Looking to Christ (and Finding Ourselves)

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John the Baptist Preaching by Francesco Francanzano (1612-1656)

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 19, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, and John 1:29-42.

Often when I meet new people, after a little while, if they’re comfortable asking it, they’ll ask some version of “Why did you become a priest?  Why did you become a minister?”  And then, sometimes, I get the question, “When did you feel called to be a priest?”

I’m afraid I sometimes disappoint by not replying with a story about how I was struck by lightning, or after a long night of drinking and smoking saw Jesus in a poker chip.  People have those experiences—just not me.  I can see people get a little bored when I don’t tell a dramatic story but talk about having grown up going to church, always being encouraged to question and make faith something of my own, and how in college I took some religion courses and realized later that if I focused on macroeconomics and religious studies, I could often read some of the same literature and then get credit for it.  Over the years, I’ve tried to think of a “lightning experience” to be able to tell people, and the closest I’ve come is University Day, 1986. Honorary degrees were being given by the university and receiving a degree was Richard Jenrette, NC native, founder of Donaldson, Lufkin, Jenrette (a Wall Street investment firm), multimillionaire, philanthropist, and all around good guy.  Mr. Jenrette would have been the goal, had I used my economics degree or worked in banking and finance.  But bestowing the degree was the Rev. Dr. Richard Pfaff, specialist in medieval church history, Rhodes scholar, and Episcopal priest.  Dr. Pfaff was demanding and uncompromising in the classroom, but deeply pastoral outside of class.   As I watched these two, I thought to myself, “I want to be like Dr. Pfaff,” and so, in a quiet way that I almost overlooked, lightning struck.

But I don’t doubt for a minute that Mr. Jenrette was “called” to be a moneyman.  That seems to have been God’s plan for him, and he’s lived out that calling with great generosity.  Dr. Pfaff felt another call.  Alan Woods, around the corner, is called to work with flowers and brighten people’s lives and special occasions, and every Sunday at All Souls.  Kelli Walsh, who refers to herself as the “wench with a wrench” is called to be a plumber, and with her husband-plumber, they make a lot of lives better.

When I use the term, “calling,” I mean to describe one’s deepest sense of purpose, one’s sense that this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it, I mean one’s sense of being selected by God to do a specific thing. Just about everyone has a calling—sometimes dramatic and singular; but often more subtle and short-term.

In our reading from Isaiah, we hear Isaiah’s own sense of God’s calling: “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” God said, “You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified.” Isaiah wonders if he heard God right. But God says, yes, “it’s you I’m talking to.” From time to time Isaiah wonders and checks in with God, each time hearing another version of, “You are my servant, . . . in whom I will be glorified.”

If you think about that for a minute, those are amazing words because they mean that God needs Isaiah in order to get things done. God needed saints and martyrs, artists and activists, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King,Jr. in order to get things done. God needs us, in order to unfold and reveal the kingdom of God in our world.

The Gospel today is about the revelation of God’s kingdom and plan, especially about the revelation that is Jesus, and recognition of Jesus. It’s about John the Baptist’s recognition of Jesus as the Christ, as God’s anointed one; and it’s also about several of the disciples as they recognize Jesus for who he is, and in so doing, recognize themselves.

There are two sides to understanding one’s calling—the first has to do with recognizing the caller, who is God. But the second part comes in recognizing ourselves in the midst of God’s calling.

John illustrates what it’s like to recognize the one doing the calling. He sees Jesus as the Lamb of God. We might think of a lamb as a soft, weak thing. In Judaism the lamb was an animal of sacrifice and as a symbol, the lamb represented innocence and blamelessness. But a lamb also had undeniable strength. Because of the lamb, people were forgiven. Because of the lamb, people were joined again to God.

And so when John names Jesus as the Lamb of God, he is in part prophesying, perhaps in part hoping, and in part stating what he has already seen to be true, that through Jesus people are brought closer to God. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we experience the healing of sins, and the resurrection to eternal life in God’s love.

John recognizes Jesus. The other disciples, Andrew and another, see Jesus, but also begin to recognize themselves.

When Jesus sees the two disciples, he asks them, point blank, “What are you looking for?” The disciples don’t really answer him, but instead, they ask for more time. They aren’t sure what they want, but they know they want to know Jesus a little better. After a while, Andrew goes to his brother and says, “We have found the Messiah.” But what he’s also saying is that he has found himself; he has found his calling. 

Of course, sorting out one’s calling is more difficult than simply opening your heart to Jesus, and “poof,” an entire game plan is presented. It’s much more subtle than that. Whether you should be a fireman or a secretary, a nurse or a schoolteacher—whether you should buy a house, or take a new job, or pursue that special person… I don’t know the specific answer to those or many other questions… But I do know how to find the answer. It lies in doing what the disciples did—spending time with Jesus, absorbing his words, absorbing his vision of the world, hearing God’s word through Jesus, hearing the promises of scripture and watching as they’re fulfilled in everyday living.

Frederick Buechner talks about the two sides of finding one’s calling—of recognizing the caller, but also of recognizing ourselves in the midst of that calling. He explains that to be called is to have a vocation—the Latin word, “vocare” means simply that: to call; and so a vocation is simply one’s calling—whether that be over time, or in the moment.

Buechner points out that there are always different voices calling us to different kinds of work—the trick is sorting out which voice is from God, which from society, which from a voice of super-ego or sole self-interest. The trick for the Christian is to find 1) the work that one most needs to do, and 2) the work that most needs to be done. In other words, Buechner says, vocation is that place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The meeting of our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger happen in prayer, in worship, in fellowship and community; in struggle, in grief, in joy… in the midst of the sacraments. We live into our vocations together.

As I look around the room, I know some of you are in touch with your calling, with what God has called you into, or perhaps pushed you into.  Others of you, I know, wrestle with this.  It will come.  It may not be revealed this morning.  It make not be a dramatic way and it may unfold slowly and simply, but it will come.  If you pray.  If you remain open.  If you ask someone else to pray with you or look with you.  May we be brought to that place where we find Christ as he reveals himself to us, and in so doing, find ourselves. 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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