Second Sunday after Epiphany 2009

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on January 18, 2009 (Epiphany 2, Year B)

I first encountered “Iron Mike” at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I was a 20-year-old Army ROTC cadet who had volunteered for Airborne School. Exactly why I wanted to fling myself out of an airplane remains a mystery. But besides training paratroopers, Ft. Benning is also home to the US Army’s Infantry School. And in front of Infantry Hall is a huge bronze statue of an infantryman known to generations of soldiers as “Iron Mike.” In one hand he’s holding his weapon; the other arm is motioning to the imaginary soldiers behind him, beckoning them to move forward. On the base of the statue, the infantry motto is prominently displayed: “Follow me.”

And it’s this motto that kept bringing the image of Iron Mike to mind this week. Because “Follow me” is the heart of Jesus’ call. “Follow me” he says to Philip in this morning’s gospel passage from John. And Philip does exactly that. Jesus beckons with his words and his example. He invites us not into battle but into a life of grace.

And it begs the question, who will you follow? Because there are an awful lot of voices out there all imploring us to “follow.” Advertisers; politicians; work; the washing machine; your mother-in-law. The difference is that none of these voices, as seductive or as important as they may be, offer salvation – that’s Jesus’ realm; that’s Jesus’ reason for extending the invitation to follow him. It’s not self-serving but self-giving.

I talk a lot about call. You’ve heard me lament the fact that over the years clergy have hijacked the language of call, making it the exclusive realm of those with a particular calling to ordained ministry. We talk about receiving “The Call” with a capital “C.” But I’m convinced that Jesus calls us all to follow him; we all have things that we are called to as individuals, things that make us uniquely called as followers of Jesus. 

The problem with this language of call is that it can be exceedingly vague. It can end up in that realm of spiritual generalities that sound good but have no real substance. “Okay, yes, in theory I understand that Jesus calls me but to what?” It takes a lot of listening and prayer to discern precisely what God is calling you to do. And call functions on many levels – it may be to a particular vocation like teaching or nursing or motherhood or the law. But it also may be to something outside of your vocational life like taking a class or working for a charity or finding time for daily prayer. Someone once said that call is experienced by what God lays on your heart. Not what anyone else puts there; not what all the other voices urging you to follow put there; but what God lays on your heart. If a particular notion keeps coming back; if a particular idea just won’t leave you alone, no matter how hard you try to avoid it – that may be the call. And what God lays on your heart is the thing you need to listen for and open yourself up to. And following Jesus is the first step.

It’s not always easy. Look at Samuel – how many times did he get it wrong before he recognized it was God who was calling him and laying something upon his heart? It takes Eli to help him discern the voice of God and I’d like to think the church can do the same thing for you. Through the discipline of prayer and worship the various voices get sorted out and the voice of Jesus that beckons you to follow becomes the voice that stands out amid all the others.

All of this reminds me of that old Bob Dylan tune with the lyrics, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Because in the same way we all have to follow somebody. Jesus doesn’t get up in our face and demand that we follow him. He gently invites us. I don’t hear his words as a command – unlike “Iron Mike” he’s not imploring us to follow him. We don’t face a court martial if we don’t. Jesus call is more of a quiet invitation; but because of the source it comes through loud and clear.

We should also explore what exactly it means to follow Jesus. I think we sometimes confuse following with admiring. We are called to follow Jesus – to take up his cross, to put our trust in him alone, to serve others in his name, to worship him as Lord and Savior. This takes sacrifice; it often leads us to fly in the face of the prevailing culture; and it takes commitment. But often we’re content to admire Jesus rather than follow him. We dress up in fancy vestments, sing sacred songs, march in and out of here in orderly processions. We polish the silver and give money to keep the heat on. And when this is all done to the glory of God this is a wonderful practice. It draws us ever deeper into relationship with God. But we don’t just gather here week after week as members of the Jesus Fan Club. Surely that’s not the point.

I know it’s not always easy. To follow is to be challenged. It’s to take us out of our comfort zones on occasion. It is to listen to that call which lays heavy upon our heart and to act upon it. Not because it’s a nice thing to do but because Jesus calls us to it.

And then the question becomes, when we commit our lives to Jesus, when we say “yes” to his invitation to follow, what exactly are we following? Nathanael declares Jesus as the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel.” And, yes, Jesus is both of these. But he’s also so much more. In the first chapter of John alone Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, Rabbi, Messiah, Him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Son of Joseph from Nazareth, Son of Man, Son of God, and King of Israel. Wow. So who exactly are we following?

One answer might be that we are following the one it is we need to be following at any particular moment. Each disciple sees something different in Jesus. None of which quite captures Jesus in isolation but as a community the various voices are able to begin to make sense of the fullness of Jesus. But it still falls short. Because Jesus himself tells them that “greater things” await. Things that are beyond their imagination. And it demonstrates to us that we can’t limit Jesus with titles and statements and categories. Jesus transcends all of them.

And the ultimate question may be where does Jesus lead us when we follow? Unlike Iron Mike, Jesus doesn’t lead us into battle. Jesus leads us into relationship. That’s the key point of all of this. Jesus called the initial disciples to eat with him and walk with him and pray with him and spend time with him. His call invites us to follow him in relationship. And it is this relationship which gives meaning to life and opens the way to those “greater things.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009

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