There is something in all of us that loves a story. The first magical words I heard were, “Once upon a time . . .”. I hear those words and even now, I’m four or five years old, sitting cross-legged on a braided rug in the library, listening intently.
I don’t know about you, but one of the reasons I love coming to church – even when I don’t have to – is because I’m going to hear another story. It may be something from the Hebrew scripture – something that happened centuries before even Jesus was born – or it may be yet another story about Jesus and his kindness and his love and his teaching.
Normally, St. John is a
pretty good storyteller. He reports seven different miracles that Jesus
performed. I think the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast
at Cana is my favorite, but you have to admit that the story of Jesus walking
on water is pretty spectacular.
John tells stories differently than Luke or Mark or Matthew. John is less concerned with or in awe of the actual miracle itself; rather, John is more in awe of the deep spiritual meaning implicit in the story.
The miracles are signs not of the coming of God's Realm but of the presence of the Logos, the Word or the power of God, which brings about a transformation in people's lives.
That’s really what John is
keen about – the transformation in people’s lives because of the miracle that
is Jesus. That’s why John uses poetry and metaphor more than the other
evangelists. He knows that mere words can’t contain the Logos, the Word, the
Power of God.
It’s about experiencing the presence of the miracle that is Jesus which transforms lives.
That’s the way I understand
this morning’s gospel from John which, truth be told, is not his best effort at
storytelling. He’s really all over the place, isn’t he? And who was the guy who
brought his watch so that we know that it’s 4’o’clock? Seriously.
John strings together two stories, a day apart not because the details of the story are important but because the story is the vehicle to make his point. And, his point is this: Jesus is the Lamb of God. Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world.
What caught my eye in this story of John’s is what Jesus says to two of John’s disciples. After John says, again, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” two of his disciples heard him and they turned to follow Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”
What are you looking for? It’s a great question, actually. It’s one I think we who follow Jesus should ask ourselves from time to time. What are you looking for?
That’s the question that’s been following me around all week. I don’t have to be in church every week. And, I have the option of watching several church services on YouTube. I’ve been attending the 5 PM Saturday service at St. Peter’s, Lewes, which I love. It’s like the 8 AM service with no music, straight up church, except I get to sleep late on Sunday morning if I want to. But the truth is, I find myself in my jammies, with a cup of coffee, “church-surfing”.
Typically, I find myself watching the service from the Washington National Cathedral in DC, the service from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC, and maybe a couple other churches where I know some of my clergy friends will be preaching or some of my musical friends will be playing or singing.
It’s a wonderful buffet – a
feast for the eyes and the ears and the soul. By Sunday afternoon, I’m had my
full of the Gospel and I’m satisfied that my soul burbs. But lately, I’ve been
calling my own habits into question. Why isn’t one service enough?
What am I looking for?
So, I’m bringing that question with me into this church this morning, and I’m going to ask you the same question. I’m not looking to embarrass you. I’m not going to ask you to stand up and say why it is you come to church. Although, you know, I do think that, every once in a while, Episcopalians might learn something from our non-denominational sisters and brothers who offer their testimony in church. Witnessing and testifying about one’s spiritual journey is inspirational and transformational.
That said, you can all relax and take a deep breath. I’m not going to ask you What are you looking for. But I do want you to consider the question. And, I have a story that I think just might be instructive as well as helpful to you as you do.
It’s a story that was told to me by a Buddhist monk I met while I was doing some work in Thailand. I was helping a friend who had set up an orphanage for young children who had lost both parents to the AIDS pandemic. About 50 steps from my apartment was a Buddhist Temple – or a ‘Wat’ as it is called. Every day I would pass by the Wat and stop in to pray in my own way, surrounded and uplifted as I was by the beautiful chanting of the Monks.
The Abbot of the Wat took an interest in me and we began to have wonderful conversations after their prayer services. He had enormous curiosity about Christianity which matched my curiosity in Buddhism. I think I learned more from him than he from me and I will be eternally grateful for all he taught me.
As my time in Thailand was coming to an end, The Abbot said to me, “I have a little gift for you. I will tell you this story which I think Christians need to hear. I will make of this story a gift to you.” It is the gift of that story that I share with you now.
“Once upon a time . . . . “ there was a village in Thailand that had been settled by the banks of a very large river. The river provided the villagers water for drinking and cooking, bathing and cleaning. It also had a very strong current, so if you went out too far, the current could swoop you up and carry you away only to drown and never to be seen again.
One day, a young man who had been bathing waded out too far and was swooped up by the strong current. He began yelling for help. Person after person went into the water, trying to get as close to him as they could without getting caught up in the current themselves, and they yelled to him, “Give me your hand!” The man just flailed about, screaming for help.
Just as everyone feared for the worst, one of the old women in the village came into the water, getting as near as she could to the man caught in the current; she stretched out her hand and said to the man, “Take my hand!” And, miraculously, the man reached out his hand, and took the hand of the older woman, who pulled him from the current.
Everyone was wild with happiness, cheering and yelling at the miracle they had just witnessed. One of the villagers went to the woman who was sitting on the water’s edge and said to her, “You are a hero. You saved that man’s life. How did you do it?”
The old woman said, “It is
not hard, when you think about it. Everyone was yelling, ‘Give me your hand’. A
drowning man does not think he is able to give anything, not even to help
“I simply said to the man, ‘Take my hand.’”
“When you are drowning, when you are desperate for help, you need others. A drowning person can’t hear ‘give me your hand’. When a person is in over their head, they can hear, ‘take my hand’. The difference, she said, can save a life.”
The Abbott looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, smiled and said, “I think this Jesus, your savior, knew a little something about drowning and being in over his head.”
When John’s disciples started following Jesus, he turned and asked him, “What are you looking for?” They answered, “Rabbi/Teacher where are you staying?” Which is to ask, Where do you dwell? Where is your heart?”
And, Jesus didn’t say, “I live in Nazareth.” He didn’t say, “I’m sort of in between homes right now.” Or, “Well, I’m not from here, I’m staying with friends.”
No, Jesus said, “Come and see.” Which is to say, Take my hand. Follow me.
Not, do this. Not, don’t do
that. Not, give me this or that.
Not, give me your name. Not follow these rules and pay this price and you’ll be saved.
No. Jesus said, “Come and see.” Take my hand. Experience it for yourself.
I’m going to take a risk here and say that I think that’s why many of us come to church. I think that’s what we’re looking for. Some who will take us by the hand – especially when we feel we’re going under.
Baba Ram Dass, and American spiritual teacher and guru of modern yoga once said, “We’re all here to walk each other home.” You know, I think that’s just about right.
I think many of us are looking for the stories of the lives of our faith so that we can find ourselves in those stories. I think we are looking for the “once upon a time” to be “once upon a time in my life.”
I think we are looking to find our way out of the strong currents in our lives that sometimes sweep us up and away in anxiety or depression or confusion and we feel in over our heads, pulled along by forces out of our control.
I think we strengthen our faith and belief when we actually repeat the actual words of John the Baptist – becoming like him – when we say (or sing), “Here is/Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
And Jesus doesn’t say, “Give me your hand.” He says, “Take my hand. Come and see.”
And so, just as we are without one plea, O Lamb of God, we come. We come.
And, Jesus tells us stories – we call them parables and they don’t start with “once upon a time’ but they could – about people just like us.
Women who can’t conceive and Husbands who
Daughters who are near death and sons who squander their inheritance.
Women who have lost coins and Shepherds who leave 99 sheep in search of the one that is lost.
People who are wealthy in things but poor in spirit and people or have faith as small as a mustard seed but who can move mountains.
And, we listen to the stories Jesus tells us and we take his hand when he tells us to come and see for ourselves.
And when we do, we are changed and transformed and our lives will never again be the same.
What are you looking for?