Being a Follower
Matthew 4:12-23 and Excerpts from Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard by Søren Kierkegaard
I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14
Today is a special Sunday in the life of our church. It is part of our congregationalist tradition to convene in a particular kind of way once a year. Church meetings are notoriously intolerable at times. In part because churches by design, are meant to be a diverse group, on a shared journey. But this means agreeing on what to do can sometimes seem like a parable about a camel going through the eye of a needle.
It turns out that the Robert's Rules of Order were crafted because one guy became so extremely frustrated with church meetings that he had to do something. It was in 1876 when Henry Robert served as chair of the Board of Trustees at the First Baptist Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. And as the story goes, one meeting or likely many meetings, went on too long and the men still could not find a way to move ahead together.
One night as Mr. Robert found his way home, he became convicted about the fact that he would absolutely not chair another meeting until he found a way to do it constructively. Because he had served as an officer in the Army, he had a place to begin, which was Parliamentary Procedure. And from there he drafted, the Robert's Rules of Order.
But while these rules solve some problems, they end up leaving little room for hearing beyond the perspective of the individual. One of my early mentors, the Rev. Martin Copenhaver wrote, “Following Robert's Rules can make meetings efficient. But it creates other problems. It ignores spiritual practices. By elevating the principle of "one person, one vote," the emphasis is squarely on the individual view and on the sum of individuals' votes. It creates winners and losers of votes. The process is slanted in favor of those who know the rules and can manipulate them. Robert's Rules can have their own inefficiencies, which become evident when church bodies get tangled up in the rat's nest of procedural moves and countermoves. Is this any way to make decisions in a church?”
Sometimes for the sake of urgency and sanity we need efficiency, but there are some things where the stakes are just too high. So we are intentional about gathering together for all voices to be heard and for common threads and values among us to be made visible and for the lure of the Spirit to begin to be revealed. This takes time, patience and prayer. And this is the difference between making a decision and making space for discernment.
Martin Copenhaver goes on, “Although discernment is a spiritual process, it is not otherworldly. It is more incarnational. It happens on the ground with and through real people. So in key respects discernment resembles other forms of decision making: you need to get all the relevant facts, listen to those with expertise, seek the counsel of wise people, consider options, document decisions.” The difference is that discernment is a process focused on the shared commitments and the bigger agenda, the higher view, the way forward for the whole.
The root of discernment comes from the Latin word discernere, which means "separate." It points to the spiritual practice of separating what is important to us from what is not. Discernment allows us to unwind in our minds what is true for us from what is not, it invites us to separate our personal preference from what is our common call as a community. It opens our hearts, so we can be clear about whether and what and where we will go next- how and where we are called to put our lives as people of faith and conscience.
After quoting the Prophet Isaiah, 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned,” Jesus says “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
In the Gospel of Luke, this same story gives more time between the call and the response. In that version, Jesus sits with them in the boat and teaches the crowds on the shore and then he goes with them into deeper water and shows them where to put their nets to get a catch so big that their nets were beginning to break and they had to call for help from the other boats. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. It seems like maybe they followed because it was that or sink.
But here in the Gospel of Matthew, overhearing his calls, the two men who were fishing nearby see Jesus and he approaches them and says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
And the text says that they did. Without questions or evidence, we read that, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Immediately. They followed him.
In this version, in the Gospel of Matthew, it’s not about the instructions or proving one of the leaders worthy with a public demonstration of a successful catch, here, I think the message for us is clear: sometimes the most important way we can be faithful is by being a follower.
It occurs to me that this idea could be quite radical here in Boulder. In my brief time in this congregation and this community, I have learned that we are infused with leaders, big thinkers and experts in a variety of fields. We are do-ers, directors, managers, controllers; we are the ones who make sure things get done. This is useful and has gifted us with a treasure trove of knowledge and experience.
And yet, in this time of discernment, perhaps what is needed is something that is rarely celebrated, especially in a high-achievement atmosphere, what is needed is this: those who are joyfully willing to be followers.
To be clear, I am not speaking about following me. In fact I changed the sermon title because the way it appeared in the bulletin: They Followed (space) Rev. Nicole sent the wrong message! Sometimes, I hope you follow me, but mostly what I mean, is that in this season of intentional discernment as a church, where we are asking big questions, praying big prayers, carving out big spaces to hear and be heard, seeking clarity about what and where we will go next, how and where we are called to put our lives as people of faith and conscience, what is needed is not necessarily more leaders, but in fact, more followers. Where would the Jesus’ movement be without those who agreed to come along? Where would the Civil Rights movement be without those who showed up to lunch counters? Where would Greta be if the world let her continue to sit there on a Friday alone? All of the beautiful evolutions toward wholeness and justice need followers- people who set aside their own small agenda, to be a part of the larger one.
Greg Garret writes that Jesus was asking his new disciples to “drop what they thought was important, to join something larger than themselves.” And that is exactly what deep discernment is, space to turn our gaze up beyond our own stories, to hitch our lives to the whole wide story, our spiritual adventure guided by a Higher Love, connected to one another and all creation.
Peter and Andrew and the others could have remained mere admirers and still called themselves believers. They could have stayed in the boat and still called themselves people of faith. And yet they chose being a follower.
As you heard, Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices, always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.”
A follower drops something to catch something. They make sacrifices, take risks, renouncing some sense of security to show up and listen and live beyond one’s own material and spiritual comfort. What is needed in this time is more followers.
Because we are not in a time of deciding, rather we entering a period of discerning, which means we are free to follow. We are free to follow questions that arise and possibilities that are presented. We are free to follow those with passions and ideas. We are free to follow our dreams and wonders. We are free to share our fears. And all of us should know that our individual points of view will be heard.
We are invited to listen deeply to one another, as discernment is an equalizing spiritual practice, the very voice of the Spirit can come through- the gem of wisdom we are all meant to receive, at any given moment, can emerge from any one of us.
As much of the secular world remains devoted to quick decision making, driven by profit and power, we are intentionally entering a season where we will practice discernment, which is a time of slowly separating out the pieces so we can see what we love, what we will hold onto, what might let go of, parsing out where our commitments might lead, unwinding the difference between our little agendas and the big one. And like the early disciples it is a season of making sacrifices and taking risks to “drop some of what we thought was important, to join something larger than ourselves.”
Beloved of God, let each of us be willing, let us each be ready, when it is time and when it is clear and whether or not we feel fully ready, even when it can’t be immediately, let us take the chance, let us follow. May it be so.