Sermon for January 15, 2017, A.
John 1:29-42

Let us pray for the grace to be free of our own preoccupations and open to what the Holy Spirit may be saying to us.

                                                                “What Do You Want?”

Every time I read this passage from John’s gospel, I am struck by Jesus’ direct question as he turns to face the two men following him:  “What do you want?”  Four monosyllabic words:  What- do- you- want?  It isn’t the gentle response we’ve come to expect of our Good Shepherd, yet Jesus can’t get much clearer.   What do these strangers want of him?  The men don’t answer his question.  Instead, they reply with their own question, “Where are you staying?”  Maybe when we first met Jesus, we weren’t sure what we wanted, either.  Maybe even now we don’t really know.  Maybe it’s enough just to know where we can find him when we do need him.  

According to the Presbyterian Church calendar, today is “Race Relations” Sunday, which is appropriate since tomorrow we mark the remembrance of Martin Luther King’s birthday.   But in light of the numerous problems facing our country these days, I’m led to wonder more about “Human Relations.”  We live in a country increasingly afflicted by conflict and violence, the scars of war, trillions of dollars in deficits, struggling schools, partisan politics, and looming environmental catastrophes.  By this time next week, we will have a new president, and no doubt we will do what we tend to do every four years:  pin our hopes on him, expect him to fix all our country’s woes, and criticize him fiercely when he disappoints us.  Yes, our country is many things, much of it good.  But America is also an ill and wounded patient that can’t seem to recover from its many dangerous and contagious diseases.

What is the source of this ill health?  In reflecting on this epidemic, I remember something I learned in my Shakespearean Literature class.  During the Elizabethan period, a theory was popularized called “the Great Chain of Being.”  According to this theory, God had a designated place for each creature, beginning with the lowliest of them, which the Elizabethans believed to be the oyster, and moving up to the very top, the greatest creature, the king.  The people, and the king himself, believed him to be the closest human representative to God, and the king had as much authority in England as God had over all.

When the king was morally good, the theory went, the benefits and blessings trickled down to those below him—the queen, the knights, the city dwellers, the villagers, and even the oyster.  When everything was in its right and proper place, the kingdom thrived because the subjects of the king modeled his behavior.  Goodness filtered down on everyone.
However, when the king strayed from his call, when he turned from God to himself, violence, conflict, and destruction afflicted those below him—the queen, the knights, the city dwellers, the villagers, and even the oyster which turned rotten.  Nothing was in its right and proper place under a bad king because his subjects modeled his behavior all the way down the chain and thus passed on the virus.

If we look at the state of our politics today, the lack of respect for our leaders, the vocal wishes for harm or failure, the tasteless jokes, the political sniping on social media, we may realize that we, the constituents, are modeling our leaders.  Divisiveness, lack of respect, reactionary behavior, thoughtlessness, rudeness, labeling, dishonesty, and intolerance are characteristics of many of our Republican and Democratic leaders and parties in between.  The trickle-down effect touches congregations, presbyteries, neighborhoods, homes, and places of employment where we find it difficult, at times, even to tolerate each other.  The virus is alive and thriving in part because of what is being modeled for us while a desire to really know and understand one another, to develop a true “human relation,” seems non-existent.

Six years ago this month, after his sister-in-law Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been shot in the head at a political rally, Scott Kelly, the commanding officer of the International Space Station, spoke over the radio to flight controllers in Houston.  He said, “As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful.  Unfortunately, it is not.  These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can conflict upon one another, not just with our actions, but also with our irresponsible words.  We’re better than this.  We must do better.”  

So, six years later, are we doing any better?  As people who call ourselves Christian, we are better than this.  We must do better.  We are a part of that so-called Great Chain of Being, and our actions and words do influence those with whom we live, worship, and work.  Christians are people called by Christ to make a difference. We have a real and awesome responsibility as a people who are “in the world but not of the world” to model love.  How?  By following and modeling Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Our gospel passage this morning speaks about people who also had high expectations for rising leaders.  John the Baptist thought Jesus was “the one,” the exact person for whom his people had been waiting.  In our brief passage, Jesus is called the Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, and Messiah.  Surely John was right.  Yet just a while later, while in prison, John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Are you really the Messiah?  Then why am I still in jail?”  Jesus wasn’t living into the role that John expected of him.

Andrew couldn’t wait to tell his brother that he had found the new leader.  He brought Peter along and picked up Nathaniel on the way.  The three of them all had their own ideas of how this leader should act and what he should do.  It took three years of following Jesus, watching him heal the sick, include the poor, shun power and prestige, and finally lay down his life for his friends before these disciples began to get a sense of what kind of Messiah Jesus was, a Messiah very different from the one they expected or for whom they might have voted.

We Christians still look for political Messiahs.  Every four years, we want to believe that somehow, this time, things will be different.  But this week’s passage teaches us that the only way things can be different is by answering Jesus’ question, “What do you want?” and deciding what we want and who we will follow in order to get it.  The only way that we can see how God answers the problems of this world is to find out where Jesus is staying, follow him home, and pledge our allegiance to him.

We make our home with Jesus when we find him in the Word and gather where his people gather.  We make our home with him when we listen for him as we pray and meet him at the table where we share his bread and cup.  When make our home with him when we pick up the towel of service and when we forgive the slights, the miscommunications, the unintended hurts as well as the intentional ones.  We make our home with him when we keep all our stones in our own pockets, or better yet, throw them away.

In the face of ancient Rome’s ideology of victory by power and might, the Lamb of God revealed not the power of emperors and presidents but of love.  The image of the slaughtered Lamb, the one who still bears the scars of that slaughter, reminds us that we are called to conquer evil and violence not by fighting with one another, but by remaining faithful in modeling Christ’s self-giving love.

Modeling love isn’t an easy calling, but it is one we must embrace as we continue to build up and care for this Body of Christ.  We have the daily opportunity to lift up and live into real “human relations” in this church, in our homes, and in our communities, as long as we remember that we aren’t immune to the risk of catching the same trickle-down disease that affects our country.  

 “What do you want?” Jesus asked the followers, and asks each of us this morning.  What do you want?  I want to remember that Jesus Christ is at the top of that Great Chain of Being so that we can truly claim him as head of this church in Huntsville, Alabama, and as Lord of our lives.  I want, as a Christian, to make a visible difference in this often dark and broken world.  I want to remember whose I am and who I am when invited into, or confronted with, discord and conflict.  I want to remember that “the one” who lives in me also lives in each of you so that his love, grace, and mercy trickle down upon us, and we pass it on.  That is what I want.  

What about you?

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