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The Rev. Clare Fischer-Davies
St. Martin’s Church
January 16. 2011
Epiphany II A
Listen to who you are:
In the Collect for today, the prayer book tells us that we are the people of God, that we are illumined by God’s Word and Sacraments, and that we are so illumined in order to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory for the healing and transformation of the world.
That is an incredible vocation – an incredible, holy calling that we will each live out in our own particular way. All of the lessons this week give us insight into who we are as God’s covenant people, sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. The ghastly shootings last week in Arizona and our civic observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday have made us all reflect on who we are as Americans, about what it means to be a citizen of this country at this particular time in our history. There are plenty of opportunities this week to think about who we are and about how we are called to show who we are to the world.
John the Baptist certainly knows he is; he knows who he is and more importantly, he knows who he is not. And because he knows so clearly who he is, he can be crystal clear about who Jesus is: “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.” John understands exactly the job he has been given to do – to baptize people with water to scrub them clean and make them ready to change their lives. I have no desire to live as John lived, a crazy guy in the desert eating bugs, but I certainly envy John his clarity about who he is and how who he is inspires what he does.
It’s interesting that the other two people in the Gospel are not so sure. They have attached themselves to John as disciples, but they are still looking for something else. As soon as John points out Jesus – “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb,” they turn away from John and head toward Jesus.
I can’t get enough of the exchange between Jesus and these two men. Jesus turns around and asks them what they are looking for. And they reply with a phrase that sounds very odd to us in English: “Where are you staying?” And Jesus replies, just as oddly, “Come and see.”
After the stark clarity of John the Baptist, after that sure and certain affirmation, we expect the men to say: “we are looking for you,” and we expect Jesus to give them some kind of instruction – “obey these laws” or “believe these propositions.” What are we to make of “Where are you staying?” and “Come and see.”
We don’t really have a good word in English to express what the Greek means – “where are you staying” ends up sounding more like “what hotel are you in?’ it sounds temporary and transitory. Later in the Gospel of John, the same Greek word is translated as “abide”, when Jesus talks to the disciples on the last night of his life about how God, Christ and the disciples will all abide in and with one another.
So really, these two men are asking Jesus – “Who are you? Where do you really live? What is the grounding reality for your life? And when Jesus answers, “Come and see,” we are meant to understand that Jesus can’t answer their question by handing them a book to read, or giving them a list of precepts to follow. The only way to know who Jesus is to abide with him, to come and see and stay and over time, to understand, to obey, to take up a cross, and follow.
I came across a story this week about Noah Adams, a host of NPR’s “All Things Considered”. Adams decided, at age 51, that he wanted to learn to play the piano, and he wrote a book called “Piano Lessons” about that process. He tried to teach himself at first, using something called “Miracle Piano Teaching System,” among others, but ultimately he discovered that there were no miracles, that the only way to learn to play was to have a good teacher, and to commit himself to the boring discipline of scales, exercises and practice, practice, practice.
You know where this is going. Why do we think that learning to live the Christian life will come any easier than anything else? Why do we think that we can learn all we need to know on our own, or that some half-remembered bits of childhood Sunday School will be enough to sustain our faith in a complex and confusing world? Why do we think we don’t need discipline and practice and mentors and commitment?
John the Baptist explodes onto the scene in all four Gospels without bringing much of a back story with him. He’s already clear about who he is and who Jesus is and absolutely clear about what his vocation is. But what we don’t know is how much time John the Baptist spent learning to understand all those things. In what community did he prepare? In what synagogue did he hear Scripture read week after week? What other teachers and rabbis helped lead and guide him? The Gospel story doesn’t need us to know that – but we can’t assume that John the Baptist just suddenly appeared one day in the desert out of nowhere. All that time before he begins his work, he is abiding somewhere and growing in knowledge and understanding.
The story of Jesus is filled with moments of conversion and transformation that seem to be instantaneous, with no fuzzy edges or gray areas. But if we look a little more closely, things aren’t quite so clear. Andrew, one of those two men who asked Jesus where he was staying, goes to fetch his brother Simon the next day and tells him, “We have found the Messiah.” Andrew brings Simon to meet Jesus and Jesus tells him, “I’m going to call you “Rock” “ Cephas, is the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek Petrus, which we translate, Peter.
But Peter isn’t much of a rock, really – is he? All of the Gospels are filled with stories about Simon Peter, who abides with Jesus just about as much as anyone does, who is closer to Jesus than just about anyone, but who screws things up again and again until finally he’s so scared and overwhelmed that he keeps denying that he even knows Jesus. It won’t be until after the Resurrection that Simon Peter really grows into his name. He doesn’t instantly become strong as a Rock just because Jesus calls him one. Jesus may tell Peter who he is, but it takes him a long time to live into his name.
So listen again to who we are – God’s people, illumined by Word and Sacrament, in order to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. There are echoes of that vocation through all the lessons, but if we look closely, those lessons also tell us that our vocations take time to fully reveal themselves: Isaiah says God’s servants will be “a light to the nations”, but before that, until the time was right, God hides his servants as if they are polished arrows in a quiver. Paul writes to Corinth that they are “equipped with every spiritual gift,” and goes on to stress that God will strengthen them to fulfill their baptismal promise, and above all, that God is faithful.
The Corinthian church especially gave Paul fits, because some of them believed that once you had received the Holy Spirit, well – you were Spirit-filled and perfect and superior to everyone else. If they were Noah Adams, the Corinthians would believe that one pass through The Miracle Piano System, would be enough for them to play concertos. Paul spends most of the letter reminding the Corinthians that (1) they are by no means perfect, that they are still learning just like everyone else and (2) he deflates the puffed-up Corinthians who believe their spiritual superiority means they are too good for the rest of the community. That wonderful Body metaphor that Paul uses later in the letter is aimed at helping some of the Corinthians understand that they need to abide with one another and that they all need to abide in Christ. All of their spiritual bells and whistles are meaningless unless they are abiding in the Body of Christ as one among many members.
The servant in Isaiah is called to be “a light to the nations” and that has been a part of our own national self-understanding since Puritan John Winthrop proclaimed that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was going to be a city on hill, giving light to the whole world. President John F Kennedy repeated it in a speech just before his inauguration in 1961, and it’s part of why we Americans always have seemed to think that we are exceptional, that we have a vocation and a purpose in the world that other nations don’t have.
I think the world can use just as many people as can possibly be illumined by Word and Sacrament, in order to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. I think that would be a gift to the world, if we, as people of faith, encouraged one another to “Come and stay” with Jesus in order to be more fully formed in Christ, to be mentored and taught, so that we can be ever stronger and more faithful witnesses.
As we continue to talk about and think about and pray about the Tucson shootings, I hope that we’ll be less like the Corinthians who assumed they were perfect and were already masters of Christian faith, and more like those first disciples who know only that they want to know more. I hope that we’ll be happy to go and stay with Jesus, not just because it’s convenient, or because we want a Miracle Course that will us overnight into Christian maestros, but because we understand that the only way to know Jesus, is to live with Jesus and to live with others who want to live with Jesus.
“Rabbi – where are you staying?”
“Come and see.”