What are we looking for?

Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22

I imagine it’s safe to say that we’re all looking for something. Maybe it’s job stability, good retirement benefits, better health, or healthy friends. Maybe more existentially we’re looking for meaning and purpose, happiness and quality. This question of considering what we’re looking for is worth exploring, in Scripture and in our lives.

What was Moses looking for when he spoke to God? He knew it was important and set up his Tent of Meeting, and everyone in the camp noticed when the pillar of cloud appeared, signifying that Holy Speak was going on. From the reading today, we hear that Moses needs certainty in the presence of the LORD, an Advocate. Moses wants to see God. The LORD assures him but also reminds Moses that the terms are set by God. God will be gracious and merciful as God sees fit (though Moses already knows that intercession doesn’t hurt). God tells Moses that no one can see the face of the LORD and live, so instead the glory of God passes over Moses, with the hand of God covering him in the cleft of the mountain. We’re told Moses could see the back but not the face of the LORD. Amazing. Could Moses even imagine in his seeking God that he would so intimately experience the presence or the Glory of God? Or be told so blatantly that to see the face of God would be fatal to his mortal body? In all the encounters with God, Moses himself was too much for the people, eventually having to wear a veil over his face (Ex 34:29-35). Moses was transformed by his encounters with God.

What is Paul seeking in his correspondence with the Thessalonians, when he repeats, “You do not need to have anything written to you” but still sends the letter and asks that it be read to all the brothers and sisters. In the letter–since he can’t be there in person–Paul conveys his affection, encouragement, and instruction. In times of persecution, he’s telling them to be strong and keep doing the holy, blessed, and good work they are doing as believers. He’s seeking to support this small, marginal community as devoutly as if he were supporting a mega church. Paul’s sincerity of writing matches his tenderness. Always, it seems, Paul seeks to grow the Church, encouraging all to believe in Jesus Christ, holding himself forward as an example.

What about the Pharisees? What are they seeking, and why? They again show determination to destroy Jesus. They continue in their effort because they know Jesus is not going to let things continue as they are. The holy men can’t do this alone; they need the help of the Romans, from now through crucifixion. Catching Jesus in heresy or in treason, the Pharisees don’t seem to care so long as he is removed from the scene entirely. With Jesus gone, they can return to normalcy, their power unchallenged, the Law as they understand it enforced.

And what is Jesus looking for? I don’t ask this as a trick question or a trap. As I pondered the question, I realize that Jesus isn’t looking for anything. Jesus, the Son of God, Word incarnate, is perfectly present and  whole. If Jesus is “looking” for anything, it’s him looking to manifest the will of God on earth, to bring the presence of God to earth in a way we can encounter and not die from. Jesus looks to give his life that all might proclaim his name and live. Jesus looks to show us the Way of Life and Love so we can die to sin and live in glory. Jesus looks to teach us that while we will be tempted, tested, tried, and maybe even tormented for our faith, that is our cross to bear, that even those are things of which we are not to be afraid because for those who call upon the Name of the LORD, the LORD answers them . . . maybe not as we’d like but with a peace that passes all understanding.

Consider now what we are looking for. We, a people gathered here in this pocket of the Church, in this little corner of Arkansas. In this country. In a time not unlike that of Paul, Matthew, Jesus, or Moses. In a time when we are, as ever, people divided, especially by race, gender, and class.

In two-thirds of her new book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown looks “at how we can reclaim human connection and true belonging in the midst of sorting and withdrawal” (p. 59). Because what we are looking for, her research affirms, is true belonging, but we let our fears divide and isolate us from one another. We’re afraid others won’t believe us or follow us (like Moses). We’re afraid our community will crumble if it’s not strong or persevering enough (like the Thessalonians). We’re afraid our power will be tested and get overthrown (like the Pharisees). Perhaps we’re even afraid that Jesus isn’t enough to help us make it in this world. In all the stories, Jesus never sought to do anything but the will of His Father. Jesus wasn’t phased by politics, economics, or social norms, just as today Jesus Christ isn’t partial to any one race, gender, or class. Jesus Christ is all about true belonging.

Brown offers a working definition of true belonging I find useful:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” (p. 40)

And we are people created in the image of God. We are the coin of God, just as much as the denarius is the coin of Caesar. Jesus knew this fully, in every moment, whether he was in the midst or the head of the crowds, in the wilderness facing Satan, or on trial informally or formally.

What can we do to believe and belong to ourselves so deeply that we tap into the child of God we are, that we find a way to unleash the Light of Christ that shines in wisdom and knowledge that we know we are known to God, beloved of God, belonging in God, abiding in love?

Maybe you heard the phrase “me, too” this week. #Metoo was people braving the wilderness, facing vulnerability and perhaps fear by declaring that we, too, were victims of sexual assault and/or harassment. With all the women and men who said “metoo,” did you consider that we were finding belonging in our pain, in our being devalued, considered less than someone else? But it is in the belonging, in the collective, in the standing together to hear and listen to one another, to risk feeling together (even the pain) that love grows. Where love grows, fear has a harder time finding its way into our fault lines of division and isolation. Making the choice to stand out is braving the wilderness, being vulnerable even to temptation or evil itself, Satan we call it to personify it. Equally evil are the violations themselves and the shame that silences the voices and hardens the hearts, both breaking the connection of belonging as a beloved, whole child of God and as a person in beloved community. This is one example of how gender is abused. Internalized racism blinds a white person to their privilege and whispers in the mind of a person of color that they don’t know any better, that they can’t or shouldn’t speak out, up, or against. Classism, our social stratification, traps people in worldly systems, making their “worth” only as great as their social standing. These belong to God about as much as Caesar’s coin–part of creation because humans created it. They are in God’s power to change because it’s up to us to say where the power and authority lie. It’s up to us to call out violations of true belonging, to pay attention when our brothers and sisters aren’t being valued as children of God. In the name of Christ we stand against the status quo and stand up for love one genuine contact at a time so that the life and love of Christ flourish.

A life lived having seen the face of God is one reborn having known Glory. This was Jesus’ every breath, but we are so defended that we protect ourselves even from God. We see a sunrise and pause in its beauty. Our soul stirs at those liminal moments, those thin places where we feel the hand of God on our backs, but then we quickly forget or return to life as if we hadn’t been touched by God. Brown says what God knows to be true:

“Mercifully, it will take only a critical mass of people who believe in finding love and connection across difference to change everything” (p. 58).

It will take a critical mass of people looking for Christ here and now to change the world. It is taking a critical mass of people uniting together to build beloved communities across differences, whatever they may be. In the complicated moments we find ourselves in, we have to pause–especially in our fear–and breathe in the breath of God to inspire us, to remind us of our belonging and our belovedness. And then we set out looking for ways to affirm that we bear the image of God and seeking the reflection of the light and love of Christ in others. When we start looking, we’ll see that Light has been with us all along.

Continue Reading

“What Are You Looking For?”

 

Isaiah 49:1-7 | Psalm 40:1-12 | 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 | John 1:29-42

 

When I was in college, the class that had the most profound influence on my life was a Buddhism class. To be honest, I don’t know why I signed up for it except that I’m sure it fulfilled one of the general requirements and fit in my Freshman schedule. I was a Baptist, newly engaged, almost 19, and an English major. I wasn’t necessarily doing everything by the book, but I was ticking off those things on my life’s to-do list.

One day at the end of one of the Buddhism classes, during which I had asked a question about something, the professor met me at the bottom of the steps in the small classroom auditorium. Looking directly in my eyes, he asked me,

“Where do you come from?”

He asked it slowly and deliberately, like it meant more than what he was simply saying, but there was another student nearby. I needed to get to whatever was next, so I just replied quickly, “Bentonville? In Northwest Arkansas?”–questioningly in case he wasn’t familiar with the state’s geography or in case that wasn’t really what he was asking.

“Where do you come from?” he asked again intently. I didn’t get it. I glanced at the other student who was smiling. He probably got it, but I was clueless. In the rush that is the end of class, other students with hopefully more understandable questions took my place, and I politely and quickly left, still wondering. I told him where I was from. What else could it possibly mean?

+++

John doesn’t give us a description of Jesus’s baptism, how the dove descended or the voice came from heaven. What he gives us is his testimony, testimony that “the Spirit descend(ed) from heaven like a dove” and that “the one who sent (him) to baptize with water said to (him), ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” [The one who sent him, of course, is God (from 1:6).] I imagine John’s utter excitement when he sees Jesus in the flesh, all the Truth brought to life. I imagine his, “Look, guys! There he is! The Son of God!!” If you’ve ever seen a celebrity somewhere unexpectedly and no one really believed you until they saw for themselves, I figure it’s something akin to that feeling. But this isn’t Julia Roberts or George Clooney. This is the Lamb of God.

Do you think Andrew and his buddy follow Jesus respectfully because what John said makes complete, rational sense? Are they genuinely curious about this man John seems so absolutely certain about, or are they following like would-be bullies? I can’t help but think of Jesus walking past, knowing their hearts, waiting for them to choose to follow. When he turns, they all stop in their tracks, looking intently at one another. And Jesus, with full presence of Spirit, asked the two who followed, “What are you looking for?”

Maybe caught a bit off-guard, they fall back on pleasantries, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” That sounds so much better than saying, “Well, we’re just looking to see if John’s as crazy as he sounds.” Because surely Jesus couldn’t be the one foretold, the Messiah himself? Have you ever done that? Been thinking about something but asked or said something entirely different to mask your true thoughts? It’s awkward and rarely convincing in most cases. Can you imagine trying to pull it off in front of Jesus? Fortunately, Jesus invites the budding disciples to “Come and see” where he’s staying, and they remain with him a while. As they remained with him, the more they came to believe in him. The longer they stayed in his presence, the more assured they were that they had found what they were looking for. They believed enough that they could give their own testimony, as Andrew did when recruiting his brother: “Simon, we’ve found the Messiah!” They hadn’t even given voice to what they were looking for until then. Up to that point, Jesus was showing them who he was by letting them abide in his presence. Being with him, don’t you know they felt the dawning of understanding, the first glimpse that this was the promised deliverer?

Hoping that we’ll stay with him, too, Jesus asks us today,

“What are you looking for?”

And the beautiful thing is that we don’t have to know specifically. We can feel clueless. Maybe we’re looking for the faith–however imperfect it may be–of the apostles. Maybe we’re looking for an occasion for our own testimony, an encounter with the Almighty that transforms our life and gives us a clear heading. Maybe we’re looking for a glimmer of light and hope that will bring us into a truly unified country. Whatever it is, Jesus knows if we draw close to him, we’ll find what we seek. Like a wise teacher, he tells us,

“Come and see.”

We have to understand, though, that just being with Jesus won’t be all sunshine and rainbows. We can pray all day long, “Jesus, I want to be happy; Jesus, I want all my friends and loved ones to be healed; Jesus, if I had just a little more money, life would be so much better . . ., and I promise I’ll give more to the church.” Jesus doesn’t promise that walking with him will lead to happiness and success as we understand it: those things are fleeting. Jesus does, however, mention joy and being made complete, being blessed in the kingdom of heaven–not #blessed on our license plates or social media statuses–being truly blessed when the world is turned upside down … and the leader of our hearts and souls and minds is our Lord and Savior … and we show genuine love for God, our neighbor, and ourselves. People wouldn’t have to wonder who’s “really” Christian then, would they? The song says, “They will know we are Christian by our LOVE.”

What about others looking to us?

What do we tell others who might be inclined to follow us because they see we have something they want, too? I have to admit, I find myself prepping people at the jail for their first experience of our church, our community here in this building. They love what they experience outside these walls and inside theirs at the detention center. “What church is it, again? The Episcopal Church?” they ask. I make sure they know where we are.

But what happens between there and here? After working to build up their worth behind bars, they get released back into the world that broke them in the first place. If they make it into our pews, how do we receive them? “We start our services in silence mainly,” I tell them. “People are going to be dressed up, but not everybody. The choir sits in the back couple of pews. Everything is in the bulletin, but feel free to just watch. We have coffee between services most Sundays…” I wonder if I’ve already scared them from coming in the first place; I’m already apologizing for their first experience.

I should take my cues from Jesus and do like CB does, telling folks to just “Come and See.” If and when others, the stranger, our neighbor comes, we welcome them and remain with them with humble, open hearts. Jesus gave us the best evangelical advice we didn’t know we were asking for. Just “come and see.” Just stay with Jesus a while, and he’ll show us our heart’s deepest yearning. He didn’t say WE would know what that was, but He does. “Abide in me,” doesn’t he say later in John?

We’re not here to boost our membership or pay off mortgages or have the most beautiful stained glass in town (though those things are nice, right?). We’re here to draw close to the Lord and share that Good News to the world. If we’ve ever come close to God, we’ve been touched by the Light and Love of the grace of God, and Spirit lingers with us. And since Jesus already came into the world for us all, we’ve been commissioned to bear that light not to our own loved ones, not just to our nation, but to the world. The least we can do is share it with our neighbor.

For my friends in the jail who are looking for a church, I tell them to go where they feel the presence of God. Because if they don’t experience the presence of God in a church, even our church, I tell them to keep looking. The burden of proof on whether God is in our church, in our homes, in our country lies on each of us. Are we close enough to God through Jesus Christ to be honest about what we’re looking for, to even let our hearts be open to the truth of what we’re looking for?

What are we all looking for, really? The presence of God. Yes, our worldly treasures and lack of suffering make life easier, but that’s surface level. Wanting a better life for others, not just my family and friends, but for those around the world–opportunity and health and safety. That’s good. I want all those things, too, but there’s something deeper, something more. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’m not sure I can even name it. Maybe because it’s too big, I’m too scared, it’s too much, and it’s not within my power. I’m looking for that ocean of love that is God.

We’re looking for the presence of God, oddly enough, because that’s where we come from. We’re all looking for our way home.

We’re looking to be restored to wholeness, to be transfigured into the likeness of Christ. We’re craving to be the image of God we were created to be. All those who followed Jesus in his day thought he was the Messiah who would deliver them from oppression by the powers that be. But Jesus, the Light of the world, the Light unto all nations, came to show us our way back to God, to show us where we come from, and to show us our way home. Today more than ever, we need to draw real close to Jesus and stay a while in His presence to see what he has to show us.

 

Continue Reading