In 1960 the off-Broadway classic "The Fantastiks" debuted in front of widely approving audiences. The best known song from that popular musical was "Try to Remember," a sentimental ballad written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, which is still a crowd favorite at sing-along piano bars and among any of us who consider ourselves to be Broadway divas. Perhaps you remember that song: "Try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and the grain was yellow...." You remember. I love that song. It's a beautiful reminiscent melody.
But do you remember how that song ends? The ending, to me, always seemed awkward. Try to remember and if you remember, then follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow. It's a song with a lot of follows. If I had written that song, I would have just stopped with one follow. Try to remember and if you remember, then follow. Period. After all, less is more. But the composers evidently liked the word follow so they included a whole lot of them. Follow, follow, follow, follow.
Sometimes as a Christian whenever I hear the Gospel, I experience the same reaction because the Bible is not shallow on follows. Jesus was always calling on people to follow. A good chunk of the stories end with those familiar words and Jesus said, "Follow me." He said it to Simon Peter and Andrew while they were casting nets into the sea. "Follow." He said it to James and John while they were mending their nets, "Follow." Matthew was sitting in a tax booth; paralytics were sitting on their mats. Saul was sitting blinded on a dusty road. Follow, follow, follow. The Gospel is a beautiful story and the emphasis is clearly on the word follow. Sometimes we hear that word explicitly:
And they dropped their nets and they followed.
And they left their father sitting in the boat and they followed.
And they picked up their mats and they followed.
But at other times, it was implied. "Come and see," Jesus would say. "Go and do likewise," Jesus would say. "Go into all the world," Jesus would say.
No matter how you phrase it, the haunt is still the same. Follow, follow, follow.
In my way of thinking, becoming a Christian is actually quite easy, but following Jesus--well, that is the really hard part. Adding the name Christian to our spiritual resume is one thing, but being discipled in the way of Christ--that's quite another. In saying this, I'm not passing judgment; I'm just speaking from my own personal experience. I mean it's relatively easy to join a church these days. It's pretty simple to profess your faith, really, at least practically speaking. A lot of preachers even try to make it just a matter of uttering one short, simple prayer. "We can take care of this right now," they say. "We can do it right here."
It's almost funny how it works when you think about it. A fellow can come to church just because his girlfriend made him, but if the preaching is good and the music is right and the Spirit is moving, if that guy's not careful, he might just leave that place a new creation. From sinner to saint in little over an hour. Even in a tradition like the United Church of Christ, it used to be that becoming a Christian required some time. A few months of preparation for adults, a few years of confirmation classes for youth--catechism, penitence, Lenten observances. I'm certainly not putting in a plug for complexity, so don't get me wrong. I'm just observing the new trends; the process used to take longer. But now these days, if you're not a Christian, you're just not interested or not paying attention because the invitation, you've got to admit, is readily available. I can't walk through an intersection in downtown Cleveland without somebody handing me a tract and asking me to profess my faith. And with the new steady diet of religious programming found on an ever-expanding menu of cable stations, it's not uncommon to find people calling you to repentance on five or six different channels.
Granted, conversion does happen in an instant. Salvation does occur at times in a split second. People can experience God's redeeming love in between heartbeats. Perhaps this is how it was for you or maybe you've heard the testimony of others. Becoming a Christian can happen quickly. But the call to discipleship--well, not even a lifetime is sufficient. Because no matter how long ago you became a Christian, the call to follow still rings in your ears. The invitation to follow still haunts you, still moves you, still stirs in you. Sometimes it even convicts you. The call to follow can be like a thorn in your side, a pebble in your shoe, or even a swift kick in your backside.
"I will follow you, Lord," we say and the voice comes back to us, almost testing us, "Oh, you will, will you?"
I know that's how it was when Jesus was on his way out of that Samaritan village with his face set toward Jerusalem, when a young man stopped him and said,
"I will follow you, Lord. I will follow you, Lord, but first I have a funeral to attend, and then I promise I'll be back ready and raring to go."
?I will follow you, Lord, but first I need to run by the house and get a few things and say good-bye to the folks. I'll be right back."
Jesus' response is not what you might expect. He even sounds a little bit harsh. You can hear the sarcasm in his voice, "So you say you're ready to follow, do you? Well, no one who sets a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
From our perspective, we would rather Jesus treat us with kid gloves and be polite and at least appreciate all we do. But instead of being nice, Jesus insists on being persistent, keeping our feet to the fire so that truly we might become the new creation that we say we want and need to be. The words ring in our ears, follow, follow, follow, even long after our initial decision to follow him.
Yet, still we choose Nike over the needy. We want more things instead of living on less. Instead of ordering our lives so that we might have more to give away, for the most part our lives are skewed toward selfish comforts. In a world of six billion where resources are limited and the vast majority of God's people live in poverty, we still think that by and large the world revolves around us. Oh, we pray for peace with justice, but we remain largely unwilling to make the hard choices that love requires. When push comes to shove, our faith takes a back seat to so-called reality. After all, "We must remain practical," we say. No matter what we have accomplished for the cause of righteousness or left undone in the name of sanity, there is always that nagging voice, the ringing in the ears, a pressure point at the temples, whispering again and again, "Follow, follow, follow."
Most of the time I wish it was just one follow, and I'd say, "Yes," and Jesus would smile and say, "Thank you," like I think he should. And then I could just continue to do the best I could as long as I'm not inconvenienced or asked to stretch my understandings or cross any boundaries of comfort. But for some reason, Jesus keeps whispering in my ear. He knows I need that. I'll always need that.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred German Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945 for resisting their ideology of terror and hatred, wrote extensively during his lifetime about the dangers of what he called "cheap grace." Instead of cheap grace, he said God's love is a costly grace. Grace comes to us with a steep price attached to it--the death of Jesus, and, therefore, it costs something of us in return. It cost Dietrich Bonhoeffer his life and it should cost us our life as well.
In the Bible nobody was more familiar with the haunt to follow than Simon Peter. Eager and willing, Peter responds with an unambiguous Yes to Jesus' first invitation to follow. Leaving his life as a fisher behind, he eagerly accepts his new life as a fisher of people; but as we know, Peter would be asked over and over to contemplate that initial decision. Whenever he tried to walk on water but found himself sinking instead or when he was sitting in a garden denying that he ever knew Jesus as the rooster crowed in the background. Or at the fellowship dinner at Antioch, either because of religious pride or personal prejudice, when he and some other Jewish Christians formed a separate table apart from the Gentile Christians. Peter knew what it felt like to fall short, to fall way short. But Jesus never lost faith in him. And Jesus never loses faith in us.
So do you know what that means? It means that no matter how much you have failed to heed the call, no matter how often you have said yes when you really meant to say no, no matter how many times you sincerely wanted to follow, but didn't know what that meant exactly, or how to do it exactly, or what the cost would be exactly, no matter how many times you have disappointed God and disappointed yourself or others in the process, Jesus is always there with an outstretched arm, offering yet one more personally engraved invitation, "Follow, follow, follow."
Thankfully, it's not a one-time thing. It's a lifetime pursuit.
Let us pray.
Persistent God, it would take more than a million lifetimes to understand the expanse of your love or to know just what is expected of us in return. Even when we are willing to follow, we are so easily distracted by other pursuits. Thank you, God, for being patient with us, for forgiving us, but also for continuing to challenge us. You are a God who never gives up. May we be constantly renewed by your nudging. This we pray in the name of Jesus, whose call to follow is life's greatest challenge and life's greatest reward. Amen.