By Roger Ferlo
What are you looking for? It’s a question that tends to get asked in Episcopal churches this time of year, when we gear up for what we quaintly call Inquirers’ Classes in hopes of swelling our numbers a bit with new recruits. The answers are as various as the people who find their way into the rector’s study, once they manage to negotiate their lonely passage past the vast sea of backs that greets them at the parish coffee hour . “What are you looking for?” we want to ask, knowing full well that more often than not the answer is “I’m not sure.” My experience over the years leading many such classes is that the answer people are trying to articulate is not “I am looking for something” but rather that “Something—someone—is looking for me.” It’s an unsettling place to be.
Like the seekers (and the sought) in our Inquirer Classes, Jesus asked a lot of questions too. People tended to listen closely when he asked them, if only because his questions almost invariably put them on edge, left them scrambling for answers. Who is neighbor to the wounded man? Who would cast the first stone? Whose face is on that coin? Will you lay down your life for me? Where have you laid the body? What are you looking for?
I’ve always admired the presence of mind that allowed two of Jesus’s earliest followers to answer this last probing question with another question. The story gets told in the first chapter of John’s gospel, which tends to be read in church this time of year. You would think that they might have answered him this way: I’m looking for answers. I’m looking for secret knowledge. I’m looking for ways to improve my life, to lose weight, to get a degree, to feel needed, or to feel loved, or to stop hating myself, or to feel vindicated, or to escape my life, or to make money, or to find someone to love, or be on the right side ant the right time when everything hits the fan and I’m left to pick through the pieces.
But that’s not what happens in the story. When Jesus approached two potential inquirers to ask them what they were looking for, what they said was not “I am looking for X, or Y, or Z.” They instead answered his question with another question: “Where are you staying?” Now this is an incredibly foolish response. They know almost nothing about this man, and what they did know about him meant that to ask where he was staying was to ask for trouble. They had just heard John the Baptist call him the Lamb of God. Given what they knew about sacrificial lambs, they should have been running for cover. Because the Lamb of God will by definition be wounded, sacrificed, destroyed, and anyone who stays the course with the Lamb will be wounded, sacrificed, destroyed as well.
So much for the quaint safety of a rector’s Inquirers’ Class. To enter the place where Jesus dwells means to answer a summons not to self-improvement or self-actualization, but to a world of risk and pain and the fear of loss, and at the same time to claim that it’s there, in that world, that you will find a peace that passes all understanding. To seek Jesus where Jesus stays, where Jesus lives, is to come out of hiding—to take the risk of loving yourself, and loving your neighbor, even your neighbor who hates you. To come to Jesus where Jesus lives is to enter the public realm.
Of course, given the idiocies that pass for Christian thinking in political speeches these days, entering the public realm as a Christian is the last thing any of us might want to do. But coming out of hiding as a Christian doesn’t necessarily make you a right-wing Republican. When this story got told in church this past Sunday, it coincided by sheer coincidence with the commemoration of Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King was a lot of things to a lot of people, and at this late date his memory has been mythologized and sterilized and romanticized past all recognition. But he knew how to answer Jesus’ question—he knew what it meant to come out of hiding as a Christian. He knew what it meant to be sought. What are you looking for, Martin? I’m looking for justice. Where do you seek it? I seek it here, now, with you, in this time and in this place, in the name of the God who does not know black from white, rich from poor, except when the difference betokens the sin of injustice, and then with the Lamb of God broken and sacrificed and resurrected I will make no peace with oppression.
We know a lot now about Martin Luther King, in some ways too much, and in many ways too little. One thing we know for sure is that he made no claim to perfection. To respond to Jesus’ question the way he did was not to claim perfection—it was to guarantee that his every imperfection would be revealed. Imperfection of motives. Imperfection of desires. Imperfection of language. Imperfection of intention. How much easier to remain quiet, intimidated by the loudest voices claiming perfection for themselves, to answer the question “What are you looking for” with the standard religious response to which all of us fall prey, no matter where we position ourselves on the religious or political spectrum: “ I’m looking for what’s in it for me.”
That answer’s not good enough any more, as if it ever was. To visit Jesus where Jesus lives, even the smallest act of boldness—parrying one racist remark, countering one xenophobic rant, standing up for one impoverished child, offering just one alternative to the self-centered anger and fear-mongering and scapegoating that bedevils American religion as much as American politics–even the tiniest act of grace will reveal what Jesus called God’s kingdom as it breaks in upon us.
What else in the end is worth looking for?
The Rev. Dr. Roger Ferlo is Professor of Religion and Culture, Associate Dean and director of the Institute for Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.