Thompson’s Sermon from Jan. 16, 2011

January 20, 2011

“Who Am I and What Am I Doing Here?”

John 1:29-42
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’*
The First Disciples of Jesus

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed*). 42He brought Simon* to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter*).

Once again I’m struck by both the wide angle view that John the Gospel writer provides for us as well as the portrayal of what went on at specific moments on certain days in rural Israel about 2000 years ago. John the Baptist speaks of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, which is about as large of an undertaking as I can imagine, and then we’re told that two of his followers saw Jesus and followed him around 4 o’clock the next afternoon. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that John the Gospel writer seems to employ throughout his gospel. He makes reference to very specific moments and draws really large conclusions about them.

It’s not easy for me to find a clear teaching from this episode that John relates to us. Jesus doesn’t do anything or say anything that instructs me on how I might improve my relationship with God or my neighbor, but it does remind me of the mysterious ways in which God does touch our lives and provide us with opportunities for spiritual growth. Often those opportunities come in the form of new relationships and experiences that open our eyes to how God is in our midst, and generally speaking we are only able to see these things as we look back and try to take notice of where we have been and what we have done.

Part of what I get from this passage is that John the Baptist didn’t really know what was going on at the moment things were happening. He had been motivated to live in the wilderness and cry out for people to be prepared for the One whom God was going to send to redeem Israel, but he didn’t know what that was going to look like. And it appears that he still wasn’t sure what was going on even after he encountered Jesus. He trusted that Jesus was the one to follow, but he didn’t know how Jesus would fulfill the work of taking away the sin of the world.

It’s that not knowing that I can understand. I didn’t vote for Ross Perot back in 1992, but it wasn’t because I was put off by his running mate, Admiral Stockdale, who famously spoke the words, Who am I, and what am I doing here? at the vice-presidential debate that year. I found those words to be very endearing. I didn’t really know how deeply those words resonated with me until I was put under anesthesia for a very short period of time a couple of years ago when I underwent a biopsy of the prostate gland I used to have.

I went into this examination room, where they hooked me up with some kind of intravenous drip, and the next thing I know I’m laying on a gurney in another room surrounded by curtains. I was pretty confused and as this nurse helped me sit up I quoted Admiral Stockdale in a relatively loud voice. Who am I and what am I doing here? was the only thing I knew to say at that moment. I heard Sharla laugh from somewhere beyond the curtain, and that gave me a little orientation, but I really didn’t know the answer to those basic questions for a moment.

In fact I’m frequently haunted by these questions. I know this isn’t what you want to hear from the guy you pay well to provide leadership for our faith community, but it’s the truth. I’m not in total confusion about essential matters, but I continue to try to figure out who I am and what I’m doing. I often wish I had more clarity, but I do feel good about the fact that I’m not a person who ignorantly thinks I know the answers to these questions. I don’t have all the answers I wish I had, but I’m open, and by the grace of God I stumble into the right situations every now and then. This territory of not really knowing who I am and what I’m doing is very familiar to me, and I’m guessing I’m not alone in this way.

I find kinship in this morning’s passage, where the two disciples decide to follow Jesus – not really knowing where he was going. I feel that most of us find this world to be a difficult maze to navigate. I made reference to this in my last newsletter article, and I’ve heard from a few people who have found that to be a point to which they can relate.

Life is hard, but I don’t believe we are left to stumble alone in the dark. God moves in our midst in ways we rarely comprehend at the time, but I’m confident that we aren’t on our own. At a recent dinner-party I was relating a bit of my personal history to some friends and I was compelled to tell the story of the semester I dropped out of college and moved to Vail, Colorado. And to make things even worse in the eyes of my parents was the issue of me living in a condominium with three girls.

Now to be clear, I should point out that I behaved like the perfect gentleman I was raised to be. I didn’t intend for that to be the case, but that was the way it played out. And what might appear to have been a departure from my calling into ministry was a time that helped me develop some clarity about myself. For one thing it was one of the first decisions I ever made that was in clear contradiction to what my parents wanted me to do. And while I am a huge advocate of children listening to their parents, there comes a time in life when children have to make decisions for themselves, and this was such a moment for me. I didn’t make that decision to spite my parents, but when that opportunity arose it would have injured my spirit if I had done what they wanted me to do and not what my heart told me to do.

The really interesting thing about my winter in Vail was the job I found, which was doing something I had previously announced I wanted to learn – which was to cook Chinese food. I had actually called my parents a few months earlier and told them of my goal to learn to cook Chinese food – I remember the pause on the phone after telling them of this monumental decision.

Given the fact that I had embarked on an ill-advised journey it was important that I not fail to find employment, and I was having trouble finding some good work, but as I was walking through town one day I came across the Hong Kong Café. They weren’t advertising for help, but I went in and told them that I wanted to go to work there.

The owner, who was as authentically Chinese as I am, literally laughed at me when I made myself available for work, but he agreed to give me a try and it turned out to be a wonderful working relationship for me. I was totally stimulated by the job, and I learned how to do everything we did. I did prep-work some days and I cooked and washed dishes other days. Some days I worked double shifts and did it all. When the spring thaw came to Vail, the owner invited me to move to San Diego to help him start a new restaurant, but that was not where my heart wanted to be. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I moved back home that summer, but I did know I wanted to finish school, and there were some people in Fayetteville I was needing to be around.

Two significant things happened over the course of that next year. I decided I needed to convince Sharla to marry me, and I decided that I would seek admission to the Divinity School at Duke. Neither one of those things were easy, but I was really clear about it. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t give up on either endeavor unless I got a letter from a lawyer threatening legal consequences to my continued pursuit.

Honestly I’m still trying to figure out how to be a good husband and an effective pastor, but I’m pretty convinced that my time in Vail helped me understand more about who I was, who I wanted to be with, and what I wanted to do. It’s not hard for me to believe that God often leads us into places that don’t look quite right in order for us to get in touch with the very thing our souls are needing.

You can bet that this other John, the father of Andrew and Simon (who would come to be known as Peter) was not entirely happy that his sons had left their fishing enterprise to follow this roving healer and preacher. They didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but somehow they knew that staying with Jesus was the right thing to do.

We are all on different paths to the place where we find Jesus staying, and it really isn’t something that other people can give us perfect directions for finding, but when we find a place where we encounter the living Christ we don’t need to be quiet about it.

This isn’t a church that’s full of people who have all the answers, and I’m grateful for that. My sense is that we are looking in the right direction. We are trying to look out for one another and for those whom society has condemned, neglected, and abused. We aren’t doing it perfectly and it grieves me to know that not only are we failing to be as generous as possible to our neighbors we have people within our community who don’t feel valued and nurtured.

To be sure, we are all flawed creatures, and we often don’t really know what we’re doing. But as I told my District Superintendent when I had my annual review last week, there’s not another church to which I would rather be appointed. We’ve got our challenges, but maybe they just serve to keep us from being too comfortable with ourselves. Our primary objective is not to be comfortable, but to find Jesus, find some companions to come along with us, and to stay with him.

May God help us along in this vital endeavor.


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