Questions from Jesus – A sermon for Epiphany (January 15, 2017) — The Rev. Amy McCreath

For 7 years I worked with a very good spiritual director who always asked me the same question. I would bust into the room, flop down and yammer on to him about all the goings on in my ministry. I would rant and rave about what felt so hard for me and tell him about great books I was reading and projects that felt daunting. He was a consummate listener. At some point about 40 or 50 minutes into our meetings, in a moment of quiet, he would calmly, quietly and with genuine curiosity ask me, “Amy what is your one true prayer?”

In today’s gospel, John exclaims to his disciples, “Here is the Lamb of God!” They then start to follow Jesus, and Jesus turns to ask them a question. This question is the first utterance of Jesus in John’s gospel, and it reveals to us what is most central to John’s understanding of Jesus. If the Gospel of John had a title it would be this question. The question is “What do you seek?”

This question is not just for the Andrew and the other first disciples, of course. It is for us. What do you seek? This question breaks through the “fourth wall,” as they say in theatre and cinema — it breaks through the barrier between the story and the reader. This question is the beginning of the spiritual life, in any faith – the place where the Spirit makes us restless or aware of an emptiness in our current life – and it invites from us attention to our deepest yearning, desires, and joys.

God is always asking us this question, always curious about our answer.

In today’s gospel story, John’s disciples do not answer Jesus’s question directly. They do not say, “We seek peace, or we seek the overthrow of the Roman Empire.” They do not recite their rule of life. Instead, they ask him a question of their own: Where are you staying?

Isn’t that cool? I am so thankful that they answer with a question. I rarely have answers to Jesus’s questions. Questions are generally where my conversations with Jesus start, too. Where have you been? What’s going on? Why is this happening to me? What can I do to make things better for this beloved person in my life? I have a lot more questions than answers.

The Bible has lots of examples of people asking questions of God, too.

The first question a human asks God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”Job asks God, ‘Why was I even born?’  The Psalmist asks, “When will you judge those who persecute me?” Someone asks Jesus, “How many times shall I forgive my brother?” Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?”

Evidently God can take it.

There’s something really interesting about the disciples question to Jesus: Where are you staying? They want to abide with Jesus. They want to hang out with him, break bread with him.  The disciples seek not a thing or a state of being but a relationship.

I think this is what my spiritual director was pointing my towards with his question, “What is your one true prayer.” Prayer necessitates relationship. No one prays to themselves. By asking me, “What is your one true prayer,” he was in part asking “Are you going to let God into your tidy little world? Or are you going to keep trying to fix everything yourself? Are you going to be a lone ranger in the midst of this muddle, or are you going to acknowledge that you are part of a web of relationships shot through with holiness and call on all the strength and peace and wisdom of the sacred ordering of which you are a part.  

Jesus answers the disciples’ question not by telling them his address, but by inviting them to join him and find out for themselves. Yes, they spend the afternoon at his pad, but then they are off and running, as the next 20 chapters of the gospel of John detail. They are invited on a journey.

Jesus takes them away from their familiar haunts, takes them to stormy seas, sends them out to do work far beyond what they thought possible, he changes their names, he tells them stories with surprise endings that challenge every assumption their society have them, he asks them lots of questions along the way,  all of which are variations on that first question:  What do you seek?

We are headed into quite a week in the life of our country. It is a week book-ended on one end by the remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. who answered Jesus’s invitation to come and see in a powerful way, and on the other end, by the inauguration of our next President.

MLK’s vocation grew from God’s asking him what do you seek, and his answering I seek a world where we are all brothers and sisters, all connected. He responded to Jesus’s invitation to come and see by uprooting himself from a straightforward career as a pastor and a father, and following Jesus on the road to Selma, Atlanta, Birmingham, Washington DC. He gave his life to the work of abiding with Jesus for the good of those whom Jesus loves.

It is easy, as we head towards the inauguration festivities to wonder how our new president would answer the question, “What do you seek?” And we should care about that. But the call, today, and this week, is for us to hear Jesus asking that question of us. Regardless of how we voted or what our lives hold, Jesus is breaking through the fourth wall to invite us on a journey. In these days ahead, abide with Jesus.   

Let him take you away from your familiar haunts,  takes you to stormy seas, send you out to do work far beyond what you think possible, change your name, tell you stories with surprise endings that challenge every assumption your society has given you, and ask you lots of questions along the way,  all of which are variations on that first question: What do you seek?

In 1963, MLK preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights OH,

[T]here are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted, and to which I call all [those] of good will to be maladjusted until the good society is realized.  I must confess that I will never adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I will never become adjusted to religious bigotry. I will never adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many and give luxuries to the few.

There is a need for men and women today to be as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could stand amid the men and women of his day, amid the intricacies of the formidable military machinery of the Roman Empire, to say, “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” and cry out, “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”  Through such maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the darkened midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.   

What do you seek?

You are part of a web of relationships shot through with holiness. Call on all the strength and peace and wisdom of the sacred ordering of which you are a part. Come and see where Jesus leads you, and encourage us to come along with you.

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