Follow MePosted: January 25, 2015
SLIDE 3: FOLLOW ME
“Jesus walked along by the Sea of Galilee, and he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” This story provides an image of power and wonder as Jesus walks up to fishermen he doesn’t know and simply invites them to follow him, and they drop everything and go after him.
SLIDE 4: POWERFUL PICTURES CAN DISTORT REALITY
Powerful pictures sometimes distort reality. Pictures of Jesus that glow in the dark and are too good to be true probably are. The Gospel of John preserves a tradition that strongly hints Andrew and Peter were followers of John the Baptist before Jesus. The fishermen and Jesus may have met, when Jesus came from Nazareth to the River Jordan to hear John’s message and then present himself to be baptized. They were probably already friends before Jesus moved his residence from Nazareth to Capernaum. Perhaps Jesus even established the base for his ministry in Capernaum at the urging of Peter and Andrew.
SLIDE 5: WHEN GREAT PEOPLE DIE THEY BECOME LARGER THAT LIFE
Great people after their deaths become larger than life, as their words and deeds become the metaphors of their followers, who don’t always get it right. I was reminded by Lillian Daniel in a Still Speaking Devotion this week of how the followers of Martin Luther King messed up his statue.
SLIDE 6: MESSED UP THE STATUE
If you visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC, you will no longer see the quotation: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” It was there when the statue was unveiled in 2011, but it has since been removed. Why? Because it turns out he never said it.
What he actually said was this: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Dr. King said those memorable words in a 1968 sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church just two months before his assassination.
SLIDE 7: MAYA ANGELOU POINTED OUT THE PROBLEM
It was the writer Maya Angelou who spoke out against the shortened quotation on the statue, pointing out that there is a big difference between saying, “If you want to say that I was a drum major…” and saying “I was a drum major…”
The first statement has the self-perspective and humility Dr. King was known for. The shortened version, in Angelou’s opinion, made him look egotistical. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside,” she explained. “The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
SLIDE 8: SOUND BITES MISS THE TRUTH
I’m grateful for the great writers like Maya Angelou, who care so deeply about other people’s words that they defend them against the sloppy editing of history. Sometimes, in our desire for a sound bite or a slogan, we sacrifice meaning, nuance and depth.
SLIDE 9: JESUS SOUND BITES MISS THE TRUTH
Now I know some people will be upset by this statement but I believe one of our problems in trying read the New Testament is that the gospels are often the sound bites of Jesus’ followers rather than Jesus himself. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus never actually says, “I am the Messiah.” He asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” When others accuse him of saying he is the Messiah, he responds, “You have said so.” But in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is very careful not to claim that he is the Messiah. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, however, the later First Century Christians who wrote that narrative have Jesus saying, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Light. You can’t get to God except through me.” It is sort of like the difference between what Martin Luther King’s followers put on his statue and what Dr. King actually said.
SLIDE 10: WHEN GREAT LEADERS DIE THEY LOSE CONTROL
The problem is when great figures of history die, they lose control over the way their followers use their words and their memory. A good example of this phenomenon is the great Chabad Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. Beth picked up a biography about him when we were on vacation, and Rabbi Schneerson was a truly remarkable person. He had University Degrees in Science and Engineering as well as a reputation as an outstanding Talmudic Scholar. He was also kind and wise, possessing extraordinary insight into people and the future. He was consulted by a plethora of public figures even Presidents. Before he died he had followers who began to claim that Rebbe Schneerson was the Messiah. Whenever the Rabbi heard people make those claims, he always denied them. He told his followers in no uncertain terms that he was not the Messiah. When he died on June 12th 1994 at the age of 92, he was no longer in a position to control the actions and words of his followers.
SLIDE 11: THE MESSIAH LOVES YOU
When Rabbi Ballon and I visited Israel twelve years later we found posters all over Jerusalem with the face of Rabbi Schneerson and the caption: “The Messiah Loves You.” A couple of years later, when the Birmingham Group visited Jerusalem, we met with a representative of the Chabad movement who steadfastly believes that though the Rebbe was buried on June 12th of 1994, he is still available to his followers giving them encouragement and guidance. Members of the Chabad community purchased a house next to the cemetery where he is buried and you can send faxes to that house and your prayer requests will be taken and laid on the grave of Rabbi Schneerson. Rabbi Schneerson must be turning over in his grave in disappointment, but once we die, we lose control of what our followers do with our words and our memory.
SLIDE 12: WHO ARE WE FOLLOWING?
The stories of Martin Luther King and Rabbi Schneerson lead me to ask the question who are we following. Jesus says follow me, but what does that mean? Does following Jesus just mean claiming that he is God, worshipping him, building churches and praying in his name, wearing “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets. Seems to me that all of those kind of external forms of praising Jesus are just empty sound bites. Shane Claiborne author and Christian Activist tells of the story of meeting with a businessman who thought of himself as a Christian. He had a solid gold bracelet with WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) inscribed on it to remind him to follow Jesus. But as Shane pointed out, his solid gold bracelet missed the whole point of following Jesus. If following Jesus is to have any real meaning, then it means following in the way of Jesus.
SLIDE 13: FOLLOWING THE WAY OF JESUS IS HARD
Following the way of Jesus is hard, turning the other cheek, praying for enemies, the film Selma is timely reminder of the costs of loving enemies. Following the way of Jesus means walking the second mile, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, reaching out to the homeless, loving difficult people, opening up our friendship circles to include people who are not like us, gathering at the Sharing Table of Jesus with everyone who shows up. Jesus was inviting those fishermen in our scripture to follow him and go and invite others to the Sharing Table the Commonwealth of God.
SLIDE 14: HEALING AND EATING TOGETHER
Two of the most important signs of Jesus’ ministry were healing and eating. Bringing together people by the love of God to pray with and for each other, to support one another in faith that we might all be healed. To eat together to practice hospitality, so no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome to join in a fellowship that bridges barriers of race, education, ethnicity, economics, class, belief, and gender. This is the beloved community envisioned by Jesus and Martin Luther King. In every age vested interests oppose and resist the gathering of the beloved community.
SLIDE 15: DR. ALBERT SCHWEITZER One of the great twentieth century examples of a person who followed in the way of Jesus was Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life and his talents as a doctor in Africa. Dr. Schweitzer concluded his search for the historical Jesus with two memorable paragraphs.
“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those people who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has for us to fulfill in our time.
He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”