Where he leads me I will follow. I’ll go with him all the way.
On Friday night, Sey and I along with Lee and John Cheek, Bishop Doug Fisher, Pam Mott, Sam Smith, a group of Episcopal Service Corp interns and hundreds of others attended the celebration of the birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois, Great Barrington’s brilliant native son. The singing and dancing of the young people and the music and storytelling of Guy Davis was joyful and enlivening.
I learned so much from Professor Reiland Rabaka about the life, the writing, and the energy of Dr. Du Bois. I had no idea that he had written so prolifically on the rights of women to vote and to live freely. I was unaware of his many books beyond The Soul of Black Folks that we will be reading together in our Books and Bread gathering. I am just being awakened to how this prophetic man’s curiosity about and devotion to the dignity of human life speaks as powerfully today in the 21st century as it did at the opening of the 20th.
I also learned how deeply influenced he was by black women who find little space in our history books for their contributions to the right to vote, as well as health care, education, and housing for the most vulnerable in our country.
I learned that before the inauguration of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) women like Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Ida B. Wells, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Harriet Tubman founded and developed the National Association of Colored Women whose motto was “Lifting as we climb.” These women were publicly ridiculed by white men for their morals and character and prohibited from working alongside white women. Yet they would not be moved. They organized and advocated for voting rights for women, exposed the abominable practice of lynching, protested against Jim Crow laws that degraded and oppressed people seen as non-white, and fought to improve education, and care for both children and elders. These women gave their lives to supporting the welfare and dignity of all human beings
In our reading this morning from the Gospel of Mark we hear Jesus beginning to tell his disciples that he will suffer, be rejected, killed, and in three days rise again. These are heart stopping words to hear. It is hard to imagine how these words must have thundered in the ears of the disciples.
So, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter cannot imagine that this man who he has given his life to and who he loves with ferocity, will “undergo great suffering,” “be rejected by the religious leaders, and be killed.” His shocked mind cannot even register the “and after three days rise again.”
But Jesus is focused on Jerusalem and will not be turned around by Peter. His sharp “get behind me, Satan” causes those of us who hear this scripture to feel a shudder at Jesus’ harsh words. But the Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter (ha-satan) doesn’t mean “devil.” It means “the adversary.” Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is evil incarnate, but that Peter is inserting himself—his anguish, his fear, his distress –between Jesus and God’s journey. So Jesus tells him, this is not about you. “Get behind me.” Put away your fear and follow me. This is how you will get through this life. You can trust in God’s promise.
In this time of Lent, we are asked to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus Christ. What does it mean to deny ourselves, to take up our cross? How are we following Jesus?
One temptation may be to minimize this call to follow. “I come to church.” “I gave up chocolate or social media for Lent.” “I’ll pray more, study more, tithe more, volunteer more.” All good and worthy things. But not, I think what Jesus meant when he invited the crowds to deny themselves, to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Not what he rebuked in the strongest terms when Peter tried to circumvent the cross for Jesus.
The other temptation is to head in the opposite direction. To become, as the expression goes, “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthy good.” To set ourselves away from and above others in our piety. To engage in self-denial that strips away all of life’s pleasure, celebration, and joy. To restrict ourselves and others to a single mindedness that reduces the world to an either/or universe where lines are sharply drawn as to who is on God’s side and who is not.
As I read the scriptures for this morning, I heard a different way of following. In our reading from Genesis, God extends to Abram an invitation to follow. Abram is an old man and God’s promise to him and his companion Sarai has still not been realized. Abram and Sarai are aging and they remain childless. Yet God continues to promise that they will have numerous offspring and they will share an everlasting covenant with God. And Abram continues to believe in that promise. God does not extend this promise to Abram because Abram is a flawless human. God does not promise that Abram and his children will possess the earth because of something Abram or Sarai did or did not do. God simply invites Abram to be faithful, to trust, and to follow.
The Psalmist entreats the people to “Praise the Lord,” “stand in awe,” “turn to the Lord,” “live for him.” And Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome that God’s promise to Abraham is about trusting God and God’s way so that the promise could be received as pure gift. Paul says that Abraham was not chosen by God to be our faith father because he was a saint, but because God is able to make a way out of no way and because Abraham decided to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do, but on what God said he would do. And this can apply to us when we embrace and believe the One who brought Jesus to life even when everything looked hopeless.
Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, I believe means that we are to give all that we are and all that we have to love God because God is faithful. I believe that following Jesus means living each day loving others and giving thanks to God not through our own strength or our own righteousness, but because of what God is doing in and through us. I believe that following Jesus means complete surrender to God’s love.
In rebuking Peter, Jesus tells him, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter’s sorrow is having vision that is limited to his human experience. Jesus calls him to be open to what God can and will do. Jesus calls Peter to trust in God’s covenant–to believe that God is always doing more that we could ask or imagine. To be faithful to that which is beyond our seeing.
To follow Jesus means to strive to love as Jesus loved, because we were first loved by Him. To follow Jesus means to trust God’s promise that we will never be left orphaned and that neither death nor life, … nor things present, nor things to come will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. To follow Jesus is to turn away from fear because God always walks with us and living a life of terror, self-protection, and separation from each other shuts us off from the abundant life Jesus came to give us. Following Jesus means to have the heart strength to stand down from fiercely guarding what we regard as our own “private rights” to prioritize Jesus’ priorities to love and serve others. To follow Jesus, we are guided by his life of reaching out, embracing others, healing those in need, serving alongside with, especially those who suffer.
In this life that are many others who seek to follow Jesus. These “great cloud of witnesses” live their lives so others may come to Christ’s love. They may just be one person, they may never be recognized for their contribution, but they do what they can do at a particular time in a particular place to bear witness to God’s love.
Some of these people are like W.E.B. Du Bois who are well known because of their extraordinary intellect and body of work that continues to influence many in the struggle for justice.
And others like the names of the many black women, who battled daily indignities and devoted their untiring efforts to improving the quality of life for others, may be lost to history. Yet their fierce love and devotion showed us a way to follow Jesus so all may move toward God’s promised dream claiming their place as beloved children.
Now I know that our striving to follow Jesus will not make all troubles disappear. Our faithfulness in following Jesus may at times seem insignificant. Our words and our actions may go unnoticed in our life time. Jesus understands this. His ministry was small and quiet. He stayed in an out of the way place and ministered mostly one to one–healing one person, teaching a few, sitting at table with a small number. He knew that his words and his actions, would cause him to face great suffering, to be rejected by all in power, and be killed. Yet he was confident that God’s work would not fail. That God would work out God’s purpose in and through this quiet life.
Jesus calls us to follow him. Jesus knows that if we are faithful, regardless of our limitations and the size of our faith, God will use us to transform the world. Jesus tells us don’t worry about your life, God will provide; pick up your cross, do what you can do; follow me—share who you are and what you have with others. Do not fear, God’s promise is alive and active, and it can be trusted.