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Following and Leading

Isa 50: 4-9a;  Mark 8: 27-38

A number of years ago, when I was still doing youth ministry, I was the pastor of two small congregations in northern Vermont located just south of the Canadian border. Because of the isolation, it was easy to build the youth a thriving youth program. Simply put, there was nothing for kids to do! Our churches were only too happy to involve them whether their families were members or not.  So young people and their friends and the friends of their friends built soon became a group of at 86 members, at which point I had to cut off membership. Such a problem to have!


Now Lamoille County is a beautiful place nestled in the Green Mountains. I decided that the group needed some activities to solidify it and, just as I had expected, very few had ever climbed the mountain right within eyesight of the towns they’d grown up in. So a six mile hike up Mt. Belvidere was to be our expedition.


Mt. Belvidere is at the end of the Long Trail, a branch of the Appalachian Trail. It boasts and international view of Canada and views of New Hampshire and southern peaks in Vermont from its 50 ft. fire tower.


The plan was to eat lunch on the summit and following the blazed trail. The journey up was relaxed. It began up a narrow dirt path wound its way, and then conditions changed. With more than halfway to go, the melting snow and the remaining ice pact beneath the soil had created waist deep mud. Following the trail became difficult. Some less stalwart among us decided to turn back, meaning that some of our chaperones had to return with them.


Then even this leader was struck down, inconceivably by an oak leaf. Those were the days when vanity dictated the wearing of contact lenses. But stupidity dictated not carrying regular glasses with you. Wouldn’t you know about ¾ mile from the top of the mountain a flash of pain in my left eye. I could remove the lens, but had nothing to rinse it with except a Coke. Bottled water was not the commodity it is now. I was half blind with what felt like the forest in my eye.


But when we arrived at the summit, I am told it was all worth it! You could see for miles, the view was spectacular. We sang songs and had a sort of impromptu worship service on the top of the mountain. But then I was reminded we had a three mile hike down to home.


But the leader was half blind. Thinking of the dangers, broken ankles waiting to happen! Another younger sister of a youth member, a middle school student, said she was familiar with the trail back to the road because she learned it in Girl Scouts. She became our new leader, and we were the timid followers. It was a slow and humbling experience all the result of personal vanity and forgetfulness.


I’m not a very good follower. And I live in a society of others who are not very good at following either. That’s odd, because the first thing we teach our kids is to follow. “Follow daddy down to the basement.” “Follow Mommy out to the garden.” We teach them games like “Follow the leader” and “Simon Says” and “Mother, may I?” And we are pleased when they follow well.


And then it ends! We don’t want our children to be followers any more. We want them to be leaders. “Don’t follow the crowd; be a leader!” We tell them. Who’s the leader on your team? Lead by example. And it’s all very understandable to me; being a leader is considered in our society to be an indicator of success, strength and prosperity. Being a follower is considered weak, disappointing and boring. And I think it’s always been that way.


Early in Jesus ministry, he chose 12 people to go with him into the future together. They were going to be leaders preaching in front of lots of people. And in the early days of their ministry were wildly successful. Together, they helped Jesus feed the 5000. They were there for the healing of sick people, the winning of debates against critics. They were learning from Jesus how to calm the angry seas by a simple word.


And then one day, Jesus made a sharp right turn. He asked the disciples if they had figured out who he was. After a few guesses, Peter identified Jesus as the Son of God. It was a powerful, holy moment. But in his very next words, Jesus told them that he was on his way to Jerusalem to die. “Die?” Peter says. “Die? You’re not going to die! We’re just getting started!”


And it was then that Jesus offered them a three-fold standard for leadership. “If you are going to be leaders” Jesus tells them, “then you must deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow.” It all seemed so backwards to them, that they should have to deny themselves (whatever that meant), and take up a cross (they knew exactly what that meant!), and to be followers. And yet, this is precisely what Jesus expected of them — that they would deny themselves — that they would set aside their own selfish wants and wishes, and pursue what was best for the group. And when Jesus spoke of the cross, they learned that being a disciple would mean hardship, and sacrifice, and possibly even death. And finally, the disciples learned that Jesus wanted them to follow him…to imitate him…to love the people that he loved, and to trust the God that he trusted.

These men didn’t really get it until after the Resurrection. Finally they understood that Jesus said to be in his company, he required people to set aside their personal agendas, and to be willing to suffer, and to live life like him.  Because this life is not what it’s all about. When Jesus rose, it all made sense. That triple standard — self-denial, taking up a cross, and following Jesus — became the way they lived…and the way they died. Every one of them.


We are 2000 years removed from his words that day, what would Jesus say to us about what he expects from Christian people? In reality, the expectations have never changed. They may play out in 2012 differently. But even today, Jesus is saying “If anyone wants to follow me, let them deny themselves, take up a cross, follow me.”


How does one to deny oneself? Does it mean that we leave home and family and friends and occupation to be a disciple? Not necessarily. But it does suggest that we leave our baggage behind, that we leave behind our insistence that it is our way or the highway. That’s what “denying oneself” means, and it goes against the grain of this present culture.


There is a need for conformity. There is a need to leave our personal wants and wishes at the door, and to work together for what is best for the group. That’s what it means to “deny oneself” in our day. In fact, Jesus called the Church “a body.” And only when the body is working together toward a common goal, only then is the body functioning properly.


Jesus also told his disciples that they must take up a cross. In the first century, crosses were only used for one thing; death. The implication of Jesus is clear: there will be hardship for the Christian. If someone told you otherwise, they were lying. If we take our faith seriously, we will be called to make difficult choices. If we take our faith seriously, some people will reject us. If we take our faith seriously, we may even be persecuted. Die Or be made to feel very uncomfortable.


Here’s a test for you: do the people at work, or at school, or in your neighborhood know that you go to church? Or do you hide that simple fact for fear that, if they knew, it would change the way they treat you? If that is the greatest cross you are bearing in your Christian life, then your life is charmed. Because there are others in this faith business world who, if they admit to being followers of Jesus, would lose their house, their job, and possibly even their family, or even their life. And still, they profess their faith.


Finally, Jesus says that we are to follow him. Does that mean that we are to follow…or are we supposed to FOLLOW?


The in the final games before the play-offs for the World Series.  Every game they win or lose will have an impact at the end of the season, so they have attracted a lot of attention. Somebody says “I follow the Yankees, Baltimore, Cincinnati.” Do you know what that means? They tune in for the pre-game show and study the lineups. They watch every pitch of every inning of every game. They read the box score the next morning in the paper so that they thoroughly comprehend everything that happened between the lines. The word “fan” comes from the root word “fanatic” and this illustrates why.


So, do you follow Jesus Christ like that? Do you study scripture to learn who Jesus was, and what he did, and all that he said? Have you read the Old Testament to understand what the prophets said of him hundreds of years before his birth? Have you read books to understand what scholars have said about Jesus in the centuries since his death? This may be what it means to “follow” Jesus. And if you did all of this, would our world call you a “fan” or would you be a “fanatic?”


But maybe “to follow” means to imitate him, him, to try to be like him in everything you say and do in this world. You may not have done so well at the “walking on water” thing, but when it comes to loving people, or being fair in business, or being courageous when it comes to defending the weak; in all of this, you try to follow Jesus.


I told you at the outset about being led down the mountain by a middle school girl. It was humbling. Leaders are always supposed to lead, even if they don’t know the way. And that’s dangerous because if the leaders go in the wrong direction, it can be a disaster. That happens all the time in companies in governments and in churches.


Secondly, I told you that children are the best followers; in fact, I think they are natural followers. Is it any surprise, then, that Jesus once said “Let the little children come to me, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” The followers.
Actually, I don’t have this leadership thing all figured out. Sometimes, I am reduced to that youth leader, wandering down half blind down the mountain, wondering if my next step is going to sprain my ankle.


Then sometimes I remember that there is a Leader out in front of me. He has perfect vision, he IS the Light to my darkness.


And sometimes – not often enough . . . but sometimes – I remember that when I came to faith in Jesus Christ, I never signed up to be a leader. I signed up to be a follower. I can only expect that the same is true for you.


May God bless us all. Amen