Follow Me


In the Disney-Pixar film, 'Finding Nemo,' Nemo is a little clownfish who grows up with one withered fin. After an attack on the nest of eggs, Nemo is the only egg, a damaged egg that survives, and he grows up with his father, Marlin the clownfish (his mother was eaten by the barracuda fish during the attack). So Nemo is a young clownfish learning the ways of the ocean and going off to fish school. His father is a bit nervous and doesn't want him to go. But after an additional year of keeping Nemo at home, he relents and finally takes him to fish school where Nemo meets some other little sea friends: a seahorse, a little octopus and some other baby creatures. Mr. Ray, the teacher, takes them on a trip to the Great Barrier Reef where much of the movie takes place, and at the reef there is a giant drop-off. Nemo and his friends, like most little kids, dare each other to go out to the edge of the reef. So they take turns zipping back and forth, and Nemo decides he's going to go the furthest. They make fun of him with this little fin, so he swims all the way out to where a boat is anchored with divers who are diving on the reef, and he touches the boat. He gets in trouble with his father for touching the boat, who demands he come back right away.

Nemo is captured by one of the divers and taken back to Sidney, Australia, where he winds up in a dentist's fish tank. Nemo is frightened after traveling in a dark ice chest and as he is dumped into this salt-water aquarium with other creatures who are yet to become his friends. They calm Nemo down from his initial shock, and on the first or second night, they decide they are going to initiate Nemo into their clan. So they send Jacques the Shrimp in the middle of the night to Nemo. And Jacques says, "Suivez-moi" ('follow me'), and Nemo follows him. He's a little afraid, but he's learned just in the initial encounter to trust these friends. And Nemo follows them to the summit of Wannahockaloogie, which is the fictitious name of a little volcano that they have in their tank. Nemo learned to trust his friends. Yet Nemo, in this experience, was one who was very vulnerable and afraid and needed to trust someone. How often do we see ourselves as Nemo, that vulnerable one who's afraid and yet finds someone we're willing to trust?

Let us contrast that with the words we hear in the Gospel, Jesus telling folks to deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow him. For those people in that time, there were more challenges and fears that faced them than face us in our modern time. People did not necessarily know who Jesus was, even though the disciples at some point had said, "We think you are the Messiah." But there were lots of people in those times claiming to be messiahs. Some were leaders of zealot groups, militant groups that were trying to disrupt the Roman authorities and discourage them from their grip on Jerusalem. But Jesus was not that kind of a messiah; Jesus was a little different. He was the Servant-King who had come to be with his people. And yet Jesus tells these disciples, "Follow me." And we hear that many times in the Gospels. More than eighty times Jesus says, "Follow me."

But what does that really mean? Jesus said, "You have to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me." Today we might say, "You have to follow me through thick and thin," and there may be more thick and less thin. It will be a hard road, but worth it. And Jesus says, "Of those who follow me I will not be ashamed when I come into my glory with my Father in heaven." That's powerful incentive enough for us to follow Jesus. But is it? And when Jesus talks about the sinful world of that time, is our world really any different today? When we feel afraid and vulnerable, that's most often when we find ourselves turning to God, when we find ourselves picking our cross back up and heading to church. It's when we find we tend to spend a little more time in prayer and a little less time watching the TV. But when life is good, it is easy to be part of that sinful generation that Jesus talks about.

Now, imagine a person 99 years old (since Abram was 99), a successful person who grew up of little means but became a well-known and well-to-do person who worked hard every day of his life. And though in his upbringing he spent time with God learning about Jesus and the church doing faithful acts of disciplines like we do during Lent, as he got older and the business became more successful and demanding, he gave less and less time to God, and always gave the excuse, "We need to do this or that to get the business stronger." Well, lo and behold, the 99-year-old finally finds himself at death's door and wondering, "What will become of me? I haven't been to church since I was seventeen years old." That person may be imagining dying and not knowing what is coming. Now, we know and believe in a loving and forgiving God. But could you imagine if this man were to pass into God's dimension and stand there in conversation with Christ and for Jesus to say, "Where were you? I called you many times." "Well, I was doing this and that." The sadness that must be in that person's heart at that time. The sadness or tears that maybe Christ would cry for him, or for us when we find ourselves drifting away from the church for what we suppose to be good reason. And we can rationalize an awful lot. I'm glad that, as Christians today, we believe in the grace and the mercy of our God.

But how different would this 99-year-old person's life have been if he had been more like Nemo who decided to follow? It is easy to follow when we are fearful. It is not as easy when life is good and we are prosperous. We don't necessarily see the need. We get so caught up in everything else that it's difficult to make that extra time. But that is what Jesus asks, to deny ourselves for a moment, to pick up our cross and to follow him. Yesterday, many of us worked hard on the Church Supper and I can say, "Well done, my good and faithful servants." The tiredness we feel today is a good tired because we did something worthy and we worked together furthering the mission and ministry of the church, but also deepening the fellowship in our community of faith and in our community at large. And we did that because somewhere in the midst of us, that voice of Jesus spoke out and said, "Saturday's the Church Supper…pick up your cross and follow me." And we came together. Well done!

Our future may be a very long one for us as individuals and as a church. It is hard to know what God's promise will be there. But make no mistake…we have the promise that God will always be with us and that Jesus' words are always beckoning us, whether our life is good or whether things are seeming never to go our way. Jesus is still standing there beckoning us to follow him, to go and do what is worthy of us who are called to follow and to walk in his footsteps in the best way that we might.

The season of Lent has many disciplines, and we gave another discipline to our children today, almsgiving to the poor. We do that a lot in this church. And behind the scenes more things happen as people call looking for emergency help. And the funds that are given to the church for that go to people who really are in need. But we do clothing drives, food drives, and a sleep-out for homelessness. We do a lot for those in need. But it's always a good discipline for us to reach out to them again, especially in this season of Lent. So I'm challenging the whole congregation to that nickel-a-meal concept to see how much we can raise to help those who are in need. That money can go into the Pastor's emergency fund, or to the food pantry, whatever the Consistory decides. I think it would be an interesting experiment and a good discipline for us to do that this season. That's probably no great sacrifice. I don't know if putting a nickel in the bucket at mealtimes is exactly picking up the cross and following Jesus. I think he had more in mind than that. But it's another one of these little disciplines that, when added together, become part of that walk, those footsteps of following Jesus. And in that way, that helps us answer his calling, "Suivez-moi" ('follow me'). Let us do so. And if we need to, to come at it with the mind of a child.

March 8, 2009

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