What are you looking for?

Sometimes it is a beautiful gift to get snowed in. Everything slows down, and one way or another, we are all given an opportunity to hibernate a little. This past week, the gift of snow was particularly welcome. In the middle of it, there was a memorial service in Tuscson. President Obama gave what David Brooks called a wonderful speech, and many agreed. Brooks wrote in his column New York Times, January 14, 2011, “[The President] didn’t try to explain the rampage that occurred there. Instead, he used the occasion as a national Sabbath — as a chance to step out of the torrent of events and reflect.”

Sabbath time is more than just a break, or a brief interruption of our hurried routines. Sabbath moments allow our souls to catch up. We pause to let the world turn without us for a while and remember what really matters.

David Brooks, like many of us, is deeply concerned about the deterioration of our public discourse, and our political discourse in particular, and he is well aware that “even a great speech won’t usher in a period of civility. Speeches about civility will be taken to heart most by those people whose good character renders them unnecessary.” And so Brooks doesn’t just call for more civility, but digs a little deeper, because “civility is a tree with deep roots.” He doesn’t dig just a little deeper, say to the need for excellent public education or the importance of independent journalists. He digs all the way down to our shared humanity as one of the foundations of our life together and talks about “failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.”

He reminds his readers that our efforts to change the world, even if we are at our best, will always be laced with failure. “The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be fully reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.” Such knowledge ought to instill in us two things: a profound sense of humility and modesty, as well as gratitude for others who argue with us, correct us, and introduce elements we never thought of.

Brooks suggests that “civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation.” Our problem, according to him, is that “the roots of modesty have been carved away.” We have forgotten how to be humble and “have lost a sense of [our] own sinfulness.” Brooks identifies cultural changes that have contributed to this loss, but again, the roots lie deeper. This kind of amnesia is of a spiritual nature, and it is no coincidence that Brooks ends his column with a quote from one of the most clear-eyed theologians of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. [Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.] Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

The thing to remember then, when the Sabbath is over, is to live with such hope, such faith, and such love. We resolve to do better and then we step back into the torrent of events. How long will our memory last? How long before pride and fear throw the veil of amnesia over our hearts again?

In the gospel according to John, the first words of Jesus are not an admonition to try harder. Nor are his first words a call to repentance or a summons to join the movement. Jesus turns around and looks at two of John the Baptist’s disciples who have been following him for just a few moments. He doesn’t say, “Welcome! So glad, you joined me.” He asks them, “What are you looking for?”

Of course we are curious what these two unnamed followers of John the Baptist might be looking for. They just decided to follow Jesus after John had pointed him out to them and called him the Lamb of God. But we also hear this question after a terrible shooting that has shaken us deeply and raised all kinds of questions for us. We hear this question after a time of reflection during which the President called us “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” and the question is not just addressed to two unnamed disciples in the first chapter of John. This question is the first thing Jesus says to anyone who opens the gospel according to John.

“What are you looking for?”

You want to say, “Depends …” but Jesus gives you time to let the question sink in. And you begin to think about your life, the dreams you once had and the ones that still energize you; you think about your family, your work, your friends. What am I looking for? You wonder if you should start a list to help you get to the bottom of your longing and searching.

The President remembered Christina Taylor Green and said, “I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.” And he added, “All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

Something like that will always be part of what I am looking for; but I am also looking for something or someone to sustain my hope and my faith and my love.

The two disciples of the Baptist are standing with John when Jesus walks by and their master exclaimes, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” They don’t know any better than you and I what that means, but they follow Jesus – not because they trust him, but because they trust John and his testimony about Jesus. According to John, discipleship begins with a very good question and the life of a witness who points to Jesus. Rowan Williams says that “Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in.”[1]

Tomorrow we observe Martin Luther King Day, and while we mourn his death at the hand of a murderer, we continue to celebrate his vision and courage. The church remembers Dr. King because his was a trustworthy life, because in him we can see a world we’d like to live in – a world of justice, reconciliation, and promise. We remember him because his life is a testimony to the fullness of life God desires for all.

The Baptist points to Jesus, and two of his own disciples become followers of the Lamb of God. “What are you looking for?” he asks. They don’t give an answer; perhaps they don’t have one; perhaps they have too many. In response, they too ask a question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Are they asking for his address? I don’t think so. They are curious about where he is at home, they are curious about where his soul is planted, where he draws his strength, where he has found hope, faith, and love.

“Faith,” says Susan Andrews, “begins with curiosity. It is rooted in companionship. It often leads to commitment and conviction, but it all begins with curiosity.”[2] It all begins with curiosity – and Jesus says, “Come and see.” He invites the two, he invites you and me to live in the company of the Word become flesh.

I don’t journey with him because I have seen and now know, but because I want to learn to see more clearly, more truthfully, more faithfully, more completely. I journey with him because I am looking for wholeness in this fragmented world. I am looking for a community that embodies grace and solidarity. I am looking for an economy whose currency is gratitude, not greed. I journey with Jesus because his beautiful life illumines the law, the prophets, and the psalms as well as my own life. I journey with him because I trust the testimony of those who discovered grace and truth in his company, who found a love that holds all things, hope against hope, and deep, abiding faith. It all begins with curiosity, and it is rooted in companionship.

We need one another, and not just because we all benefit from arguing with each other, correcting each other, or introducing perspectives that hadn’t been considered yet in the great conversation. We need one another so we can seek the truth in our opponents’ error and the error in our own truth.[3]

More than anything, we need one another to practice humility in the spirit of Jesus; and it is really quite simple. We ask one another, “What are you looking for?” and we listen – we listen carefully and with empathy, we listen long enough for the question to sink in, and we hear each other out as we journey together.

It really is quite simple.



[1] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), p. 21-22

[2] Susan Andrews, Lectionary Homiletics Vol. 16, No. 1, p. 65

[3] Which is another Niebuhr quote, this one a favorite of E.J. Dionne’s