Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 16, 2011
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
“What are you looking for?” It’s an interesting question, isn’t it. Can you answer it for yourself? What are YOU looking for? What am I looking for?
I wonder what would happen if we were to sit with that question for, let’s say, an hour – or even a few minutes – and begin to unpack it for ourselves. I’m sure we would come up with some very interesting things, perhaps some deeply felt hopes or aspirations that we don’t often allow ourselves to feel. Most of the time we’re too busy doing what we do, to stop and ask the question “why?” we’re doing them.
What ARE we looking for? What is the point of it all? Are we living life consciously, purposefully, or are we simply drifting along on the current of others’ expectations and all the things we think we’re supposed to be doing, never quite getting the point.
“What are you looking for?”
This is the question Jesus asked John’s disciples. “What are you looking for?” And their response was a rather odd one: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Perhaps they were intrigued – curious enough after John’s convincing testimony about Jesus that they wanted to know more. Perhaps they were hinting at an invitation: “Can we come and see you?” And Jesus’ response to them was, “Come and see.”
“Come and see.”
This is the calling of the disciples. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus walking along the seashore and inviting some fishermen to come and follow him. John’s gospel tells the story a little differently. Here we have John the Baptist announcing Jesus’ messiahship, and his (that is, John’s) disciples hear what he is saying in a very deep way, and they know they must find out more. So, at Jesus’ invitation, they “come and see.” They went, and they saw, and they stayed with him that day, and they declared, “We have found the anointed one – the Messiah.”
Stories of God’s call to people are common in the Bible. Abraham’s call to go and find the land that God would give him. Moses’ call at the burning bush to go and set God’s people free from the hand of Pharaoh. David’s call to be king. And then the prophets – like Isaiah, who in the reading we heard just a few minutes ago says, “the Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me…” (Isaiah 49). And, of course, the call of Saul on the road to Damascus, later named Paul, struck down from his horse and blinded by a light, then heard a voice calling to him. It is this Paul who we hear in the opening words of the first epistle to the church in Corinth saying, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” (I Cor. 1:1).
We too often take these extraordinary stories to be the very definition of a call – something earth-shattering… dramatic… a moment in time you can look back to and say, “Wow! What an awesome experience that was! I’ve never looked back and I’ve never doubted that God called me at that moment!”
But the reality is that most of us find our calling in a very different way – much more like what these disciples in our story today experienced. Their first encounter with Jesus invited them to answer the question, “What are you looking for?” And our answer to that question is the place where we begin to find God’s call. And then Jesus invited them to “come and see.” That’s the next step: follow the invitation to come and see.
This, of course, is Martin Luther King weekend, and an opportunity to ponder the call of another prophet – a modern-day prophet whose vision has helped to change the way we see the world. The question, “what are you looking for?” was a simple one for Martin: Simple dignity, freedom, equality, justice for all people, white, black, red or yellow; the freedom inscribed in our constitution affirming that all people were created equal, and had certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He was just looking for what was promised in the founding principles of this country for himself, his children, and all the people of this land. He wanted women like Rosa Parks not to have to give up her seat on the bus for a white person just because of the color of her skin. He wanted his children to be able to enjoy the same things that little white children enjoyed without being reminded at every step along the way that certain things were not possible for them – because of the color of their skin. He knew what he was looking for, and was clear about it.
And what about the invitation to “come and see?” Over and over, during the course of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin responded to the call to come and see. He went to Selma, Alabama, and saw how people were being denied their right to vote, and he invited others to join him in a march to come and see how people were treated when they dared to question the Jim Crow laws of the South. He went to Memphis in support of sanitation workers. Come and see. The Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom rides, the Birmingham campaign, the March on Washington, the Selma march, the Chicago campaign, and the Memphis boycott – they were all times when he responded to the “come and see”, and in doing so he helped a nation see things differently. As much of a visionary as he was, I’m not sure he even dared to dream that within the lifetime of his own children, an African-American would be sworn in as President of the United States and occupy the most powerful office in the world. It could not have happened without his response to the call to come and see.
A popular saying during the 2008 presidential campaign noted that “Rosa sat so that Martin could walk. And Martin walked so that Barack could run. And Barack is running so that our children can fly.”
Yesterday was Martin Luther King’s birthday, but it has been a momentous week for other reasons, too. People in Tunis are answering the question, “what are you looking for?” And the people of South Sudan have answered the same question in a referendum on secession from the North. I read this week in the Episcopal New Service bulletins from Sudan an interview with a bishop there. Bishop Alapayo Manyang is the bishop of Rumbek, one of 31 dioceses serving roughly 4 million Episcopalians in Sudan (that’s twice as many as in the US). Bishop Alapayo spoke about the voting this week in the referendum, and he had this to say: He said this was “the second [most] joyous day in my life," the first being the day of his baptism in 1972. "Praise be to Almighty God for having kept me and my fellow brothers and sisters to see the joy of this day and exercise our constitutional and democratic rights. I will praise Him for ever.”
I took special note of this article because I met Bishop Alapayo in Sudan in 2008, and I have a picture of us together that I treasure. And I thought about the reason I was there, in that place in 2008, and happened to meet this dear man. And it was because I had responded to an invitation to “come and see.” Come and see Africa, come and be with the people here. Come and feel what we feel. Come and experience our joys and our hopes and our dreams.
A group of nine people from this parish will leave early on Wednesday morning for Haiti. We’ve been invited to “come and see.” It’s hard to say at this moment what will happen or what will come of this experience. But I do know that when we step out, take a risk, respond to God’s invitation, things happen. We, like those first disciples of Jesus, will be transformed. I have no question that our lives will be changed. I have the feeling that if we were to ask the same awkward question that those first disciples asked, “where are you staying?” Jesus just might answer, “in Haiti – come and see.”
Responding to a call takes many forms. Most of you learned this week that Adam has just responded to a new call – one that grows out of his asking the “what are you looking for?” question, and his stepping out to “come and see” what God is up to at Holy Comforter parish in Burlington, North Carolina. While we are tempted to be sad for ourselves, we should not forget that we are witnessing God’s purposes at work in drawing Adam (and all of us) into a future that is yet to be revealed, but one we will never know if we never step out in response to God’s call.
It doesn’t always necessarily take us from where we are to a new place, although it might. It doesn’t always have to involve a dramatic new direction for our lives – but… it might! It doesn’t always challenge us to give up our sense of self (Saul) to become someone else (Paul) – but it could. At the very least, responding to God’s call invites us to see who we are and to experience our reality in a different way. It challenges us to do what we do and be who we will be for a purpose beyond ourselves, and one we could not know unless and until we act in faith.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks us. God’s call lies within us. And then we must act on it. “Come and see.”