Garrison Keillor once remarked that the sturdy Lutherans of Lake Wobegon go to church on cold, snowy, wintry mornings in January, after Christmas, Sunday mornings like this one, just to prove that they can. Just to show that they will endure. And we can be thankful that there are some Presbyterians in that category as well.”
Garrison Keillor reflected, “I tell stories on the radio about Lake Wobegon, and its God-fearing, egalitarian inhabitants,” Keillor wrote, “and though I find a grandeur in this, I feel that, at 61, I am still in search of what I was looking for when I was 18. What I really want is a long conversation with Grandpa and Grandma Denham who came over from Glasgow in 1906 with their six kids . . . and settled in a big frame house on Longfellow Avenue. Grandpa was a railroad clerk who wore black hightop shoes and white shirts with silk armbands and spoke with a Scottish burr, so “girls” came out “gettles.” He never drove a car or attended a movie or read a novel. I want to know why they came here, what they were looking for—the truth, not a children’s fable—and if I have found it, maybe I can stop looking.” (Homegrown Democrat, p 203)
What are you looking for?
It’s precisely the right question to ask of everyone gathered here today.
All four Gospels offer some account of the calling of the first disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke (called the Synoptic Gospels) are all pretty straight forward. In their versions, Jesus seems to almost be intentionally seeking out those who would become His followers: in Matthew and Luke Jesus reportedly walked along the sea shore until He came upon Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and essentially commanded them to follow; Mark suggests that Jesus retreated up into the hills, from whence He called unto Him those He desired, and they came to Him.
But it’s quite a different matter in this odd little story that John’s Gospel tells. One day, not long after John baptizes Jesus, they encounter each other again. John, standing there with a couple of his followers, sees Jesus walking by and tells his disciples, “Look, there goes the Lamb of God.” Which was kind of a weird thing to say at the time; the conquering Messiah—a small, meek, vulnerable little lamb?
Now, keep in mind that these two men—John and Jesus—were cousins; having first met when they were both still in their mother’s wombs. And even in that early state, John recognized the significance of being in the presence of the Other. And it’s not too much to assume, I think, that with these two women being close relatives and living in the same area, their boys probably grew up as playmates.
So their chance meeting on this particular day did not represent a second-time encounter, nor did John have some sudden startling revelation regarding who his cousin truly was. John had known that for a long time.
His observation to those standing near seems almost off-hand: `Look, there goes my cousin now. The One I’ve been talking about all this time. The Messiah. The Lamb of God.’
Whatever John’s tone, his few words were enough to make his two friends turn around, take notice and, out of curiosity, start following Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t call out or command these two to `Follow me’; in fact, when Jesus becomes aware that He is being followed, He turns and asks them (as anyone might), simply, “What are you looking for?”
And I find their response to Jesus’ question very interesting and very telling; because rather than giving Jesus a straight answer, such as, `We’re looking for the Messiah, the One who is to come,’ or even `We’d like to know the meaning of life, if you please;’ instead they answer Jesus’ query with another question: “Where are you staying, Rabbi?”
Now that almost sounds like these two guys are fishing for an invitation to a free lunch. But biblical scholars will tell you that the question `Where are you staying’ was not merely about lodging, but about identity. (Thomas Long) As in `Where do you come from? Who are your people?’
In fact, it wouldn’t be stretching things, as one (Tom Long) suggests, to translate the disciples’ response as, “At this point we don’t know whom we are following or where this path is leading. Can you tell us?”
And what does Jesus say? “Come and see.”
When new elders come onto the session, the first thing I like to do is ask them to share a bit about their personal faith journey and discipleship. And I am always struck—not surprised mind you—but struck that at some point in their story they will inevitably refer to a significant relationship in their lives that was central in their development as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Here’s the thing: Faith begins, not with the recitation of creed or a good doctrinal understanding of reformed tradition; it is conceived not in liturgical activity nor proven by theological argument.
Faith begins in relationship; with an invitation to lunch and honest conversation.
Faith begins when strangers experience hospitality; it grows when acquaintances share experiences to become friends; it matures when friendships deepen to become part of a Beloved Community in Jesus Christ.
Faith begins when one begins a relationship with Jesus Christ; and that is typically initiated by the willing witness of another who is already in such a relationship.
While visiting my family in Wichita over the holidays, we drove past a church with a sign out front which boldly assured: “You’ve got questions in life. We’ve got the answers.”
But, in today’s odd little story, we see that it’s not necessarily that cut and dry. Sometimes the answers to life’s tough questions—life’s most important questions—cannot be so readily answered. Real discipleship, says John’s Gospel, is kind of a `come and see’ proposition.
`Do you really want to know who I am?’ says Jesus. `Then walk with me; sup with me; hang out with me; follow me. Be my friend; be my traveling companion.’ “Seek and ye shall find”—along the way.
“The issue,” writes Presbyterian theologian George Stroup, “is not finally whether one believes, but, as the Bible recognizes, what one loves most fervently and what the heart yearns for as its final happiness. There is a great deal at stake in the question of what finally will satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart.” (Before God, pp. 137, 138)
Probably the greatest truth of our existence is that God created us with a “God-sized hole in our hearts,” as St. Augustine observed, which nothing but God alone can fill.
“Thou hast made us for thyself,” wrote Augustine, “so that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
All of which brings us right back to here and now.
You see, it really is not about having all the answers to life’s tough questions. Because the primary call to follow Jesus is all about moving down a road marked `come and see.’ Now, if I saw that sentiment on a church sign, I’d want to go inside and find out what was going on. Because only when we’re willing to respond to Jesus’ invitation—to follow, to `come and see’—will we begin to discover the true depths of what discipleship—indeed what the meaning of life—is all about for us.
What we are all looking for—no matter who we are, where we come from, who our people are, what our background is or anything else—we are all, in some way or another, looking for God: looking for a place to belong and to feel loved; looking for a sense of purpose to embrace and find direction by; looking for someone trustworthy to follow; looking for something big enough and important enough to devote our whole lives to.
Tom Long tells the story of staying in a motel in a large city, and being surprised to find a handwritten notice posted to the elevator door which read, “Party tonight! Room 210, 8:00 p.m. Everyone invited!”
Long says he could hardly picture who might throw such a party, or for what reason; but he imagined that at eight o’clock, room 210 would be filled by an unlikely assortment of people: sales representative seeking a little relief from the tedium of the road; a vacationing couple tired of sightseeing; a man stopping overnight in the middle of a long journey looking for a bit of festivity; a few inquisitive and wary motel employees, there because of professional responsibility; perhaps some young people who had slipped out of their parent’s rooms, anxiously curious about what was happening in room 210.
But, “Alas, the sign by the elevator soon came down, replaced by a typewritten statement from the motel staff explaining that the original notice was a hoax, a practical joke. That made sense, of course, but in a way it was too bad,” wrote Long. “For a brief moment, those of us staying at the motel were tantalized by the possibility that there just might be a party going on somewhere to which we were all invited—a party where it didn’t make much difference who we were when we walked in the door, or what motivated us to come; a party we could come to out of boredom, loneliness, curiosity, responsibility, eagerness to be in fellowship, or simply out of a desire to ‘come and see’ what was happening; a party where it didn’t matter nearly as much what got us in the door, as what would happen to us after we arrived. Perhaps if there is to be such a party, the church is going to have to throw it.” (Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian, Wiley Pub., 2004)
And everyone is invited. Just come . . . come and see.
(Grateful acknowledgement to Rev. Dr. WilliamWillimon and Rev. Dr. John Buchanan for inspiration and direction for this sermon.)