January 15- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

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January 15, 2023                                          Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

John 1:29-42                                                  The Federated Church, UCC


     I was in Florida this week for a conference with other UCC ministers. On Thursday, I ran on the beach on a day that reached 70 degrees. On Friday, I was back home and out for a walk in the snow on a day that reached 30 degrees. Both days I was walking on white powdery stuff, but there was just a wee bit of difference between the two settings!

     Now if I had been at the conference and run into one of you on the street or in a restaurant, one of us might well have said to the other, “Where are you staying?” We would have been curious about where the other one was located, and how long they’d be there, and whether we might get together at some point. “Where are you staying?” we’d ask.

     When John the Baptist is standing in the town square one day with two of his disciples, Jesus walks by. John alone knows this is the Lamb of God, the Child of God. So he tells his own two disciples that this is the One for whom they’ve been waiting: ‘Look, over there, that’s the One we’ve been hoping for.’ These two disciples then do an about-face and immediately leave John, the one they’ve been following, and glom instead onto Jesus. Jesus wants to know what they’re looking for, and instead of answering his question, they ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (John 1:38). I suspect they have no real idea what they’re looking for, or it’s just too deep and wonderful and they have no words for it. In any case, it’s an almost comedic evasion of the question Jesus is asking them. “What are you looking for?” “Where are you staying?”

     I wonder how many of us could give a concise and cogent answer to the question Jesus is asking. If I were to run into Jesus on the street and he stared me in the eyes and asked me what I was looking for, I’m guessing I’d stammer and maybe offer a faltering answer that would just as likely omit what I and we most crave. What I’m looking for, I might mumble, is for peace. I’m looking for people to get along. I’m looking for everybody to thrive. Maybe I’d say something like that. But, like those early disciples, I’d probably be just as likely to avoid the question about what I’m looking for and ask Jesus instead where he’s staying. That’s easier. It’s safer. I won’t seem stupid. In eluding the question, I won’t get trapped in some life-changing commitment. “Where are you staying?” I might well ask, deflecting until—when? never?—my deep fear of facing that core question of what I’m really looking for.

     So this question the disciples ask Jesus is a great deflector. It’s a kind of lame attempt to avoid what matters most. Strangely, though, it also asks the question that haunts us all at one time or another. What may seem on the surface to be the most superficial of questions—‘Hey, where are you staying, the Holiday Inn or the Hampton?’—is actually the question that, whether we would put it that way or not, is what we most want to know: Where, really, is Jesus staying?

     The question these disciples ask is, in truth, really a much more loaded question than they probably realize. The Greek word for “staying” appears five times in the passage we read earlier, sometimes translated into a different English word. Twice it is said that the Spirit descends and “remains” on Jesus. The word for “remain” is the same as the word translated in the disciples’ question as “stay.” And then right after they ask that question, the next verse says, “They came and saw where Jesus was staying, and they remained with him that day” (1:39). Staying and remaining both in the same sentence.

     Remaining, staying, or abiding is crucial in the gospel of John’s understanding of what it means to be in a relationship with, and to follow, Jesus. When the disciples ask Jesus where Jesus is staying, I suspect they are aching to know where Jesus is and will be in their lives. The disciples aren’t really asking about hotels or a street address, although it may seem that way at first glance. They’re asking about God’s faithfulness. They’re asking about where God shows up. They’re asking whether they can trust this Jesus to be there when life falls apart, when everything seems arid and pointless, when there’s so much pain and doubt that we don’t really know which way to turn, when death steals from us the one we love more than anything. “Where are you staying?” they and we ask of Jesus, and what all of us mean is: will you be there when we need you; will you show up when disaster strikes; will you walk with us through the vulturous challenges that sometimes threaten to rip us apart?

     Jesus hears their question about where he’s staying, and he has the simplest answer imaginable: “Come and see” (1:39). That’s all it takes: come and see. And both verbs are striking. If we want to know where Jesus is abiding, we are first beckoned to “come.” We’re likely never really to encounter Jesus unless we move toward the Holy One. It’s certainly true that Jesus comes toward us. That’s what grace is. It’s just as true, though, to say that there will be a meeting between Jesus and us only as we also turn toward, and move toward, Christ. Come, says Jesus.

     “Pilgrimage” is a now somewhat out-of-fashion word that involves being on the move as a way of encountering the living Christ. Sitting in my recliner waiting for God to make all the moves is not likely to get me anywhere spiritually. A real encounter happens only as I join in the dance, too. A relationship with the living Christ is something Christ and we do together. So Christ does indeed come toward us. And at the same time, we come toward Christ. We pray. Or we take time every night to give thanks for even the smallest of the day’s blessings, and we remember that it’s all gift from the Giver of all gifts. Or we sit in silence as we face a big fork in the road or a grim-looking future, and we quiet our minds and hearts, and ask for guidance and light. To be a pilgrim is to move toward Christ. Jesus beckons us to come.

     And as we come toward Christ, we’re also invited to “see.” Seeing is simple, we think: just open your eyes and look. As it happens, though, seeing is perhaps not as easy as it first sounds. We might well look without ever really seeing. My father was once in a town he had been in a number of times but didn’t know well, and he had to rush a friend to a hospital. Since the area was unfamiliar, though, he had no idea how he was going to find the hospital. As it happened, at every intersection he came to on this frantic trip, he saw one of those big blue signs with a capital “H” on it—a series of signs he had never been aware of before—and he got to the hospital as quickly as he could possibly have made it. And he got there because he saw signs he had never noticed before.

     Seeing in faith is something like that. If we’re going to see Jesus, it’s because we look in the right places, for the right signs. As we make our way through life, its roadways are littered with countless signs pointing us in a thousand different directions. It’s easy to get side-tracked and look for other sorts of signs entirely, signs of success, for example—how much money does she make?; or of achievement—how high has he risen on the corporate ladder?; or of personality—how charming or funny are they? We’re conditioned to look for a variety of signs in life, sings of accomplishment and wealth and charisma. They’re so often signs that point to competition and personal success and a craving for superiority. The signs that point to Jesus, though, are of a different kind entirely, aren’t they. They have a completely different look to them.

     And the font and color of those signs again and again have to do with how people are treated. When people are treated fairly, when they’re honored and adored, when they’re given the same opportunity as everybody else, those are signs that we have seen something of the Christ in our midst.

     On this birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this day and weekend when we celebrate the indelible mark he has left on our common life, we’re invited to reflect on where we are as a nation in racial matters, and where we might “see” Jesus on that front. John Rice is a Black man who runs a nonprofit organization that he started, an enterprise called Management Leadership for Tomorrow. In a piece he wrote for The Atlantic, he offers us a notable lens through which we might see Jesus.

     Rice talks there about “third degree” racism, and says that that’s the persistent roadblock that often keeps Black people from being able to develop fully. First degree racism is the blatant racism that we all recognize and decry. It’s overt prejudice. It’s when Black people are policed differently from white people; it’s when police are called about a Black birdwatcher in Central Park who’s asking you to obey the law; it’s calling someone the N-word. We can likely all agree that this is overt racism and not to be tolerated. First degree racism makes nearly all of us cringe, or it infuriates us.

     Second-degree racism, says Rice, is turning your back on anti-racism efforts, or demonizing those who struggle to undo the chains of racism. When we turn a blind eye to efforts to awaken our culture to the insidiousness of racism’s power, that’s second-degree racism. When football player Colin Kaepernick is denigrated and mocked for his efforts to call attention to the continuing shortcomings of our society, that’s second-degree racism.

     “The final, most pernicious” form of racism, says Rice, third-degree racism, “undergirds the everyday Black experience.” The example he gives is of a company executive who hires very few people of color, and laments that the quality of the candidates is not good. “The pipeline of qualified candidates is too small,” they say, “so we can only do so much right now.” To which Rice says, “Over the past 20 years, I have not once heard an executive follow up the ‘pipeline is too small’ defense with a quantitative analysis of that pipeline. This argument,” he says, “is lazy and inaccurate, and it attempts to shift the responsibility to fix an institution’s problem onto Black people and the organizations working to advance people of color.”

     Doing such a quantitative analysis of the pipeline would be the only appropriate way to demonstrate the supposed problem. The sort of subtle but nefarious racism that neglects, or refuses, to do that sort of analysis is at play in so many dimensions of our life together. Being more rigorous in our analysis, Rice says, would reveal the weakness of the argument being made. To expose that weakness would go a long way in correcting a myth. It would enable us to see Jesus so much more clearly (see Rice’s interview with Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, at yaletalkepisode34-rice-transcript.pdf; and his article in The Atlantic, The Three Degrees of Racism in America - The Atlantic).

     Seeing Jesus emerges from the relentless truth-telling that calls into question the obfuscating and self-serving illusions with which we live. This can be difficult and painful, of course, because it bursts the bubble of some of our most prized assumptions. And it asks something of us. It asks that we shed a defensive posture and open ourselves to a broader, more equitable world in which we play a role. To come to Jesus and to see Jesus is to acknowledge the disjunction and distortion and inequity of the world. And paradoxically, to see that societal pain and dis-ease is, at the same time, a necessary and crucial freeing. In our confession, it’s then possible to see a new and promising and enabling way that is crucial and beautiful and life-giving. That truth-telling alone is a strange and wonderful gift.

     Not only that, but that very confession and truth-telling empower us to embark on efforts to undo what is sometimes called America’s “original sin.” John Rice has been so attentive to the many ways Black people have had their hands tied behind their backs. So his work, in his Management Leadership for Tomorrow, is to provide significant coaching and teaching and support of people of color in order to open up opportunities that are so often denied now. Rice says, for example, that if you’re Black and you’re a promising athlete, you get abundant coaching starting when you’re very young. You’re likely to be able to find good coaching from grade school on into middle school, high school, and college, so your gifts are honed and you can reach your potential.

     And Rice contrasts that sort of easily-available coaching for athletes with a near-total dearth of coaching availability if you’re Black and you want to go into business. So Management Leadership for Tomorrow sets up mentor relationships for young Black people seeking to go into business. We who are white take that sort of mentorship largely for granted. We can usually find it when we need it. If you’re Black, though, such opportunities for teaching and coaching are far less easily available. So your potential may never be reached.

     Just yesterday, I saw a story about a young Black man named Justin Mutawassim who, in 2016, was a ramp agent for Delta Air Lines. He had always wanted to fly but couldn’t conceive how it would be possible for him to become a pilot. Then a chance meeting with a pilot named Ivor Martin changed his life. Martin took Mutawassim under his wing and showed him the ropes and encouraged him. And today, Mutawassim is himself a pilot with Delta. This is the sort of thing that John Rice does to open up that potential to those for whom it has been blocked by providing the resources that can make all the difference.

     What Rice and his nonprofit do, in other words, is make it possible for so many to have a multitude of opportunities opened up to them. And when they do, when people of every race are able to reach their potential, then together we see Christ.

     Martin Luther King saw Jesus in a profound way. So does John Rice. And we’re beckoned to come and see, as well. May we come and see where the living Christ is staying as we enact the dream of King’s that together we might all be treasured and enhanced and find fullness of life. For this is what God has given to all of us. May it always be so.