These days, you can’t browse TV channels without stumbling upon some sort of reality TV show. One of my favorite TV shows is ‘Project Runway’ – yes, I am admitting to this weakness. Who here is familiar with the show? 16 aspiring fashion designers have to go through different challenges, showcasing their talents. A panel of judges, among them German super model Heidi Klum, evaluates the finished looks sent down the runway, the weakest designer is kicked off the show each week, and in the end, the top three designers get to show their collection at NY Fashion Week; the designer with the most interesting collection wins the contest.
I have realized that part of what fascinates me about this show is that it gives a good reflection of what’s going on in society right now. Because, first of all, it’s about the competition. Every designer fends for himself or herself, and the more the competition progresses, the less likely those competitors are to help or assist each other; it’s survival of the fittest – or the shrewdest, or the meanest.
Once in a while, there are team challenges. And each team needs a team leader. And that’s when it gets really interesting. Because most of those designers are individualists; most have the ego to say that they deserve to be the leader; nobody really wants to follow another designer’s vision; egos clash; but then the contestants know that, if the result of that cooperation fails in the eyes of the judges, the leader of that team is most likely to be kicked off the show. So, though people don’t really want to follow anyone else but their own vision and design esthetics, they don’t necessarily want to be the leader, either.
Follow your bliss. Follow your dream. You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. These are phrases we all probably have heard at some point or another, and these are phrases I often see in classrooms these days. And while, on the one hand, applaud the optimism and encouragement these messages give to our kids and folks in general, I am also a little wary of that message. For what does is say? MY dream, MY vision, MY bliss is important, it is about what I can do and achieve and accomplish. And so our society seems to have turned into a society where many function like the designer hopefuls on ‘Project Runway’ – we have all those gifted people who want to do it my way or the highway style, who want to follow their bliss and dream but nobody else’s, and for who it is so difficult to work in teams, to compromise, to take some of their ego back in order to be part of a group that works together for the greater good.
And, sadly, we seem to foster this attitude of competition in our kids rather than the spirit of teamwork and cooperation. It doesn’t surprise me that many kids these days have lost the respect for their teachers and coaches and other mentors; when it’s all about them, and about their dreams, why should they follow someone else?
We’ve come to that interesting place where nobody wants to be a follower anymore, but not really a leader, either, because people figure out pretty quickly that you take all the heat once you are in a leadership position. And so we have become a society of individualists, people picking and choosing and maybe following whatever fits into their worldview. Those who have bigger dreams, dreams that include justice and food and healthcare and equality for all, are considered oddballs, idealists, or are even suspected to be socialists – and that’s not necessarily considered a good thing in this country.
The church takes up quite an interesting place in all that. Because we are about community. Where two or three are gathered in my name, Jesus says, I am there right among them. Jesus points out that the individual relationship to MY savior is secondary, but that God can only truly be experienced whenever we come together as God’s children. God is among us when we function as the body of Christ, in short, as a team. So church has quite a challenging place in today’s society, because we are supposed to embody values and principles which seem to have become less important to society at large. As a church, we are counter cultural. And that makes it hard to market the church.
But then, not many of Jesus’ words and principles are easily marketable. Take today’s gospel: Whoever does not carry the Cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Who seriously thinks about that, that following Jesus means sacrifice, when we sign an infant with the cross when they are baptized? It is so much easier to focus on grace and love and forgiveness; it is so much easier to focus on the gift. And, please don’t misunderstand me, we should focus on this gift. God’s reaching out to us, God’s great gift of grace is what grounds us. It is through God’s amazing grace that we are what we are.
But what do we do with this gift? Do we claim it as our own, but are unwilling to share it with others?
Jesus indicates very clearly that ‘following’ him isn’t just an arbitrary concept; we have to submit to His leadership, and that means giving up much of our ego and our individualistic attitude. ‘Bearing the cross’ hints at the great sacrifice God made by offering Christ on the cross; and what a sacrifice it was for Jesus to submit to his father’s will, to overcome his own human ego, and give his life for all.
If we are to follow Jesus as his true followers, as his disciples, we cannot just accept God’s gift of grace, but live in it, live of it, and share it, which is much more difficult than it sounds. For starters, it is so much easier to be judgmental than it is to be gracious. It is so much easier and convenient to see that I am safe and comfortable than to work for a greater good and potentially give up some of my comforts in order to make life easier for others.
There is a cost of following Jesus, as he himself points out in his parable of the man building a tower. We get this indefinite grace, but this requires us to pay back, as little as it may be.
German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the book “The Cost of Discipleship” in 1937. Bonhoeffer was appalled by a church which had become a complacent church; a church which sought refuge in its rituals, but had become meaningless as God’s force in society. Bonhoeffer in his book spoke up against a church which felt safe and comfortable in God’s grace without living in or out of this grace.
He, of course, saw the rise of Hitler in Nazism in Germany, he saw how Germany blindly followed this leader, the Fuehrer, into destruction and violence and doom; and how the church mostly stayed mum about it, or, even worse, supported Hitler in his claims to be God’s chosen one, a Messianic figure.
And Bonhoeffer tried to shake up the church, all those who called themselves Christians and followers of Christ, to remind them: following Christ doesn’t mean to follow him on a solely spiritual level, but to follow him by living the grace. There is a cost in that, because it means standing up where there is injustice, and subordinate my ego to the good of all.
Bonhoeffer writes about following Jesus, ‘The object of Jesus’ command is always the same – to evoke wholehearted faith, to make us love God and our neighbor with all our heart and all our soul. This is the only unequivocal feature in his command. Every time we try to perform the commandment of Jesus in some other sense, it is another sign that we have misunderstood his word and are disobeying it.’
Loving God and loving our neighbor is what characterizes our following. Living out of grace and living the grace is at the heart of discipleship. Bonhoeffer lived out of this grace and sharing it; he helped Jews escape to Switzerland and participated in a plot to kill Hitler. He saw that as part of his faithfulness. And he paid for it with his life.
In a day and age when many seem to have forgotten about community and solidarity; in a day and age when faith is often spiked with intolerance and even hate instead of love for our neighbor; in a day and age when many define blessing as something individual and materialistic; it is important to remember that God bids us to follow into community with God and with one another instead of our bliss. That we work as a team rather than as individual divas, not willing to compromise our vision and our comfort.
That’s the cross. But we also have to always remind ourselves that, at the same time, the cross is also the symbol which shows us that God’s love overcomes all; and that life is stronger than all forces that defy life.