“What Are You Seeking?”

What are you seeking?

In the Gospel of John, these are the very first words Jesus speaks. “What are you seeking?” he says to the disciples of John, who have begun to follow him. What do you need to grow into your truest self? What do you yearn for in the core of your being? What are you seeking, friends?

Listen . . .

I notice that in today’s text, John the Baptist says, not once, but twice, that he didn’t know what he was seeking, who he was looking for. However, this lack of clarity, this uncertainty did not keep him from acting. He heard God say, “Start baptizing, and watch how the Spirit moves.” Maybe he received this inspiration in so many words; maybe it was more of an intuition. In any case, he headed to the River and got to work. There, at the Jordan, the Spirit settled into Jesus. The word used here to describe the Spirit’s action, meno, holds deep meaning in John’s Gospel. It means to “remain, stay, abide, endure, or dwell.”

When Jesus asked the disciples of John, “What are you seeking?” they responded with a question of their own: “Where are you staying?” (There’s that word again, meno.) They wanted to settle in with Jesus, remain close, be fed by his bread that endures, abide in his sustaining presence like branches drawing life from their vine. “Come and see,” he replied simply.

Jesus invites those who follow him to live with him, and with one another in the same way that Jesus and the Spirit dwell together—in relationships of mutuality, with commitments to inter-dependence and shared well-being.

What are you seeking?

Frederick Buechner said: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I believe that we humans share a longing to find that intersection of gladness and hunger, that sweet spot that joins together what we need and what the world needs. I think we’re yearning for moments when the insight, encouragement and challenge of the voices outside of us align with our own hearts’ desire. Buechner’s reference to calling as a place can make it sound static. Lately, I’ve been thinking about calling more as a dialogue with God, a give-and-take in which both we and God are constantly changing.  God is calling and we are responding and we are calling and God is responding.

This weekend, as we remember and honor Dr. King, I returned to his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it, he expressed his disappointment with white church leaders. He had counted on them to be allies but had found them instead to be obstacles. They refused to support his action for non-violent civil disobedience, labeling it “unwise and untimely.” From jail he wrote this in response:

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people. . . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.[1]

Dr. King’s words still ring true for me today. I know that privilege insulates me from the daily sorrows and terrors of my neighbors, that it robs me of the sense of urgency I need to feel in my work for justice. I know that the powerful lie of white supremacy distorts my humanity, my relationships and my leadership in ways I still don’t understand. The Quaker theologian Parker Palmer says that calling “does not come from willfulness.” He urges us to “listen to our lives.” (from Let Your Life Speak) The inward act of listening is essential. At the same time, those of us who walk through the world white or male or citizen, cis-gender or straight have been trained to filter our sense of self through the experience of privilege. We can be very easily misled about who truly we are because we lack awareness of the world and our place in it. So those of us with privilege must also listen deeply and carefully to voices beyond ourselves, voices that say things we don’t want to hear and don’t fully understand.

Please pull out the insert that’s in your bulletin, titled: “My Role in the Social Change Ecosystem.” The worship team wants to share this framework with you during Epiphany because it allows us to think practically and specifically about the many roles we play in the work of justice. Throughout this season, we’re going to use this model to share with each other and to build our community. Today, let’s take a few minutes to read over the roles and to reflect on the questions that are on the insert.

Next Sunday, we’ll have a chance for more conversation. What role are you most drawn to? Are you a frontline responder, a healer, storyteller or artist? Are you a bridge builder or a disrupter? Are you a caregiver? Are you a visionary or a builder? How does playing this role feed you? What does it give you? In what ways do you feel called to live out your role in the social change ecosystem in this political climate?

I’m going to give you a minute or so to reflect on all this.

Like the tributaries of a mighty river, we have many ways to go with the flow, many ways to add to the momentum, many ways to reach a shared destination.

I love the icon on the bulletin cover, which simultaneously depicts Dr. King as a saintly figure with a halo, and as a convict enduring a mug shot. We’re not all called to go to jail. And yet, all of us are invited into places of risk and challenge and change. On this journey, we cross thresholds of letting go of the false, disconnected and distorted versions of ourselves. These crossings can feel to like harm, like threat, even like death. Moving through this resistance; however, we can learn to live fully, honoring our particular limitations and leaning our unique strengths without letting our fears become excuses.

On the Sunday following King’s assassination, his widow spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, imploring those gathered:

Our concern now is that his work does not die. He gave his life for the poor of the world—the garbage workers of Memphis and the peasants of Vietnam. Nothing could hurt him more than that [humanity] could attempt no way to solve problems except through violence. He gave his life in search of a more excellent way, a more effective way, a creative way rather than a destructive way. We intend to go on in search of that way, and I hope that you who loved and admired him would join us in fulfilling his dream.[2]

[1] https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

[2] https://theintercept.com/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-jr-mlk-day-2018/?fbclid=IwAR3j2_2DmrfxbtkU8RBW7MdZ8M3LFjsE4-F9LPWpiVnu5nU5GT-N0nnmnfs