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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe

Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, January 16, 2011

Text:  John 1:29-42 – “Come and see.”


     About six months ago, Bishop Dan Edwards asked me to assist Coventry Cross Episcopal Church in Minden in finding a priest.  Towards that end, we’ve been looking at some of the ways parishes self-describe in their national Church Deployment Office profiles.  Here are just a few snippets.  Tell me what’s missing:


*   “A ready to Go and Grow parish in the Fabulous Florida Keys.”


*   (From another parish in Florida)  “A culturally diverse parish positioned both geographically and spiritually for growth & increased mission.” 


*   (This from New York State)  “We are ready for growth and working towards financial independence.”


*   (This one from Oregon)  “We want to grow into our potential, to be a shelter and place for finding God's love.”


     OK, so what’s wrong with this picture?  Well, so you’re poised for growth and outreach.  And just how long have you been in existence?  Must be tough to maintain such extreme readiness for so long.  That’s much of the problem with the state of the current church.  Vibrant and passionate -- all dressed up with no place to go. 


     I’m afraid that much of this is to be laid at the feet of the church itself, with its fetish for Greek philosophy and parsing of their verbs.  That got its start at the end of the first century, when someone wrote the Pastoral Epistles of First and Second Timothy and Titus.  They made what seemed like an insignificant addition.  Just one, tiny article.  That changed everything.


     For the apostle Paul, faith was something that you did.  It was more like, “faithing” – an active trust in God’s actions.  The writers of the Pastoral Epistles, however, added “the” in front of faith, making it “the faith” – a corpus of ideas and doctrines to be defended against false teachers at all costs.  It became something you could actually pass down from generation to generation.  Faith became something outside you.


     Just in case I’m waxing ambiguous this morning, here’s the bottom line:  my hat is off to those parishes who have a clear of idea of who they are, where they’re going, and how they’re going to get there.  My hat is off to those parishes who have a track record of serving their communities.  My hat is off to those parishes who would rather say, in answer to the question, “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect another?” – simply, “Come and see.”  My hat is off to you.


     But, see, the main problem is in the seeing of things.  So often we’re trapped inside our own heads, analyzing the world in terms of our own private world view.  Flannery O’Connor has written a short story called, “Revelation,” in which the main character, Mrs. Turpin, comes to a shattering realization.  Let’s listen in:


“Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.  On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them – not above, just away from – were the white trash; then above them were the home owners, and above them were the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged.  Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land.


But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well….Usually by the time she had fallen asleep, all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.”


That evening, when Mrs. Turpin was finished slopping the pigs, came the shock of her life.  She was outside and “there was only a purple streak in the sky….She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound.  A visionary light settled in her eyes.  She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge, extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.  There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.


And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.  She leaned forward to observe them closer.  They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.  They alone were on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away….In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”


     That’s where the story ends.  We don’t know what happens to Mrs. Turpin – whether she’s seen the light and begins to see everyone equal in God’s eyes to herself…or whether she simply shrugs it off as a hallucination.  Still, Mrs. Turpin, in this moment of time, is being called to decision.  When asked by a neighbor tomorrow morning about the Kingdom of God, will she say, “Come and see”?  Or just give them her opinion about the way things are?    


     [Walker Percy]  Picture a room full of scientists, philosophers and artists.  They’re at a convention in Aspen, Colorado and are there to evaluate recent discoveries, hypotheses, theories, formulae, logic, poems and symphonies.  Fire breaks out.  A man mounts the podium and shouts, “Come on!  I know the way out!”


     Now, this simple little sentence does not convey any universal truths.  In fact, it cannot even be verified in a scientific way.  But, somehow, the conferees attach a high degree of importance to it.  There’s something about the message – its force and the absolute necessity of the information – that makes both the message and the messenger compelling.


     If the messenger had mounted the podium in the smoke and said, “Wait.  Sit down.  There has been a breakthrough for world peace,” it wouldn’t have the news significance of information about the way out of the auditorium.


     When John’s disciples asked Jesus where he was staying, he simply said, “Come and see.”  Nevertheless, this is the defining message of the Gospel  Any community of believers, any church, worth its salt, should issue this invitation and be willing to live with the consequences.  Not:  come and buy it.  But:  come and take a look at it.  Come and see.


     The invitation of God is not to blind acceptance, but to hear some news.  To evaluate the message and the messenger.  And this invitation is a word of faith.  Faith receives it.  Faith, based on need, on honesty, on opportunity.


It is the way out of the burning auditorium.


Come and see….