Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2017 || Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year A || Isaiah 49: 1-7; Psalm 40: 1-12; 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9; John 1: 29-42 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks the two disciples who follow him in this morning’s gospel. What are you looking for? It’s a question Jesus asks each of us repeatedly in the course of our lives, despite our natural proclivity to evade answering it. We evade answering it, I think, because answering it in the spirit in which it’s asked—which is to say, on a much more profound level than one might ask about a misplaced cellphone or set of keys—requires deep reflection, honest prayer, and the terrifying adventure of opening one’s heart—the home of one’s deepest dreams and longings—to God’s own self. And that’s scary.
But God is– in addition to faithful and compassionate–persistent, and God has all kinds of sneaky ways of getting our attention and causing us, finally, to relent and consider this question—a question which he asks us, after all, not for his sake but for our own. What are you looking for? What are you seeking?
Ten years ago God caught me in what must’ve been a weak moment, because I could no longer avoid the question. Our then-17 year old daughter was a junior in high school and while I didn’t think I was looking for anything just yet, I knew that once she graduated I probably would be. Don and I had started to imagine what the future might hold, to ask ourselves what we were looking for.
“A little church in New England,” I would say, “where I can fall in love with the people and stay till I die.”
“It needs to be near an airport,” Don would say (ever the pragmatist), “so I can keep freelancing.”
“Wouldn’t it be awesome if it were near the ocean?” I’d ask, giddy at the very thought.
And next thing we knew God sent two angelic messengers in the persons of Jerry and Susan Murphy to tell us about St. Stephen’s Church, a fabulous little church, they said, in a seaside town we’d never even heard of. The problem was, the timing was all wrong. You all wanted a new rector in place long before I would be ready to leave Washington—Grace still had a year of High School ahead of her, so we weren’t going anywhere. Yet as I explained in the cover letter I wrote to the search committee, I couldn’t not respond to what was a very compelling sense of call.
“Come and see,” Jesus kept urging me. Come and see.
Well, God worked out the timing and the rest is history. Until now. This time around it took a series of events in my personal life and in our national life to gradually cause me, once again, to be attentive when Jesus asked “What are you looking for?”
It began, as best as I can figure with 20/20 hindsight, with the riots in Ferguson more than two years ago. What I started looking for then (innocently enough) was a faithful response to things about which I realized I knew virtually nothing, yet about which, as a woman of faith, I cared very much.
The invitation from Jesus to “come and see” meant starting to educate myself about racism, white privilege, and implicit bias. It meant reading minority writers and listening to minority voices. It meant waking up in a new way to all sorts of issues Jesus taught and preached about like economic injustice and oppression, hospitality to immigrants and refugees, caring for the poor and the vulnerable, and proclaiming the good news of God’s love to all of God’s people.
And I have to tell you that unlike the invitation to “come and see” St. Stephen’s Church, this “come and see” invitation was not one to which I responded enthusiastically. It scared me. I think on some level I knew where it might lead, and I didn’t want to go there. After all, my plan was to leave this church toes up, right?
Then there was the breast cancer, and embracing the preciousness and fragility of life with which I was already so intimately familiar. Cancer does, as Samuel Johnson so aptly noted about death, have a way of focusing the mind.
But I knew there was no turning back when last August, while preparing a sermon on Luke’s gospel and the 53rd anniversary of the March on Washington, I learned that right here in our backyard, in Suffolk County, thirty-seven thousand children under the age of 18 were living in poverty. Thirty-seven thousand children, within 30 miles of us, living on what Dr. King would’ve called “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
That flattened me. That hit way too close to home, was way too close for comfort. Jesus was no longer whispering, “Come and see,” he was shouting it in my ear. I knew then that I had to “do” something—and that’s when I started organizing our team of tutors to serve the kids at St. Stephen’s, Boston. I still hoped that would be enough—that this burgeoning call to serve the most vulnerable and marginalized among us would go away. But it didn’t. And yes, of course the election had an impact on my decision.
So, what am I looking for? What am I seeking? I’m seeking to respond faithfully to this new thing God is doing in my life, to this new passion he has planted in my heart. I’m answering, rather reluctantly but entirely willingly, Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” because I can no longer not. It’s that simple and that hard!
Your invitation is a very different one right now. You will be thinking and feeling all kinds of different things about my leaving. Typically, the most common response when a priest leaves a parish is for people to have feelings of abandonment stirred up, and those feelings can come out sideways if they’re not addressed directly. Some of you have already said you are feeling desolate. Many of you, I know, are sad. Others, let’s be honest, are pretty relieved. All of those feelings are okay, they’re all appropriate, and they all need space to be expressed. So please be kind to each other in the coming weeks and be respectful of each other’s feelings.
Remember that what you all share—beyond your concerns about what will happen next…and who will be called to be your priest…and whether he or she will be a good pastor or preacher…what you all share is that as a community of faith bound in Christ, you are –as Paul says to the Corinthians this morning—“not lacking in any spiritual gifts.” You are not lacking in any spiritual gifts and you are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So when the time comes, know with confidence that you have everything you need as a community of Jesus followers to answer the question, “What are you looking for?” Then trust him to lead you there, and go and see.
But not just yet. For now, take time to process and to breathe. Take time to feel whatever you feel. And as you do, know that I am praying, “Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.