Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon for Epiphany II

Christ Church, Springfield--John 1:21-42, Isaiah 49:1-7

Several decades ago a psychologist named Abraham Maslow got famous—at least among those who read psychology textbooks! —for publishing his theory about the “hierarchy of needs.”  Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs says that human beings have certain universal needs which, if they are met at all, must be met in a particular order. The most basic human need is for oxygen, and a person who is deprived of oxygen, after a very few seconds, is unlikely to be concerned about anything else. 

After the need for oxygen is met, the next level of the hierarchy is immediate personal safety. If you're being chased through the forest by a wild bear, you're not going to care awfully much about the relative humidity. And so on up the hierarchy through the levels of warmth, water, food, and so on. Once a lower need is satisfied, there is an immediate drive and desire to meet the next one on the scale. If you're freezing to death, you think, “If I could just have a fire, I wouldn't have a care in the world.” Then, once you're warm, you realize you're thirsty, and the quest continues. Most human beings, wherever they are on Maslow's hierarchy, spend most of their waking hours looking for something, seeking something.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, sometime after his baptism, he said to his own disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world,” whereupon two of John's disciples, Andrew being one of them, up and followed Jesus. When Jesus noticed that they were following him, he turned to them and said, “What do you seek?”

What do you seek?  What are you looking for?  What need do you have that you're trying to meet? 

The highest category of need on Maslow's hierarchy is something called “self-actualization.” Self-actualization is what you seek after, the need that you're aware of, when your material and emotional needs are regularly met. If you'll permit me now to leap across the crack between psychology and theology, I will suggest that what Maslow calls a need for self-actualization, a Christian —or, for that matter, a believer of almost any religious persuasion —would recognize as a need for God. We're talking here about a spiritual need. We're talking about one's hunger for one's true self, which is found only in the communion between a creature and its creator.

The disciples' answer to Jesus' question, “What do you seek?" was “Where are you staying?” The English translation doesn't really do justice to their question. They aren't just casually curious about Jesus' address and phone number. They want to know where Jesus lives, where he abides, where he dwells. They are seeking to fulfill their spiritual hunger, to experience that communion of creature and creator which they know will alone give them real “self-actualization.” They’re seeking to fill the God-shaped void that every human being is born with. 

And Jesus responds, “Come and see.” Again, the English translation is a little bit misleading. Jesus isn't just inviting them to casually stop by for a cup of coffee and have a look around. He isn't saying, “Hey, check this out.” Rather, Jesus is inviting Andrew and his companion to really come and see.  Come and have your eyes opened. Come and be enlightened in such a way that you'll think you were blind before that moment. Come and find self-actualization. Come and find what you've always been looking for even if you didn't know it. And Andrew and his friend came and they saw.

So what do we do when we've come and seen what we've been looking for, when we've experienced “self-actualization”?  One option is to keep it a secret, to horde it like a squirrel gathering acorns as the chill of winter sets in. “I've got mine; you find yours on your own.” The first Episcopal church Brenda and I ever worshiped in regularly—44 years ago this spring—was apparently filled with such an attitude. We were there every Sunday morning for the better part of six months, and during that time not a single soul took the slightest interest in our presence.  The Rector himself didn't so much as ask us our names. It's a wonder that I'm an Episcopalian today! There were apparently some needs getting met in that place, because it was a fairly good-sized parish. But whatever it was they had, they sure didn't seem very interested in sharing it.

The alternative, of course, when one has come and seen, is to share the news, to say, “Here it is. There's plenty more. Come and get it!” First, we would tell our family and friends. Then, if the news were important enough, we would want to tell everyone we could. If you happened to stumble over the sure-fire cure for cancer, you would want as many people as possible to know it as soon as possible! Remember those scientists in Utah about 25 years ago who said they'd found a way to create a “cold fusion” nuclear reaction?  It turned out they really hadn’t, but if they had, it would have revolutionized the world energy industry overnight. If they weren't complete liars, and at least thought they'd done what they said they'd done, their eagerness for the whole world to know of the discovery was quite understandable. 

All this, I hope, is unremarkably self-evident, because now I want to relate it to our life together in the church. We say we have gospel—good news. To varying degrees, and in different ways, we have actually experienced it. We have come and seen, and we know what we've seen to be that which we've sought, what we've been looking for, that which meets our deepest—or, according to Maslow, our highest—needs. How do we respond? 

If someone walks through the doors of Christ Church and makes the effort to become part of this community, I firmly believe that the gospel of Christ is somehow going to touch that person through the members of Christ Church. But what if someone remains on the fringe? Or, horror of horrors, what if they never even make it to the parking lot? What if they drive right on up Sixth Street, wondering where they're going to meet their need for self-actualization? Where is our concern for them? If we have good news, do they also deserve to hear it?

The very word “evangelism”—which, literally, means nothing more than “proclaiming good news”—and much more the thing itself, still scares and even offends many Episcopalians.  At the very least, we're nervous about it. We sometimes say it's because we're put off by the methods that other kinds of churches employ—emotional manipulation and the like. But I wonder. Could it be, at least in part, that we're nervous about sharing the good news because we're not all that clear on just what the news is, and why it's good? Try this on in your imagination: Write a one-half page summary of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, in a way that is both personal and attractive enough that someone who'd never heard it before would want to hear more. Could you do it?

When Andrew came and saw, and when he knew that the one he had seen was indeed the long-awaited Messiah, the hope of Israel, his first response was to run and tell his brother Peter the good news: “We have found the Messiah.” It was a completely natural and unself-conscious action on his part, as natural as one neighbor telling another about the station that's selling gas for under two dollars a gallon, or one fisherman telling another where the bass are biting.

The theme that runs through all the lessons today is that God chooses. By inviting them to “come and see,” Jesus chose Andrew and Peter as his disciples. At his baptism, God the Father revealed Jesus as his chosen one. In the prophecy of Isaiah, the “suffering servant” is chosen by God to be a light, not only to the nation of Israel —that would be “too light a thing.”  No, the servant of the LORD is to be a light to the nations. 

My friends, the same Lord is telling us in the Diocese of Springfield that it is “too light a thing” that we should minister only to one another, that we should share the good news only among ourselves. He calls us as well to be a “light to the nations,” represented by the thousands of people who live within walking or driving distance of this church, and who are looking for self-actualization in all the wrong places. We know what they seek, and we know where Jesus lives —he lives here. We have a story to tell. Let's learn it, first. Then, let's tell it. Amen.

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