In the forty years between 1860 and 1900 attendance here at Saint Mark’s increased more than five-fold, out-pacing by a significant measure the rate of growth of either the Episcopal Church in general, or the population of Philadelphia. One wonders if the clergy of this parish stood on the street corners and pulled people inside! But of course, this was an even more fashionable neighborhood then than it is now, and this is Philadelphia, and we have always been an Episcopal church – these are not the ingredients that make for clergy standing outside yelling to bring people in! I, myself, do something like that only once a year: on Christmas Eve, which is the one night a year that I can safely bet that most people walking by late at night on Locust Street are heading to church! And even on that holy night, I do not borrow my script from John the Baptist and announce to those I encounter: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” I want to bring them, after all, not scare them away!
It’s very hard for us to believe that John’s message somehow had good effect, because we can’t imagine that it would work on us. Why is he talking about the Lamb of God? And if Jesus is so terrific, why doesn’t John drop what he is doing and follow Jesus himself, rather than staying on his street corner to take up his rant day after day?
In the Gospel this morning we are told that this is how Jesus’ disciples first began to follow him: they heard from John the Baptist, that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, then, without even talking with Jesus, they start walking behind him, following where he leads, until eventually Jesus stops, turns around, and asks them that basic question: “What are you looking for?”
I wonder how closely that pattern matches the paths any of us took to get to faith in Jesus. At first glance, there may seem to be little resemblance here to your spiritual journey or mine – but maybe that’s mostly because the costumes are so different. When I think about it, I realize that I had been hearing about Jesus my whole life (even singing every Sunday that he is the Lamb of God) before I realized that I was basically just walking behind him without ever really having talked with him (spiritually speaking). Eventually my life reached a point that I began to ask myself basic questions about what I was doing, who I was, and those questions could have been summed up by asking, What are you looking for?
I was, at the time, a young staff member for a US Senator. Most of my peers were dreaming and planning for law school or business school and the rewards and challenges that follow, or they were plotting a shift to some other way to make lots of money. I suppose they may have been responding to the same questions; I don’t really know. Of course, you can go to church your whole life and still avoid such questions. You can go to church your whole life and never know what you are looking for, too.
If you read the text of John’s Gospel closely, you might suspect that there is evidence that the first disciples were Episcopalians. Here’s why: after walking behind Jesus and being confronted at last by his probing question, “What are you looking for?” the disciples respond by asking Jesus this: “What hotel are you staying in?” Not only do they artfully duck the question of what they are looking for, they avoid asking the much more interesting question that could have serious implications for them, “Where are you going?” Yes, they could easily have been Episcopalians: much more interested in where they could park themselves than in where their faith might take them!
But the question does find its way to us after all these centuries, What are you looking for? And what remains to be seen is whether or not we have grown up enough to engage this question with Jesus, whether or not we want to try to tell Jesus honestly and openly what we are looking for. Or do we still prefer to deflect the question and ask him where he is staying? To be fair to those first disciples, the Passover was approaching and they may have intended their inquiry to discover where Jesus would spend the holy days, so they could be with him. But let’s assume, for our own purposes, that the disciples deflect the question because they don’t know the answer, don’t know what they are looking for.
Do you know what you are looking for?
Studies tell us that religious convictions in America are strong, that the vast majority of our neighbors consider themselves not only spiritual but religious. But studies also tell us that the vast majority of younger people do not know the religious traditions of their own families, cannot rehearse the basic stories of faith, don’t even know the cast of characters. How could they know what they are looking for? And what would they make of the news that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? How could that possibly mean anything?
As it happens, in Jesus’ day, the ancient Jewish ritual of slaughtering a lamb for the Passover and taking some of the blood to smear it on the doorposts of the house had been lost to the average Jewish household, and was now practiced, on their behalf, by the priests, who, I suppose, also enjoyed the best cuts of the lamb when it was roasted with oil and herbs. (Priests, it has to be said, have a long history of keeping the best stuff for themselves.) So the men who gathered to hear to the forceful preaching of John the Baptist knew that if Passover was coming visitors would need a place to stay. This much they knew – but they did not know, they had forgotten that a lamb was needed. It was no longer their job to remember about such things.
Urged on by something in the words of John the Baptist that they did not understand, but felt, the best those men could do was to fall in step behind this strange rabbi and quietly follow him, maybe just to see where he would go. How arresting it must have been when Jesus spins around on his heel and looks them in the eye and asks them, I think with a smile on his face, “What are you looking for?”
Despite a strong religious feeling in our country, many religious institutions – many churches – are emptier and emptier each year. I don’t know if this congregation has shrink five-fold in the last 110 years, but I know we are smaller than we once were.
Are there fewer people who are ready and willing to be confronted by the question: What are you looking for? It would seem not. But we may have forgotten about the need for a lamb – and maybe this is in part because priests have been too willing to do it ourselves, to think that it isn’t so important that you remember the need for a lamb.
The world has plenty of cruelty, wickedness, and sin. At the moment we are keenly aware of this because of the shootings in Tucson last week. But we know that there is much to be delivered from closer to home, as well, even within our own hearts.
I pray that it will be part of the ministry of the priests of this parish to teach anyone with ears to hear about the need for a lamb, and never to keep the best parts for ourselves.
I pray that we will all remember that John the Baptist never gave up his ministry of proclaiming Jesus until he was thrown in prison and killed. And that we will be bold enough to take the good news out into the streets when we are able, and declare it to the people.
I pray that we will remember ourselves and show others that it is enough to follow behind Jesus quietly for a while, maybe without much talking to him or knowing why you are there.
And I pray that this will always be a place where people find that in their pews during a prayer, or even a sermon, or while serving at the altar, or ladling out soup, or tutoring at Saint James the Less, or visiting a friend who is sick, or greeting someone at the door, or sharing a favorite dish at a pot-luck supper, or singing with the choir, or a hundred other ways we discover Jesus turning on his heel to ask us, “What are you looking for?”
And rather than deflecting the question, I pray that every one of us, and many more who we do not yet know, will learn the answer that the disciples might also have learned from the Psalmist, and say to Jesus when he calls us, “Behold, I come.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 January 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia