Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 4/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 13th, 2017
Ah, they are over there. I’m a little disorganized this morning and I apologize for that. I don’t do the lecturing Dad very well and I kind of learned through the years that you pastor like you parent; you do! As you know that I don’t do the yelling part very well. Put my hands on the hips; I do not do that very well. My kids know that if I’m really angry at them my voice gets really really quiet. What I’m most thrilled about; I should not say thrilled because this is not the time for that. I’m proud to be the pastor of the church where I didn’t really have to say what I said. You all knew that. I wanted you to know that your pastor has your back and theologically we do have a responsibility.
I want to tell you about an old friend of mine. I have known him for a long time. We went to college together and it’s been kind of interesting to watch him through the years. He grew up in the Methodist Church and in about 2002 he made a rather sudden lurch to the right. He became engaged with Evangelical Christianity and he joined a Fundamentalist Christian Church. He picked up the Bible and hit the street; he became a street preacher for a while. He bragged that he was in a Bible study of some kind every night of the week. It was about 2008 that he made a trip to the West Coast to visit his sister. She’s a few years older than we are; he took two weeks at a seaside retreat with a theme something along the lines of self-discovery. When he came back all of his talk was about astral projection and natural healing and out-of-body experiences and some other ideas that we would’ve put in a folder labeled New Age Idealism.
About a year ago I heard that he was working for the Democratic Party in California. Rumor has it that he’s about to run for public office and that he didn’t quite get it done last year so we’ll see where that goes. Other people have been telling him that: well, whether you run or not, politics has become your new religion. He’s totally wrapped up in political matters. He is one of those people that are always posting about politics. In fact, I’ve had to un-follow him because I just… Do you have friends like that? It’s like the needle got stuck in the groove. For you younger people we used to have what was called records. I don’t know if you can get the needle stuck in a CD. For you younger people we used to have what were called CDs.
He’s what I would call a searcher. Ten years or twenty years before we were kids they were called it: going off to find yourself. But I would just call him a searcher. His interests seem to last about five or six years. He’s really excited about something. He wants to tell everybody about it at the beginning and he gets involved in and he gets engaged in it and through about year three or four he’s engaged in it and in years five and six he’s petering out looking for his next leap.
I remember reading the book a few years back called A Nation of Seekers. That’s who we are, the author said. I don’t remember who wrote it. The basic premise was we were all looking for something and we have a great sense of accomplishment when we find that something, that place. We are a nation on the move. It seems like everyone’s going somewhere for some reason. Some of us are on a very excited journey like my old friend and some of us are on a more reserved schedule. A few years back on public television there was a distinguished scholar, his name was Houston Smith. He did a survey of the world’s greatest religions and called his program: The Long Search.
I remember when I was a boy back in the 1970s our church participated with many others in a nationwide program of evangelism. As I recall, the program was called — I was a kid at the time, so please forgive me if I’m wrong — it was called: I Found It, the I Found It Program. As part of the program bumper stickers were given out after church on a table as people walked out. The bumper sticker said what else: I Found It. The idea was you would put that on your car and it was a way of pronouncing to the world that you had found something and they should ask you about it. The implication was that we had found Jesus. And in a nation of searching people, anyone who is able to stand up and proclaim: at last I found what I was looking for; they would be able to draw something of the crowd. That was the premise behind the I Found It Program. We were all seekers.
I certainly find this idea of being on a journey to be a major characteristic of my college years. I seemed to be searching a lot and I watched a lot of kids through the years go to college and they do searching and they are trying to figure out what they think. From what I can tell, college students have this notion that the important thing is to be on a journey. They don’t seem to have a sense of destination necessarily. In fact among college students, anybody that wants to stand up and say: I found it, I got the answers, would be shouted down within about thirty seconds and it would be pretty clear you don’t know what you were talking about.
In the late 1980s I remember at ASU going over to the Memorial Union to take in a local businessman’s lecture given to about two-hundred students entitled: My Five Years with a Zen Master. There were about two-hundred of us were there and we listened in rapt attention for about two hours taking notes and nodding in agreement as he talked about the joys of Zen Buddhism. The next week on the same Wednesday night series I went back and I listen to a graduate student talk about: My Semester in a Benedictine Monastery. Again there were about two-hundred students who filled the hall and we sat in rapt attention for just over an hour taking notes and nodding in agreement and points of insight brought a little bit of applause. Here is the thing! It was the same people; all two-hundred of us were there for both of them. We all just came back next week to take in a little bit more and we nodded in agreement and we didn’t seem to notice the fact that Benedictines and Buddhism don’t really agree; don’t really line up; don’t really have a lot of connecting points except sitting.
We are all looking for something; we are a nation of searchers. And although intellectual curiosity is good and although the Christian Gospels all depict Jesus as inviting people to be on a journey with him. This image of our long search, our groping for God is not the biblical message. That’s not how the Bible tells it. Let me summarize the biblical message, what the Bible says is happening; the Bible does not tell a story about our long search for God. In fact it’s an amazing account of the extraordinary length to which God will go in search of us.
You will notice this if you read the Christmas story carefully. Hardly anyone in the Christmas narrative was looking for God. They were searching for something more meaningful in their life. They were not really looking for deeper significance, though true, old Elizabeth and old Zachariah, they were looking to get pregnant but that was about it. Zachariah was going through the motions down at the temple and things start to happen. Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise people, they weren’t really looking for much of anything. I suspect most of them were poor and on the bottom of the economic ladder; they were simply trying to survive. They were searching for daily bread. There were searching for: how do we navigate an occupation force that uses fear and intimidation and terror to control us. The Magi, yeah they were on a search, they were following a star looking for a king. But they were portrayed in the biblical account has those who don’t know where to look, and they naïvely go and asking King Herod where they should look and John begins with the stirring first chapter of his gospel by talking about people who have sat in darkness have seen a great light.
That’s probably a good way to characterize our search. We are those who when we search we don’t really pull off anything except groping in the dark. The first Christmas is not a story about how we found God but rather an amazing account of how God found us. The story continues: here is Jesus, and hardly ever does anyone looking at Jesus and freely say: hey this guy is just what I’ve been looking for, here is the teaching that I’ve been waiting to hear. In fact seem to do almost anything to avoid Jesus and his teaching. And in John the people who hear his teaching suddenly find themselves quite capable of kneeling down and picking up rocks in the move to kill Jesus. Not just once in John 8 but also a second time in John 10. They tried to corral Jesus, contained Jesus, so they can stone Jesus. He walked out of them on his way.
But Jesus is intrusive and he is resourceful and he is relentless in reaching out to people. That’s how the Bible tells it. I recall the time that he met a little man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is the one who climbed up in the Sycamore tree to get a birds-eye view as Jesus walked by, but the birds-eye view became eye-to-eye when Jesus stopped and said: you come down, I’m going to your house for dinner. That is not what Zacchaeus wanted and Zacchaeus climbed down from the tree and Jesus climbed into Zacchaeus’ life. Jesus intruded giving Zacchaeus some very important revelations. At the end of the story Zacchaeus’ life has a sigh of relief in it as he says: I no longer have to try to be good enough for the people who criticize me. I no longer have to accumulate wealth so that someday they’ll see me as a big man.
At the end of Jesus’ story the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel, two disciples of walking away from Jerusalem, but walking away, probably trying to move away from where the violence happened; the horrible events of the last week when Jesus was arrested and tried in a kangaroo court and crucified. They are walking away and then in their midst a stranger appears and walks with them: step-by-step, talks with them, teaches them, and it is in the breaking of bread that they discovered that this is Jesus who came among them and they go back the way that they came.
Jesus told a story about a shepherd who goes and beats the bushes and goes to great lengths to find lost sheep. Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a woman who rips her house apart searching from top to bottom and every crevice until she finds one lost coin. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a father who when his son leaves home in an angry tantrum, the father waits and watches and goes and stands at the end of the driveway and then runs to meet his son before the boy can find his way home. There is in Jesus this reaching, his constant seeking, and this searching us out, a long, relentless search. It’s not our search; it’s God’s search for us. It seems that the main requirement for getting found by Jesus is to be lost.
The main requirement for the light suddenly comes on is that you are in the dark. The pathway to joy and comfort in Christ is where you are scared out of your mind and your heart and your gut. That’s what it means when we say Jesus is our Savior who seeks out and saves the lost. I expect this goes against the grain with which we have become comfortable through the years. But we are here because we are searching for something that your life is rich and rewarding in many ways, but in other ways was kind of a flatness and an expectedness about your life, a drone-ness, a boredom about your life. So you come to church, hoping that something will be said, that something will spark in a hymn that will help you in your search. But that’s not the way the Bible tells it.
According to Scripture you are here because you had been sought out, even summoned, even called, you been bothered, a finger got into you and started working on you. You are here because God reached in, Jesus crawled in and you were enticed, you were wooed, you were allured to be here. When you hear stories about the long search, that is God’s long search for you. I hope it conditions you to pay attention, to notice those little coincidences in your life, those strange happenings where things come together in odd ways, and advise those thoughts that you find that you have actual difficulty putting into the context of other thoughts. Perhaps this is all part of God’s continuing attempts to entice you because we have a tendency to bed down with darkness. We have a propensity to look in all of the wrong places and want all of the wrong things. We have a tendency to get what we want and then go to God and want God’s blessing on what we have. We seek out voices that tell us what we want to hear.
You do understand that our God could never leave us to our own devices. If we were left to our own devices, God Almighty is not the God which we would find. This God came among us. Pitched tent with us; as the gospel of John puts it, went camping with us. Christianity is not about discovery; Christianity is not about self-discovery; Christianity is not about divine discovery. It’s about revelation! Revelation is when the lights go on and all we see and what has been seen cannot be unseen. The self-disclosure of God makes our relationship with God possible. So keep looking. Keep looking over your shoulder as you go through your week. Keep being attentive and noticing strange little things, odd glorious things that happen to you. The search is over. God is with you; you have been found and that is very good news.