What Are You Seeking?

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John 1: 29-42

I recently read a column in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times titled, “Climate of Hate.” In light of the recent shootings in Arizona, which resulted in the deaths of six people, and the critical injury of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, columnist Paul Krugman offered his thoughts on some of the causes of this horrific act of violence. His concern over the attitudes and rhetoric between opposing parties is valid; the differences of the American people are only making a greater divide instead of making us stronger. He said: “The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.” (1) And on this day before a holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, life and legacy, I wonder how far we’ve really come in the last fifty years.

King lived through a climate of hate. No stranger to “eliminationist rhetoric”, he fought back against those opposed to his message not with violence, but with peaceful protests. His words proved to be a valuable asset and mighty weapon. But his actions also spoke volumes, or perhaps those actions he chose not to resort to. Let’s not mistake that King was an ordinary man. I mean ordinary in the sense that he lived and breathed as a human being, conversed with friends, worked, studied, and had a family. In that regard, he lived like many of us do today. What made King extraordinary were the choices he made, not for the benefit of himself, but for the well-being of others. He recognized his role as leader, teacher, and motivator, and he followed his calling, seeking out justice by whatever loving means necessary.

Our reading from Isaiah today reflects a tumultuous time for the Israelites in which they were exiles in a foreign land in need of consolation and revitalization. A thematic element to this portion of what is referred to as Second Isaiah includes a new Exodus out of exile, reminiscent of the early Israelites under the leadership of Moses. In Isaiah, the Israelites once again find themselves in need of a leader, one called by God to encourage them to rise up, remember their Creator, and reach out to those in need. The prophet offered a message of hope and revival to a downtrodden and scattered nation. What we read today is a beautiful example of what it means to be called by God to live as proof that there’s more to this captive and oppressive life. Isaiah outlines three tenants to being called by God: first, recognition that we are indeed all called to be sons and daughters of God, diversely created and equally valued; second, the restoration of those communities and individuals around us that have trouble seeing and knowing their worth in the midst of chaos and hatred; and third, revelation, meaning we are all messengers of the Gospel through our actions and our words so much so that the revelation of God’s love and justice is evident in us and shines forth brightly from us through the darkness to the ends of the earth. The Israelites needed a wake up call – someone to help them recognize their worth and potential so they could rise up as people loved and called by God and ultimately shift their focus from inward to outward to help and lift up others.

Working at the University I have the opportunity to watch students move up and down Commonwealth Avenue, converse over dinner in the GSU, bask in the sun on Marsh Plaza, and rehash the lessons from their classes at Espresso Royale Café across the street. There is an excitement present that I recognize from my own past. Just starting out on their own, expanding their minds and experiencing new things, they see their lives as full of possibilities. Questions arise like, “Who am I?” and “What am I looking for?” The options are endless. They could take on the world, make real changes, and beat the odds. I felt this way when I was in college, and I still catch glimpses of it from time to time. An example of this today, at Boston University, can be found in BU Today’s story on this year’s MLK celebrations, in which a student asked, “How can we be great?” (2) What an honest and inviting question, spurring creativity and action.

Some call this naïve – the belief that dreams do come true and visions for the betterment of human life can be lived out. I call this wonderful, but often too short lived. Cold hard reality eventually sets in. Reality that change is hard, revival is difficult, and revelation is often an empty promise or offered only for a select few. Living out our true passions and calling takes a back seat to the daily demands of routine life. And that youthful enthusiasm buries itself deep inside of us, just waiting to be woken up once again.

When asked, “What are you looking for?” or better phrased “What are you seeking?” our Gospel reading today states the disciples, as clueless as ever, answered Jesus’ question with a question, “Teacher, where are you staying?” In true comedic fashion, when alerted to the fact by John the Baptist that they were standing in the midst of the Lamb of God, they chose not to bow or grovel; instead they seem to only ask for Jesus’ mailing address. I think at first glance it’s easy to interpret our reading this way. The disciples have a reputation for not always catching on to what Jesus said or meant during his human life on earth. The underlying message of the parables was usually lost to the disciples, and they always asked questions that warranted a simple answer. But there’s more to be said about the disciples’ response. From their question, “where are you staying,” the translation of the word “stay” from the Greek word “menow” may be better phrased as to abide, remain, or continue, the same word John the Baptist used earlier in our reading to describe the Spirit from heaven remaining on Jesus after his baptism. It hinges on the notion of permanence or constancy. It implies an inner dwelling, a more eternal home instead of a transitory living place.

Perhaps the disciples answered Jesus’ question the most beautiful and brilliant way of all. They weren’t looking for Jesus address on a map. No, they desired the presence of Jesus, the eternal life and love to be ever alive with them and through them. With self abandon and eager anticipation to change the world, they understood their calling from Jesus to “come and see” where to find the true meaning of the gospel and how to live it out. In the same model of Isaiah, the disciples shift from recognition to restoration and even further towards making the great revelation known to all people. Inward to outward. From ourselves to helping those around us. From Jesus as human to the eternal loving presence of Christ within each one of us.

Martin Luther King Jr. could have never known the impact he would have on the country and its history. What was he seeking? He was seeking ways to improve the well-being of all the U.S. citizens, regardless of race. He was seeking God’s presence in the midst of chaos and hatred. He was seeking the meaning of the Gospel in every day life for African Americans. And he was seeking the words and actions to bring justice to a very unjust country and society. He wanted nothing more than to take others with him, to walk along the road together, to find the place where Jesus lived and breathed, ate and slept. And he did exactly that – because Jesus was a part of him, deep inside. Jesus could be found in King’s presence.

In this climate of hate, we have the choice to be ex
tremists, as King once noted – extremists of hate or love. King said, “Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” (3) Modeling Jesus’ extremists actions and words full of love, goodness and truth, we all have the potential to seek these aspects creatively, in ways relevant to the needs of our own society in 2011, if we’re willing to heed the call. One of the most prevalent needs, across the political divides and religious arrays, reaching beyond the borders of our country throughout the entire world, is the acceptance and full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk as human beings, deserving the same dignity and respect as others. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently said and has stated in the past, “Gay rights are human rights.” (4)

I was recently asked by a BU Today journalist, “Is King’s message still relevant today?” I didn’t hesitate to answer, Absolutely. He modeled how we should be living each and every day, messengers of the Gospel, seekers of justice, reminders of beauty and love. If we feel that King’s message is losing relevance, then it’s our own fault. The biblical message of righteousness, love and freedom for all people is not time or culturally specific. Discrimination and oppression run rampant and they must be stopped. As King noted, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (5) We have a lot of work to do. We celebrate days like King’s birthday because we too easily forget the injustices of the past and the ways to overcome them.

We are forgetful people. The purpose of days like today are to remember, to wake us up and call us into consciousness. Because too often we sleep walk through life, not fully aware of our true potential or the beauty in those who surround us each and every day.

We forget our worth and our capabilities. We forget what we’re seeking and where to find it. Like the Israelites in Isaiah, we too need to be reminded of our calling, our abilities to change the world for good, and our need to seek justice. We can learn from the students surrounding us, from their hopes and aspirations, from their work with various causes for goodness. The students I work with each week are daily reminders of the importance of following a calling and seeking out the love of Jesus. They strive for the inclusion of LGBT people in all aspects of life, and I know they won’t stop until changes are made and hatred is overcome. And these students face discrimination and hatred in ways that many of us can’t begin to comprehend. Jokes are made, punches are thrown, and doors are closed simply because of an aspect to the intricate and complex weavings of their inmost being.

I know this message too well. Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was work for God. As a child, my mother called me the “little evangelist” because of my excitement and love for God that I felt necessary to share with my friends. A little older, and I started to realize that fire inside for the gospel might mean something. And when I shared my thoughts to those in authority over me, I was pushed aside because of my gender. Women can’t be ministers; it says so in the Bible. Not swayed, I left that tradition in search of a place I could express my desire to serve God as a woman. I was then pushed aside again – this time because of my sexual orientation. I started to doubt myself and my calling and sought out other avenues of work. But nothing could satisfy my thirst like the ministry. After being told I was wrong for so long, I started to believe it, though. And I started to forget what truly made me feel alive.

People often approach me ask, “After all you’ve been through and seen in the Church, why do you bother to stay? Why not leave the church altogether?” I look at them with a puzzled glance and say, “How could I leave?” There have certainly been times where I’ve wanted to walk away, forget it all, and turn my back on people who disregard so much of the Gospel message. But in those times, I don’t get very far before a tug at my heart starts. Many of you know to what I’m referring. It starts out in a small quiet way, doesn’t it? A gentle nudge, or a quick tinge. Then it becomes a little stronger. By the end, there’s no question someone is trying to get your attention. You have two options in that moment: turn around and accept the difficulty and challenges of being chosen by God, or to keep walking – pushing aside the feelings until you’re numb and you forget who you are and what is was you were seeking.

Church leaders in King’s time claimed the social concerns of the day, such as segregation and deeply embedded racism did not concern the gospel. Some today would say the same of LGBT social issues. But, I completely disagree. The gospel is not boxed in, hidden in a corner, and turned to only for seemingly religious issues. When Jesus encouraged the disciples to “come and see” his invitation didn’t stop with those two men in the beginning of John. It expanded and grew to all people throughout all of time. When social concerns reflect oppression of people and groups of people and neglect human rights, the gospel must be concerned. We must be concerned, if we call ourselves followers of Christ and bearers of the Good News. Righteousness must always be sought out and acted upon. It’s time to rise up. Move past our differences and put forth our creative energy towards the well-being of all people instead of arguing over who’s allowed the freedom of the Gospel and who’s not.

There is no good found in eliminationist rhetoric. This kind of speech is hate-filled instead of love-filled. The bullying and suicides of young lesbian and gay children and teens are quickly becoming an epidemic – and we must find a cure. And through it all, we must remember how far we’ve come – because progress has been made. We remember Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office who also lost his life due to extremists of hate, those seeking violence instead of the loving and inclusive example of Jesus. Diversity should be celebrated – after all, aren’t we all living and breathing because of the same Creator? Dean Hill uses the phrase, “the expansion of the circle of human freedom.” King helped this expansion, and I hope today we all work to expand the circle until it encompasses all people.

Living a life worthy of the gospel is risky business. History proves that to us. It’s often easier to blend in than to stand out. It’s easier to keep quiet than cause a commotion. But life through Christ isn’t about keeping quiet. Like Isaiah, we are called to speak up. And like Jesus once said in the Gospel of Matthew, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.” The time is ripe, my friends, to let that light shine brightly.

Let us remember the triumphs and the mistakes from the past so that we may celebrate progress and learn to not fall back on actions that inhibit freedom and equality. Let us humble ourselves amongst one another as we recognize the eternal presence of Jesus throughout all of creation and humanity. Let us each bring our own gifts and passions to the table so that we may learn how to creatively work through our differences instead of resorting to hateful actions and words. Let us be open to the quiet yet firm voice of God nudging us to follow our calling as justice seekers and messengers of hope and the Good News.

Perhaps King described living out the Gospel and seeking justice best when he said, “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor wi
th no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, `Do something for others.’” (6) Amen.

Love and serve each other in the name of the faithful God who calls us to be God’s people. May God’s Holy Spirit lead you, may God’s strength protect you. May God’s peace be with you. Amen.

Endnotes
1. Krugman, Paul, “Climate of Hate,” The New York Times, January 9, 2011. Found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/10/opinion/10krugman.html.
2. Cornuelle, Kimberly, “University to Celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,” BU Today, January 14, 2010. Found at: http://www.bu.edu/today/node/12128.
3. King, Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.
4. Eleveld, Kerry, “The Advocate: Issue #1045,” January 2011.
5. King, Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.
6. From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by Clayborne Carson (New York: Time Warner Co.,1998). Found at:http://www.springfieldfranciscans.org/document/MLK.pdf

~ Liz Douglass,
Chapel Associate for LGBTQ & UCC Ministry

One Response to “What Are You Seeking?”

  1. StratCat says:

    This is beautiful, eloquent and powerful. Thank you for your continuing faith. It is inspiring to all of us who love our fellow man in the eyes of God.

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