A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 16, 2011 (2 Epiphany, Year A)
“What are you looking for?” These are the very first words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel. “What are you looking for?” He knew those who would become his first disciples were searching for something. Of course they had no idea what they were truly seeking. Ostensibly it was the Messiah. But they couldn’t have possibly imagined into what richness and sacrifice they were being led. They were, as Jesus later notes, like sheep without a shepherd.
But the question also works on so many levels. Jesus knows precisely what we are all looking for: relationship, forgiveness, hope, meaning, and salvation.
Each one of us is looking for something; consciously or not our lives are journeys of discovery. And that restlessness you sometimes feel well up in your soul is the search for divine connection. Of course we do our best to drown it out from our daily lives – we plug in and tune out and log on; we work longer hours; we get lost in the minutia of family life; we escape through drink; we never stop talking for fear of having to listen. And most of the time we’re pretty successful at keeping that restlessness at bay; at burying it deep within the details and distractions of life. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, Jesus’ question inevitably returns again and again and again: “What are you looking for?”
And this honesty; these moments of introspection can be frightening because they unleash the truth of our vulnerability. As much as we might think we have things together; as much as we might think we embody the values of self-reliance and independence, this is merely the mirage of our public personas. Armor that we put on to hide the reality of our human brokenness.
Some of you know that my wife Bryna fell while ice skating with our nine-year-old last week and broke both of her wrists. With both of her arms in casts, she literally can’t do anything right now. The worst break was in her right hand – that one will be in a cast for about eight weeks (assuming it heals correctly and she doesn’t need surgery). The left wrist will only be in a cast for four weeks. Naturally, she’s right handed.
The whole situation has been pretty surreal and we’re a bit discombobulated as a family. Bryna obviously hasn’t been able to get back to her job as a therapist – driving and the requisite paperwork just aren’t happening right now. And I’ve suddenly been thrust into the role of both nurse and Mr. Mom. Or, I guess, in my case Father Mom.
I have learned some things in the past five days: referring to Bryna as a “cast off” is not appreciated; neither are references to her lying on the “casting couch.” She does not think that my getting an extra straw and drinking coffee out of her mug in the morning is romantic and I’ve learned that Bryna thinks I’m a much better conversationalist when she’s on percoset.
But the real lesson in this, from a spiritual perspective, is that this is precisely one of those moments where you recognize your own vulnerability. And I’m not even talking about Bryna who at this point is in no mood for my spiritual reflections. I’m talking about myself. Because, and here’s a confession of sorts, I tend toward that group of people who strive for self-sufficiency. I like to have everything under control; I like to think I can deal with whatever comes my way and not just “deal” with it but thrive. Well, friends, I can’t. This probably isn’t a great news flash to anyone. But admitting vulnerability and the need for help is one of my own spiritual challenges. When you’re the one who’s supposed to be dishing out the pastoral care, it’s tough to have the tables turned and accept it in return.
So in the next couple of months, there will simply be less that I’m going to be able to get to. If I don’t return an e-mail immediately, please don’t get offended; if I need to switch a meeting time at the last minute, please bear with me; if I can’t get out to visit someone as often as I’d like, I apologize. We’ll get through this – as a family and as a parish – and Anne’s ordination to the priesthood couldn’t have come at a better time.
The baptismal covenant that we will renew in a few moments gets to the core of our vulnerability with a very simple phrase: “With God’s help.” It is a recognition that we can’t, in fact, keep it all together by ourselves. Oh, we can try. And you can get away with it for awhile; sometimes for most of a lifetime. But inevitably you face a situation in life that reminds you of your powerlessness. Things don’t go according to plan; you get sick; a loved one dies; your beloved dog runs away; your wife breaks both of her wrists. And in the emotions that follow – the denial, the anger, the frustration – you recognize that your life is not complete; that you do not have it all under control. And in those moments, Jesus is there patiently asking, “What are you looking for?’
And all of this brings us back to the essential truth of our lives: we can only get through it “with God’s help.” Help in the form of relationship; help in the form of comfort; help in the form of hope.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus doesn’t just leave the question hanging. He knows we are all searching for something beyond ourselves, a greater context; which is why he extends an invitation: “Come and see.” He’s not asking us to “do” anything. He’s simply inviting us to abide with him; to rest in his presence. Because when we do so, the burden is lifted. The running around like spiritual chickens with our heads cut off stops. And we can abide in the comfort of renewed relationship with Jesus Christ.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011