Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say January 19? 2nd after Epiphany


   What is the lectionary to you? Is it a map on which you try to locate a sermon? Are the readings like guardrails to keep you from flying off and saying whatever? Or can they feel like shackles? I have seasons when I think of the readings as God trying to say something to me – which I need to hear, whether it finds its way into a sermon or not. Thomas Merton said that the peril for the priest or teacher is that if you notice something amazing in Scripture, you immediately hand it away to someone else instead of letting it do its thing in you.

   This week’s readings are like that – although if they do a thing in me, I could still work some of it into the sermon. Maybe. Isaiah 49:1-7 is, according to Christopher Seitz, not so much a call narrative as a recommissioning. This prophet bears in his person the role Israel is to play for the nations, although Israel has lost its way. So has he. “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing” (v. 4). If you’re a clergyperson with a pulse, you’re nodding right now. So what is this recommissioning? It begins with a reminder of the first calling – which, like Jeremiah’s, came “from the womb” (v. 5). I love the fact that infants in utero can hear. They hear mom, and other voices and sounds. Is God already calling? Are the sounds they hear a calling? 

   Joan Chittister reminds us that “the times we live in are themselves the call to courage.” Her lay-focused book, The Time Is Now, stirred up a recommissioning in me; her simple thoughts reawakened a sense of why I went into this line of work: “The prophet is one who speaks truth to a culture of lies.” “Prophets are more committed to new questions than to old answers.” “Prophets are about something greater than ourselves.” I love it when she speaks of “the grace of holy audacity.”

   We clergy get weary, and chicken. This doesn’t mean I steamroll my people in anger on Sunday. Isaiah’s tone is gentle and lovely. Read the text. Remember why you went into ministry. Be comforted and emboldened that you are “hidden in the shadow of God’s hand,” that you are “a polished arrow hidden in his quiver.” How does polishing happen? By friction. Polishing is loss. And it’s all hidden. The grace of your ministry may now be hidden – even from you.

   And then I feel something in this “coastlands” and “nations” business. I wonder if, in this culture, and with the sagging demise of the church, if our ministry isn’t increasingly beyond the walls? Psalm 40 similarly speaks of waiting “patiently” (the root word means to bear, to suffer). God “heard my cry” – and we do cry, don’t we? Can we live into the psalmist’s report that the Lord “drew me up, set my feet secure upon a rock, and put a new song in my mouth”?

   In 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, Paul recalls that he was called “by the will of God.” Were you? Paul writes loving words, “grace and peace!” – even to this cantankerous Corinthian church! Paul “gives thanks” – for them? Can I back out of my exasperations and weariness in ministry and live into Paul’s courageous, contrarian theological posture?

   These ruminations for me, and for clergy, have value in themselves. I won’t preach on the Old Testament, Psalter or Epistle. But there’s a sermon that can be wrenched from living in these thoughts. Our people are weary and jaded too. They have lost their way and don’t feel much that God called them from the womb. Can they do be invited to a liberating life of truth, to sing a new song?

   John 1:29-42. Paint the scene, on the ground: heck, it’s 4pm! Where’s the sun at 4pm? How do people feel by then? If you’ve not been to Bethany beyond the Jordan, google some images so you can tell parishoners what the place looked and felt like that afternoon.

   In this place, at this hour, John saw Jesus coming. He had to be looking. It’s a guy, but then Oh, it’s him, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Not just the sins of people in the world, but the sins of the world! What are the world’s sins? 
Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society underlines how people are morally upright but are immersed in and unwittingly contribute to an immoral society. Can we name the sins of the world, and how they grieve God, and harm not just others but all of us?

   I love it that Jesus, who really is The One, isn’t a royal, mighty stud strutting about. He’s a lamb, humble, not fearful, ready to be shorn and slaughtered. God’s way: confronting the battallions of Caesar with a little lamb. John reflects back on the Baptism (or is it now being reported?). He saw the dove.

   So two disciples start following (literally, like on the road, not staying home but venturing out – like those fishermen in the Synoptics who throw caution to the wind, drop their nets, and traipse off after this total stranger). Jesus doesn’t spin on them and issue orders. Instead he asks the question they likely weren’t sure how to answer: “What are you looking for?” I’ll build my whole sermon around this question, understanding that the first blush answer people give to this isn’t their final answer. They have to bore deep in someplace to get to what they are profoundly and confusedly looking for.

   Jean Vanier points out that “These are the first words of Jesus in this gospel. Perhaps they are the first words of Jesus to each one of us. Jesus does not want to impose on us an idea or ideology. He wants people to follow him and his path of love freely. He calls us to look into our own hearts and to become aware of our fundamental desires. What do we really want for our lives?”

   Like Jesus does so often, they answer a question with a question: “Where are you staying?” Maybe they didn’t know how to answer yet, but they suspected he was somehow implicated in the final answer. Or maybe what they are looking for, it’s vaguely dawning on them, is simply to hang close to him.

   Finding where Jesus is staying, and staying there too, can change your life. Millard Fuller was a wealthy businessman, but his life was hollow and his marriage was falling apart. A friend advised him to visit a rumored saint in rural Georgia, Clarence Jordan. Fuller came for lunch, and stayed a month, and really for the rest of his life. For stories about Jordan, which work in this sermon and many others, check out my blog about him. Jordan himself stayed where Jesus was when the KKK tried to run him off his Koinonia farm!

   Jean Vanier left the Navy in 1950 and was advised to visit Père Thomas Philippe. He did, and he stayed, and because he stayed, Vanier discovered his life’s calling, L’Arche. Later, Henri Nouwen visited L’Arche – and stayed. Often when I visit our mission partners, there’s a worker or leader there who, when I asked How did you come to be here?, narrates that she came to visit, and just stayed.

   Here’s another thing: when they ask “Where are you staying?” Jesus doesn’t give them the address. He says “Come and see.” That is, come with me and see. Again, it’s not overly precise, like Jesus inviting the fishermen to “Follow me.” You go, you get moving, and you see what you see. Church people need to come and see. Maybe we invite them to come with us, out there, wherever – and then to name that if they come, we’ll all being coming and seeing with Jesus together.

   I love the story of a wealthy woman who found Mother Teresa in Calcutta, whipped out her checkbook and started to write a check. Teresa waved her off and said “No money.” “No money?” the shocked, and unfawned over woman replied. “No money.” “Then what can I do?” Teresa smiled, reached out her hand and said “Come and see.” She walked with her into an impoverished barrio, found a poor hungry child, picked up the child and put her in the woman’s arms. “Care for her.” The woman reported later how transformative this was, of course.

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