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Sunday, January 15, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Challenge and Comfort of Home
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Martin Luther King Jr., "Loving Your Enemies" in Strength to Love
If you are ever up on the second floor of the Parish House on a Thursday afternoon or a Friday morning, then occasionally, you will hear me throw out the idea that I am just going to climb into this pulpit, read the scripture, and then suggest you talk amongst yourselves. Usually when I make that pitiful and rather whiny joke, I am only speaking out of my anxiety over a disappearing week and a looming Sunday.
But if there ever were a Sunday on which I wish we actually did that kind of thing, this would be it. I’d love to have a back-and-forth conversation with you, focused on what Jesus asked John’s disciples that day. I’d love to read this scripture, pause, and ask, “Why are you here? What are you looking for? What are you seeking?” before returning to my chair in order to hear your answers.
Now, I can imagine a few of the responses you might offer. The children in our pews might respond they are here for the famous Fourth Church donut holes they often find at Coffee Hour. Our youth might talk about coming to hang out with their friends. Some of you parents of babies or young toddlers might honestly tell us you are here because it is one full hour when someone else is taking care of your child and you finally get some time to center yourself. Undoubtedly a number of you would tell me you are here to let the music wash over you or to literally feel the power of the organ. And we might have a smattering of folks respond you have no idea why you are here. You just are. You were walking by, decided to duck into the door, and here you sit.
Now, all of those responses are good responses, honest responses, legitimate responses to that question. But let’s try again. Imagine I am standing in the center aisle, able to look straight into your eyes. “No, really, why are you here? What are you looking for? What are you seeking?” If I did it that way, among you, I can easily imagine some silence and then, after silence, a few eyes welling up with tears.
After all, how often are we asked those kinds of questions—questions that prick the soul, that make us a little nervous because they cut through our self-protective shells and tap into a deep sense of vulnerability? The questions we usually ask are things like, “How are you?” or “What do you want?” or even “Can I help you?” We breeze through those questions with quick, prepackaged responses. But “What are you looking for?”—that question is different.
And that question is what Jesus asked. As a matter of fact, in the Gospel of John, that question is the very first thing out of Jesus’ mouth. The Gospel tells us that after John the Baptist pointed Jesus out, two of the people gathered around John started tailing Jesus. Jesus clearly sensed their presence behind him, because he stopped, turned, looked right into their eyes with undoubtedly one of those looks that pierced all of their pretense, and asked, “What are you looking for?” or, more accurately, “What are you seeking?”
Surely their eyes filled with tears. If anyone had ever asked them that question before, no one had ever meant it in the same way. So they, in response, opened their mouths and laid bare their souls. “Rabbi,” they said, “where are you staying?” Now to us, that question does not sound very soul-baring. To us, it is a strange response. But the verb our Gospel writer uses is the word meno. Meno does not just mean physically stay. They were not simply asking which hotel Jesus was occupying for the night.
Meno means to abide, to remain. It has more to do with one’s nature. One’s identity. Meno is what Jesus uses when he speaks of himself abiding in the Father and the disciples abiding in him. To use preacher Tom Long’s words, in essence, the two disciples were asking Jesus, “Rabbi, Who are you? Where is the ‘home,’ the center of your life?” (Tom Long, “Party in Room 210 . . . Everyone Invited,” Shepherds and Bathrobes). When Jesus asked them, “What are you seeking?” they responded, “Home—is that you?” “Come and see,” Jesus responded. Come and see.
It is no wonder why this story is so moving. Speaking only for myself, when I really search my own heart for my reasons behind being here every day and every Sunday, I find myself articulating a similar response as those disciples. I am here because I, too, am looking for my home in Jesus. I am here because I am looking for the community of people with whom I can abide in God’s presence, in the fullest sense, where I can inhale God’s grace and remember whose I am, as well as remember I do not seek that home alone but alongside all of you. Like those first two disciples, I am here because I am seeking my home in Jesus and I’ve heard him say come and see. Does any of that ring true for you?
If it does, then we ought to also be honest about something else. Something those early disciples would soon discover as they responded to Jesus’ invitation. Undoubtedly as they began following along his way, they soon figured out that seeking to be home in Jesus by doing what he did and trying to love the way he loved also made their lives much more complicated and often uncomfortable.
While we can be sure their journey to be home in Jesus often comforted them, we can also easily imagine their journey to be home in Jesus confronted them too, challenged them, just as it does us. I am sure you have heard that old adage: “The gospel is meant to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” When we seek to be home in Jesus, we always need to be aware that we will experience both.
One easy example of the dichotomy: We are worshiping God in a beautiful Gothic sanctuary that predated the Gold Coast but is now located on it. For many of us, this magnificent space, combined with the familiarity of the liturgy, provides great comfort. Yet the One we worship and in whom we long to find our home was born a poor, brown, refugee baby who then grew up and chose to be homeless; reached out to all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances, saying to them “Come and see,” not following very many of the world’s rules and regulations; who was then killed as a criminal because of his complete faithfulness to his call. And we claim that by imitating that One, doing as he did and loving the way he loved, we will be made whole and find home. It is a challenge.
We’re reminded of what Annie Dillard once wrote: ”On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” Ms. Dillard had a sense of the challenge, the regular affliction of the gospel.
As we keep coming, seeking our home in Jesus, we will certainly have moments when we rest in the truth that we are deeply loved and claimed. But I simply want us to be honest about the truth that we will also have moments when we are called to account by the gospel, by the One who is our home, for the judgments we make, for the way we live, for how we use our resources, for the words we use in speaking about and to each other, for the times we were silent when we should not have been, as well as the times we used our voices when we should have just been quiet. As we keep coming, seeking our home in Jesus, like those very first two disciples, we will be challenged to change. And that challenge will never stop. When we live our lives as those who seek our home in Jesus, that means we live our lives always on the way, always continuing to learn how to better reflect Jesus into this world, working for mercy, love, and justice for all people.
Seeking to be home in Jesus will comfort us when we are afflicted, but make no mistake about it, it will afflict us every time we get too comfortable. That is somewhere in the gospel’s job description. And in our world these days, I promise you that gospel-induced affliction is going to happen here, with us.
Today, as you know, is the Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Dr. King was a preacher who knew of both the comfort found in seeking home in Jesus as well as the way seeking home in Jesus called on him to challenge the powers of injustice and white supremacy, to afflict the comfortable. This past week the comedy television show Blackish aired an episode that lifted up Dr. King’s legacy. One of the story lines was that Junior, the high school son, had been asked to memorize Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to present at a school rally.
But as Junior worked on it, his grandfather realized Junior had only received the dream part of Dr. King’s words to memorize, the comfort part, if you will, not the challenge and rebuke of racial injustice that dominated the speech before the section on the dream, not the part that would afflict. Junior had no idea Dr. King had also said, “We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. . . . Now is the time to make racial justice a reality for all God’s children. . . . The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.”
Words of challenge, gospel-induced affliction, comprised most of Dr. King’s speech that day, but Junior had never learned that part. All he knew about was the dream. He had not heard the warnings of continued protest if the check that America had written to black folk kept coming back marked as insufficient funds. That was all new to Junior. In light of this new information, Junior found himself feeling righteously angry for the first time. He felt duped by his teachers and his textbooks. He felt a huge part of his own experience had been purposefully left out.
Junior then picked up a baseball bat, perhaps so he might express his anger with more than just words. But when his grandfather saw him move in that direction, while affirming Junior’s moment of becoming more aware, he took the bat away and told him no. Now, he said, now you know the why of the dream. Now you know why it was so important for Dr. King to also preach the dream alongside the challenge, the gospel-induced affliction. He told Junior how Mahalia Jackson was the one who told Dr. King he needed to preach that dream part too, for the dream Dr. King had been given was the why behind it all. It was what they were all seeking, out there on the Mall in Washington.
That dream was what they were looking for. That dream reminded them of what Home was, who Home was, which, for many people involved in the civil rights movement, was directly related to God. If Dr. King had used Jesus’ words from our scripture today and asked those marching, “What are you seeking,” they would have responded, “That Dream. God’s dream. Home.”
When it gets right down to it, don’t we share that longing? Isn’t being reminded of that kind of dream, God’s dream, what home in Jesus means, the primary reason why many of us keep coming into this space, fully aware of the dichotomies, sometimes aware of the hypocrisy, we sense in our lives and in our faith? Yes, it is good to be connected to each other. Yes, it is good to be immersed in music. Yes, it is good to join forces in working for justice out in our community. But more than anything, don’t we seek to hear reminders of what is actually home for us? Of who is actually our home? Of the why we do what we do and try to love as Jesus loved?
Don’t we come to hear again and again, through the words of scripture and proclamation, hymns and prayers, God’s vision of who we are to be and become, God’s dream for us, for this world? A gospel dream that undergirded and inspired Dr. King’s dream in the 1960s. A gospel dream still unfulfilled. A gospel dream still under threat. And a gospel dream that will both comfort and afflict us on such a regular basis that we need to strap on our crash helmets and get ready. Living as a disciple—especially in this season of our world’s life—is complicated, challenging work. Work that also sets us free and claims our lives. Isn’t that the truth of all that we seek as we make our way home in Jesus?
What are you looking for, he asked them. What are you seeking? Home, they responded; is that you? Well, come and see, Jesus invited. But get ready, he could have added, because you have no idea what is coming. I imagine they would have followed him anyway. We do. Thank God, because it is a breathtaking and a breath-giving way to live. Amen.