Monday, April 9, 2012

Following The Leader
Sermon by Jonathan Firme

One of my favorite movies of all time is Peter Pan. Those of you who know me will not be surprised by this, as you know that I resist growing up as much as I can. I especially enjoy the scene where the lost boys meet up with the Injuns. When Pan leads Wendy off to meet the mermaids, John Darling, the oldest of the 2 boys, leads the lost buys off to find the Injuns. Along the way they sing:

Following the leader, the leader, the leader
We're following the leader wherever he may go
We won't be home till morning, till morning, till morning
We won't be home till morning
Because he told us so.

They continue, and John leads them right to the Injuns. Well, right into their trap. It seems the lost buys are truly lost, and they have chosen the wrong leader. Of course, their true leader is Peter Pan, and we find that might have been a mistake as well.

I bring this movie up today, because of the powerful words that Jesus speaks in the reading this morning. Follow me.

Jesus spoke these words many times: to Levi, son of Alphaeus at his tax booth, “Follow me.” In Matthew 8, Jesus words are , "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." To the rich young ruler, “Sell what you have, give to the poor and come, follow me.” And, to all in his time and for all time to follow, “If any want to come be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Now, when someone tells me to follow them, I am usually pretty cautious about just where that person is going. I was not surprised to see so many kids remain seated when I told them to follow me this morning. They wondered, “Why?”,and probably, “What is he up to.?” I know a few of them were just waiting to see if anyone else would follow. Maybe we are just more skeptical or people these days? I think that people could just feel the spirit in Jesus, from Jesus, and that compelled them to follow.

However, when Jesus invites his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, to follow, they do not wonder like our kids did. They follow. They immediately left their boat, and their father. Jesus is able to separate ordinary , working people from their daily duties. Separate them from their comfortable, familiar way of life, from their families with these two simple words.

Jesus threw a monkey wrench into these people's lives. They were given no promise of safety, food and shelter – things they would certainly be giving up – but they recognized the promise to connect with this man, a promise of something greater than they had previously imagined. The Bible has Jesus inviting people to follow him 23 times. I do not know, nor does anyone, I suppose, how many others he invited.

Jesus has invited us as well. God calls us to to turn in a new direction, to rearrange the patterns of our lives, to follow, by inviting us to serve on a church board or committee. By asking us to prayerfully consider each and every vote and decision we make by asking ourselves, “What direction is God telling me to guide the church?” He calls us to re-orient our lives by placing us in the role of confirmation mentor; a role that suddenly demands that we read the Bible at least every week. That we make time for an inquiring young person weekly, and to share our personal journey with God. By asking us to ring hand chimes, sing in the choir, be worship leader, or host coffee hour.. God asks us to step out of what is regular and ordinary to follow him.

God calls us to consider our pledges to his mission here on earth, and place the support of that mission above Thursday night at Pizza Hut, or extravagant Christmas gifts. God calls us to place greater importance on Sunday worship, than on enjoying the sun in the summer, or perhaps a football team in Laramie in the fall. God calls us to help carry a congregation through a difficult time, even if we know it will be a challenge.

I do not believe that God calls us to settle into a comfortable regime of Sunday morning in the pews without any additional effort to experience his word, to grow in our faith. We should never come to a point where we have heard all the stories, listened to all the explanations, and feel like we know it all. Every time we hear the story, it should speak to us differently. It is our job to make sure we do not fall into that comfortable space the God called us from in the first place.

Jesus convinced many to readjust their lives, to give up a comfortable living space, a secure future with the simple words, follow me. What are you willing to give up? What are you placing before Jesus call to follow?

Anyone who says, “Follow me. “ is obviously more interested in the future than in the past. Here at First Congregational, I think our eyes need to be focused on the future, not on the past. Worrying about what has been, what happened, can consume us. With Jesus, it is not where you have been that matters, it is where you are going. It is not whether you have fallen down, but if you are going to get up. It is not about whom you have hurt, or been hurt by, in the past, but who you will help in the future. Fan through the pages of the gospel, and you might be surprised how little time Jesus spent allowing people to dwell on a burdened past. When the woman who was taken in adultery was thrust into his presence, he did not try to explore the circumstances that led her to fail. He simply took her by the hand and said, “Go your way and sin no more.”

As Rob just told us, the Search Committee is about ready to present us with the first draft of our church profile. This is the document that will be put out there for the world to see, describing our congregation to potential pastoral candidates. I have not read the report yet, but I as sure that it reflects a vision of the future. I hope is reflects the change we have experienced here at First Congregational Church. I hope that, if you compared our previous profiles to this one, you would see that we have grown spiritually over the years. I hope that we will find a lot of words describing how we intend to keep following Jesus, and how that makes us receptive to change. I hope it reflects a church that is asking, “How can we better serve God?” I hope it reflects the epiphany that this church has experienced in the last 2 years. I compare this church to the people that Isaiah 9, another of our readings this morning, talks about:

The people who have walked in darkness
have seen a great light
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness -
On them a light has shined.

God is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
God is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in God's tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to God.

This passage reminds me of the transformation we have experienced here at First Congregational Church. Think of the radical changes that God has required of you, personally, since we have begun to put church back together. I know that a lot of us have made some very deep, difficult changes. Many of us have made changes that we did not think we could make. Even if you are not aware that you have made a change at all, rest assured, you have. I can feel it in this place, and others can as well. It is exactly the kind of change that happens when you decide to follow Jesus. As the old hymn says, “There is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know it is the spirit of the Lord.”

When you follow Jesus, you will end up in a better place than the one you left. I suppose I keep bringing this up because, while we have come miles and miles over the last 2 years, we cannot stop. We have work to do if we are going to follow Jesus, wherever he may go.

In a couple days, Barack Obama will deliver his State of The Union address to Congress. By tradition, the President makes this report annually, even though the clause "from time to time" leaves the matter open to interpretation:

It says, “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

The Constitution does not require that the report take the form of a speech, although virtually every president since Woodrow Wilson has made the State of the Union report in the form of a speech delivered personally before a joint session of Congress. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson discontinued the practice of delivering the address in person, regarding it as too monarchical (similar to the Speech from the Throne.) Instead, the address was written and then sent to Congress to be read by a clerk, until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice.

I think it is a great coincidence that these themes, following Jesus, and the State of The Union – or the State of First Congregational, should come together this week, with these pieces from the scripture. Though someone once said, “Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.” During the annual meeting, Pastor Steve will deliver a report, similar to the State of The Union. Since he is not here, I am going to spoil it for him – just a little.

What is the state of First Congregational Church? Well, I would have to say things are pretty good. Would you agree? Think of all the things we have accomplished this past year. Sunday school is going and growing, attendance is up, we have had a few people join the church. I understand that pledges so far are pretty close to what they were at the end of the pledge drive last year. Also, giving was up considerably over the summer. We are doing very well. We should give ourselves a hand.

The State of the Union address is also about the President's plans for the future, and our annual meeting will deal with that as well. Recently, we were given a Mission Report, which serves as our guide to the future, and I received my copy of the budget yesterday, outlining how we propose to follow that plan. Again, the coincidence of these things coming together as we contemplate today’s readings is pretty amazing. Our Mission Plan speaks to us those same two words that Jesus spoke so many times. “Follow me.”

These words of invitation, of command, are plain and personal. They cut cleanly through countless volumes of theological discussion and explanation. They ignore all denominational differences, nor do they respect class, privilege or social standing. Follow me. Those two words can guide a church through a near fatal split in the congregation. Follow me. I have seen what a great affect these two words can have.

What Christian living is all about, individually or as a congregation, is following Christ. This is an important thing for us to keep in mind at this time in the life of our church. We are being invited by the still speaking Lord, to follow him. “Follow me” - these words should be used to monitor everything we do and think and say as deacons, committee members, ministers, and members of this congregation. Some may feel we are moving too fast, taking too many risks. Maybe we are moving to slow, being to conventional, playing it safe. We must always ask, “Is this action, this policy, this decision, this attitude moving this congregation in the direction Jesus is going?” Of course, there will be times when we disagree. When we do, we must remain focused on following our leader, Jesus.

Every time Jesus crosses our path and bids us to follow, he creates a crisis. We can never be the same again. To follow Jesus is to have a plan. To follow Jesus is to face and embrace the future. To follow Jesus is to have a star guide your way. Following Christ is a spiritual adventure. It is a day by day journey which requires having the courage to rely on God to lead the way. Do we have the courage to follow Jesus? I believe we do, wherever he may go.

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