Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7 + Psalm 40:1-11 + 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 + John 1:29-42
Over the past week we in the office, and many of you as well, have been busily preparing the annual book of reports on the ministry of this congregation which you’ll receive next week at the annual meeting. The book of reports contains report after report, or letter after letter, by members of this congregation provided for the benefit of the whole community in order that we might reflect together on the shape and substance of our mutual ministry.
I struggled with my letter this year. I mean, I really struggled with it — not in the sense that I struggled with crafting the words, or reporting the facts. No, I struggled with the tone. I struggled with finding the right way to begin talking about the blessings and challenges of our life together. As I hear the apostle Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians, I realize I might have been well-served by taking a play from his book.
Writing to a congregation that was divided and defined by petty jealousies and gross misconduct (which, I should say, is really not who you are as a people), Paul begins his letter with a thanksgiving for the gifts of the Spirit that have been poured out on the community. He writes,
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:4-5)
That’s what we call “asset-based community development.” Writing to a community defined by their deficits, Paul makes a strategic decision to look for the strengths in this community, and he begins his communication with them by focusing on his gratitude for all that God has already given them in the form of spiritual gifts.
Spiritual gifts is a major theme of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Later in this letter he comes back to the subject of these gifts to say, “now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). After providing a list of examples of spiritual gifts that is much shorter than the one found in the Time & Talent inventory tucked into your bulletin this morning, Paul goes on to say,
“all these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:11-13)
So, we begin to see, when Paul commends the congregation at the beginning of his letter by giving thanks for the gifts of the spirit present in the community by saying, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” he means that when they are together, taken as a whole, they do not lack for anything. The reverse, however, is also implied. That when they are divided, by those petty jealousies or gross misconducts, they lose their ability to make proper use of the gifts and graces God has scattered among them.
The season of Sundays after Epiphany is filled with signs and wonders, manifestations of God’s glory revealed to all people. The prophet Isaiah declares,
“it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)
The ministry of Jesus, a ministry that began when wise people from foreign lands came to pay homage, intends to reconcile all peoples to one another, nation to nation and person to person. In fact, it appears that nation will be reconciled to nation person by person.
In my letter to all of you, which you’ll have the chance to read when you review the book of reports next week, I begin with a verse taken from the gospel of John that was used as the theme for our stewardship campaign this year. As Jesus and his disciples pass through Samaria, a foreign land filled with people marked by different customs and habits, he draws attention to the abundance that follows in the wake of reconciliation. Though his disciples were ready to get back to Israel, back to their home turf where they felt safe, secure and comfortable, Jesus instructs them to look at the people all around them, people they’d written off as being too different from them, and to see the gifts of the spirit present in them as well. “Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (John 4:35)
It is an epiphany for the disciples, a moment of insight as they realize that God is made manifest in people and places they’d been taught to avoid, to dismiss. People like the Samaritan women at the well with whom they’d just caught Jesus talking, who’d been so transformed by her encounter with Jesus that she dropped what she was doing and went back to her own community and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (John 4:29)
In her invitation to the Samaritans, the woman at the well sounds remarkably like Jesus himself, whose first words in the gospel of John are found in the passage we heard this morning as he encounters his disciples for the first time. Following a loud and rather conspicuous identification by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God, people begin to follow Jesus, so he asks them “what are you looking for?” When they respond by naming him a teacher and asking where he is staying, or more literally, where he abides, he answers them, “come and see” (John 1:38-39).
“Come and see” is the answer Jesus gives to however the disciples answered the question, “what are you looking for?” This is instructive. People are coming to Jesus for all sorts of reasons. You have come to this house of worship for all sorts of reasons, looking for all sorts of things.
As you came into worship this morning you should have received a blank index card. It may have been handed to you directly or it may have been tucked into your bulletin. I’d like you to pull that card out now and write on it, “what are you looking for?” I don’t want you to actually write what you are looking for. You might not know what you are looking for. Or you might have an immediate answer to that question based on how your morning is going, but also another answer that stays with you from day to day or year to year. Or you might know exactly what you are looking for, but feel a little shocked that such an intimate question is being asked in public. So, what I’m asking you to do is to write on this blank card, “What are you looking for?” and then to look at that question and listen to yourself, to the stirrings of your soul, for just a minute.
An extended pause to allow time for this activity.
My invitation to you is that you take this index card, this question, home with you and that you tape it up somewhere you’re sure to see it. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Tack it to your bulletin board. Anchor it to your refrigerator with a magnet. Let it pester you like it was meant to, this question that Jesus asks those who would follow him. “What are you looking for?”
You may come up with an answer this week. You may come up with many. If you do, and you would like to, I’m also going to invite you to bring your card back with you to worship next week when you’ll be invited to put it in the offering plate anonymously along with our many other offerings, gifts given for the building up of the church. And if you don’t, if the question remains unanswered, or your answer feels too personal, then I encourage you to leave the card up where you can see it, to remind you that the God who is revealed in Jesus loves you, and very sincerely wants to know what you are looking for.
But also, that Jesus suggests that however you frame that question, whatever question you pose, the answer in some part is for you to “come and see.” Come, bringing your gifts, your time and talents. Come, and find people like you and people very unlike you, all bearing God’s gifts to and for and from this assembly. Come, to receive God’s gifts again at the font and at the table. Come, knowing that you have been gifted so that you can be a gift, blessed to be a blessing. Come with your questions, and look for God’s answers in and among the community of faith. Come, and leave your loneliness, your bitterness, your divisions behind.
Come, and see.