Operating Instructions — Rev. Stacy Swain

“Operating instructions”[1]

Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42

January 19, 2014

Will you pray with me? God of reassurance and revelation, may the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts be guided by you, we pray, so that we may come and see where it is that you are dwelling among us this day. Amen

I remember clearly the day I left the hospital with my first child. I remember feeling a flash of anxiety that bordered on panic as I was wheeled towards the hospital doors that would open to the bright sunshine of that day. I remember wanting to stop as it suddenly hit me – they were entrusting me to take this new baby HOME?!! RIGHT NOW?!

I remember thinking and perhaps even saying to Mark, my husband, “I’m not sure this is really such a good idea; we have no idea what we are doing?!”

I will spare you the details but let’s just say that my panic edged worries were not completely unfounded for the next 24 hours or so did in fact turn out to be rather complicated if not disastrous.

Luckily we all survived…but it still strikes me that being entrusted with something so precious but with so little instruction does not really seem right. After all when you go home from the store with a new coffee maker in your hands, you can be sure that you will find a multi-page instruction pamphlet complete with illustrations detailing the operations of the gadget now in your possession in not just one, but multiple languages.

But when I went home with something as precious as a new born baby, all I remember getting was some diaper cream samples and a lot of best wishes.

Sure, there are many books that detail other peoples experiences like the book by Anne Lamott for which this sermon is titled, that chronicles the first year of her son’s life. And there are those classics like “What to expect the first year,” and let me assure you, I read them all. But I found little comfort in those books for they spoke about newborns in general, but not to the specifics of the child that been entrusted to me. Search as I might, I was not going to find tucked away in his receiving blanket, a little pamphlet that I so much wanted, the little pamphlet that would detail in all I need to know, that would give me the precise operating instructions for the one entrusted now to my care.

It is unnerving to be entrusted with something so precious while feeling almost completely ill prepared if not incompetent in caring for it, isn’t it? For me it was a baby, but for you maybe it is something else. Have you been faced suddenly with having to care for a child with an illness or with caring for an ailing friend? Are you the caretaker for a loved one, a spouse or parent? Have you wondered if you had what was needed to do so?

And then for us in the Christian tradition this feeling of being entrusted with so much in the midst of our incompetence is compounded on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, prepared or not, ready or not, God entrusted God’s self to us “For unto us a Child is Given.” And when those doors opened after the service, we all were to take the precious gift of “God with us” into our arms and out into the world.

But unlike the story of those first 24 hours after taking my son home, the Good News of the story of God with us, is that we are not left to our own devices, to sink or swim amidst our own perceived incompetence.

Instead, Christian living comes with an owner’s manual, so to speak. We are given guidance on how it is we are to live this life with God. The Gospel accounts, it turns out. are not just stories about people’s lives and experiences so long ago. They are to be about our lives and are to help shape our experiences, now.

And so it is to be with this first chapter from the Gospel of John this morning. As Jesus, fresh from the blessing of his baptismal waters, sets out into his ministry we are not left to wonder how it is that we are to go about joining him. We are not left wondering how it is that we are to now entrust our lives to him and walk with him. Instead in this first chapter in the Gospel of John we are given pretty clear instruction to help guide what we are to do next.

Let’s take a closer look

As the scripture opens, it is the day after that revelatory moment down by the Jordan when a dove descended on the freshly baptized Jesus and a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:13-17). In the wake of this event, John the baptizer, that fierce and wild man, is transformed. Gone is the cry to “Repent!” and in its place words of wonder and amazement flood from John’s lips as he testifies to who Jesus is and what has taken place. “Here is the Lamb of God” he stammers . “Here is the lamb of God!”

Recognizing the presence of the Holy in our lives and in the world and then pointing that out to others so that they too can share in it, isn’t this what we are to do on our walk of discipleship? To recognize the presence of the Holy and to have the courage and wherewithal to point it out to others takes a presence of mind and attentiveness that runs counter to how most live, I fear. Most wander through life half asleep, lulled into semi-consciousness by the tedium of superficial conversations, not particularly engaging work, and ceaseless chatter of a consumer culture that does nothing but make us hungrier still. It takes effort to wake up. It takes effort to resist that numbing lull and to be able to keep one’s eyes and heart open to the movement of the Spirit, to the presence of the Holy among us. Jesus would have walked right by those disciples and they would never have known what was moving among them if John had not cried out “Here is the Lamb of God”. So living our faith means asking ourselves how are we to be like John the Baptizer. How are we going to wake up? How are we going to resist the numbness and apathy of our time? How are we going to cultivate a level of perception that enables us to see and name the sacred?

But it does not stop there does it? For what do those two disciples do who are standing by John the Baptist when he exclaimed “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”? They get going! They follow Jesus. They are curious. They want to know more. They are open to explore even if that meant changing course. I believe we are to do the same. We are instructed to be open and curious.

But it is the next part that I love the best. For those two disciples set off following Jesus but they do so rather covertly. Instead of crying out to Jesus and saying “can we come with you?” which takes a level of commitment and trust that eludes most of us, I think, they take the more cautious approach and quietly just set out after him once he has passed by hoping not to draw too much attention to themselves.

But it probably takes no more than a couple of paces before Jesus feels them with him and so he stops and turns and says to them point blank “What are you looking for?” Now if the “Lamb of God” stopped mid stride and turned to ask me what I was looking for, I probably would not have done any better than they did. I probably would not have come up with “World peace.” “Environmental health” or “the end of human trafficking.” I probably would have done no better than those two who when asked face to face by the Lamb of God “what are you looking for” stammered the first thing that came to mind “where are you staying?”

But of course their question speaks volumes to what they truly were looking for. And Jesus knew it. Jesus knew that what they were looking for was engagement with him. They wanted to know where he was staying so that they could stay with him. They did not want to lose him just when they had found him. And with what I imagine to be a broad smile breaking out across Jesus’ face he replied “Come and See!”

If the first movement in this walk of faith is to recognize the presence of the Holy in our lives and to point the Holy out to others, and if the second movement in this walk of faith is to be open and curious even if that means changing course, perhaps the third movement of our walk of faith, the operating instructions we have received in the Gospel today is to engage. Whether we feel competent to do so or not is not the issue. What matters more is just a heartfelt desire to not lose what is sacred in those moments when we may have been so blessed to have discovered them for ourselves or when someone else like John the Baptist has call them out to us. We do ourselves a huge disservice when we think that the faithful life is just for those who are faithful. We do ourselves a huge disserve when we think we need to reach a level of competence before we should be entrusted with living a life actively engaged with and blessed by the sacred. It just is not so.

The passage from Isaiah this morning speaks from a wonderful place of knowing that one’s life has purpose with God before one reaches any level of competence. “While I was in my mother’s womb,” the prophet says “God named me.” To be named is to be known. The Gospel passage ends with Andrew running out to find his brother Simon because Andrew does not want Simon to miss out. So Andrew brings Simon to Jesus and Jesus says to him “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated as Peter) which we know means the rock. Jesus meets Simon and calls out who he is to be, Peter.

How is it that we are to live this life of “God with us” that has been entrusted to us? How are we to walk the walk of discipleship? We are to recognize the presence of the Holy in our lives and in the world and point the Holy out to others so that they too can share in it. We are to be open and curious even when that means changing course. And we are to engage with the Holy regardless of whether we feel competent to do so.

These Gospel stories are full of instruction and guidance. They are indeed our operating instructions for how we are to live with each other and with God. And it is a good and beautiful thing to have guidance and instruction when one has been entrusted with something so precious as new life with God. But the risk of having instructions is that we can put too much energy and focus on trying to get it right and lose sight of what is the starting place of it all and that is, I believe, Love. When John saw Jesus’ face break through the waters of the Jordan that day; when the heavens opened and a dove descended and the voice of God spoke, I believe our wild and fierce prophet fell in love. When Jesus invited those two disciples that were following him to come and see, I believe they fell in love and wanted nothing more than to be with Jesus.

The power of love put and puts it all in motion. Perhaps that is why they let me leave with my child that day. For I was in love with that precious child entrusted to me, and though those first 24 hours were rather disastrous, love saw us through! In whatever it is that has been entrusted to you, I believe Love will also see you through.

So let us recognize the presence of the Holy in our lives and in the world and let us point out the Holy to others so that they too can share in it. Let us be open and curious even when that means changing course. Let us engage with the Holy regardless of whether we feel competent to do so. But first and foremost, let us love! For love is really all the instruction we need. Thanks be to the one who came in Love. Amen

[1] Based on the title of Anne Lamott’s book where she journals the first year of her son’s life. (Anchor Books: New York, 1993).