Follow the Leader – January 21, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday After Epiphany
January 21, 2018

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20; Psalm 62:6-14

Lead me, Lord, in thy righteousness, make thy way plain before my face. For it is Thou, Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety. Amen.

There seems to be no shortage of leaders in twentieth-century America, or at least no shortage of people who are trying to become leaders. Everywhere you look, leaders are purportedly being educated or trained or formed or developed. It’s impossible for any high school student to get into college these days without pointing to some sort of “leadership” experience on their application. In a recent New York Times article, one student looked back on the dramatic transition that marked her shift from middle school to high school, recalling how “suddenly, my every activity was held up against the holy grail of ‘leadership.’” Everyone knew, she said, “that it was not the smart people, not the creative people, not the thoughtful people or decent human beings that scored the application letters and the scholarships, but the leaders. It seemed no activity or accomplishment meant squat unless it was somehow connected to leadership.”

Once a young person enters college, the pressure to become a leader only intensifies, and college students clamor to establish a role for themselves in as many arenas as possible—extracurricular activities, academic research, off-campus internships, and so on. After graduation, the fixation on leadership persists. There are leadership programs in almost every field imaginable that seek to groom the leaders of the future before even their first day on the job. I myself benefitted from an organization called the Forum for Theological Exploration, which describes itself as a “leadership incubator that inspires young people to make a difference in the world through Christian communities.”

In the corporate world, an entire industry provides leadership education to employees at each stage of the career ladder. However, the effectiveness of this industry, which may cost as much as twenty-five billion dollars a year, is highly debatable. “The tireless teaching of leadership has brought us no closer to leadership nirvana than we were previously,” Harvard professor of public leadership Barbara Kellerman writes: “notwithstanding the enormous sums of money and time that have been poured into trying to teach people how to lead, over its roughly forty-year history the leadership industry has not in any major, meaningful, measurable way improved the human condition.” Jeremy Pfeiffer, a Stanford business professor and the author of a book called Leadership BS, claims that “despite the tens of billions of dollars we pour into training-related books, attendance at inspirational speeches, workshops, conferences, and training sessions, the workplace today is as dysfunctional as ever.”

I personally wonder who will be around to follow all of these leaders we are creating. As long as thirty years ago, Carnegie Mellon professor Robert Kelley articulated similar concerns in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “In praise of followers.” “Leaders matter greatly,” he wrote, “but in searching so zealously for better leaders we tend to lose sight of the people these leaders will lead. Without his armies, after all, Napoleon was just a man with grandiose ambitions. Organizations stand or fall partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead, but partly also on the basis of how well their followers follow.”

As a society, we are currently experiencing a vast amount of upheaval. Increasingly, many of us have lost trust in the people and institutions on which we used to rely and, instead, we have decided to take matters into our own hands. We have appointed ourselves as leaders, the established authorities be damned. Regular perusal of our social media feeds reveals a world in which everyone has something to say and few are willing to demonstrate even a modicum of deference.

And nonetheless we show up here, where we are invited, time and again, to follow Jesus, just as Simon and Andrew and James and John were invited to follow Jesus so many years ago. It is true that Christianity may at times equip and even require us to lead others in the project of ministry—Jesus, for instance, tells Simon and Andrew that they will fish for other people—but Christianity is an invitation to follow someone long before it is an effort to lead others to that same person. From the beginning, Jesus makes the plans; we don’t have the privilege of determining the route or the agenda—of dictating to Jesus what is important and what is not. Christianity puts Jesus in charge, and asks us to walk with him on his journey, to listen to his teachings, and to adopt his priorities as our own.

Because our culture so enthusiastically indulges our individualistic instincts and leadership ambitions, we may find it difficult to follow anyone, much less Jesus. Yet we refuse to follow at our peril. Theologian Victor Lee Austin offers the example of a symphony orchestra. It is possible, he admits, for music to be made without a conductor. If the instrumentalists are skilled and dedicated enough, they may be able to perform some solos or intimate chamber music on their own. But an entire symphony orchestra, consisting of dozens of instrumentalists, cannot perform successfully unless a conductor is present to coordinate and shape the instrumentalists’ playing effectively. A conductor-less orchestra would almost certainly devolve into chaos. As much as members of an orchestra may dislike or disagree with a particular conductor, they still need someone to conduct them.

“Authority enhances what the musicians are capable of doing freely,” Austin explains, “by promoting their good as distinct musicians and by making it possible for them to participate in the complex good of music played together.” Austin’s point is that we need authority, however instinctively we push back against it and however terrible any one authority figure may appear to be. “The issue of authority has such a bad reputation that a philosopher cannot discuss it without exposing himself to suspicion and malice,” philosopher Yves Simon writes. “Yet authority is present in all phases of social life…Why is it that men distrust so intensely a thing without which they cannot, by all evidences, live and act together?”

Of course, even if we need authority, we can choose which authorities we will follow. To make Jesus our authority is not to accept every other authority unquestioningly. Your parents are not Jesus; the President is not Jesus; the Church is not Jesus. In fact, you may feel the need to disobey or rebel against any one of these authorities precisely because you follow Jesus. But you are not Jesus yourself, either; you are not the lone arbiter of morality and meaning in the universe. In following Jesus, we recognize that we do not possess all of the answers within ourselves; we acknowledge that good, truth, and justice can be found outside of us; we admit that we cannot live solely on our own.

Like Simon and Andrew, like James and John, we now stand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, casting our nets or mending them, encountering Jesus and facing a decision. Like Simon, Andrew, James, and John, we could use many excuses for staying behind: “We have a life here, a business. The market for fish is quite strong at the moment. How will we make money? Who will pick up the nets? Our father would miss us if we left. We’re not really the following type, anyway. We’ll be fine on our own.” But Simon, Andrew, James, and John didn’t hesitate. They immediately—Mark emphasizes immediately—left their nets, left their father Zebedee, left everything in their old lives behind, and followed him. Can we? 

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