Sunday, June 8, 2008

Who Follows? -- A Sermon

This is Recognition Sunday when we recognize all the hard work and dedication of Sunday School students and teachers as well as our graduates.  Good Job, everyone.

Students are often seen as followers.  Jesus certainly referred to his disciples as his students -- so Sunday School students, you're in good company.  

Or are you?  Now, I know our Sunday school students never misbehave, and they always listen and understand everything right away.  But if you read the bible, you'll see that Jesus' students -- and in fact, God's students -- or should we say followers? -- weren't always so good.

In fact, sometimes it seems like the people who God allowed to be his followers weren't very good students at all.

Let's look at Abraham, the star of our Old Testament reading.  Now, in our reading from Romans, St. Paul clearly considers Abraham to be the paragon of virtue, the man who personified faith.  Of course, you know how when things happen a long time ago.  You forget the bad and remember only the good.  So Paul remembers only the heroic things about Abraham -- He remembers the faith. 

But was Abraham really all that fantastic?  Paul says he left everything behind, but what did he leave?  His dad was dead.  He was leaving a city that he'd only been in for a few years -- remember he moved there when he was sixty-five or so -- and he took his wife, nephew, slaves and livestock with him.  What was so different about this than any other emigre?

Sure, Abraham follows God, but then he gives his wife away to Pharaoh in order to protect his own safety.  Then he does it again with King Abimelech.  

True, he bargains for the lives of strangers in Sodom and Gomorah, and that's good, but later on he banishes Hagar and Ishmael with hardly a complaint.  And later still, he goes off to kill Isaac without a word.

Which is all a way of saying, Abraham was not perfect.  He was just one of us.

And if that weren't bad enough, look at Matthew, the man Jesus calls to follow him in today's Gospel.  The man is a tax collector, for goodness sake.  We think the IRS is bad, but a tax collector in those days was the worst kind of traitor, the absolute scum of the earth.  

Jesus follows this up with an even more remarkable encounter.  There's a woman following him.  A woman who has been bleeding for 12 years touches him in hopes of being cured.  Talk about outrageous behavior.  In those days, Jews were scared of blood -- it was unclean, and they avoided touching it except in battle.  A woman's blood was even worse - to be avoided at all costs.  So when this woman has the affrontery to touch Jesus' robe, well he had the right to scold her at the least.  Instead, he praises her faith.

All three of these examples:  Abraham, Matthew, and the woman, show us horribly flawed people -- regular folks like us, some worse than others -- who somehow heard God's voice.  It might not have even been a real voice.  Maybe they just got a glimmer of something special. 

Whatever it was, they decided to follow.  As Abraham shows, following did not make them suddenly saintly.  Those who follow God's path often make just as big of mistakes after they make that decision as they did before.

As the woman with hemorrhages shows us, deciding to follow doesn't bring fame or much of anything else -- nobody hears about her again, and we don't really know whether she continued to follow.

Which is all a way of saying that the question of who will follow Christ doesn't depend on their worthiness.  Nor does it depend on their ability to stay on the straight and narrow.

Following Christ is a funny thing.  It's a way of life that challenges us and transforms us, but it never makes life less confusing or any easier.  Matthew followed even though he had to put up with people pointing and saying to Jesus, "You're hanging out with him?"

Following Christ only means one thing.  You want to go where he's going even if you don't know where it might be.  You want something that only he can give.  It's never been a function of deserving it or earning it.  It's a function of desire.

So you can follow Jesus if you want what he has.  The only question is, do you want it?