Sunday, January 15, 2017

Phil Kniss: Putting down the remote

Epiphany 2: Come and see
John 1:29-46

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We live in a complicated world,
where we are called to “follow Jesus.”
But our world—
6000 miles and 2000 years away
from the world of Jesus of Nazareth—
is just . . . so . . . different.
When we set out to follow Jesus in our world
we have to do some translation . . . a lot of translation.
It makes following Jesus a complicated task.

So when we are faced with a complicated task,
we do what comes natural—try to simplify.
We take what seems un-manageable,
and try to make it manageable.
Naturally so.

Of course, the ever-present danger in this, is over-simplifying.
And we are all prone to this danger.

I mention this at the outset,
because I think today’s Gospel reading can help us.
In this ancient Gospel text,
we can find some clues for living today,
in our chaotic and complicated and globalized world.
We get these clues directly from Jesus and those who walked with him
in his relatively contained (and maybe . . . simpler?) world—
a world of Palestinian Jews
congregated on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire.

These clues come from the dialogue in this story—
or more precisely, series of short stories.

This narrative from John 1 takes place over a three-day period,
in four different scenes.

And if you look at the dialogue—
between John the Baptist and the crowds,
between John’s disciples and Jesus,
between Andrew and Simon,
Jesus and Philip,
Philip and Nathaniel—
they all have a common thread running through them,
summed up in three words, “Come and see.”

So here is my sermon in a nutshell:
the way to navigate the complexities
of a life of following Jesus today,
is to stubbornly commit ourselves to always “Come and see.”
To show up. See for ourselves.
To look. Take in. Observe.
To explore. Dig deeper.
And at the same time,
to stubbornly refuse to come to conclusions from a distance,
to resist, with all our might, the temptation to oversimplify,
and take the quick and easy path to reaching judgement.

That’s my singular point.
Now, let me try to flesh it out.
And this is my take on it.
You’ll need to tell me if you have a different take.

So how many times has someone run up to you wide-eyed,
talking a mile-a-minute,
trying to tell you something amazing . . . or scary or funny
that they saw happen with their own eyes.
And you don’t quite get it,
your face registers confusion,
they’re disappointed, and say, “I guess you had to be there!”

It’s a cliche, but it’s true.
There is no substitute for “being there.”
You only get the full impact of something
when you’re right there,
where it’s happening, when it’s happening—
seeing, hearing, participating.

Second-hand, and third and fourth-hand accounts,
don’t have enough emotional holding-power, typically,
to keep our attention for more than a few minutes.

It’s the reason TV stations label their news shows
Eye-Witness News.
Action News.
News Now.
It’s why camera crews find any excuse to come to you live,
from the scene of the action,
even for weather reports.
An NBC report on the California flooding last week,
showed a close up of the face of the reporter holding his mike,
talking about the high water.
Then the camera zoomed out,
you saw the reporter in that water, up to his waist.
It zoomed out more, and you saw the whole street full of water,
and his small figure in the middle of it all.

The producers know,
news is only partly about communicating facts.
A big part of it, is grabbing your emotional attention,
pulling you in,
making you feel like you’re there.
In less time, with less money, and less risk to their personnel,
they could easily give us more detailed and accurate data.
They could tell us the water on Main St.
is 37 inches at the center,
flowing 5 miles an hour,
and rising a foot every six hours.
They could get that data from local authorities,
and report it from a dry studio.
But no, they have to have someone wade out in the middle of it,
and come to us live,
for no good reason,
except they want that information to grab us emotionally,
and stay with us tomorrow and the next day.

John the Baptist had already told the crowds about Jesus,
many times.
He told them someone would soon appear
who was the anointed one, the promised Messiah.

But when Jesus finally showed up,
was there in the flesh,
then John said, with excitement, “Here he is.
Look! Behold the Lamb of God!”
This is the one I meant, when I said,
“I saw the Spirit descend on him as a dove.
I have seen and give witness that this is the one.”
John the Baptist, reporting live for Eye-Witness News.

The next day again, Jesus passed by,
and John said to two of his disciples,
“Look! Behold! The lamb of God.”

That’s Part 1 of this scripture reading from John 1—
the Gospel writer has John the Baptist urging us
to look, to observe, to see.
And John describes what he himself saw.

Then the narrative shifts to Scene 2.
John’s disciples, full of curiosity, start to follow after Jesus.
They want to learn more.
They ask where Jesus is staying.
And Jesus replies, simply, cryptically,
“Come and see.”
They went. They saw. They stayed.
They interacted with Jesus.

Scene 3. One of those disciples was Andrew.
He goes off and fetches his brother Simon.
“We have found the Messiah,” Andrew tells Simon.
So Simon comes. Sees. Observes first hand.
And Jesus gives him a new name, Cephas. Peter. The Rock.

Scene 4. Next day, Jesus invites Philip to follow him into Galilee.
And Philip goes and finds Nathaniel,
tells him basically the same thing Andrew told Peter.
“We have found him; the promised one.”
Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.
Nathaniel is skeptical. Nazareth? Really?
A Messiah from a backwoods place like that?
And Philip answered, with these now familiar words,
thick with meaning,
“Come and see.”

Come and see.
Be there.

Disciples don’t learn to follow their master by memorizing data,
by ensuring they digested the key points of their master’s teaching.
They learn to follow
by showing up,
by observing,
by noticing,
by paying attention,
by asking questions,
by experimenting,
by asking more questions,
by trying again,
by listening to their master,
by replicating what they see their master doing.

Being a true disciple begins with showing up.
In person.
Learning the truth about anyone, really,
especially about a group of people,
requires real presence,
requires us to Come and See.

If we disciples today—
trying to navigate a complicated world,
and be faithful followers of Jesus—
if we make a stubborn commitment to always Come and See,
before we Decide and Declare,
we will be in a minority position
in our 21st century American society.

That is true especially now,
in this anxious and fearful social climate,
where we are both hyper-connected and deeply divided,
where technology allows for,
and social patterns encourage,
immediate judgement,
and immediate response to that judgement,
delivered from a safe distance.

We are besieged by a rapid rise of outright Fake News,
and . . . news that gets leaked and broadcast and reacted to
before any normal, common-sense standards
of verification and balance and nuance gets applied to it,
only to find out later it was either entirely false,
or wrongly interpreted.
Now, we could write this off as political tricks and gamesmanship,
par for the course these days,
when people get passionate about one ideology or another.

Or . . . as disciples of Jesus, as people of Judeo-Christian faith,
we could see it as part of a larger moral crisis we participate in,
in which one of the Ten Commandments,
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor,”
is routinely ignored, and laughed into irrelevance.

But that’s just one small example
of how we all continually fail to “come and see.”
The seeds of our short attention span and distraction,
as individuals, and collectively,
those seeds were planted long ago,
and they are bearing fruit in nearly every part of our lives.

We are getting out of practice,
in one of the core spiritual disciplines:
showing up.

Our culture certainly doesn’t encourage us to practice it.
Life isn’t structured in a way that pushes us very often,
toward active direct engagement,
toward patient listening and observing,
toward thoughtful analysis,
toward hands-on collaboration,
toward face-to-face dialogue with our neighbors,
much less our opponents.

Technology has done wonders at making certain tasks easier.
So we can also get away with paying less attention.
It’s not just distracted driving that’s a problem.
It’s distracted walking.
It’s distracted talking.
It’s distracted living.

Maybe it started with the infrared remote control.
Some of you are too young to remember not having a remote.
I recall, in one of my very early sermons,
back in the mid-80's, actually making light of TV remotes.
We had a TV with a turn-knob and rabbit-ear antennas,
which was good enough for anybody.
To refuse to walk across the living room,
to change the channel or adjust the volume,
was the height of laziness, it seemed to me.
We were being sucked in by one of the 7 deadly sins—sloth.

Today, we’ve gone from zero, to an indeterminate number
of remotes in our household.
We recently replaced a car radio,
and the new one came with a remote. Really?
I’ll draw the line there.

The remote, to me, is not the epitome of evil.
But it is symbolic of how we approach life.
We want to remain at a distance.
We want to remain at ease.
We want to maintain control of our environment,
without actually engaging it very directly.
With as little effort expended as possible—the push of a button—
we’d like to turn down, or mute, that which disturbs us,
we’d like to switch channels, turn aside from,
anything that doesn’t immediately grab us.
We have developed . . . to perfection . . .
the art of impatience.

Remember the theme at our church retreat three years ago—
“Slow Church,”—the planter from that retreat
is still thriving in our foyer.
What I’m talking about here—
our addiction to remote control of life and relationships—
that is the opposite of Slow Church.

Slow Church is about patiently cultivating community
in the Body of Christ.
It’s about not even wanting to rush to judgement
or make a quick decision,
but to enter into the process
of listening and relationship-building,
of long conversations,
of choosing to live with tension,
rather than rushing to resolve it,
of moving toward those who are different,
and sitting with them, over time,
of allowing time for the Holy Spirit
to grow the fruit naturally,
instead of us trying to mass-produce it.

Speaking now in metaphor, the remote control is an addiction
from which we need to break ourselves free.
We need to put down the remote.
We need to swear off using this device to take the easy route,
the push-button approach to changing the world around us.
Maybe we should even lock it away in a cabinet,
along with other dangerous devices,
that we pull out only in the event of a true emergency.

Maybe, instead of deciding based on ideology—
who we ought to condemn and disassociate from, and
who we can embrace as part of our tribe—
maybe we should “come and see.”

Maybe, like Philip of Bethsaida,
we should invite the Nathanaels in our lives—
those who can’t believe anything good can come from Nazareth—
and gently, without argument or condemnation,
invite them to “come and see.”
Or maybe, if we are Nathanael,
we should listen to the brothers and sisters in our lives
whose witness we find it hard to believe,
and invest the time and energy required
to truly “come and see,”
to observe up close, and carefully, and over time,
to ask the questions, and listen to the answers,
to open our heart and mind
to what the Spirit may be saying.
That kind of openness is needed,
in all sectors of our society,
and . . . on all sides of virtually every debate
going on in the church today.

I think very little good
will come from depending on remote control,
to manage the tensions and discord in our environment.
We cannot mute or channel surf our way around them.
We must come and see and touch and interact.
We must learn from our master Jesus,
who sat at table with both tax collectors and Pharisees.
We must attend to what Jesus may be doing and saying today,
in our midst.
Where is Jesus, the Christ, at work in our world today?
In more places than we might imagine.
Let’s come and see.

And let’s sing from STS, #39, a wonderful song by John Bell.
There is nothing resembling a remote control in this invitation,
“will you come and follow me?”
It’s direct. It’s intimate. It’s interactive. It takes us places.
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

—Phil Kniss, January 15, 2017

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