Encounter: Hold Nothing Back

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA

July 24, 2022

John 1:35-42

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Let us pray: Lord, we want to see you. Amen.

 

The first words from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospel of John are: “What are you looking for?” After the beautiful cosmic beginning of John, “in the beginning was the word, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” the text cuts to Jesus walking by on a normal afternoon. He asks the disciples who are standing there, “What are you looking for?”

“What are you looking for?” It’s a beautiful question Jesus asks, free of judgment and assumptions. Genuine curiosity on the soul level rather than a set of pre-packaged answers on a pamphlet. This seems to be how Jesus operated. He asked 307 questions in the Bible, from “Why do you worry?” to “Who do you say that I am?” to “Do you want to be made well?” to perhaps our favorite, “Do you have anything to eat?”

Sometimes when people engage me in conversations about faith, often on the sidelines of a soccer game, or when people say they want more information about the church after a quick visit, or when someone on a plane starts to treat me like a church suggestion box, I have made it a practice to ask this same question: “What are you looking for?”

This would be a good question to ask in our country, where the fastest growing religious categories are the ‘nones and dones,’ the 29% of Americans who describe their religion as “none” and those who are exiting faith communities, mostly Christianity. “Done” with the church. I’ve just learned about others who might constitute a new category. One magazine cleverly calls them the “Umms” – those whose relationship with God is, umm… complicated. Those who long for spiritual belonging and at the same time, feel disillusioned by the behavior of the church and disembodied from community of kindred spirits and discouraged by the hard news of the world. What might they be looking for?

Well, that afternoon at least, the disciples didn’t answer Jesus’ question. Who knows why. They could have said “We are searching for closeness with God.” Or, “we want out of this backwater fishing town.” Or, “we want a decent dinner, but it’s just 4 pm.” But I suspect that they didn’t simply know the answer to his question. There wasn’t a fully baked answer in them as to what they sought. It was more of a restlessness, a yearning that bounced around from inspiration to frustration and back again on any given day, an itch that a lot of us feel inside a lot of the time, a stirring of the spirit. A stirring deep within them, as my wise friend Rev. Andrew Connors describes as, to know something or feel something or be something that is beyond what they can know or feel or do on their own. Something, someone, somewhere, somehow worthy of this cathedral of devotion inside them and also capable of steering it in the right direction.

“What are you looking for?” In response, they muttered, lamb of God, rabbi, teacher, messiah, anointed one, so many names from their different angles, but all words pointed to that same stirring, same yearning, same ineffable hope.

The church could learn from what Jesus does here, his appreciative inquiry. Sometimes we the church set ourselves up to be the answer to all the questions. To deliver the answers ourselves rather than to equip people to look for God in the afternoons of their own lives. To imagine the church as the destination itself rather than a mighty ship rigged for discovery of God’s future. To treat the scriptures, hymns and confessions as an old treasure chest that we control rather than powerful navigational tools and guides from other theological wayfarers to take people farther on their journey than we have been. To tell people the questions they should be asking rather than listen to them describe the grief, the call, the beauty and pain that has broken them open to search in the first place. Sometimes the church sits people down in a pew rather than hike with them as a community up to the holy ground places even beyond their initial questions.

Gary Haugen is the CEO of International Justice Mission, a non-profit that works to combat trafficking and poverty around the world. A few years ago, he spoke to a group of Presbyterians about how safe the church has become, to its own detriment. He said, we speak of things that are so safe that in general they could be handled without involving God at all. But, what people are really longing for is something deeply meaningful and dangerously adventurous because it risks changing the world around us and within us. Then, he shared the story of when he was 10 years old, visiting Mount Rainier with his father. There they were at the visitor’s center at the bottom of Mount Rainier, looking up at all these trails winding their way up into the cloud cover, a patch of bright red warning signs from lawyers at the trailhead telling of potential hazards for travelers.

At ten years old, Gary told his father, “You know, I think I’ll just go back down to the visitors’ center.”  His father tried to persuade him, “I know it will be hard, but I think you’ll be glad you came.”  “No, no,” insisted Gary “I’d really rather spend the day at the visitors’ center.”  And he went back down.  He spent hours in the visitors’ center watching films about other people hiking the mountain loop again and again.  He began to feel sleepy, bored and small, no more so than when his family returned red-faced, clear-eyed and smiling. Haugen asked, “What if the church decided to no longer be simply people who come to the visitors center to hear about other people going off to do interesting, adventurous, and important things in pursuit of God’s vision? What if the church were those who dared to go up that mountain?”

As the disciples let Jesus’ big question marinate for a minute, they asked him a soft ball one. “Where are you staying?” Were they really wondering about his accommodations or buying time to think? Was it like, “Before I speak to the animating purpose of my life, let me say that the Holiday Inn Express is really nice.” Was it like, “Regarding the horizon of my deepest hopes, I wonder if you have checked the reviews of that establishment yet.”  Or was it more like the first bid of those who are gathering their courage? Was it a wild guess that where this man puts his body and where he spends his time might tell them more about the living God than anything else – the time he spends healing the sick, crossing boundaries to welcome the outcasts, retreating from the constant claims upon his time to make space for silence and prayer, entering conflict without fear, giving his life for the sake of the world.  Where Jesus locates himself teaches us more than words about him.

And that is where their journey begins. Jesus responds: “Come and see.” Over and over again in the Book of John, Jesus responds this way, “Come and see,” unwilling to give them the brochure or let them watch the film. He invites them to get involved. To hold nothing back.

C. S. Lewis said it this way, “”It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

An inner city pastor friend of mine told me a story about a woman who set up a meeting with him. Her son Oscar continued to ask to go to church. It all started when they were on a trip to Italy and toured an old cathedral. Oscar had gone all the way to the front where the candles flickered red. He was drawn to the kneelers, and then he said, “Mom, teach me to pray.” She was not a church person. This was way out of her comfort zone and kind of freaked her out, but nevertheless, she knelt next to him and whispered, “God, thank you for Oscar and this beautiful church and for our family and … amen.” She told my friend that one thing led to another, and even though I told him we weren’t church goers and he’d probably find church boring, he insisted. We wound up here on Sundays and now he comes up for the children’s message. I am a secularist. I don’t know what’s going on.” My friend smiled, “It sounds like Jesus is messing with you.”

But then she asked him this beautiful question. “I don’t really know what I am searching for here, sorry, this is awkward, but what does it mean to have Jesus in your life?” Then my friend thought about it and responded, “Sometimes it is hard. Jesus has a way of making you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do – like forgiving some of the biggest jerks in your life, or associating with outcasts and folks who stand for everything you disagree with. But it is exhilarating. Sometimes,” he said, “It is the only thing that gives me courage.” He told stories of how even though people had shouted in his face, he had seen the city change, really change. New housing. Kinder laws. People who had been on the streets now serving as deacons. He told stories of how even when he felt lame as a father or terrified of disappointing people at work or thoroughly burned out, a prayer like the one Oscar had prayed in the cathedral could still fill him with hope again for no rational reason.  “Jesus helps me realize the way to do what Arundati Roy wrote a few years ago – ‘to live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.’” And even then, he’s not afraid of death because of this stubborn resurrection hope that promises the best is yet to come. But eventually he said to her, “You really shouldn’t take my word for it. You’ll have to see for yourself.” (With gratitude to Rev. Andrew Connors for his brilliant Well (lectionary preaching group) paper on this text.)

Maybe for you that means going along with these folks whose eyes sparkle when they talk about Kibwezi. Maybe for you that means taking a risky step to visit a person in a hospital or in hospice or in prison even though you have to check your pre-printed responses at the door.  Maybe you help with this brave project called Community Table, where BPC is really trying to share a meal with our neighbors even though we have no idea who will come. Maybe for you it means kneeling in the silence of prayer for six minutes when yesterday you could only tolerate four.

Either way, you wind up red-faced and smiling as if you’ve seen the face of God, because … you have.

Annie Dillard, “I cannot cause light –  the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.”