Scripture – Mark 11:1-11 – Palm Sunday – March 25, 2018
It always made me nervous when Karen was the leader. Do you remember playing “follow the leader”? That was the game when the leader would walk ahead while others would follow in a single line behind and do everything the leader did. It soon became obvious that if we truly surrendered, we became putty in the leader’s hands. It was all fun and games until the leader did something outrageous that we were not prepared to blindly imitate. We stopped short of doing whatever it was that would embarrass us or get us into trouble.
Just the same, it always made me nervous when Karen was the leader. Karen and her dog Buffy were constant companions and she dared to do anything. She rode her bike purposely up and down curbs where I would use the convenience of driveways to smoothly enter and exit the street. In the summer while I was clad in matching short sets, she wore the khaki kind with lots of pockets. She wore Levi’s blue jeans before anybody. And her pockets always held items of exotic interest to me: caps, stones and rocks and bird feathers, bottle caps, chewing gum, sling shot…I don’t think my shorts even had pockets!
So, when Karen played leader, I was scared. She would saunter ahead, with a long blade of grass protruding from her mouth – King of the Road, really. She would start off mildly enough with hand gestures or hopping on one foot. But eventually she would progress to tugging on the neighbors’ bushes as we walked by or taking the stones out of her pockets and with great precision pitching them to places that would surely attract adult attention. Some days our game ended safely when something inside me made me say, “Uh…I don’t want to play anymore.” Other days our game ended much more abruptly when we were forced to scatter and run home!
This morning we meet Jesus and his disciples outside of Jerusalem just as his disciples are daring to do exactly as their leader tells them. “Go into the village and untie a colt and bring it back here. If anyone asks, just tell them I need it.” Now the disciples had been following their leader for quite a long time now, some as long as three years, and he was becoming quite daring. Here they were heading straight for Jerusalem when he had already told them what would be waiting there for him: betrayal, arrest, death. They kept following him, but I think with growing hesitation, don’t you? “Uh…OK, Jesus, if you say so. Sure, we’ll head down into the village and just take a colt.” We can imagine their hearts pounding when they spot it, and their chests tightening as they untie it, and then freezing, holding their breath when they hear the bystanders say: “What are you doing, untying the colt?” “The Lord needs it.” Whew! Huge internal sigh of relief as they run back up to the Mount of Olives with the colt, escaping trouble once again.
How many times over these months and years with Jesus had they held their breath as they followed this leader? Those times when the Pharisees would come around and hover and harass? What about that time when they were faced with a crowd of 5,000 tired and hungry people to feed and only a couple of loaves and fish. Remember when he slept in the back of the boat during the storm? Master – do you not care that we may perish? What about every time he left them alone and went off by himself to pray? Following this leader made you feel full of hope and love, but sometimes it made you feel alone and afraid, and now it was getting downright dangerous.
This notion of following the leader came into sharp focus for me this past week as I re-read a selection from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard about following Christ. Kierkegaard very articulately pointed out the difference between true followers of Jesus and mere admirers of Jesus. He wrote that followers strive to become what they admire. But admirers keep themselves personally detached, at a safe distance. They are willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest they personally come in contact with danger. He said that admirers are infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, admirers pull back.
On this day, the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we read that many people went ahead of him and followed behind, spreading their cloaks and leafy branches on the road, shouting: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” I think it’s safe to imagine that the fear of the disciples may have subsided that day. Perhaps each one was beginning to relax. Jerusalem might not be so bad. As they looked back over the previous months and years, when Jesus in frustration would say to them “You of little faith”, perhaps today they felt full of faith, that they could ease up a little. No fear today in following Jesus. Amid the shouts of joy and the people joining in we can imagine them smiling as they walked: Yes, I’m with him! Oh, yeah, I’ve been following him for years! Oh, sure, gave up the job and family to come with him! I’m following Jesus!
We know as this upcoming Holy Week progresses, they will eventually scatter just as we did in our neighborhood when Karen led us into danger. We ran to safety and we denied everything.
Now despite some convenient similarities, there’s a big difference between the leadership of my old friend Karen in a childhood game and our Savior Jesus. I highly doubt Karen would have died for me. She scattered just like we did. Our stakes are much higher. This is where we need to examine what kind of followers of Jesus we really are.
During those last few days before the Passover as Jesus continued to teach, he told his disciples: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he’ and they will lead many astray….do not believe it.” In the Lukan version, Jesus says, “Do not go after them.” This morning we are called to ask ourselves, Who or what are we going after? What might be leading us astray? Whose footprints are we following? Have we allowed ourselves to be led into being mere admirers of Jesus? Or are we actually following him – doing as he did – not judging, not condemning, turning the other check, feeding his sheep. Are we trying to become like Jesus?
Kierkegaard wrote: “The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in word he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, will not reconstruct his life, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. The follower aspires with all his strength to be what he admires.”
My friends, the way of Jesus in this world appears at times to be dangerous – the way of nonviolence, the way of loving our enemies, the way of reconciliation and forgiveness. But Jesus is the leader we need not fear to follow. We need not hesitate. This is the leader who will never betray us, who will not lead us into danger, but who will lead us to love and to peace. For didn’t he say: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me: for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
It is through Christ’s death and resurrection that we now have the grace to become true followers of Jesus. Not just mere admirers. Not just people who will lay our cloaks down on the road or wave palms in the air as he passes by, but people who will follow him all the way to Calvary, who will stay awake in the garden, who will not deny him when it gets dangerous. We have all the good news we need to remember that we can be people of faith. We need not scatter and hide when the going gets tough, because we have been given the love, the forgiveness, the strength and the truth that come to us through Jesus’ triumph over the grave. He continues to beckon: follow me. And, thankfully, this is no game. Amen.