Starting a new venture is both exhilarating and exhausting.
I’ve been involved in a few new ventures over the past twenty-five years, some in Church life, some in school life – and what I’ve learned, from my own experience and by listening to others with extensive experience in organizational life and societal trends – is that starting a new venture goes well beyond just having a good idea. Starting a new venture requires research and resources and leadership that is steadfast, passionate, adaptable, and focused on the key purpose of the venture rather than being tied to the personal pride of its founder or founders. A new venture needs to be clear on why it exists at all, who it will benefit, how it will communicate its benefits and entry points, and how it will hold together rather than blowing apart amidst challenge. A new venture is well-suited to those with a staunch heart, a great fit for those who are natural networkers; it is less optimal for those who tend to get cold feet.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus has just started hand-picking the trusted group who will support and further his ministry. While the gospel reading may seem to imply that Jesus just shows up, gets baptized and “boom”, newly-called disciples start saying “yes”, there’s no doubt that Jesus would have been doing all of the groundwork that goes into a new venture. Well, maybe not all of the 21st century tasks – I doubt that he would have had much of a web presence, and he’s still waiting for a call back from the Canada Revenue Agency – but as we think of Jesus’ spending forty days in the wilderness, seeking clarity on his calling, it’s easy to imagine him engaging in serious strategic thought: where will home base be? Who will join him? Will the people who need what he has, want it? How will they not starve or freeze as they move from village to village? These are all questions needing to be answered before we see him strolling down the lakeshore, assembling the first leaders of this very Holy, very human venture.
In today’s reading, I love the way Jesus invites potential disciples to use their own powers of observation, rather than just trusting what they are told. Noticing that two of John the Baptist’s disciples appear to be following him, he asks them what they are seeking. When they avoid that soul-searching question and answer a question with a question, “ummm… where are you staying?”, implying that they’re just browsing now but might, someday be interested in actually checking out what he is up to, Jesus shortens the timeline by saying, “come and see.” See for yourself. Today, if you wish. Discover first-hand what they and Jesus could build together.
Come and see. Or to move beyond the visual, come and hear, come and learn, come and feel, come and engage. Jesus uses these words to call the very first disciples, then the disciples use the same words to grow the group.
Twenty-five years ago, a Quaker pastor named Philip Gulley wrote a wonderful little book entitled Front Porch Tales in which he told folksy little stories about religious life in his small Indiana town. Philip wrote (pp.37-38) that the biggest advantage of small towns (and small congregations) is that they give you the opportunity to really KNOW people and not just KNOW ABOUT them. It’s one thing to have second or third-hand knowledge of someone, facts on file ABOUT them; it’s something else entirely to KNOW them over time, to share joys and sorrows with them, to know their quirks and for them to know yours. That’s definitely something that happens in congregational life, especially in small communities and small congregations, and I’d like to suggest that this pattern is also true of our relationship with the Divine. Knowing ABOUT God and God’s dealings with humans is a good start but KNOWING God and being known BY God is something way beyond that. In today’s reading, for example, Nathanael thought he knew everything he needed to know about Jesus once he knew Jesus was from Nazareth; but Philip invited him beyond what he knew ABOUT Jesus, to meet the man, and be changed by him.
That’s a beautiful thing to consider in a very personal way – truly knowing God and being known by God; it’s also an absolutely essential thing for the Church to understand. Christian practice in the 21st century must build opportunities for people to actually come to KNOW God, and not just know ABOUT God. In our service of Worship, in actions that engage and respond to personal needs and societal trends, in learning and listening and growing, our words and actions will either build walls or build bridges. We need to be constantly checking to make sure that we’re not hiding behind the safety of words and thoughts ABOUT God, but never really opening ourselves to EXPERIENCE God – in Worship, in societal engagement, in listening and learning.
The Canadian religious landscape has changed greatly in my lifetime. In Christian circles, Church involvement peaked in 1964 or 1965 in most mainline denominations, including the United Church of Canada, and has slid at various angles of slope since then. Some would suggest the slide had actually begun by 1925 when the United Church began. The shape of the curve is different in Evangelical Churches, but the overall cumulative slope is downward. But rather than viewing that as a death spiral, I have throughout my years in Ministry seen here a positive challenge, to get over our worries and our hurt feelings and growing society cynicism and recognize that the same Jesus who called Galilean fisherfolk is still calling, still available, still capable of transforming lives by a love that is relevant and courageous and resilient. The call is the same now as it was when Jesus bellowed out toward his first potential disciples: Come and See! Experience for yourself what it means to meet Jesus and follow him, and the rest of it you can learn along the way as your relationship grows and deepens.
One short week ago, we celebrated Epiphany, the time when the Magi brought gifts to the Christ Child. Picking up on that, the late Rev. Sharron Blezard wrote these insightful words in 2014:
“Had any epiphanies lately? Seriously, when was the last time you recognized God at work in your life or in the world around you?
“Our <Sunday scripture readings at this time of year> are about being on the lookout for God, about being aware and awake to the presence of the Divine all around us…. Yet, we are too often oblivious to our surroundings and to the presence of the Holy. Everyday life is full of sacred moments and ‘God-sightings’ if we can train ourselves to look and listen for them.
“Look! Behold! See! The truth is here. It is right here made visible in the God who is invisible and yet present and active and fully with us. Look. Look right here. …Listen for God in the hum of the universe.… Experience the peace of God as it finds expression in [this congregation] where relationships are forged and nourished and tended…Learn anew by hearing and living the story of God’s people across time and space.
“[And as you are] sent, renewed and strengthened, into the everyday ordinary-yet-sacred space of life, tell everyone what God has done and is doing. Steward those amazing gifts of grace and love by prodigally giving them away.”
So much of our ability to come close to God, is founded in being open to the Holy. When moved by compassion, or by righteous indignation; when we see expressions of beauty, or injustice challenged; that moment, is a Christ moment. When the glory of the alpenglow takes our breath away, when we are stopped silent by the innocence of deer, when we laugh out loud with the hilarity of squirrels and chipmunks, when we are awestruck by the mighty sway of evergreens on a blustery day, we know in our hearts that we are not alone – we live in God’s world. When we allow ourselves, in Sunday morning worship, or Wednesday night Evensong, to be quiet so that we can find God and God can find us, the distance and the obstacles between us and our creator melt away. When we set aside time to ponder and pray, to read scripture or learn new ways to frame our ongoing connection with the Holy One, we enter into holiness. And occasionally, just occasionally, there may be unexpected experiences that go beyond these: prolonged times in which the embrace of God tenderly guides you through heartbreak; or moments of sharp clarity when God illuminates the next specific steps of your journey. In all of these times, and so many more, God is there. As the old call-and-response says, God is good, all the time; and all the time, God is good.
May that experiential, invitational relationship with God shape our time here, together, and all the ways that we relate to the world around us. In the same way that Jesus and then his disciples trusted that knowing God is more valuable than knowing about God, we are called to see, hear, feel, understand – to come to God and in that place, be opened to life in all its challenges and all its potential. Come and see, come and hear, come and feel, come and know, the God of the ages, the God of this moment. Amen.
Blezard, Sharron. http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2014/01/look-listen-tell/
Gulley, Phillip. Front Porch Tales. NYC: Harper Collins, 1997.
© Rev. Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, 2023.