often get to ask, what’s happening
to the world we thought we knew? (Sure wish I felt… safer…)
“Going Solo” is more about the rise in the number of people living
alone, and not so much about leading or following, but one part of it
spoke to me, especially. Because when you think about millions of people
living alone, you have to wonder about our communities of faith, which
have tended to be congregational, and social, and family-based.
these new singles sound like followers, in the old-school mode, with
Mom, Dad and the kids going to church together, and Moms and Dads
teaching church school to their neighbors’ children?
all those singles, sitting at home after work, checking out Facebook,
watching TV… They do get bored and feeling out of touch. (Yes, they’re
independent but they get tired of having no one to talk to besides the
— together in their aloneness, they do meet up. They meet for coffee
and they meet for tennis, they get together to go hiking and biking…
they join book groups, and they join clubs, and some of them… where do
they go?... yes they do… they show up at church. Where, I expect, they
join in good works, and lead discussion groups, and support one another,
and follow along in their pew Bible.
they learn a little bit about this curious, never-quite-finished
business of leading and following, in this new and unaccustomed present
time. Leading people, and you can’t tell them exactly where we’re all
headed, and following a leader, in spirit, that you can’t even see.
Where they learn that you follow because you have faith, and you lead because you have faith,
faith is good to have, and you all together have a faith in common, and
you have your own personal faith, too, and you need a little bit of all
of it, I think.
your sound-bite: to be a follower of Jesus is to experience that
tension of being both in the lead and in the sheep-fold at the same
time. You have to have a clear, brave eye on the future, and you have to
be back in the kitchen doing the dishes and waiting to be told what to
do next. Doing both at the same time is part of what it means to be a
know, when I first heard that hymn, “Lead Me Lord,” like I say it was
on a cheap little radio in my painting studio, and I thought the choir
was singing, “Lead me home.” Doesn’t that sound nice? And there I was,
already at home! Not a single, or a leader, you know, and not much of a
follower, I’m probably pretty much like you, just trying my best to be
Sing with me:
Lead me Lord, lead me in thy righteousness
Make thy way plain, before my face.
For it is thou, Lord… thou, Lord only
That makest me dwell in safety.