Such are the axes of the Christian life. Freedom in tension with fear. Hope in tension with despair. Love in tension with hate. Resurrection and crucifixion. If we are to take the world seriously as the location for our faith then we will recognize that the Christian life is not a comfortable journey, but in many ways a faith lived on a knife-edge. In a world where people kill others in cold-blood in the name of God, what is needed of us is a thoughtfulness and faithfulness to another kind of godliness.
It is here that I believe the Anglican commitment to being in communion with one another is so crucial. To be Anglican, the identity which Episcopalians share with 80 million or so others around the world, is to be part of a community that trusts that the Spirit speaks to us through our diversity, not in spite of it. It is because we are committed to living with difference and hearing from God in the midst of that difference, that we can say that we are a broad church. Yet, how do we learn to live with those not only with whom we disagree, but those who push right at the boundaries of community?
I faced this very question here at St. Andrew’s this past Tuesday evening with a guest at the hunger supper, the weekly meal we offer to the hungry and homeless in our neighborhood. Lately, times have been tense on a few Tuesday evening, with hostilities breaking out between guests as they wait for the meal to be served, so when I stepped out from the hall this week to find a man yelling from the sidewalk at another guest, I was not surprised. Eventually, I was able to lead a prayer, even as the man continued to rant. Shortly afterward, the man began to direct his ire at some of the guests in the line at which point I asked him to move on.
It might suffice to say that what transpired over the next ten minutes were among the hardest I have had in 12 years of ordained ministry. As the man promptly switched his rage to me, his tirade included despicably explicit language directed at one of the female guests in line, a feigned physical attack and a death threat at me, and lots and lots of drama. Thankfully, as it was happening, a guest had called 911 and the police came and arrested him.
To be honest, it shook me up a bit. Nothing, of course, in the context of what people have suffered across the Atlantic in recent days, yet there was one part of it that stood out as consistent, what I would call the power of the first follower.
As the incensed man became more and more aggressive toward me, and as his vocabulary became increasingly choice, shall we say, another guest from the supper came to stand by me. He stood right by me, and he asked the man to go no further. As he did, others in the line asked the man to move on. And it struck me, thinking back on that, that this man who had first come to my side was what Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur who helps musicians sell their music online independent of the big recording labels, calls the ‘First Follower’. Sivers thinks that the significance of individual leaders is overplayed, and that what effective leadership makes possible is space of the first follower to emerge who will stand by the leader and thus invite others to stand with them as the second and the third followers and so on. In truth, last Tuesday night’s drama would most likely have turned out no differently had the man form the line not come to my side. What was different, clearly, was the feeling, for in that moment, I felt that I was not alone.
And so, in light of the struggles for justice and hope that we see around us in the world today, it may not be the speeches of powerful men and women in political leadership who make the difference but the first followers who choose to stand with them. From the tragic bravery of the Muslim police officer who pleaded with the gunmen to be merciful in the offices of Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, to the kid in the playground who stand next to the kid facing down the school bully, perhaps to profess a faith in Jesus in today’s world is to be the first to follow, not knowing the outcome, just convinced that there is no other place to stand.
The world doesn’t need us to be busy with our religious activity. It doesn’t need us to do anything in particular other than be people who are prepared listen for God’s word of love and mercy for his world and to live that word out in our lives, such that we may be among those who are accustomed to prayer, accustomed to listening to a deeper love, accustomed to follow Christ to the boundary places of this our place and time.