Lord, Let My Heart be Good Soil

In recent years, a kind of hipster slang has entered our lexicon centered on the word “Word.”  Here’s how it works.  When you read or hear something you particularly like or strongly agree with, you say “WORD.”  Saying “WORD” is a staccato, shorthand response communicating that what’s already been said has been so completely that nothing else needs to be added.  Saying “WORD” or even “WORD UP!” means you’ve heard it, you’ve experienced it, and you get it–whatever the “it” is.

In other word’s it’s a cool way of saying AMEN!

Truth is we throw the word “word” around a lot.  We ask people “What’s the good WORD?”  We say “Now there’s a WORD of truth.”  Humorously if we’re mad at someone, we say that we need to have a WORD of prayer with them.

The biblical passages from this week’s lectionary are from Isaiah and Matthew. Both affirm that that the Word of God is an experience.  Being open to the word and listening to the word are both key to that experience. Said another way, the Word of God is not flat and it never returns empty. It has creative power and metaphysical dimension.

Our sacred text tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  It tells us that the Word of God became flesh, and that it was God’s word that spoke the world into existence.  And in Jesus, the Word was inseparable with true encounter with God.

In the same way we cannot suppress a yawn, we cannot suppress the potential of God’s word!  If our hearts are good soil, the WORD will grow in a way that is unique to you. That’s because how you hear it, how it lands on you is particular to you.  My particular response to God’s word led to me to become a liberation theologian. A liberation theologian is someone who sees the core purpose of the gospel as being the liberation of God’s people–liberation from anything that oppresses, anything that robs them of the knowledge and experience of God’s extravagant love.  How the Word lands on the soil of your heart will be a clue to what makes your heart soar or what gives it pain.

According to the Religious News Service, this summer many Americans are watching in helpless horror as more than 52,000 children fleeing violence stream over our southern border. Many are making a dangerous journey by themselves to escape murder rates and gang violence in Central America, particularly El Saborder childrenlvador and Honduras, that are unparalleled except in countries at war. Did you know that if you live in New York City you have a 1 in 25,000 chance of being murdered? But if you live in Central America you have a 1 in 14 chance.

Rev. Gay Clark Jennings recently wrote, “People of goodwill at the border have offered food, water, shelter and compassionate care to these refugee children while others with hardened hearts have blocked buses carrying them to processing centers, despite the fact that it is not illegal for people to cross the U.S. border and ask for protection under U.S. law.”

How have we forgotten that the Gospel of Matthew recounts the story of King Herod who slaughtered all the babies and toddlers around Bethlehem in a desperate attempt to prevent the reign of Jesus — the child he had been told would become a king. That means that as Christians, we worship a child who fled from the violence in his home country.

Jesus was an immigrant.

The baby Jesus survived Herod’s massacre because his parents took him across a border to a land where he could be safe. Just like parents in Central America are sending their children away, Mary and Joseph took great risks so their son could survive. It’s no different!

How we respond to the world around us is in part determined by how the WORD of God has landed on the soil of our lives.  The fate of the world God loves demands that we connect the dots between our faith and our lives. For if we do not, we will be saying that the Word of God is just a book,  or maybe just a few verses we memorized for confirmation.

If the WORD is alive, if it does not return empty–if it has landed on good soil, may we respond with holy intention.   May our prayer forever be, “Lord let my heart be good soil.” AMEN.


Possibility in the Midst of Little

Matthew’s  gospel tells the story  of the feeding of the 5,000;  a story that contrasts two very different (let’s call them…) community dinners.   Now some congregations might get confused about what part of the story constitutes the miracle. That is unless you’re a congregation who’s been operating a dining hall at the Minnesota State Fair for oh, say, 64 years, and providing free  community dinners for about six months.

Certainly when we saw that great crowd of 6,000 BMW bikers descending on the fairgrounds last weekend,

"Feed My Sheep"
“Feed My Sheep”

we weren’t sure what to expect.  But I can tell you this, none of us said as the disciples did:  “send the crowds away so that they may go into the City of St. Paul and buy food for themselves!”  And Jesus did not have to say to us what he needed to say to his early disciples: “They need not go away; YOU give them something to eat.”

In truth, there were a few times when our serving the 6,000 bikers was nothing short of a miracle-especially when we ran out of eggs, or bread, or strawberry rhubarb pies.  A couple of times it rather felt like we were dealing with  2 fish and 5 loaves.  One thing we never ran short of was compassion, and compassion is at the heart of today’s text.   You see it wasn’t about WHAT Jesus did, or HOW he did it. It was about WHY.

Matthew records that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him he had compassion on them.  He healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.

To fully experience why he withdrew in the first place, we need to know about the other “community dinner.”  Did you catch the transitional line at the beginning of the gospel? “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Heard? Heard what?  What Jesus just heard was that his friend and cousin,  John the Baptist  had just been murdered, beheaded  by King Herod at  an opulent, A-list, over the top dinner party—another kind of community meal.

The juxtaposition of Herod’s A-list dinner and Jesus feeding the 5,000 couldn’t be more ironic, or powerful.   David Lose is President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes, “One moment Matthew invites us to focus on one more episode from the “lifestyles of the rich and shameless” and in the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick, and hungry crowds looking for relief. It’s like switching channels from the Kardashians to a news report on immigrant children stranded at the border. Matthew is indicating by these contrasting scenes just what kind of God Jesus represents.

In fact every one of Jesus’ acts points us to the character of the God.  In this story, the character of God that Jesus reveals is captured in that single word, “compassion.”  And the contrast between Herod’s dinner for the “haves,” and Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000  “have nots,” was that Jesus’ dinner was banquet of possibilities, a banquet where Jesus  created an outpouring for people who almost never have enough.

Banquets are a funny thing. Rather like community dinners.

What we are doing with our community dinners is that we too are creating an outpouring for people who almost never have enough.  Are you smellin’ what I’m cooking here? People talk about how nice our community meals are, that we put out the china, the flowers and the good food.  We do that because have a certain expectation about the way we want our dinners to be.  Dr. Ruby Payne is a popular speaker on the topic of understanding poverty. She remarks that when people of privilege enter a banquet, their first concern is that it looks pretty and will they like the choices?” People in the economic middle will be concerned with whether it tastes good. However, people living in poverty, those with little,  will want to know if there is enough. And with Jesus, there was so  much that there were leftovers!

This was important because in Jesus’ time the only religious choices beyond Judaism were often cults and sects, some of which required economic  standing.  Except Christianity. What distinguished  Jesus’  ministry was the fact that everyone, with or without economic or social standing, were ALL welcome.   That’s why they were following him.

Jesus’ entire ministry was to represent the God of extravagant possibility in the midst of little. For in God we have everything that we could ever want, more than enough for our hearts, heads  and stomachs to hold!

The real wonder of this story is that it continues: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry. God still shares God’s presence with us, in the bread and in the wine – and…

God continues to use us to care for world that God loves.


The Other Side of Welcome (Pride 2014)

(Matthew 10: 40-42     40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”)

Our very short gospel passage this morning packs both a social and theological punch. It is the continuation of Jesus’ words to the first disciples as they are being sent into the world as ambassadors for Christ.  That is the meaning behind the words “whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me.”  To welcome is no small gesture. It is a gesture of cosmic importance.  This year we took our understanding of welcome to a new level when we became a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation.

Welcome appears six times in these two short verses.  Are we numb to its significance?  Do we talk about welcome so much that its like a song played too often? Our front doors sport mats with the word “Welcome.” Tourism abounds with signage- Welcome to Minnesota. Welcome to Wisconsin.  Even the town Veterinarian gets in on the welcome with their humorous take. Welcome. Sit. Stay.

In the verses that precede our reading, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to have utter reliance on God.  Again, not as am empty gesture of trust but as a deep theological understanding that everything they do as ambassadors of the one who sent them, puts them literally into relationship with the Trinity.

Theologian Debra Dean Murphy writes, “Those of us who are sent (the early disciples AND us) represent the functional presence of Christ. The disciples represented the full presence and power of Jesus, just as Jesus bears the full presence and power of God. Matthew stresses throughout his Gospel that this is not about hierarchy but symbiosis.”  In other words, a seamless, working together. This entire discourse makes it clear that God’s power is now at work not only in and through Jesus, but in and through his disciples.

Are you smellin’ what I’m cookin’ here?

We’re good at welcome here at Salem. We know it’s about more than just being nice to people.  We’re not being nice SO we can socialize others to come be just like us. No. We get that we are being changed by our welcome. Hospitality and welcome are reciprocal. They are about mutual encounter.   By seeing Christ in each other, we are inviting God to incarnate among us.  That side of welcome bears the potential to change the way we see Jesus.  In no uncertain terms, we are called to welcome who God welcomes. To love who God loves.

It’s perfect that this is Pride weekend RIC logo. If you have any notion that this is a weekend dedicated to the vanity of pride,  let me set the record “straight.” Pride events came out of the reality that we lived in a world that would not yet affirm or welcome us.  Pride events became a way to collectively care for ourselves, letting our community know that they were not alone. Thanks be to God that today Pride is about celebrating the  advancements of affirmation, welcome, and equality.

This week   I received a copy of a speech given by a straight friend of mine, Pastor Amanda Zentz Alo, pastor of Central Lutheran Church in Portland Oregon. We went to seminary together. She was asked to speak at a Pride event and this is just part of what she said.

“As a Christian leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America I am called by my baptismal covenant to seek justice in our world and to stand and to speak for those who are vulnerable. In 2009 my denomination voted on a social statement on Human Sexuality. In the statement we are called to cling to God’s grace and affirm trustworthy relationships and social structures that will:

  • promote, value, and respect the human dignity of each individual
  • protect all from physical, emotional, and spiritual harm;
  •  demonstrate mercy, compassion, and justice for all, especially the “least of these” – those who are most vulnerable in relationships and society;

And so…I cannot stay silent when the actions of a social structure stand firmly against all of these tenants. 
I cannot stay silent when I see the pain in the eyes of children who have been told that their love is wrong.
I cannot stay silent when young adults seeking to live with integrity and faith are told that must be fixed.
I cannot stay silent when an organization encourages people of faith to live in relationships that are not based upon authenticity and honesty.
I cannot stay silent when in our community there are many who can be harmed by this errant theology that is not supported by the loving God of grace who sent Jesus Christ to dwell among us.

[I cannot stay silent when] There is the breaking down of community that God wishes only to have built up.
Our faith calls us to love and serve our neighbors, not to harm them; to build up community, not to tear it down.  END QUOTE.

Pastor Amanda’s words and yes, the ELCA’s social statement are statements of welcome. To invite God to incarnate into our lives as today’s disciples is to grow our understanding that it’s not about us. It’s about what God is doing through us. That is why we welcome in worship by saying “ Grace, Peace and Welcome in the name of our Risen Savior Jesus Christ.”

Each time we are offered the Eucharist, it is not I or even the communion servers who are inviting you, it is Christ who welcomes you to the table of grace. And it is Christ who is the gift.  The gift of Christ comes full circle as we become Christ for the neighbor who is Christ for us.

That is the other side of welcome.  May it be so.



Mother Love (A sermon for Mother’s Day)

The story of Ruth, Orpah, and their mother in law Naomi is often read at weddings and  on Mother’s Day, in part because mother love isn’t always biological. There are the mothers who give us birth and the mothers who give us love.  Sometimes our mother figures aren’t even female.   Ruth Ruthand Naomi were what we call “chosen family.” Not only were they devoted, their love protected one another at a time when being widowed could mean being left alone to fend for yourself.

Their story is one of love and loyalty connected by loss, but it is also about life’s greater movements, those times when the spirit calls us into some kind of change or migration. Migration stories are everywhere within the bible.  Naomi and her husband felt that spirit when it moved them from Judah to Moab, the place where their sons would take wives until the need for movement necessitated their return to Judah.

Usually when we think of migrations, we think of birds or animals, drawn into seasonal journeys for the purpose of breeding or feeding. It’s not so different with humans. We move for lots of reasons.  The deaths of all three husbands are only one reason.

So here we have three widowed women.  Naomi takes charge and decides to return to Judah where she has heard God looks kindly on his people and where God will provide food. She tells her daughters in law that they should “migrate” back to their mother’s houses.

Orpah consents, kisses Naomi good bye and returns to her mother.  In contrast Ruth “clings” to Naomi while pronouncing the famous words, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried”.

These two unmarried, widowed women, unaccompanied by men, make their forty mile journey, crossing the Jordan River to Judah, two friends joined by loss and by love.

Have you ever made a connection with someone who wasn’t your biological parent? Have you ever left your home, in search of a better life? Have you ever felt inexplicably drawn to a new destiny, uncertain of the outcome yet following an instinct to move?  When the spirit calls you forth, you must answer or die–just as you cannot stop a butterfly from emerging into a new creation.

I don’t recall who said it but “For us humans, the who and what that we are today cannot contain the who and what that we will become.” We are always migrating towards that spirit of becoming, that spirit of “next,” that when answered, draws us into greater harmony with our creator.

Transitions are seldom limited to geography. There are whole body, whole soul transformations. Life is about movement, growth and becoming.  The dead sea is dead because there is no movement. It’s even more so in our faith lives. We move from dogmatic certainty and black and white belief systems to the place of having God meet us in the questions of life.  God becomes less of a life preserver and more companion and counselor. Movements take place when we join a particular church and begin to feel a new sense of belonging and right place.

When you think about it, we are all beneficiaries of this instinct to move. Nearly all of us come from immigrant families. Salem was founded by people drawn by the spirit.   I’d like to believe it was our mothers that took charge, as did Naomi, keeping the family together as they took unlikely routes, dreaming uncommon dreams, and realized Godly outcomes. Mother love keeps us going and brings us home no matter where we are.

And do you know the rest of the story? Beyond our reading mother Naomi takes charge again, introducing Ruth to her kinsmen Boaz. Our sacred text records  “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. The Lord then enabled her to conceive and she gave birth to a son”.

Mother Naomi answered the voice of destiny and Ruth followed. And the payoff for following their shared destiny—Ruth’s child  Obed.  Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David. And so with the birth of Obed, Ruth became the great, great, great, great….. great, great grandmother of Jesus. Through love, loyalty and the following of spirit, Ruth and Naomi liberated their situation, becoming survivors; heroines and women of noble character, not to mention becoming the progenitors of  Jesus.

I hope knowing the rest of the story amplifies the truth that Ruth’s words were prophetic beyond her circumstances. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people and your God my God.”

And it all began with a mother’s love. Happy Mother’s Day.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Easter 2014)

Happy Easter!  This morning I appreciate the pastor’s prayer I heard recently. It acknowledges the anxiety and hope that our Easter sermons match the greatness of the subject.    Last Sunday I announced that my  message would be titled “The Day the Earth Stood Still,”  a title inspired by the 1951 film of the same A 1951 20th Century Fox black-and-white science fiction film directed by Robert Wise, starring Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie.

name. Thanks to my late mother,  I’ve seen this film at least fifteen times. I was raised on “One Step Beyond”  “Outer Limits” and the “Twilight Zone.” However, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was a perennial favorite. I admit that what the film loses in being hokey, it makes up in getting us to think about humanity’s capacity for violence.  Seen through the lens of Easter, I am reminded of how the plot parallels certain religious themes.

In the film, an alien visitor appears in human form, landing on Earth to walk among us with the goal of delivering an important message to the citizens of earth.  “Klaatu” tells them that the message he bears is so momentous  it must be revealed to all the world’s leaders simultaneously.  However, before he can deliver this message, he is killed by mob violence and resurrected temporarily to complete his mission. When asked if his technology holds the power of life and death, he tells them that only the almighty spirit has that power.  When the people fail to take his request seriously, he causes the world to stand still for one hour. Cars and trains mysteriously stop and nothing but planes already in flight continues.

When Klaatu ultimately does address the world’s scientists, he tells them that our penchant for violence has gained the attention of the universe and because we are beginning to venture into space, the other planets will not allow our violence to extend beyond our borders.  He then leaves behind a robot programmed to maintain the peace, or to reduce us to a burned out cinder if we do not comply.

In a very loose comparison, Jesus was somewhat alien to the people of his day.  God in human form, he came to live among us, bringing a message of peaceful nonviolence, inclusion and love–cut down by the violence of an world not yet ready for the momentous teaching he came to share. Tragically, his thanks was death. His thanks was taking upon himself all the violence the world could throw at him. The difference between the film and the historical Jesus, is that his presence, life, and death were not science fiction.  His mission was and is still very real. But are we any more ready today than they were then? When the ancient world didn’t take his message seriously,  sacred text records that the earth stood still and…”darkness came over the whole land [or, earth] until three in the afternoon.”

And now it’s no longer 1st century Palestine, or 1951 Hollywood. It’s Minnesota, U.S.A., Earth, Easter Sunday 2014. We live in a world where violence for violence sake is all too common. Today our capacity for violence spans the distance between class room bullying and weapons of mass destruction. That said, that the gravity of our response  is more important than at any other time in history.

Paul Nuechterlein is a writer with the Peace and Theology association. He writes “[It’s important to] name God’s startling alternative to violence in any form. God [in Jesus] suffers our violence on the cross, showing it to be impotent compared to God’s life-giving power of love on Easter.”

No, Jesus did not leave us a robot to wipe us out if we got it wrong. He left us the Holy Spirit, to whisper and to guide his community. Christ came to show us who God truly is. The God who placed a rainbow covenant in the sky, placed it as a promise to never again solve the problem of violence by inflicting more violence. That is the God we meet in Christ.

The message of Easter today is centered in God’s radical hope of a “new covenant in his blood”—a world order defined by love, peacemaking, care of neighbor, justice, and equality. On the day the earth stood still, Jesus put death to death and his resurrection changed everything from that day forward.

So what will be our response to Gods radical, boundary-breaking acts of divine love that are at the heart of Easter?

It is my prayer that we will answer the call to live our life so that one day, the lion will lay down with the lamb. THAT is Christ’s ongoing work in, with, and through us.  That is Easter hope, a hope that will only be called science fiction if we fail.


An Invitation to a Miracle Mindset

John 2:1-11

Typically sermons build to a central point, but this morning I’m going to get to the point right up front… Here we go.

What would our lives be like if we expected miracles on a daily basis?  In other words, let’s suppose that extraordinary outcomes don’t happen only to people in the bible or the National Enquirer…. Imagine that your spiritual mindset, your daily and confident expectation, is that you have your very own miracle maker.

That is the example of Mary. Mary had a miracle makerImage as part of her family, her “team.”  What if we, who are also part of ‘Team Jesus,’ were to adopt that same expectation; that same miracle mindset?

When the wedding host runs out of adult beverages, it is clear that Mary not only knew Jesus could fix the problem, she expected nothing less than that he would.   It was no small thing to run out of wine at a wedding.  It was how you demonstrated hospitality and it also represented the flow of good fortune that would follow the new couple.  So to run out of BLESSING was an unconscionable faux pas.

Weddings are used throughout the bible as teaching illustrations. The king who gives the wedding feast to a bunch of no shows in Matthew 25.  The “what not to wear” account of the wedding guest who gets thrown out for not wearing the right clothes, in Matthew 22.  The big seating chart dilemma in Luke 14.

What can we take away from this particular wedding story?

Well, stuff goes wrong at weddings as in life. I can attest!

  •  The couple arrives to realize they forgot the rings and the wedding is delayed 45 minutes while they run home.
  • The matron of honor had surgery recently and shouldn’t be standing for a long time and … you guessed it. She collapses during the vows.
  • The bride’s mother threatens to make a scene if her ex-husband (the bride’s father) brings his new girlfriend to the wedding—which of course he does.
  • Or…guests don’t bother to RSVP for the reception, but show up anyway, assuming there will be enough food and drink for them. And there isn’t.

We can wonder if that’s what happened at the wedding at Cana. And so a wedding is the scene John’s gospel uses to tell of Jesus’ first of seven signs of his divinity.

Each of the seven signs in the Gospel of John illustrates the miracles or public actions that reveal his identity. Whether Jesus is changing water into wine, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, or raising Lazarus, each story is told to reveal something  about Jesus and the human condition.

They invite us to take on the role of the people Jesus encounters in each story. Many believe this is why some people remain unnamed. We are to fill in the blank with our own name. That makes it easier for listeners to step into their space to stand with them in the experience of the scene.

At the heart of the wedding at Cana, human resources are at an end. There is no more wine left. In other miracles in John, humans have come to an end of their medical skills, supply of food, or supply of courage. In each case Jesus heals, feeds, and comforts amid the storm. Here he supplies what is needed for the feast to continue: the gift of wine. The gift of wine is given to propel us forward to the hour when the gift will be new life.

Throughout the scriptures we have always referred to these gifts or signs as MIRACLES.  And then…we check out! Miracles don’t exist today, right? And if they do, have you ever seen one?  Or they happen to other people, right?

Wrong.   Just what constitutes a miracle?

Miracles are happenings that we don’t naturally expect.

Why? Because NATURALLY, when left to our limited human limitations, our expectations tend to be pretty low.  Maybe we’ve forgotten that we are part of team Jesus!

Speaking of only our congregation, it was nothing short of a miracle when our Dorothy Hansen fell in her apartment and the man who normally walks the halls earlier, walked later and heard her cries. It was nothing short of a miracle that Marlys Nauman is recovering from a grave medical condition that in part turned out to be due to being given the wrong medication! It is nothing short of a miracle that Salem’s dining hall, over the last 60 plus years has probably fed more than 5,000 cups of Swedish egg coffee, pancakes  and meatball sundaes!

Miracles are when God and humans get together to make something happen.  Mary got that. Next Saturday the north side Lutheran churches are going to get together and confidently expect that God is going to work through them to make something wonderful happen in our neighborhood.  That reminds me…

Years ago I used to hand out special writing pens wherever I went.  I was so struck by these words that I had 300 pens engraved. Would you like to know what was written on the pens?  “The universe rearranges itself to suit your picture of reality.” In other words, you’ll always get exactly what you expect.   If your expectations are low, I guarantee that the universe will line up to verify that for you.  But if your expectations are born of a miracle mindset, watch out, because God will deliver.

We can either live as if everything that happens is ODD or as if everything that happens is GOD.   It is a choice.  Bad things may still occur but ask Kevin McGandy about the unexpected blessings and miracles cancer is bringing into his life.

Our gospel today is an Invitation to Experience the Miracles Ourselves. Team Jesus is about what is possible and… the possibilities are limitless. Because by the way, when Jesus turned water from the stone jars into wine, it added up to 180 gallons of the finest vintage they’d likely ever see.  And it was more than enough.


Come and See

Who do you follow?” That was the question I was asked while on vacation this past week down in Austin, Texas.  I’m not a huge fan of Texas in general but I love Austin. I served there as an interim pastor in 2007/2008.  You’vecome and see got to love a place where the slogan is “keep Austin weird.”  Austin is a bohemian mix of high tech, hippies, musicians, government types, and mystics. 

It was during dinner one night that I was asked the question. At the dinner table were people who identified as Christian, spiritual, metaphysical, as well as a Christian woman who now practices Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.  She was who wanted to know which spiritual leaders I follow, along with what preachers I listen to.

As curious as she was about me, I became curious about what this woman was looking for that she hadn’t found in Christianity.  Was something missing?  Had she grown tired of Jesus?  Had she never found the growing edge of the faith she grew up with?  Personally, the more I have studied Christianity, the more I find right under my nose. I  want to add that I applaud anyone drawing from multiple spiritual disciplines, however, I also hope they continue to excavate the treasures of them all.

The encounter was on my mind when I got home and opened my bible to see what the gospel passage was going to be for today.   John 1.  Perfect. In all of the gospels, one of the first things Jesus does is call disciples-dedicated followers.

But in John 1 the first question Jesus asks those followers is: “What are you looking for?” At one level, the question asks why they are walking after him. Fundamentally, this is the existential question asked of any potential disciple: “What do you seek when you come to follow Jesus?”  Both questions are worth pondering. Did you notice that they answer his question with another question? They ask him where he is staying.   The Greek word translated as “stay” is menô, a term that signifies a permanent remaining or abiding. Their question asks for more than location. They want to know where Jesus permanently abides, reflecting the innate desire of any disciple is to be in Jesus’ presence always.

That simple encounter conveys a desire for sincere relationship.  Relationship is key. Without mutual relationship, the encounter with Jesus would not have taken. It would have remained a meeting and nothing more.

Then Jesus says something else. He says, “Come and see,” taking it a step further with Nathanael.  In this short passage of sacred text, Jesus lets Nathanael know that he has seen him under the fig tree. In other words, this man Jesus KNOWS him, knows of him, and has SEEN him.   When we come right down to it, isn’t that what we all seek?  That God knows and sees us?

So, what are YOU looking for?  What is it that you seek?  Have you answered Jesus’ call to “come and see?” To “come and see,” is to risk genuine relationship. By saying “come and see” Jesus is inviting us to experience relationship, and to pay attention to what Jesus is up to in your life and in our world. Through this invitation we learn that faith is not a series of answers to be mastered and memorized. Relationship with Jesus is an experiential way of life. And…it cannot be phoned in.

Not long after my son passed, I was introduced to a prayer site on the internet. I was in my first call and at the time didn’t realize that my own relationship with God had been harmed by Jeremiah’s death.  I logged on to www.sacredspace.ie and was surprised by what I found. The site is run by Irish Jesuits and every day holds a different devotional experience. Each begins with an opening thought, which moves you through a prayer, a scripture, and then a time of conversation with Jesus.  Today’s devotion used part of the same scripture as our gospel text. It began with:

A year of grace is ending, and a new one is beginning. Before I ponder what the new year may bring, let me light my lamp and look back on the past year. There I can discover the deft touches of God, and this will give me confidence that the year now unfolding will be equally rich.  (And then it moved to the day’s prayer)

Dear Jesus, today I call on you in a special way. Mostly I come asking for favors. Today I’d like just to be in Your presence. Let my heart respond to Your Love.

And then after reading the day’s scripture, you are invited to imagine yourself talking to Jesus. Imagine Jesus himself standing or sitting at your side. You’re told to “Share your feelings with him.”

It was then that I realized how angry I was with God–not for taking Jeremiah (because I don’t believe that) but rather for the access I no longer had to my child . Relationships stall when we’re angry.  So I imagined that Jesus was sitting next to me and, well, I blasted him! “Where is my son? Why can’t I talk to him? Even a prisoner gets one phone call!” I yelled.

It was in that moment, while sitting in front of my computer, that I felt the presence and heard the voice of Jesus.  And Jesus said, “Jeremiah is fine. He is here, here with me.” The anger drained from me. It was all I needed to restore my relationship.  I knew in that moment that I was seen, I was known, and I was understood. Thanks be to God.

As we begin a new year, I invite us to begin a new relationship with God. God came down for relationship! This year, let us come to a place of knowing that God sees us. And with deep heart knowledge, let us share that good news with a world that needs the peace of that knowing. May it be so.