I’m not much of a follower. I’m not. I’ve never been. Come on: You know this about me. Right? I’m an original. I’m unique. I’m interesting. Followers aren’t any of those things!
Take a look at this little thing I got hanging off the back of my head! Look at this haircut I have. You see this? Do you know anybody else with a haircut like this? You know what my barber calls me? Minister with a mullet… I can’t tell if it’s a compliment or not. It might be! Maybe not! I don’t care. My wife, Bonnie, she calls it my “rat tail.” I don’t think she’s a fan, but I don’t care! It’s my thing—for the moment. And I’m not following anybody’s fashion trends—I’m making my own, you know?
And, hey, let’s face it, you’re probably something like me. In some way, right? You probably don’t have a little minimullet, but there’s some part of you that doesn’t want to be a “follower.” Who wants to be a follower? We want to be leaders, we want to be innovators, we want to be influencers, right? There’s a whole new profession out there: social media influencer. Our status in this world is not based on how many wise, intelligent, funny, decent people we follow, it’s based on how many followers we have. We want to be in the lead.
And, frankly, I know you people by now. If you’ve been around GRCC a while, you already know, but if you’re new here I’ll tell you: You can’t tell these people what to do. We have minds of our own. We do things our own way. We’re in charge of our own business. So, no wonder “Come and follow me” doesn’t feel like a very comfortable invitation to people like me, and maybe like you. Right?
Fifteen years ago, when I was just a little minister, and the advantage of a little more youth helped me to believe even more that I could never be a follower, I was walking with a colleague in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. There was a big crowd of people gathered around some street performers—acrobats or dancers or magicians or something. We could hear them, but we couldn’t see them because of all the people. My friend said, “You wanna check it out?” And I said, “No, way! If there’s one thing New York City has taught me, it’s that you don’t want to be where all the tourists are!” Then I explained to her my philosophy of making my own way, forging my own path, taking the road less traveled, and never being a follower. And you know what she said to me? She said, “Everybody’s following something.”
Everybody’s following something… We sat down on the fountain in the middle of the park, and I started to look around, and I started to see it. It’s not just the hungry eyes of the tourists looking only where they’re told to look. It’s that hippie folk singer over there. Would he be able to be who he is, play like he plays, dress like he dresses, if Pete Seeger hadn’t sat on a box in the same exact spot with his guitar fifty years before? It’s the NYU students swarming off to class in pursuit of a dream, paying for the knowledge of experts to get them there. It’s the suits weaving through the crowd on their way to another meeting not even glancing up from their phones at the wild joy of this park all around them. The truthers sitting at an info table with a banner hanging from it that says “9/11 was an inside job,” the teenagers who are laughing at them and making fun of their flyers, the handsome sailors recently disgorged from their ships for the weekend running together in packs, the scruffy activists trying to hand them anti-war pamphlets—we all follow something, somebody. The people playing speed chess in a corner of the park—they all learned the game from somebody else. The man sitting on a bench covered in pigeons—I asked him, “How’d you get so good with pigeons?” He told me, “There was another guy who used to sit here before me, and he fed the pigeons. He died, but the pigeons were still all hanging out by the bench like they missed him. I felt bad for them. So, one day I sat down, and I started feeding them.” We’re all following somebody. The question is: What do you follow? Where is it leading you?
I remember the first time I ever climbed a mountain as a kid. Every time I came to a pretty view, I thought I’d made it. This must be the top! I dropped my pack and sat down. But my camp counselor, Mark, up ahead of me, would turn around, and laugh and say, “You call that a view? Kid, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Keep it movin’!”
How often we pretend we’ve arrived when we have not yet really arrived. How often we make believe that we have become fully ourselves, we have reached our full potential, when really we’re still just caterpillars pretending that we’re butterflies. We might say it about our country: We’re a perfect democracy! Can’t get any more free, any more just, any better opportunities, any better healthcare, any better than we are. If one of those protesters or prophets or preachers starts shouting about how there’s some higher plane up above us that we could all get to together with just a little more effort, plug your ears! Roll ‘em down the side of the mountain if they don’t knock it off. We like things just the way they are.
We might say it about our church: What more could God possibly have in store for us besides what we’ve already done? We must have reached the mark by now. We’re going to pitch our tents and stake them down, there’s nowhere left for us to go. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” As we say in the UCC, God is still speaking! And in the big picture God is always on the move. So, if we’re gonna hear what God has to say, we’re going to need to follow along.
The question is not, “Do I follow?” It’s “What do I follow? Who do I follow? Where do they lead?” The question is: Have I arrived at the fullness of being God created me for, or am I just stuck somewhere on the side of a mountain?
OK, you might be thinking right about now, sure. Nobody’s an island. We’re all being led and influenced by different ideas and people—some better than others, probably. But do I really want to follow Jesus? Jesus? Did you hear what he just said? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Really? Deny myself? I like myself. Crucifixion? I hope that’s just a metaphor, but even if it is, it doesn’t sound particularly liberating. I don’t know if that’s a path I want to take. I want to build myself up! I don’t want to tear myself down, do I?
Otis Moss III told a story in his Beecher lectures at Yale about visiting New Orleans and stepping into a painter’s studio. He asked the artist, “How much are these paintings over here?” And the artist said, “Those are $20 apiece.” “Wow. That’s a good price for a canvas of that size. How about those over there.” “Oh, those are $1,500 apiece.” What?! Explain that to me, please. How could one painting by an artist sell for $20 and another painting, same size, by the same artist sell for $1,500? The artist explained it to him, “These over here I painted myself, but those over there, God designed. I did the work, but God gave me an assignment to paint something. Then while the paint was still fresh, God would tell me to take it outside and leave it out in a storm. When the rain beats on the canvas something unique will be created in the process.”
Here's an artist—a unique and creative individual who marches to the beat of his drum—who understands what it means to follow and who understands the power and the place of sacrifice. He sacrificed his $20 painting to God and was given the gift of $1,500 painting. Following Jesus’ way means giving ourselves to God, maybe even sacrificing ourselves (our small selves, yeah?), so our truly unique, priceless self can be revealed. That is a kind of “art” that we cannot create on our own because it’s bigger than us! It can only be done in collaboration. It can only be done if we’re willing to walk out in the storm and let God have her way with us.
On the other side of sacrifice, Jesus promises us the biggest kind of life. This world leaves us always feeling like we’re lacking, feeling like we need to be more, to have more, to win more, to impress more. And after a life of perpetually serving your own ego, you die, and the lights go out. End of story. That’s what happens when you follow this world. That’s what happens when you keep your nose in this world and you never glance up at God’s wild joy all around you. What would happen if you followed God’s wild joy? You know you’re already following something. The question is, WHO do you WANT to follow?
You don’t have to give up on being you to be a Christian. You don’t have to give up on being you to allow yourself to be led into the future. Sure, we’ve all seen friends who get a new girlfriend or boyfriend and they kind of disappear into the private room of that relationship. From our perspective, they maybe loose a little bit of themselves. But we’ve also known other people who get into good relationship, and it helps to bring them to life, to accentuate their unique gifts, to encourage them to be more fully who they truly are. Getting together with God is not about losing our lives. It’s about losing the life that doesn’t ultimately serve you to gain a life that serves everything. Now, that’s special.
In fact, who could be more of an individual than a follower—like a pilgrim hiking her way through the mountains, from village to village, kingdom to kingdom, heading intentionally and passionately, mile after mile, toward the heart of the great cathedral? Being a follower of Jesus means that I am an individual. It means I’m not going to let myself be swallowed up by this world. I’m going to separate myself out just a bit, raise my eyes a little higher. I also haven’t been swallowed up entirely by God. God gives us a choice. God calls us—calls us to follow because God refuses to just snatch you away erasing the gifts and the challenges that make you uniquely you. Jesus calls followers—but not to be automatons, mindless dependents, but to be something more like delegates of his way, deputies of his power, stewards of his Kingdom.
And I am an individual, unique and original. And so are all of you. And if you’re like me, you’re seeking and finding a way—a way whose promise moved your heart to commit yourself to a path that is bigger than you, beyond you, that will stretch you, train you, cut you down to size, challenge you, and encourage you to live the biggest, boldest, best life that can be lived—a life so full of joy and potential that we could never have reached such heights on our own.
So, Beloved, let me ask you one more time: Who do you follow? Who do want to follow?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations