Lead, Follow, or get out of the way

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Fifth Sunday in Lent

Lead, Follow, or get out of the way

Grace Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, once said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

         This is a popular saying still today. It is a very popular saying among the military ranks. The idea is to motivate those who are not contributing to the effort as a whole, to participate by leading or following.

         A leader with no followers is not much of a leader and a follower with no leader is aimless and useless. Such a person becomes a stumbling block and is removed from the path of those who do act.

         I met a young man in the Denver airport on my way to Chicago in 1998. We were both heading for the same destination. Both he and I had recently enlisted in the United States Navy and we were on our way to the Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill. We were on our way to boot camp.

         I do not recall exactly where this young man was from. He was tall and in good shape. He reminded me of a friend of mine from back home. He was wearing a T-shirt that had the Navy’s current logo printed on the chest. The young man was very gung ho about the service.

         Every recruit was told by their recruiter, that one could advance in rank during boot camp if he or she showed signs of leadership. Advancement meant more pay, recognition and better treatment by your peers. The young man at that airport in Denver told me of his plans to take a position of authority during our training and that he would advance as much as possible by the time we graduated. He wanted to lead.

         In the first days of training, we met another young man who wanted to be a leader. He was from the inner city of Detroit. He was of the belief that he deserved to be in charge because he was tough and clever. He used threats and intimidation to push others around. He talked big and he talked a lot.

         The first two weeks of boot proved a great crucible for the 99 men of our platoon. Some had leadership thrust upon them. Some who vied for the few positions of leadership failed. My friend from the Denver airport, although an able-bodied sailor, did not achieve any of these positions.

         The young man from Detroit shot his mouth off one too many times to one of the recruits who did not take kindly to his form of leadership. A confrontation ensued. This man was from the Bronx, New York. The most impressive move by this man from the Bronx, who would later become a Navy Seal, was that he did not even lay a hand on the other man. He spoke softly but firmly to the bully. He was a natural leader.

         The loud talking braggart was not only silenced, but he completely shut down mentally. He became sullen and silent, walking around the barracks with a blanket over his head. He was led gently away for a psychological evaluation and was medically discharged.

         James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were two of the three disciples closest to Jesus. They were with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration. In Mark 5:37, when Jesus was asked to save the daughter of Jairus, “He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James and John, the brother of James.” And, when Jesus went to Gethsemane to pray, it was Peter, James and John who went with him.

         Jesus selected James and John to be in a position higher than the other disciples. They seemed to have been trusted a bit more. It was one of them who usually asked Jesus the important questions or speak for the rest.

         Yet, apparently, they wanted even more. In the Gospel of Matthew, it is the mother of the sons of Zebedee who approached Jesus with their request. In our Gospel of Mark, it is the brothers themselves who come to Jesus with their petition. In either case they ask for Jesus to promise them to grant their request.

         Jesus does not promise or deny them but simply asks them what they wanted. ‘They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”’ [Mark 10:37] What might they have been thinking? Where they making a demand of Jesus so that they could be in a position of authority over others? The remaining ten of the disciples thought so because they became indignant.

         These two brothers wanted a portion of the glory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. What arrogance! They overstepped their positions talking as if they deserved special treatment. Jesus could have chastised them. He could have embarrassed them in front of their peers or ignored them completely, but instead he spoke softly but firmly. “You don’t know what you are asking.” Jesus said.[Mark 10:38a]

         The true Son of God speaks to his people with love and kindness. He is truly God with all power and glory in his hands yet he humbles himself so that we might believe and be saved. This is what he says to James and John:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Mark 10:42-45]

         Jesus tells us that the position of power and glory is not ours to demand or to take. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”[Mark 10:40b] As William Shakespeare would say, “…some are born great …and some have greatness thrust upon them.”[1] Jesus Christ was born great while others such as Moses or David had greatness thrust upon them.

         As sinners, we cannot take our place in our Father’s kingdom. We cannot coerce or subvert a position among the heavenly hosts. James and John were at least partially correct in asking this gift from Jesus Christ. It is through him alone that we are redeemed to be people of God.

         We must become followers of our true leader, the Son of God. His command is that we love one another and be servants to each other, “and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” says the ultimate servant, Jesus Christ. [Mark 10:44] It is through Christ alone, he who came to serve and give his life as ransom for many, that we are children of God. [Mark 10:45]

         Yet do we follow Christ? Do we serve others as he commanded? No, instead we look to ourselves for our own glory. We easily forget that it is not our work or sacrifice that brings us to God.

         I understand. I am in the same boat with you. I often put myself before others. I seek my own selfish desires. Sometimes I do what is right according to the command of Christ but I do it grudgingly. This makes me a sinner. Our only hope is to put ourselves at the mercy of God at the foot of the cross.

            When Satan, the great adversary, came to put himself as leader of men with all authority on earth, he came with deceit and coercion. He talked big and he talked a lot. We followed him in our own ignorance and pride.

            But the Devil shot his mouth off one too many times. A confrontation ensued. Jesus Christ became human. He came into our world of flesh, sin and death. His most impressive move was that he didn’t even lay a hand on his enemy. He spoke softly but firmly to the Evil One, “You are not the one in power here or in my Father’s house.” he said. “Your rule over my people is over. I am in charge. You are nothing.”

         The loud talking braggart was not only silenced, he was completely stripped of his power. His tools of sin and death are now useless against us. We now follow a true leader who keeps his word. By his wounds we have been healed. By his sacrifice, we have been saved.           

         We cannot lead, that is for Christ. He is our Savior and mediator of righteousness to our Father in heaven. We can only follow by the grace of God.

         So what do we do? We look to our neighbors, our fellow human beings and we serve them, not with disdain, but with the love of Christ Jesus. We give as Christ has given us. We love as He has loved us. We follow Christ in equal standing and rank as our fellow man. We have no authority over our fellow sinners because we are just as sinful as they.

         We serve each other, all of us slaves to the greatest servant of all, our Lord and Savior. A true leader who put the lives of his people above his own in order to save us from death and the eternal grave.

         He was born to greatness and now his greatness is thrust upon us, so that we are forgiven our iniquity and our sins are remembered no more.



[1] William Shakespeare – Twelfth Night- (Act II, Scene V). "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them".

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