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What does it mean to follow

Rev. Jennifer Adams – January 16, 2011 – Christmas 1A

Before I left to be with my Mother for a week, I looked over the readings for this Sunday and the next, figuring I could get ahead a bit while I was away. You probably already know this but it’s every preacher’s dream to have sermons drafted well into the future — we aspire to that place of perfectly prepared proclamations and so in pursuit of that dream, ten days or so ago, I put together some thoughts on recognition and discipleship which is what the gospel passages these couple weeks are all about. They show us a pattern: people see something in Jesus, he calls them, and many of them follow. (Now sometimes the order gets rearranged a bit – sometimes Jesus calls them first, then they see something, then they follow. Or sometimes they follow first, then they see something in him, then they are called into actual discipleship) but the order doesn’t seem to matter much, the pieces of call stories are relatively consistent. This week we heard from the gospel of John that John the Baptist saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus at Baptism and the next day, proclaimed him to be “The Lamb of God” and the “Son of God.” And when Andrew met Jesus, he first spoke about him as ‘Rabbi’, ‘Teacher’ and then slightly later he told others that he believed him to be the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. There was recognition on the part of many of those who encountered Jesus, something about this Man that spoke to them of the presence of God. And some of them at Jesus’ invitation to ‘Come and See,’ became
his actual disciples and followed him into his ministry.

Now I in this desire to “get ahead” I figured that there are some things that we can say about discipleship no matter what week it is. The basic meaning of disciple is “one who learns from another,” following in the footsteps of (in this case) Jesus Christ. We can also say that being a disciple of Jesus is something that we don’t do alone; from the very beginning disciples were gathered and even when they were sent out it was two by two. We can add to the list of “always true” that at the heart of this discipleship there is healing and forgiveness and challenge, and that Christ is with us as we go — to guide us or nudge us or catch us, depending on the need. We can acknowledge that following Jesus involves a cross and leads us into resurrection. We can speak of discipleship as a way of life, or an adventure, or we can call it a journey. And while discipleship is always the result of some sort of invitation, discipleship can also be the outcome of a particular moment of conversion.

And I knew all of those things ten days ago and I probably will know them ten days from now and they are vital to our understanding of what discipleship means. But after I had collected those core bits and had begun to flesh them out a little, then there was a devastating shooting in Arizona. Then floods swept through some of the poorest areas of Brazil, Sri Lanka and other parts of the world too. We passed the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. And then I realized upon my return that tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr day, the day on which our country honors a modern day preacher, teacher and prophet. And so in considering what to say this morning, suddenly I had to not only consider how to “talk about discipleship”; I also had to wonder what it means to follow in the midst of what happened in the world over these last ten days. What does it mean to follow in the midst of senseless killings, the seemingly random destruction of lives, the un-necessarily slow rebuilding of a country, and in the midst of the call to remember a man who gave his life to change our world.

And that’s the kicker isn’t it. And it’s not only a challenge for preachers. We can talk about discipleship, read about discipleship, come to some basic agreements about what we have to say about discipleship, but the challenge is that we have to be disciples today and tomorrow and none of us can be 100% sure of what that will mean ten days from now. The challenge is that we have to be disciples in the today – given all the givens that are our givens, some of which are simple, and others not so much.
And so this week I decided that one of the dimensions of discipleship that allows me to be present now, whatever the now happens to be, is a deep and abiding sense of hope. And that hope is there because the original teaching comes not from a distant, above it all sort of teacher, but from an incarnate, present-in-the-guts-of-it-all sort of teacher. We can be present to all of what this world brings, because as disciples we know first of all that God is here too. The teacher didn’t escape the world. He came into the world to love it. Period. Recognizing that is the first step. And doing that love today is what it means to follow in His footsteps now.

While he was here, the teacher invited us to “come and see,” not to “ignore and escape” the realities of the world or to memorize a strict outline of what discipleship looked like. Instead Jesus invited us to “come and see” another way of being in the world – a way in which the poor aren’t relegated to substandard, fragile and vulnerable living conditions but instead the poor are the ones who are blessed. He invited us to “come and see” a way of life where the mentally ill aren’t driven to violence but are empowered to seek help, to be embraced and cared for and maybe even healed. He invited us to come and see a place, a way of life where dreams come true; a time when those places “sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, are transformed into oasis of freedom and justice.” A place where children of all colors are children of God with opportunities grounded in equality and peace.
And so today and every day the invitation to discipleship is an invitation to presence — remembering that the one we follow was incarnate hope, incarnate forgiveness, incarnate love, incarnate in the world. We have been invited to come and see, but just as importantly to come and be a people who embody those teachings in our world today, no matter what today brings.