Scripture - John 1:29-42
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, January 19, 2014
It's the beginning of Week #3 in my interim time with you here at Westminster and I know that I don't yet know all I need to know about this church and its ministry. I've attended staff meetings, committee meetings, and a deacon's gathering. I've have the chance to look at minutes, websites, calendars and church directories. My email is set up. I know where the photocopiers are. We've made some adjustments to my microphone since last Sunday's service. And, I haven't gotten lost in the building recently.
While I don't yet know all that I will know about this church, what I found during my first two weeks here is that you are a people who are gracious and kind, a people with deep commitments to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a people passionate about living out your faith in this community and around the world. I am grateful to be a part of your ministry and looking forward to our journey together.
Although I've never called this church "home" before, I've known this church as an "outsider" for the 17 years I've lived in the Wilmington area; 13 of which I lived just a few blocks from here over in the Cool Springs/Tilton community. And so, over the years I have come to worship here on some occasions. I've driven my car past this property, and walked my dog beside this building probably hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
Having served the life of New Castle Presbytery on Council, the Speer Commission and Committee on Ministry, over the years I've had the opportunity to meet and to work with some of you. As a minister in this community, I've known Waltons and Ledbetters, Millers and Jones, Colbys and Wansers too. And, of course, I've served pancakes with some of you on Saturday mornings when I was pastor at West, and during my years as Administrative Pastor and Executive Director of Meeting Ground, it was my joy to connect with others of you as you shared your lives and gifts with that community of faith.
But in order to get to know this church on a much more comprehensive level, I've found myself asking a lot of questions in the past couple of weeks and seeking a lot of answers. I've asked simple questions like: How do you get into this building? Where do you park on Sunday mornings? Where's the light switch for that hallway? What in the world is the Holy Toast Cafe?
But I've also been asking more difficult questions as well, questions whose answers are complex or nuanced, Questions such as: What does the budget of this church--the way we spend our money--say about the deepest hopes and dreams and faith of this community?
I've found myself asking, what do we do in the world around us? It was Martin Luther King Junior who once said, "Life's most urgent and persistent question is, €˜What are you doing for others?'" I've borrowed that great man's question as I've begun to get to know this church asking, what are we as a church doing for others? And, is what we are doing for others and the way we are doing it making the difference we intend for it to be making?
In the past few days, I've found myself asking a lot of questions. Things like, are we a welcoming community? We say we are but is that how we are experienced by those who do not know us?
I'm aware that this is a church that is by the world's standards far more than merely "comfortable." And so I wonder, will the poor find companionship here? Will those who are hurting find a warm embrace? Will those to whom the church for so many decades said, "No, we don't want your gifts and ministry," will we too be embraced and included here? I hope so, and I believe you hope so too!
Author, teacher and scholar of American religion and culture Diana Butler Bass suggests that churches that will be vital and vibrant into the future are churches that value wisdom rather than purity1. These are churches in which it's OK to ask questions, churches in which it's OK if the answers don't seem to be squaring with past answers, churches in which it's OK if all of our answers are not necessarily the same. Churches in which, I would say, our questions and the struggle to answer those are seen as gift and opportunity rather than something to be feared and shut down. Where are we at Westminster on this? Are we afraid of questions or do we embrace them? Are we comfortable if our answers today don't "square" with answers of old? If we don't all agree?
I don't suppose - or even expect - that there are easy answers to these questions I am pondering, but it seems to me if I want to get to know this church, they are questions I need to be asking. They are questions that are ultimately far more important than the questions about the location of light switches, coffee pots, and meeting rooms.
Perhaps because I've been doing so much questioning in the past couple of weeks, as I pondered the story that Shelley and Mary-beth told us today, I was intrigued at the questions raised by the participants in the story. As I've searched for answers to my own questions about Westminster Church in the past couple of weeks, I was struck by something else in this story: the lack of answers to the questions asked by the participants in the story.
What are you seeking? It's not answered. Where are you staying? It's not answered either. And yet, it would seem like both questions could have generated fairly straight forward answers. I'm seeking hope. I'm seeking healing. I'm seeking acceptance, money, a job. I'm seeking the Messiah. I'm staying just over the hill. I'm staying the Holiday Inn in the next village. I'm staying in a room in the house across the street. Neither of the questions is answered and I wonder, what does that mean?
Shortly after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, John sees Jesus passing by and he points to Jesus and says to his disciples, "There goes the Lamb of God." Hearing this, two of John's disciples decide to follow along behind Jesus. And when Jesus saw them following him, he asked them a question. "What are you seeking?" But the two men didn't answer Jesus' question. And so the question, "What are you seeking" just sort of hangs there in midair, dangling, as if it were a bell on a string. As if perhaps it's a question for us to ponder too.
I don't suppose anyone will ever know why the two didn't answer Jesus' question. We can only guess. Perhaps they didn't know what they were seeking. Or perhaps they didn't feel they knew Jesus well enough at that point to share their inmost dreams and hopes. Or perhaps somehow they realized that the answer to that question is really only answered as one walks with God.
But whatever the reason, instead of answering Jesus the disciples turned the tables around and posed a question back to Jesus, asking, "Where are you staying?" And then, instead of Jesus giving them the street name on which he was staying, or even describing his accommodations, Jesus invited them to come and see - to come, to join him, to remain with him and to see. It was an invitation not just to come and gaze upon his lodgings, but more importantly, it was an invitation to be in relationship with him; it was an invitation to engage with him and the community that he would create.
While Jesus didn't answer the disciples question he did invite them to experience his love and the life he had to offer; because, I think, if they were to going to find what it was they were really seeking they would need to know more than where his tent had been pitched or in what hotel he had rented a room. They would need to encounter him, to be in relationship with him, to remain with him in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, for now and for all time.
Ultimately the questions lifted up by the participants in this drama are not answered, but those questions do culminate in an invitation that is given to come and see. When those first followers came and saw and experienced, their lives were changed, and as their lives were changed, they shared that news with others.
Two questions are asked in this story, one by Jesus and one by John's disciples, but neither is answered. And as I've asked why that might be so, I have begun to wonder if perhaps the questions we ask may sometimes be more important than the answers we find; if sometimes asking questions and seeking answers is actually an important means of deepening our faith. Yes, I wonder if perhaps asking questions and exploring possible answers might provide some of the raw material needed to nurture our growth in love and trust of God.
I wonder, if I question my tradition that I love, or the beliefs I was taught - even those that are meaningful to me - do you think it's possible, that my faith might become ever stronger and ever more sure? If I trust God enough to raise questions about, say, the presence of evil in our world, or about beliefs long held by the Christian church, is it possible, do you think, that the struggle to answer those questions might be a pathway toward more faithful response to God's love? And if we have enough trust to question the way we do things - even the things that feel good and comfortable to us - do you think it's possible that in the process we might be opening ourselves up to encountering the presence of God in a ways we've never experienced before? I think maybe so.
And if so, then isn't it possible that questions themselves may just be God's gifts to us, gifts to nourish us, to sustain us, to push us and prod us and uphold us? I wonder and I hope.
As I've asked questions of this text this week, I've also begun to wonder if perhaps the movement of this story might even shed some light on what it means to do evangelism. While I realize the word "evangelism" is a very uncomfortable word for most of us Presbyterians these days, nonetheless it is human to share with others things that mean much to us. If then our faith or this particular community of faith is important to us, why wouldn't we want to share it with others?
The story begins with John pointing Jesus out to 2 of his disciples and Jesus in turn asking those 2 men a question. "What are you seeking?" It's interesting to me that Jesus didn't preach to them. He didn't give them a set of rules to follow. He didn't tell them that they had to believe certain things. He didn't start out by sharing some sort of spiritual "truth." He didn't even invite them to confess their sins or turn a different a direction, or even really, talk about God. Instead Jesus asked a simple but profound question: What are you seeking? And then, he invited them to come and experience the life he had to offer. And they came, and they saw, and they remained. And Andrew invited his brother Simon; and Simon came, and he saw, and he remained.
I wonder, is this what evangelism really is, nothing more difficult or any less profound than a simple, heart felt invitation come? Come and see. Can evangelism really be that easy?
Come with me to Westminster, and see if perhaps within this community you might find a place to ask your own questions and to experience the wildly inclusive love and acceptance of a God who broke all sorts of barriers. Come play 9 square and see...Come to Living Mosaics and see...Come to 9 AM worship and see...Come to serve with us in Emmanuel Dining room and see...Come as we think about how to respond to the violence in Wilmington and as we beat the drum for peace in the world. Come and see...Come and see...Come and see...And if this is evangelism, is it not something we all could do?
Questions. Questions have filled much of my time and my thoughts in recent weeks, but as I stand here today in this magnificent space, having been moved by the beauty and majesty of the music, surrounded by people I know are good and kind, faithful and committed, I bring not only questions, but hope as well. I hope, for instance, that you will ask some of the same questions that I have been asking about this church, our ministry, and our faith, and that perhaps as I get to know you better, we will find time and space and place to explore our questions together. And furthermore, as you and I journey together I hope that each of us might find ourselves "coming and seeing" anew. Indeed, Jesus' invitation shared so long ago with two of John's disciples is addressed to you and to me as well. Come and see...
Come and see by deepening your involvement in this faith community. Come and see by giving more sacrificially of your talents. Come and see by responding to the need for your time and your skills within this church's ministry. Come and see by regular attendance at worship, by daily prayer for this church, by participation in our educational program.
Come and see, and experience anew a love which has the power to break down barriers that divide us. Come and see and experience anew God's grace which heals us and sets us free from bondage to sin. Come and see and experience a God who created an incredible tapestry of people and says to us all regardless of economic status, social status, age or who you love, "You are my beloved child."
What are you seeking? My friends, come. Come with your hearts. Come with your lives. Come with your questions. Come. Just maybe you will see and find within this community of Christians what you are really seeking. Amen.
Prayers of the People ~ Rev. Dr. Gregory Knox Jones
Eternal God, you create us in your image and you urge us to live in rich and abundant ways by following Jesus. Fill us with your Spirit of love that we may bring healing and wholeness to a hurting world.
God, tomorrow, as our nation celebrates the life of your servant, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., help us to embrace the inspiring words he uttered as he labored to be faithful to your will.
Calling on us to stiffen our moral backbone and to stand for what is right and true, he reminded us of the words of your prophet, Amos, who called on us to "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
He insisted that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere (because) we are tied together in a single garment of destiny."
Dr. King promised us that we will never be disappointed if we take up a righteous cause "because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
He recalled your truth that "darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can drive out darkness. That hate cannot drive out hate, only love can drive out hate."
Your servant, Martin, taught that we are "measured not by where we stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but by where we stand at times of challenge and controversy."
He believed that "unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
Everlasting God, we pray that we will never become complacent and simply accept things as they are, but that we will be passionate in striving for justice and working for peace so that all may live in dignity and in hope. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.
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