Saturday, January 18, 2014

What Are We Looking For?

RCL Epiphany 2A
19 January 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  John 1.29-42
What are we looking for?
            When I was growing up, my mother was a member of the Transatlantic Brides and Parents Association, an organization of British women and their parents dedicated to maintaining links between the ‘new world’ of North America and the ‘old world’ of Britain and Ireland.  Among the benefits of the TBPA were charter flights and other travel concessions that united families separated by the Atlantic Ocean.  But another of the benefits was a network of contacts, especially for the children of ‘trans-Atlantic’ brides.
            So in the summer of 1972 I became the beneficiary of this network.  Earlier in 1972, J. C. Penney, then one of the United States premier department store chains, opened a flagship store in the first shopping mall ever built in Colorado Springs, the town where I grew up.  The personnel manager was a member of the TBPA and a friend of my mother’s.  When my mother mentioned that I would be looking for a summer job after my first year in university, this friend told her to send me to Penney’s and she would find me a job.  She was true to her word and I worked at Penney’s during the summers of 1972, 1973 and 1974.  After graduation in 1975 I worked at Penney’s for a full year when I could not find a job teaching.
            Working in retail is not an easy job.  Customers may treat you as a person or as an extension of the cash register.  Employees fall into the same trap and we have all had negative experiences of a retail sales person treating us indifferently.  J. C. Penney, in those days, called its staff ‘associates’, one of the first retail sales corporations to use this designation.  We had regular training and were taught the importance of trying to find out what the customer was looking for.  This training meant that it was often possible for an associate working in one department to direct a customer quickly to another department and to another associate to obtain the service or product the customer wanted.
            Our guiding questions were ones that we are all familiar with:  “How may I help you?” or “Have you found what you were looking for?”  But the key question was always, “What are you looking for?”  Sometimes customers could not tell us and there followed a question-and-answer game of short or longer duration as we tried to ferret out the customer’s need or desire.
            So you can imagine how my ears perked up when I first read today’s gospel:  “When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’” (John 1.38)  In one short sentence Jesus sums up the entire religious enterprise that has fuelled human questing from the earliest conscious days of our existence:  What are we looking for?

            From a Christian perspective the short answer to the question, ‘What are we looking for?’ is ‘the kingdom of God’ or ‘God’s reign of justice and peace’ or, to use a Hebrew term, ‘shalom’, a word that means ‘wholeness, fulfillment, peace’.  Some Christians see this destination as coming in some distant and mysterious future, coming as the direct result of God’s final intervention in the affairs of creation.  But other Christians, the evangelist John among them, understand the kingdom of God to be both a future promise and a present possibility.  Some Christians might even go so far as to say that we are ‘co-workers’ with God in making this promised shalom come into being.
            Even though all Christians agree on the destination, we have to be honest:  Finding our way to this ‘kingdom of God’, this shalom, is not always an easy task.  We need a map.

            Let me suggest to you that Jesus of Nazareth, in his life, death and resurrection, provides us with a living map to the ‘kingdom of God’ both in its future promise and present possibility.  Our map is not a static document but a living person in whom we see the way to the kingdom.  I still find it a source of reflection that the earliest name for the Jews and Gentiles who believed in Jesus as Messiah was not ‘Christians’ but ‘Followers of the Way’.
            One of the great teachers of the early Christian movement was Irenaeus, bishop of the southern French city of Lyons, then a Roman colony.  He summarized his teaching by saying that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’ and that Jesus of Nazareth is the model, the living example of a human being fully alive.
            If you want to arrive at the kingdom, then follow Jesus.  Some of the most notable followers of this map, this way, included non-Christians such as Mahatma Gandhi who was a keen student of the gospels.  They recognized that the only way to live an authentic human life in the here and now was to follow the Way shown to us in Jesus.  But even the most faithful traveller may find it necessary to have a guide to point out the best route to the destination.

            For some years now I have been the Coordinator of Diaconal Formation for the Diocese of New Westminster.  This has meant travelling with Archdeacon John Struthers, the Director of Deacons, to visit congregations who are considering having a deacon.  A few years ago John purchased a GPS device to guide us on our trips.  A quiet voice would say, ‘After one kilometre turn right.’ or ‘At the next light turn left.’  Well, I can tell you that it was a rare trip that did not include an argument between John, the GPS and me.  I remember vividly one trip when John, a life-long Vancouver resident, the GPS, a digital device with no driving experience, and me, at that time a regular visitor to many parishes, had a shouting match in a Tim Horton’s parking lot.  We knew where we were going; we had a map, but we needed a dependable guide.
            Just as John, the GPS and I all sought to guide the journey, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in disagreement, so too do we Christians have three guides:  the Scriptures, the tradition, the contemporary experience of the Christian communities throughout the world.  We all know where we are going:  the kingdom of God.  We all have a common map:  Jesus of Nazareth.  But we are faced with the continuing challenge of discerning how the Scriptures, the tradition and contemporary Christian experience help us find the best route to our destination given several alternatives.
            It is the search for the best route to the kingdom that leads us to read the Scriptures, both in worship and in study, in the company of others, whether those in the pews next to us or those who speak to us through the printed word.  It is the search for the best route to God’s reign of justice and peace that leads us to know our traditions and how they have shaped us and, from time to time, misshaped us.  It is the search for the best route to God’s shalom that we meet to pray and study with other Christians, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in disharmony, to learn their insights on how best to follow the Way.

On the Way
            When I first began travelling as priest and professor with national and international obligations as well as local ones, I tolerated travel.  I was always more interested in the destination and did not pay attention to the journey itself.  Over the years this has changed significantly; I now enjoy travelling, for the most part, and I am very happy to arrive at an airport early to watch all the comings and goings.  Don’t get me wrong; I look forward to arriving at my destination, but there is so much to learn from observing other travellers, from passing through new way-stations.
            In our baptism God set us upon a journey towards wholeness, a pilgrimage to a promised future where all of God’s creatures shall be free to be the creature God intends them to be and to be in right relationship with each other.  But in the meantime we should not lose sight of the possibilities of experiencing that future in the present.  When we follow the Way of Jesus in the company of the Scriptures, the tradition and other Christians, even other persons of faith, then we will be prepared to pause from time to time to rejoice when the promise becomes reality:  when justice is done to those who have long been denied justice; when the hungry are fed and the naked clothed; when enemies make peace; when ancient disputes are settled and reconciliation occurs.  In those moments we have ‘arrived’, if even briefly.  It is those moments that give us the strength to ‘keep calm and carry on’.
            My friends, we know where we are going.  We have a Map and several Guides.  May our journey be filled with joy and may we have the grace to experience the promised future in the present.  Amen.

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