Looking for Jesus
A cartoon that seems to get passed around quite a bit shows two earnest young men at the home of a woman who has reluctantly opened her door to them. The men carry big Bibles and wear white shirts and black ties. “Have you found Jesus?” they ask her. The single frame cartoon doesn’t show us what happens next. We might imagine her politely lying about something that she has to do before closing the door and promising herself never to open the door to proselytizers again. But off to the side of the cartoon, within her home, is a window whose drape almost but not completely conceals the figure of a bearded man in a white robe. His sandaled feet stick out from beneath. “Have you found Jesus?” A quick reply might be “I didn’t know he was lost! Or in this case, I didn’t know he was playing hide and seek behind the drapes.”
This time of year, between Christmas and Easter, we focus within the church on the unfolding Jesus story: the record of his early life and his brief ministry of teaching and healing. We read about the magi looking for Jesus and following a star across the desert. In some years, the lectionary reminds us of the one childhood incident that the gospel writers recorded: the time Jesus slipped away from his parents while traveling with relatives. His mother and father looked and looked for him, undoubtedly in a state of panic, and finally found him in the temple.
Here in today’s story, we see two groups of people who are looking for Jesus. The disciples, the text says, were “hunting” for him. When they found him in a quiet, deserted place where he had gone to pray, they reported that “everyone” was “searching” for him.
The disciples looked for Jesus because they were not exactly self-directed at this point and they needed Jesus to tell them what to do next. The crowds were looking for Jesus because they had seen miracles of healing and they hoped that Jesus would touch and heal them, also.
We’ve all experienced the frustration of looking for something we need. Maybe something we’ve lost. What’s worse than losing your glasses and not being able to find them because you need them to see?! I lost my car keys this week for a short time and felt something close to panic when I realized that my spare is on Leroy’s key ring in Buffalo.
Some searches are more consequential. An amber alert is issued, and communities mobilize to locate a lost child. Or this: did you know that our nation participates in an international Search and Rescue agreement that spells out who is responsible for finding lost adventurers in the arctic and under what conditions searches will take place?
One of the biggest and most expensive searches in recent history began when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean. After almost two years, there is very little known about what happened to 269 passengers and crew or where the wreckage is located. Even advanced radar technology does not guarantee our ability to find what we’re looking for, even when what we’re looking for is as massive as a jetliner.
Yesterday at the Sage luncheon, our Sages were asked to discuss questions about what life was like in earlier days. Our Pastor Emeritus, Rev. Kayrene Pearson, responded to a query about games and recreation by saying that “Hide and Seek” was always a favorite, but she said that the kids were always more creative about hiding than seeking, so those who were “it” spent a lot of time looking.
Earlier this week, our president shared his understanding of how people have misused faith in Jesus to initiate and perpetuate violence. He used the example of Crusaders in the thirteenth century and those who imported slaves to our shores and later enacted Jim Crow laws. He was roundly criticized by those who were certain that they had a more accurate understanding of history. Regardless of whether or not we believe it was a spot-on analogy appropriate to the current extremist violence of ISIS, the point is still excellent. The Jesus claimed by some is quite different from the Jesus proclaimed by others. How do we find and identify the real Jesus?
In Mark chapter 1, persons with great hopes and significant life challenges were on a mission to find Jesus. Despite this, it’s an interesting paradox, I think, that the gospels often present Jesus as the one who is looking for us. Jesus told the story of a shepherd who goes out and looks for lost sheep. And a woman who desperately sweeps her house looking for one lost coin. In these stories, we are the ones who are lost. God pursues us out of an unrelenting, unconditional love. Certainly, though, finding a relationship with God isn’t just about waiting for the shepherd, or for the woman to show up with her broom.
We are a community that clearly does not prescribe for others how to search on their own or how to conduct a search party. We do not embrace a “once size fits all” spirituality. We know that when we see something advertised as “one size fits all”, what we’re likely to get isn’t going to be great. If it’s an item of clothing, it’s probably going to make us look bad. Nothing fits everyone perfectly.
I’m suspicious of approaches to spirituality that rely on a formula, whether that formula is the “four spiritual laws” which I heard a lot about in my youth, or whether it’s someone’s idea about “five steps to finding peace with God.” Or whatever.
Here are some thoughts, though, on how we generally search for something that is important to us. Maybe these could be called “Broad principles of finding what eludes us.”
The first is this: Look where you saw it last. If we lose our keys we are likely to reconstruct what was happening at the time we lost track of them. On Friday, I wore a jacket to the Congregations Alive event in Denver. As I prepared to go home, I wondered where it might be. I knew I hadn’t hung it up, and I had no idea where I might have left it. I retraced all of my movements from throughout the day, and sure enough, the jacket was on a sofa where I had made a phone call.
Where have you found God in the past? Often, people will return to church or to a place equally sacred to them during a time of personal crisis because it is where they know they have experienced God. I don’t know if it’s so much about geography as it is about connecting to a time when they were spiritually open. Jesus often pointed to children and talked about the realm of God belonging to those who are like them. Finding God isn’t about being six years old, it’s about being open-eyed and wonder-filled regardless of our age.
A second thing we may do when looking for something or someone important to us is to ask others to help us. When we lose something, it helps to have a whole bunch of people looking with us. Many of the gospel stories are about how other people join us on the journey. One of my favorites is about a group of friends who lowered a paralyzed man on a stretcher through a hole in a roof so that he could be near Jesus. That is a powerful image of how we benefit from one another and are helped by hearing the spiritual experiences of others. In a larger culture that values independence over almost everything else, a spiritual community is the antithesis of that. It’s not about spiritual bootstraps but about others who befriend us in the search even as they give us space to discover God in our own ways.
And the third and maybe most important principle of searching for something is this: Stop looking and you’ll find it. That may be overstated a bit, but there is a necessary truth in it. Another way to say it may be “stop worrying and trust that it will show up at the right time.” The hard truth is that sometimes we look too hard. We try to force the search, and in the process we overlook the obvious places.
When we are looking for our keys, we know they are not looking for us. They could not care less about our dilemma of being locked out of the house or unable to drive. But Jesus, who is a picture for us of what God is like, insists that he is looking for us. Our most important task in finding and being found isn’t a frenetic search but instead being prepared; aligning ourselves inwardly so we can be ready to receive. To be found.
The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright was fond of an incident that may have seemed insignificant at the time but had a profound influence on the rest of his life. During the winter when he was nine, he was walking across a snow-covered field with his reserved, no-nonsense uncle. They were trying to find the best route to a specific destination. As the two of them reached the far end of the field, Frank’s uncle stopped him. He pointed to his own tracks in the snow, straight and true as the flight of an arrow, and then young Frank’s tracks meandering all over the field. “Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again,” his uncle said. “And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that for you.”
Years later, the world-famous architect like to tell how that experience had contributed to his philosophy of life. “I determined right then,” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye, “not to miss the things in life that my uncle had missed.”
This past Tuesday, I headed out in my car on my day off with no idea where I was going. I just knew I wanted to stay in the plains where it was warm. I ended up in a national grassland and had one of the best days of discovery that I’ve experienced so far in my new state. I was looking for something, and I didn’t know what it really was until I found it. Or until it found me.
Have you found Jesus? However you understand the object of your search for truth, are you open to the amazing and as-yet-unknown possibilities of what you may find… or what may even find you when you don’t even realize you are searching? One of the pieces of advice offered by one of our Sages yesterday, written on a heart and posted on a bulletin board with other wisdom, says this: Be curious. We are a community of seekers: never content with former discoveries, always curious about new truth. Don’t stop looking! There’s more to be found! Amen!