Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Leading and Following (a sermon)

[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.]

Good 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.

Today’s 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.

Mark 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.

The 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 process.

Whether 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.

This 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.

The 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.”

“Like 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.

Well, 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.”

Leading 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…

As 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.

Anyway, 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…

I 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….

I’m 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.

That’s 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.

This 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.

When 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.
Well. 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."

So. 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.”

Still, 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...

We 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…

It 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.

Way 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…”

We 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 deserted place.

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…

Now 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.

In 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 keep warm.

What 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.
Well, 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…

After 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.

Leading 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 —
How 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?”

In 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…”

He 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:

In 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.

So, of all the ways / the people in developed nations / could use their money and their influence, why are they using them / to separate from one another?

So 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…)

Now, “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.

Do 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?

Meanwhile, 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 cat…)

So — 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.

Where 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,
that 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.

Here’s 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 Jesus church.

You 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 myself.

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.


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