Saturday, January 14, 2017

"What are you looking for?"

Epiphany 2, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 49.1-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-9; John 1:29-42.

Where do sermons begin?  I have an argument with the word ‘sermon’. The word has associations that kill anything it touches  –the dictionary tells us a sermon is a religious talk usually given by a member of the clergy and also that it is  “a long and tedious talk, especially one telling somebody how or how not to behave.”

We use the word by convention but for our purposes ‘reflection’ is infinitely preferable.  I see it to have connotations of looking back, thinking back, reviewing and making sense of our life in the here and now.  That I think is the place where sermons/reflections begin: in the place where our experiences (which includes our thoughts, deepest needs and longings) collide with the story of God. 

  (Note I said ‘the story of God’ not ‘the Word of God’ and you may want to meditate on the distinction and why I deliberately take my foot off the homiletic accelerator.)

What engages my attention this morning are the first words we hear Jesus utter in this gospel: “What are you looking for?”  The question resonates within the very depths of our being: it sounds our hopes and our vulnerability; our deepest thoughts and our inexpressible longings.   It is a question that we do not know how to answer; and, if we think we do, we have probably got it wrong.  This is the question of a lifetime and it may take us all our lives to come to answer it.  Embedded in this question is the story of our lives: the person we are and the person we are becoming.

Think of the journey we have all been on and are still on. Remember the child growing up.  The most elemental formation of the self; the earliest speculations to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?; the multitude of decisions taken, and mis-taken; the experience of falling in love and the shaping and re-shaping of the self under the impress of love and the self that is shaped in the nurturing of children; the multitude of loss and losses experienced in a lifetime and the self that emerges; the experience of the death of our nearest and dearest and the self that remains.  At the end of all our wondering and our searching, the question of Jesus still remains “What are you looking for?”

That we are looking for something I have no doubt but we have a great talent for looking wrong!  

Perhaps the most famous example is Marlowe's play Dr Faustus.  You may remember that in the play Faustus strikes a deal with the devil, Mephistopheles and as part of the deal Faustus demands that Helen of Troy be brought to him to be his love.  This is what Faustus thinks he is looking for but he begins the most famous speech in the play:
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”  (5.1.97-98)
The tragedy of course is that this is all an illusion, a fantasy: an infatuation, self-indulgence and self-deception – half-sensed by Faustus himself with the disappointment in his question “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships…”

“What are you looking for?”  Think about the news this week!  Something of Christ’s question to us resonates in the anguished debates over the prospective Trump presidency.  This may well be one of the great instances of a nation looking wrong and of a political process that, in the finite limited sphere of an election, completely failed to address the deepest and most human longings.  A sense of tragedy seems to loom in the shadows of the Trump election.

“What are you looking for?” This is of course an ultimate question, a religious question.  I was troubled this week to realise that the Council of our Diocese is encouraging the visit to Dunedin of an American ‘evangelist’ who runs an ‘international ministry‘ business.   At a time when churches are flailing about, desperately trying to recoup numbers and credibility in a radically post-Christian society; trying to ensure that there is still a church in a few years’ time; I really wonder whether a visiting evangelist is what we are looking for.

“What are you looking for?” I close this reflection with the question the Lord Jesus addresses to us and it is the question that resonates in the depths of our being.  It is the most attractive question imaginable – it opens a world of infinite possibilities – and it is the question that is also the invitation to a journey; to ‘Come and see’ … there is no other way; the way of the disciple, the follower.  That is why we are here this morning, sharing in this Eucharist.

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