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Today we come to a very open-ended story:
Jesus goes to the Sea of Galilee. When Phillip, Peter, Andrew, and Nathanael see him, they drop everything and follow Jesus.
Just like that.
What did they see that so compelled them? And what was inside themselves that made them follow?
Many of have speculated over centuries about why the first disciples followed. Had they known Jesus since childhood? Were they waiting for a signal from him for when this great project would begin? Or did they just happen into this like Nathanael?
None of the gospels tell us.
Maybe we are to find these answers in how we ourselves choose to follow.
We get a common thread lacing through all of the biblical stories we hear today.
The thread is followership.
The young Samuel hears the voice of God in the night and he follows the voice wherever it leads.
The psalm declares God is always with us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
The apostle Paul dishes up hard medicine for followers about their harmful behaviors.
And the Gospel John gives this story of how the first followers of Jesus begin their followership with no real idea of what would happen or where they were going, but they went anyway.
The topic of followership is not one we hear much about in our world today. We would rather talk about leadership.This great university across the street devotes enormous resources and intellectual power to the training of leaders, and don’t get me wrong – this world needs great leaders.
Yet, our society doesn’t place much value on followership. I checked Amazon.com yesterday, and it is currently selling 71,136 books on leadership.
There are only 187 titles with the word “followership.”
We would rather look up to great leaders and dissect what it takes to be a great leader.
We are in the throes of a presidential election that, at some level, is a debate about the nature and quality of leadership.
We rightly celebrate the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend.
But what of being a follower?
There is no holiday for followers.
Dr. King would be the first to tell you that without followers who stood their ground…
without followers who withstood the taunts; without followers who withstood the fire hoses and the jail cells, and the beatings and death itself; without followers, Dr. King’s leadership would have been absolutely worthless.
Dr. King would be the first to tell you that followers make the difference. Followers always make the difference.
You and I make the difference.
In a very real sense, our parish is embarking on a new season of followership, or to use the church term: discipleship.
This winter, we are engaged in a season of discernment and listening so that we can become clearer about the path that God would have us follow as a faith community.
We may not be faced with fire hoses and jail cells, but we are no less faced with challenges in our personal lives, and in the life of our congregation that require courage and strength, and especially require deep listening for the presence of God in our midst and within ourselves.
I hope you will pick up one of these. It summarizes a year of work by our Vestry and a task force that has examined the context and challenges facing us as a parish.
And I hope you will sign up for a listening group. There is information about them in this.
Everyone can participate because everyone has something to contribute from your life experience and your experience of being in this church.
This season of listening to God’s call in our parish can be extraordinary of we are open to it.
Yet some may find the concept of discernment uncomfortable, or risky, or even fraught with peril – and in it is.
After all, haven’t we met or heard about mentally unstable people who claim they are speaking for God? Shouldn’t we question whether we are hearing “God” or just our own voices?
That is why we do this together.
All of the biblical lessons today underline this theme as well: that God is with us, but God is not easy to hear or see, and you should never blindly follow.
We are human, we are not God. We make mistakes. Everyone in these stories questions.
The lessons today also provide a map for authentic listening and discernment. Let tell you what I hear in these lessons that can help us:
Discernment begins with open-mindedness. Nathanael was open to Phillip bringing him to meet this unknown Jewish rabbi, Jesus, and Nathanael was open to what he experienced.
Nathanael had many pre-conceived ideas about who the messiah would be, but he was open to a new epiphany that would turn his previous notions upside down.
Listening takes perseverance.
Listening may take more than one try, as it did for Samuel in the Old Testament today.
Samuel and Nathanael both make mistakes, but they keep at it – they keep coming back – and that is another reason why discernment should be done in community.
We need each other to do this.
We can only know if our discernment is legitimate if we test it with other people. We need to always be open to the possibility that we’ve heard things wrong, that we didn’t get it right, that we heard only our prejudices speaking.
From that springs humility, a word rarely heard in our culture. Our epiphanies will come not out of our arrogance or the certainty of being right, but from a sense of confidence that the Spirit dwells in us as individuals and as a community.
Look for the surprising.
The Spirit may be speaking to us from unexpected corners, and that often takes a whole community to see and hear.
Psalm 139 proclaims that the One who knows us more deeply than we know ourselves will find a way to speak to us in a way that that is unique to each of us.
You may hear God in a physics equation or in the soaring notes of a Mozart concerto.
That also means the Spirit can reach the person sitting next to you in ways unique to him or her. When you honor the next person, especially when it is hardest, you honor the Spirit, and that is the definition of humility living in community.
Next comes healing.
We need to ask whether our followership brings about healing to the whole community, or brings about harm. Healing starts with healing for each of us.
It is exactly what the apostle Paul is driving at in his letter today. He asks us to take a hard look at what corrodes our relationship with God and corrodes our relationship with each other.
For us, what gets in the way? Possessions? Addictions? Callousness? In what ways do we abuse our bodies, this great gift from God?
Heal yourself and we will go a long way to healing our community.
Then we must ask: Who around us needs healing? Who is poor and neglected, lonely and forgotten? Do we hear their voices? When we do, we are close to hearing God.
Next comes resolve, and with it, courage.
We need to put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, just like Samuel and just like Nathanael. We are called to do something and do it well, and not be hamstrung by endless analysis.
Our actions will bring new insights, new epiphanies, new inspiration, new discernment.
Our path of discernment will have many turns and surprises, and there will be rocks along the way. True followership – true discipleship – is not easy.
We will be transformed as individuals and as a community – and we will change the world by our followership.
Dr. King’s followers changed everything in our world, nothing was ever the same again because they listened with openness, they spoke with humility, and they acted with resolve.
They knew how to follow with courage.
And you know what else? Those are same qualities great leaders have as well: listening, openness, humility, resolve and courage.
May it always be so with us here at St. Paul’s.
Art by He Qi