“We Lead by Following”

            Leadership is something to celebrate and cultivate. But in our culture, following is an underappreciated art. The Christ path, or the Way, as early Christians called it, is about following. Even leadership, within the Christian movement, has to be understood as an act of following Jesus, as discipleship, as servanthood. At the same time, following is not passive. Followers of Jesus take a stand, standing for some things and against others.

Our Gospel lesson opens with these words: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” In two verses, Mark says a lot …let’s unpack it a little.

The news of John’s arrest, though announced by the briefest of prepositional phrases, is not an aside. It sets the context for Jesus’ entire ministry. The Greek word translated “arrested” means something more like “delivered up” or “handed over.” It’s the same word used to describe the actions of the authorities who take Jesus into custody with the intent of crucifying him[1]. Jesus’ fate, Mark is saying, is linked to John’s. Neither man is considered “innocent until proven guilty.” Nor are they tried and convicted by an impartial justice system. John and Jesus are victims of state-sponsored lynching. Through their prophetic teaching, healing, and sharing of resources, they call the powers of their day to account. The powers respond with violence that reinforces their dominance.

            So Jesus’ announcement of “good news” in the face of John’s arrest, and under the threat of his own violent death, is an act of resistance. The “kingdom of God” is the metaphor through which Jesus communicates his resistance to the status quo. God’s kingdom is the authority that reorganizes the world and its powers. It deconstructs the systems that bring both spiritual and bodily death to oppressor and oppressed alike. It builds human community afresh, with priority on life abundant for all, not just some. “The time is fulfilled…. Repent and believe.” The call to repentance is a call to reorient our lives around God’s kingdom.

            Six First Church folks, at least, represented us at the Reclaim MLK march put on by Black Lives Matter this past Monday. What a lesson, for me, in following! As we stood at the intersection of Snelling and University Avenues listening to speeches, making agreements about marching peacefully, and learning to become quiet together in a matter of seconds, the organizers asked the clergy to gather together in a certain place. I made my way there and then realized that we were standing next to the banner that would lead the march, and that we were headed straight for Interstate 94. We began walking and chanting: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” “Whose streets?” “Our streets!” Though we clergy were near the front, we were in no way directing the march. Following is uncomfortable for many people but I found myself musing over whether my socialization as a white person makes this dynamic more pronounced. I am used to being “in the know” and holding power to set the agenda. And when I am not “in charge” I like to have clear directions and expectations. It took me a while to realize where the leadership for the march was even coming from. Young people, looking to be in their 20s, flanked the column of marchers on either side. They wore reflective vests and spread their arms wide in a gesture of guidance and protection. As we approached the cusp of the interstate onramp, I was scared and uncertain. State troopers in crisp, imposing uniforms and hats stood in formation with arms crossed and pale solemn faces. The St. Paul police barked orders into their megaphones. I couldn’t really hear what they were saying over all the chanting. An internal voice kept nagging me: don’t you think you ought to stop shouting and listen to the authorities? And I mused again about my white socialization, and how it has taught me that the police can be trusted to protect and serve me. As we waited, face-to-face with those troopers, another voice rose from deep within me: the time is fulfilled, the moment is right. Today, it said to me, your part in repentance, in reorienting the world according to God’s values, is to follow, to be part of a human megaphone that amplifies suppressed voices, to join the body of thousands lying on the muddy, cold pavement, shouting with all its breath “I can’t breathe!” Yes, it is right that traffic should stop and commerce be interrupted and authorities temporarily disobeyed so that the very streets can cry out for blood unjustly shed.

Hour after hour, I continued to follow those subtle young leaders shepherding us along. I was surrounded by many friends and acquaintances. But this was not a social gathering and there wasn’t much time to chat. It was four hours of slow walking and patient waiting, four hours of almost constant chanting and singing. It felt like four hours of prayer that used my entire body. By the time we reached the capitol, I was exhausted and freezing cold. The march organizers said, “Get together in a ‘group hug.’ So we squished together awkwardly and just stood there in silence for several minutes. The moment came to a sweet and happy end when a young girl, perched on a concrete pillar above the crowd, gazed out over us huddled together and yelled loud enough for all to hear “Yay!”

            Joining this march, and this Black Lives Matter movement, has brought home to me that the church itself is a movement. There’s nothing wrong with creeds and theologies, Council meetings, pancake breakfasts, worship services, and brick and stained glass sanctuaries. But the heart of the Christian faith is none of these things. It is the act of following Jesus, who brings good news, who is good news. Jesus moves us, calls us, gets us on our feet. And in following Jesus, we are changed. We move. We do not stay the same. It seems to me that we have reached a crucial moment in the struggle for racial justice, a moment in which your participation and mine really matters. Common and John Legend sing, in “Glory”: “They marched with the torch, we gon’ run with it now.” At the same time, there are a thousand equally important and intricately interconnected ways to join the Jesus movement, the movement that reorders our world according to God’s kingdom authority. As Martin Luther King himself declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I’ve traveled to San Lucas Tolimán, a village on Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala, a couple of times with groups from First Church. The boats of the fishermen on Lake Atitlan look like the ones on our bulletin cover. They are small, simple craft, paddled by hand. They are worn and weathered. The first disciples of Jesus—like the Guatemalan fishermen who own these boats—were not professional activists. They were just trying to live as well as they could, provide food and shelter for their families. When Jesus’ call came to them, they got up and followed urgently, immediately. They left everything—their boats, their nets, their families and homes. They must have realized that the time was ripe to resist the poverty and oppression that diminished their humanity on a daily basis. Jesus didn’t call them away from their real lives. He called them to claim their lives as lives that matter infinitely to God.

Call is personal. I can’t tell you how the call to follow will come to you or what the Jesus movement will ask of you. But I think our call stories will have a couple of things in common with each other and with those of the early disciples: first, a sense of urgency and immediacy, a feeling that the time is right. And second, a deep and fulfilling kind of joy, inspiration, and excitement. Following the Jesus path is not necessarily easy or safe, but it is good news, for you, for the world. Maybe your call is to leave everything and start fresh. But more likely, your call is nudging you to live more fully and serve more deeply right where you already are. Jesus says, “Follow me!” Will you join the movement?


[1] Paul S. Berge: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1121