|Today’s scripture readings:
1 Corinthians 1:1-19
One summer while I was in seminary I worked as a hospital chaplain intern along with a half dozen of my classmates at a level one trauma center. It was and still is the only hospital in Connecticut with a dedicated burn unit, treating patients with some of the most serious and traumatic injuries.
Toward the middle of the summer I took a few days off to go to a conference on the west coast. On the way back, I had a red-eye flight that landed just in time for me to catch a train back to the hospital by 8am for my regular shift. I was sleep-deprived and in need of a shower, but I showed up intent on making it through the day.
On top of all that—and I’m not sure how I allowed this to happen—I had been scheduled for an overnight on-call shift that same evening I got back. That meant I would be staying at the hospital through the night to respond to any emergencies that might arise and then working my usual daytime shift the following morning.
Toward the end of that first day back, as all the chaplains gathered together with our supervisor to report in on the day, and as I was gearing up for my on-call shift that night, a phone call came into the office. There had been a fiery crash on the freeway about an hour away, and a patient with severe burns was being airlifted to the hospital. She would arrive after all my colleagues had left, just as I was beginning my on-call shift alone. From what we heard, it sounded like this would be one of the most traumatic events to impact the hospital all summer.
I had tried to put on a good face all day. I had gotten into this bad situation myself. I chose a flight that had me going straight back to work from the airport under-slept, and I consented to an on-call shift that first night back. There was no one to blame but myself, and I was determined to pull my weight. But when that call came in and I realized what kind of night it was going to be at the hospital, I lost it. I burst into tears. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it, or how I could possibly be present to those who needed my care.
Sitting there in a circle in the chaplains’ office, my colleagues looked on as I went to pieces right there in front of them. A few moments passed before my supervisor turned to me and asked, “What do you need? What are you looking for?” The question struck me as pure grace. I knew my answer immediately. “I need to sleep,” I said. “I need to not be here tonight.” There wasn’t much conversation. The whole group agreed I would go home. One of them volunteered to cover my overnight shift. Our supervisor even told me to take the next day off, too.
What do you need? What are you looking for?
Forget you’re sitting in church. Forget this is one of your pastors talking. Forget all the pious clichés you think church people want you to say. What are you looking for?
What are you looking for? Those are actually Jesus’ very first words in the Gospel of John. It’s worth noticing that Jesus begins his ministry not by telling everyone else what he thinks they need to hear, but by asking them what they need. “What are you looking for?” He begins by listening, and he allows the needs of others to shape his ministry. From the very beginning, Jesus’ ministry is relational, rooted in the realities of people’s lives. His mission forms in response to the deepest needs of those he encounters. And his invitation to these first disciples is, “Come and see.” Come and see what we can do together. Come and see how we can find what you’re looking for. Come and see.
So what are you looking for? Are you looking for forgiveness? Are you looking for mercy? Are you looking for answers to big questions about God and faith? Or are you looking for something much more tangible and concrete? Are you like a certain hospital chaplain burning the candle at both ends and just looking for a little rest? Are you looking for a job, or for work that has meaning? For a path out of debt? For a cure? For healthcare you can afford, for a living wage, for money to pay the bills? Are you looking for strength to overcome an addiction? Are you looking for a better school for your children? Are you looking for joy? For love? For hope? What are you looking for?
I read a great interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African civil rights activist who became a prominent figure in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. The interviewer pointed out that Tutu has often been criticized for being too political, for preaching a “social gospel.” Archbishop Tutu didn’t take kindly to that critique. “I don’t preach a social gospel,” he said. “I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political, or social?’ He said: ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.” Tutu believes that “all of life belongs to God,” that you can’t “compartmentalize life and say this is political and this is religious,” because religion permeates the whole of life. So when Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” he’s not just asking about our spiritual longings or about our big questions about God; he’s asking about what’s most real in our lives right now. He’s wondering about the very concrete, human needs that are keeping us from the rich and abundant life God wills for each one of us.
If there’s anyone who understood that the gospel of Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person, it’s the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I was preparing for this sermon I listened again to the “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered at the March on Washington in 1963. What was he looking for? It’s pretty clear in his “I Have a Dream” speech because he puts it all out there. He was looking for an end to police brutality against his people. He was looking for an end to “whites only” businesses and legal segregation. He was looking for the freedom to cast a ballot, and for candidates worthy of his vote. He was looking for a world where whites and blacks could join hand in hand as sisters and brothers, and where his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. A few years later, when it became clear that advances in civil rights were doing little to alleviate the plight of African Americans, he launched the Poor People’s Campaign. He was looking for meaningful jobs that paid a living wage, for a guaranteed annual income for those unable to find jobs, and for more affordable housing. Martin Luther King’s ministry was rooted in his people’s lived experience of oppression and injustice. He helped an entire nation understand that God is deeply invested in our well-being and concerned about our tangible human needs.
Like King and Tutu and Jesus before either of them, people of faith are asking the question today so that our ministry might be a response to the deepest needs of those we encounter: What are you looking for? Some are looking for a living wage. Others look for the ability to take time off to care for a sick kid or an elderly parent without losing their pay. Many are looking for more affordable healthcare or less expensive medications. Undocumented immigrants are looking for driver’s licenses so a routine traffic stop won’t lead to their deportation. On Saturday, January 28, ISAIAH, a community organizing group that works with people of faith across the state, will be bringing together 1,500 people from 200 congregations to come and see what we can do together. We’ll have a chance to tell Governor Dayton, Senator Franken, dozens of mayors, and other elected officials what we’re looking for and we’ll ask for their help. There’s more information about that in your bulletin announcements this morning. I hope you’ll join us. Gloria Dei’s ISAIAH team has a goal of having 75 people there and they would love to tell you more about that this morning at the table downstairs outside the library.
“What are you looking for?” That’s the question that launches Jesus’ ministry and it’s the question that continues to shape our ministry today. God cares what’s going on in our lives and calls the church to continue Jesus’ ministry, to listen to one another and address real, human needs. Could that be Good News for you? Come and see.
Bruce Epperly, “The Adventurous Lectionary: The Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 19, 2014,” on Living a Holy Adventure, accessed January 14, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2014/01/the-adventurous-lectionary-the-second-sunday-after-epiphany-january-19-2014/.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” accessed January 14, 2017, https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.
Rafael Suarez, Jr., “The Bishop & South Africa: An Interview with Desmond Tutu,” in Worldview, December 1984, accessed January 14, 2017, https://worldview.carnegiecouncil.org/archive/worldview/1984/12/4266.html/_res/id=File1/v27_i012_a010.pdf.