Sunday, January 16, 2011

What Are You Looking For?

Second Sunday After Epiphany (Year A)
Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-12; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42
Sunday, January 16, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

“What are you looking for?” (Jn 1.38)

That’s a pretty loaded question, particularly in the context of today’s Gospel reading. It’s the question that Jesus asks a couple of John’s disciples, but it’s also the question that can be asked of each and every Christian as we attempt to live into what it means to be followers of Christ. The specific answer to Jesus’ question will be as unique as are the individuals who are called Christians. But today’s Gospel reading can provide us with a framework to help us ferret out what the answer is for each of us.

Today’s reading from the Gospel According to John starts off with another encounter with John the Baptist. This appearance is reminiscent of Advent in some ways. On the first Sunday of Advent we talked about how John the Baptist straddles the Old and New Testaments as he looks back to the Old Testament prophecies and looks forward to their fulfillment through Jesus. That role certainly continues in today’s Gospel. So, just as John the Baptist straddles the Old and New Testaments in his role, so too does he have one foot in Advent and one foot in Epiphany. In Advent John helped us with the anticipation and preparation for Jesus’ coming at Christmas. In the season of Epiphany, Jesus, the one who is pointed to by John, is revealed to humanity in various ways.

Yes, at Christmas, Jesus is revealed as God Incarnate. We know that is who the baby is in that manger in Bethlehem. But is this really sufficient proof? Do we need him to be revealed in other ways, to have his glory as the Son of God revealed to us? Epiphany is the time when Jesus as Messiah, as savior of humanity, is truly revealed. It’s when we are given the specifics of how this baby now grown up is the Messiah. It’s when we are specifically shown what Messiah means and what this Messiah can and will do for humanity.

Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Epiphany, focusing on Jesus’ baptism and how he is revealed through God’s statement “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.17). Today is the beginning of how Jesus is revealed to humanity in more tangible ways, through his words, his ministry, his actions. To that purpose, today’s Gospel passage has John the Baptist continuing to point the way to Jesus. The Lamb of God has already been made known to John. His job is now to provide testimony, pointing the way so that others may come to recognize Jesus as the Christ.

The first who are given testimony that Jesus is the Messiah, or at least the first to believe John’s testimony, are a couple of John’s own disciples. These two men, Andrew and his companion, are obviously looking for something. They have been following John the Baptist. But John, by his own admission, does not have what they are looking for, is not who they are looking for. John willingly fulfills his designated role as the one crying in the wilderness, pointing the way to the truth that they seek, to Jesus.

So with a word from John, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” the two disciples are off seeking to follow Jesus. As they approach him, Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” Now how would most of us answer that question under those circumstances? “We’re looking for the truth?” “We’re looking for the Messiah?” “We’re looking for salvation?” Rather than give some theologically correct answer, they answer Jesus’ question with a question. And with a bit of an odd question at that: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” What kind of response is that? What does Jesus’ address have to do with what they are looking for?

In actuality, it is the absolutely correct response. Cryptic, but correct. In that one simple question – “Rabbi, where are you staying?” – these would-be disciples are giving a huge indication of what they are looking for and what it will truly mean to be a follower of Christ. These disciples have been following John, who undoubtedly had some things to teach them. But they weren’t satisfied with just sitting around listening to some simple teachings about who the Messiah is or what he will be like. Words were not enough for them. They weren’t content to sit around and help out as a bunch of people flocked to the River Jordan to be baptized. Liturgical actions were not enough for them. They wanted more. They needed more. They recognized that a true life of faith is more than words and liturgy. In asking Jesus where he is staying, these new disciples were saying two things. One, “we are not so much interested in what you say as how you live your life, how you live what you profess to believe.” In other words, “actions speak louder than words, and that will be the true test as to whether you are indeed the one we are seeking.” But even more importantly, they are saying, “we’ve had enough of words. We’ve had enough of liturgy. We want to learn from your way of life. We want to learn from your actions. We want to be with you, to be a part of your ministry.”

And then the other piece of it, which occurs after Andrew and his companion have had a chance to see just what this Jesus is all about and decided for themselves that they do indeed want to follow him and be his disciples, is to reach out to and share that revelation with others. In today’s Gospel reading, after spending some time with Jesus, Andrew goes to his brother Simon and tells him all about what he has discovered: “We have found the Messiah.”

Today’s Gospel lesson provides a great summary of what the essence of true discipleship is about – going out and doing ministry, sharing the Good News with others not so much in our words, but through our actions. All the other stuff, the words and the liturgy, are important because help us to understand what we are doing and why we do it, but it is living the message that has the most powerful impact. I saw this illustrated in several ways this past week.

First, this past Sunday our Youth Group started a new unit entitled “Compassion and Acts of Mercy,” which will last for three to four months. In their first session the teens studied and discussed scripture passages dealing with the subject of compassion, as well as the thorny issue of faith versus works. I was very proud of our teens as they delved into the texts and really struggled with the importance of faith and works, and how works are an outward sign of our faith, that we do acts of compassion not to score points with God but in response to God’s love and compassion for us. We do these acts of compassion to share God’s love and compassion with others. Over the next few months, the Youth Group will be studying this subject in more detail, and will be exploring and discerning how they themselves might engage in acts of compassion – putting the words of the Gospel into action.

And second, on Tuesday the City sponsored the “Heal the Land, Heal the City” prayer walk as a community-wide response to the tragic shooting a week and a half ago of four Redlands High School students – injuring Jordan Howard and Tequan Roberson, and killing 16 year-old Andrew Jackson and 17 year-old Quinn McCaleb. On Tuesday afternoon, about a dozen of our parishioners, including two teens, along with a thousand other people gathered at the intersection where one of the boys died, to support the families and to send a message that the evil of such a tragedy will not prevail. We prayed together, and then walked to Micah House where we prayed some more and listened to City officials and local clergy reflect on both the tragedy and the promise of hope that arises from the unity and solidarity represented in the assembled crowd. Yes, there were lots of words spoken. But what touched me the most was not the speeches by our mayor or the police officer leading the investigation to find the perpetrator or the pastor of one of the boys or the other clergy present – all of which were spirit-led and hope-filled. What touched me, particularly as I had my turn at speaking and as I looked out over the crowd, was the awesome sense of oneness that this crowd represented. In that moment, it was obvious that what was important was not race or age or gender or denomination or political ideology or whether we were from the north side or the south side. What was important was that we were all children of God, coming together to proclaim the Gospel through our actions – through praying together, through walking together, through just being together.

Those thousand people got it. They were not content to sit at home or in their pews and lament what had happened. Rather they were willing to take the Gospel to the street, to proclaim it through their very presence. In those thousand people standing in the middle of Oxford Drive, the Gospel of peace and compassion was proclaimed – that despite the darkness of the tragic situation that drew us all there, the light of the Gospel shines in Redlands through those people present, and many more who could not be there. In my words to the crowd, I told them as much, that they carry the light of Christ, that they carry the Gospel within them, and that their job was to carry that light of Christ back into the community. That is what today’s Gospel lesson is about – seeking how to follow Christ and to live the Gospel in our own lives, out in the world – through our actions, through our presence – even in the midst of darkness, especially in the midst of darkness.

As baptized persons, we share the journey with Jesus – the journey whereby he is revealed. We too are to reveal the light of Christ to the world. And that was accomplished this week in our church and our community. Our Youth struggled with discerning what it means to reveal the light of Christ to the world through acts of compassion and mercy. Our community came together to reveal the light of Christ in the midst of darkness. In both cases were examples of how we as God’s faithful people struggle to discern what it means to live the Gospel in tangible ways. In both cases were carried on the tradition of Andrew and his companion, seeking to answer for themselves the question, “what are you looking for?”, seeking the Messiah, the one who invites all of us in our own searching and in our own quest to live the Gospel, to “come and see.”

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Running Away, Running Home

Second Sunday After Christmas – Year A
Jeremiah 31.7-14; Psalm 84.1-8; Ephesians 1.3-6,15-19a;

Matthew 2.13-15,19-23
Sunday, January 2, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

Today’s gospel reading sort of stirs up the whole Christmas story a bit, doesn’t it? Jesus has barely been born. The shepherds have just returned to their fields after adoring the child. The Magi have come and gone (don’t worry, you didn’t miss them – we’ll deal with them on Epiphany). And now the Holy Family is on the move, heading for Egypt. What are we to make of this disruption in the lovely scene we saw on Christmas Eve?

Well, part of the problem is that we are really dealing with two stories. We have Luke’s account of the Nativity, which we heard on Christmas Eve, and we have Matthew’s account, part of which we have just heard. And both accounts differ in a number of ways. Among other differences, Luke focuses on the events at the time of Jesus’ birth – the manger, the swaddling clothes, choirs of angels, and shepherds visiting the scene. Matthew tells us nothing about the birth, only noting that Jesus is born. No mention of mangers, shepherds, or angels. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Luke tells of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple and then has the family returning to their home in Nazareth. Matthew, on the other hand, reports the visit from the Magi, after which, the Holy Family flees to Egypt.

Obviously, the two versions of the Nativity do not quite agree. And the problem is that in our minds, we have essentially conflated the two stories, resulting in some jarring transitions and facts that don’t quite jibe. We have no way of being sure of the actual chain of events. But for our purposes today, we really do need to separate the versions, differentiating between them, so that we can focus on the unique nature of Matthew’s version.

What we must remember if we are to gain some understanding of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and early life is that Matthew was a Jewish convert to Christianity and the gospel bearing his name was primarily addressed to Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. Matthew seeks to demonstrate, through references to Hebrew Scripture, that the events he documents are the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In this manner, Mathew attempts to provide legitimacy to the claim that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.

In addition to statements emphasizing prophetic fulfillment, Matthew’s theological intentions are achieved through use of typology – correlating Jesus’ life with those of prominent Old Testament characters – namely patriarchs and prophets. In so doing, Matthew attempts to interpret Jesus in the context of both Israel’s past and future. Some of the most significant correlations are provided in today’s gospel lesson, in which imagery is used to link Jesus with Moses, but also to link Joseph the earthly father of Jesus to Joseph the son of Jacob. Let’s just take a quick look at these connections, beginning with Joseph.

The Old Testament Joseph was well known for having dreams that revealed his future and provided for his own safety and well-being. As a result, he is forced to go to Egypt, not of his own freewill, but as a refugee, as the only way of having his life spared from the wrath of his brothers. And ultimately, he is able to save his entire family, the early Israelites, from famine and death by giving them a home in Egypt. The New Testament Joseph likewise has a series of dreams that reveal the future, allowing him to provide for the safety and well-being of Jesus. He is similarly displaced and homeless, forced to go to Egypt as a refugee, to spare Jesus’ life from the wrath of a paranoid despot.

Some of the Old Testament ordeals of Moses are similarly mirrored in the early life of Jesus. In the Old Testament, Pharaoh ordered the elimination of all the male Hebrew children for fear that the Israelites were becoming a threat to the Egyptians. So too, Herod orders the death of all the male children under the age of two because he fears the newborn King of the Jews will displace him as ruler of Israel. In the Old Testament, the Exodus of Moses and the Hebrews out of Egypt returned the people to their ancestral home. Following the death of Herod, Jesus and his family are able to leave Egypt and return to their home, thereby portraying Jesus as the new Moses.

Through these parallels, as well as other connections contained throughout his gospel, Matthew is providing evidence that this Jesus is indeed the Messiah that has been foretold in Scripture. To do this, Matthew is attempting to convince his Jewish audience that this Jesus is the new Moses, the new and ultimate lawgiver. Just as Moses led the people to a new life in the Promised Land, so too will this Jesus lead the people to new life. The message Matthew is attempting to convey is that God has always been faithful to his people, has always upheld his end of the Covenant, and has liberating his Chosen People from slavery and brought them to the long-awaited Promised Land. God continues to show his faithfulness to his people by sending them his son Jesus, who is the Messiah, who will continue to provide salvation for the people through new and eternal life – a new Promised Land, if you will.

While we don’t, or shouldn’t, need convincing that Jesus is the Messiah, we do sometimes need reassurance that God is faithful to us. After all, today’s gospel reading is a reminder, albeit an uncomfortable one, that we live in a world that is broken and far from perfect. The story of the flight into Egypt reminds us that life is uncertain and subject to change at a moment’s notice. Matthew’s rendition of Christmas starts with the story of Christ’s birth followed by the visit of the Magi. This is a story filled with promise and hope. But very quickly it turns to a story of fear and terror, thanks to the paranoid and deranged Herod, necessitating the Holy Family fleeing for their lives. Such is the world into which Jesus was born. Such is the world Jesus came to save.

And two thousand years later, things are not much better. The news is filled with stories of lives turned upside down thanks to paranoid and deranged despots and their cronies. We are ending one war and continuing another because of the actions of such people. Because of unbearable conditions in these and a variety of other places, millions of people continue to be forced to flee their homelands, seeking refuge elsewhere. Unlike Jesus and his family, most of these can never return home. And even in our own country, women flee their homes, seeking refuge and protection from abusive husbands and boyfriends. In our own cities, children are murdered while playing in their own homes and yards, innocent victims of gang warfare and drive-by shootings. Such is the world into which Jesus was born. Such is the world Jesus came to save.

These are extreme situations that make the news, but are indicative of the stress and turmoil that go on all around us day in and day out. Mary and Joseph had to run away to protect the life of their child. But how many of us are running away from situations that trouble us, making our lives stress-filled, if not unbearable? A problem, issue, or struggle at home or in the workplace or at school; tense if not broken relationships; even issues with ourselves – poor self-esteem, lack of self-confidence; feelings that we do not belong, that we are in some respects homeless. There are all sorts of things that cause us to run away, either figuratively or literally. The causes are as unique and varied as those of us who carry them.

We may try running, but what are we running to? Where are we seeking refuge? Usually, our refuge is found in supposed comforts that promise relief but in actuality provide no solution, and often only exacerbate matters – burying ourselves in our work; becoming overly involved in some other activities so we don’t have to face reality; dependence on alcohol or drugs; over-eating; withdrawal from the world. Over time, whatever it is that distracts us from our problems generally becomes less and less satisfying, requiring more and more time or intensity to help block out the pain we are trying to escape. Again, what we run to is as unique and varied as those of us who run.

I have a friend who decided that life in Southern California was not what he wanted for his family. He did not know where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do, but decided the best thing to do would be to run away – but not to run away to escape. Rather, to run away in hopes of actually running toward something. So about four months ago, he quit his job, sold his home, bought a motor home, and set out to explore the country and to discern what type of life would be best for his family. He admits that there is a lot of uncertainty in what he is doing, but finds that with a bit of faith, he always finds comfort, courage, and guidance; if only he is brave enough to ask God for help. And he says it does help – no matter how weird things seem to get, God is always there.

My friend is not so much running away from something as he is running toward something. He doesn’t know what or where it is, yet. But he knows that God will help him find what and where he is looking for. He hasn’t said so, but I think that in the process of trying to run toward some as yet undetermined place or outcome, my friend just happened to run into God.

That was the message that Matthew was trying to convey to his audience two thousand years ago – that in his faithfulness and love for us, God continues to be there for us to run into. And that message is still valid, maybe even more valid, today. After all, the Gospel is about people in the midst of the trials of everyday life, when unsure how they are going to continue on, happen to run into God – a faithful and loving God who wants to be there for us, helping us, guiding us, saving us from what burdens us. That is why he sent his son to live among us – his son who was as much a refugee from the trials and burdens of life as we ourselves are; his son who is willing and able to carry the burden for us, if we just let him.

Jesus and his family were able to return home guided and protected by God’s love. And as Matthew attempted to convey to his audience, that event proves God’s continuing love and faithfulness to us. If we open ourselves up to God’s love and faithfulness, we too can find that rather than run away from what troubles us, we would do well to run toward God. And we are assured that with a little faith, God will help us find the way home.

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