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Called to Lead:
We are all Followers…
and Leaders

Second Sunday of Easter • April 28, 2019
Scripture Lessons: Mark 9:33-37,
Philippians
2:1-8
(adapted from the The Message)
Rev. Jeff Wells

I have decided to follow Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus

no turning back, no turning back.

I am a proud and committed follower of Jesus Christ. God called me to follow and, admittedly after a lot of resistance, I said, “Here I am, Lord.” Jesus is my primary leader and teacher. I desire with all my being to live out the values he espoused, to act in the ways that he modeled, and to serve the movement for love and justice that he started. He began a love revolution and I want to recruit others into this revolutionary love movement because I believe it has the power to transform the world. I have decided to follow Jesus.

All of us learn from and are shaped by some persons, some set of writings, some values and worldview. We are all followers of someone or some cause or multiple causes. More centrally, for our purpose today, I would guess that everyone of you is a follower of God to some extent – whatever your conception of the divine may be. As in my own experience, God called you to follow. And at some point, you awakened to that call and said, “Here I am” – or you have at least decided to explore what that might mean in your life.

God first calls us to follow. Being a follower is the foundation we stand on. Even Jesus started out as a follower. He studied under rabbis and other religious leaders. He didn’t begin his public ministry until he was about 30 years old. But, then, God called him, and also calls us, to lead. God calls all of us to be followers…and leaders. In the kin-dom of God, following and leading are integral to one another. Ultimately, we can’t be followers in the way God desires unless we are also willing to lead. And we cannot be effective leaders, unless we are willing to follow the one who calls us to serve. Jesus could not have accomplished what he did without relying on his relationship with Abba – the God he experienced as a holy parent. He spent a lot of time in prayer, often going off by himself to meditate and listen to God’s leading.

When I was very young, I had no desire to be a leader. I did not act as a leader among my small group of friends. I was not a leader at school. I was a very shy kid. I spent hours alone in my room, learning to play guitar, reading, listening to music. But when I was 12 years old, I sensed a call – which I now know was from God – to devote my life to making the world a more just and loving place for everyone. From then on, I determined to be a leader. That was not a completely conscious decision, but I know from the actions I took, I realize I was deliberately moving toward that. At some level, I knew I couldn’t help to change the world unless I was willing to lead others in that effort. I intentionally worked to become a person who could lead. I joined the drama club. I studied debating and public speaking. I read biographies and stories of celebrated leaders. I ran for student council. My abilities and commitment to leadership were recognized by my peers and mentors. And later in life, after I re-joined the Methodist church and graduated from seminary, these qualities were recognized and affirmed by the church.

So, I am a follower of Jesus and I am also a servant and a leader. I’m a follower-leader. God calls everyone of us to be followers and leaders. Raise your hand if you think of yourself as a follower of God or of Jesus. A lot of hands went up. Jesus has a big fan base at the Church of the Village. Awesome! Now, raise your hand if you are a leader. Okay. Not so many hands. But I am here to tell you, you are all leaders. We don’t all play the same kind of leadership roles, but God calls each of us to lead in various ways. Today, we are primarily focused on leading in the community of the church. Yet, if you think about it more broadly, you almost cannot escape being a leader. Are you a parent? Then you are leading or have led your children. Are you a teacher? You lead your students. Do you volunteer in service in some organization – the UMW, or HNN or GMHC or Sage or Black Lives Matter, or in the church – then you are leading by your example. You are certainly a leader if you have committed to actively participate in this community. This is a leading community, pointing the way to a radically transformed world, so you are leading others by your example of commitment to that cause. And your leadership becomes more effective the more you take on that responsibility thoughtfully and intentionally. In other words, the more you become consciously a leader.

When I say we’re all leaders, I don’t mean elected, appointed, hired, or paid leaders. The vast majority of leaders in the world and in communities of faith are unpaid servants. You are a leader whether or not you feel called to serve on a committee or take on a specific leadership role. Also, your understanding of yourself and your call as a leader can change over time.

I recall that, in the Long Island congregation I served, when I first asked two women members to serve as co-lay leaders, they both said, “Who, me? Oh, no, I don’t have what it takes to do that.” Of course, I asked them because they were already recognized leaders in the congregation through their commitment and actions. One of them had worked as the head nurse in a psychiatric facility for many years, supervising and leading a large staff who adored her. She was feisty, opinionated, and fiercely committed to the church and to God. The other woman did not have that kind of experience, but she was passionate about the direction she thought the church should be moving and was willing to commit her time and energy toward making that happen. They both turned out to be excellent lay leaders.

As they grew to be strong and passionate leaders, they also learned to approach leadership in the church with a lot of compassion, humility, and love. They did not see themselves as somehow better or more faithful disciples than others in the congregation. The passage from the Letter to the Philippians addresses that human inclination bluntly:

“Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” [1]

Leadership in the image of Jesus does not aim at advancing the position or interests of the leader. When you are called to lead, you are actually supposed to come down the ladder, not go up. As the scripture says, “If you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” Even though he was a great leader and his disciples called him the Son of God or the anointed one, he did not try to make himself into someone higher than or better than those who followed him. Instead, he washed their feet and said, “I came to serve, not to be served.”

Think of people you have thought were good leaders. What did they do, how did they interact with you and others, what characteristics and values did they model that convinced you of their leadership qualities? Who did they follow?

For me, those persons showed empathy. They showed they cared about the people they were responsible for leading. They practiced humility. They didn’t try to pose as “great” or as perfect leaders. In fact, they were willing to admit when they made a mistake. They took responsibility if they messed up. They did not dictate – they collaborated. They sought out the opinions and ideas of others.

We have many exemplary follower-leaders in The Church of the Village. Some of them hold specific leadership positions, like the Martha Chapman, chair of our Vision and Ministry Council or Sarah Capers and Virginia Riker, our co-lay leaders. But we also have many among us who are “leaders at large” – leaders without a portfolio. Anita Adams is on our Beloved Community team, but she would be doing that work whether or not she served on any committee. And she leads in ways that go way beyond that role. I think of Maurice White, who counsels persons with HIV and to those getting out of prison, primarily in his work at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. These are just a few examples of a very rich group of leaders among us.

We all lead by the example of our own lives. In this, we are following Jesus, too. He was a great teacher, but his most powerful lessons come from the ways he lived out those teachings and values in his own actions. We learn from his practices of healing, leading, forgiving, building relationships and community. He modeled for us humility, servanthood, listening for the guidance of the Spirit, compassion, empathy, love. When we learn those lessons well, we can do the same things and bring others along on the way of Jesus with us.

Jesus understood that being a leader is not a solo act. Any leader who does not surround themselves with mentors is not going to be the best leader they can be. There may not have been any leaders on quite his level, but he sought out other’s experiences and perspectives. He spent time in conversation with many people, trying to learn from them – Pharisees, lepers, women, tax collectors, rich people, those outside the Jewish community, even Roman centurions. He tried to reach out broadly and understand people’s lives and concerns.

When I was ordained, Bishop Park laid his hands on me and said, “Take this yoke upon you and serve as one with authority.” Notice that the yoking comes first. I knew the intention was that I would be yoked to Jesus, to God, to the church, and also to the people in the churches in which I would serve. I was to be yoked as a servant. But not with any colloquial definition of “servant.” I was to be a servant “with authority.” But authority is not just given, one has to earn it. We all earn authority as leaders by the ways we act, show love, build relationships, practice compassion and empathy, and work for justice. Jesus is our model for this.

You are a follower and you are a leader. Our leadership goes way beyond leading an organization and even beyond leading theologically and spiritually. As a leader in this community, you are in a position to lead people out of loneliness and alienation, to rescue them from rejection, and to lead them into love, into liberation, into caring relationship with a compassionate, justice-seeking community, and into deep connection with God. You are equipped to help change the world. So be the leader you are called to be. Take this yoke upon you and serve…as one with authority – the authority of the Liberating God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

I have decided to follow Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus

no turning back, no turning back.

I have decided to serve with Jesus

I have decided to serve with Jesus

I have decided to serve with Jesus

no turning back, no turning back.

I have decided to lead like Jesus

I have decided to lead like Jesus

I have decided to lead like Jesus

no turning back, no turning back.

I have decided to love like Jesus

I have decided to love like Jesus

I have decided to love like Jesus

no turning back, no turning back.

Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.

[1] All scripture references use the text from The Message paraphrase bible by Eugene Peterson.