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One Saturday while driving on a busy city highway, my daughter and I saw an unusual bird. It was some sort of falcon, with sharp, black eyes and that unmistakable meat-eating beak. Caught at a stop light, like good bird watchers, we started calling out what we saw. "Cheek spots! Speckled breast! Brown sides!" Then the light changed.
It was at least an hour before we finished our errands and got back home where we could look in the bird book. By then, our memories of what we had seen differed from each other just enough that we couldn't agree. I thought I had seen the white-spotted breast and rich brown sides of a kestrel, but a kestrel has a blue back, and Rorie absolutely insisted there was no blue. The back was all brown, which would make the bird a merlin, another little falcon. Unfortunately, female kestrels and merlins both have brown backs. Both species can be found in the area in winter, and both thrive in either the countryside or the city. In other words, the possibilities were open.
Whatever it was, it was marvelous! So alive, perched right next to the highway on top of a street sign, diving onto a little grassy island, scarfing up birds or mice. As far as I was concerned, seeing that falcon was like looking up to see a Bengal tiger sitting on the traffic island.
When we lived in the South, my family liked to go on vacation to the Gulf in Alabama, and on one of these vacations we saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher. It's a rare visitor from South America with pale yellow-green feathers and a very, very long, narrow V-shaped tail-like a pair of scissors lying open on a table. It was resting in the long grass by a state park road looking exotic and tired. We knew it had come across the Gulf, and this was perhaps the only chance we'd ever have to see it. We had been in the park exploring an old fort, and during the morning all four of us took turns taking each other by the hand and leading each other back to the road again to look at the flycatcher.
Then there was the time I was on the way to church early on a Friday and saw an owl. I'm fairly sure it was an owl, because its body was thick and heavy. It flew in front of me, up high across the road, the sun reflecting on its golden body in the early light. It might be the same owl I saw for the first time when I brought our dog Hannah to church with me. At noon we went for a walk up past the school and down to the park. The owl was high in one of the trees. It was a big owl and very much awake. It flew off so quickly I couldn't see any clear identifying marks, but several big species are active in the daytime.
As you may have guessed by now-if you are a bird watcher, just seeing a bird isn't enough. You have to tell somebody about it. And that's especially true if all you get is a glimpse. That's why seeing the rare flycatcher when we were all together was so wonderful. We talk about it every now and then.
If you aren't a bird watcher, there is bound to be something else you just have to tell someone about. How many times have you heard a group of people who have all seen the same play in the same ball game tell each other exactly what they saw? They might do it immediately right in the stands or during the commercial or the next day at work. It's not just sharing information or confirming that the other person saw what you saw. That's not why people re-tell plays in a great game or describe a wonderful sight. Telling is experiencing. Telling is having the experience again and giving it to someone else. Telling is shining a light that shows a particular way and then walking along that way together.
That's why death is always a time for story telling, for sitting down together as a family and remembering the night when Dad stopped the train in a New Jersey town where the train hadn't stopped in 35 years. He showed someone his Naval Academy ring and used his charm, which had been his greatest asset all his life, and the train stopped in that town that night for the first time in memory because Dad wanted to get off there. When you tell a story like that one in your den or living room, you can look at the faces of the children there, hearing about a relative they've never met, and you can tell what they are wondering. They are wondering if they are going to turn out-now that they know it's possible to turn out-to be the kind of person who can stop a train with a smile.
All four readings today are about the calling to be tellers, to go and tell others your story of who God is. In the Isaiah text, the servant of God says he or she was called from before birth to be a servant in whom God would be glorified, to be a light, not just to Israel alone, but to the whole world.
"I will give you as a light to the nations," says God to the servant, "that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
The salvation is not for the one who knows the story. It's for those who are going to hear it wherever they may be.
The Psalm for today says, "Tell the glad news of deliverance, speak of God's steadfast love." And Paul talks of his apostolic calling and "the calling of the Corinthians to give testimony to Christ, to tell of him."
The Gospel reading is a whole sequence of people telling each other they have seen Jesus and who they think Jesus is. It begins with John telling about Jesus' baptism. As the story opens, John is talking about himself. The details are very precise. Twice he says, "I did not know him." As soon as he recognizes Jesus, John goes from "I did not know him" to making public announcements that "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." Here is the one I was sent to proclaim: "the Son of God."
Then almost the very same thing happens again. The day after the baptism, John tells two of his disciples that Jesus is "the Lamb of God," and what did they do? They run off after Jesus. They want to see for themselves. They catch up and have an odd conversation with Jesus, and then Andrew runs off and finds his brother Peter and brings him to meet Jesus too. When Jesus meets Peter, Jesus gives him a new name, "Rock." Peter will do so much telling that he'll be a foundation on which the church will be built. To read this story is to get caught up in the cycle of listening, telling, and re-telling that is the story of discipleship.
The question is "Where is the falcon or the tiger?" Where is the touchdown play? Why are stories of meeting this man Jesus told again and again? There are at least two answers. One is the answer in Isaiah. God wants the story of salvation told and calls people to tell it, calls them before they are born. That is the prophet Isaiah's own story and Jeremiah's too.
For the other answer we have to go back to the middle of what we heard today in John, to the point where two men, who have no names yet, are running after a man on the street, pointed out by someone else.
"What are you looking for?" Jesus asks the two disciples. Now, "What are you looking for?" is a fairly strange question when you think about it. The logical question would be, "What do you want?" Maybe this isn't a story about what people want. The word for staying and for remaining in Greek is the same word-meno-and it's used in this story five times in very quick succession. Twice John says the Spirit came to Jesus and remained. The two disciples asked, "Where are you staying?" They go and see "where he was staying and they stayed with him that day."
Remain. Remain. Stay. Stay. Stay.
Could this story be telling us something the disciples don't know yet themselves? What people are looking for is not information, answers to questions such as "Who is Jesus?" or "Is this the one?" Or "Am I right about this church business?" Not even the answer to the question of why stories of meeting this man have captured the human heart for generations.
What we are all looking for without even knowing it is a place to stay, a place to remain always. Jesus is that place, a person who is himself a home, a place to belong, a whole way of life. Jesus knows that what the disciples really want is a place to belong. Whatever he sees on the faces of these two men panting in front of him after running down the street, whatever he sees, what he says to them is just right and wonderfully inviting: "Come and see." They do go with him. They end up staying, and his story becomes their way of life.
The poet Kathleen Norris moved to the plains of South Dakota, where her family had lived and had deep roots. One day she had a conversation in a tavern with an old cowboy, who sought her out because she was from "one of the old families." He wanted to tell her about a side saddle he owned, made by his great grandfather as a wedding present some 150 years ago. She tells of how they mused awhile on the subject of their ancestors, when suddenly the old man said, "Who are we and where do we come from?" That's the real question, isn't it? Before Norris could reply, he smiled and said, "And here we are telling each other lies." "Stories!" she said, laughing. "Call them stories!" "Stories!" he nearly shouted back, pounding one hand on the bar. "That's who we are!"
I left something out of one of my stories. When we were down at the beach that spring, we didn't spot the flycatcher by ourselves. Someone told us it was there. If they hadn't, there's a chance we might not have seen it at all. There were other people walking around with binoculars in the park that day. They were the ones who told us about the flycatcher and exactly where along the road it was resting. And so we went and looked at it and marveled.
"What are you looking for?" says Jesus to people who were told by someone else where he could be found. "Come and see," he said to people who wondered if they had a place in his story. The thing that moves people from one question to the other, from "What are you looking for?" to "Come and see" is the story the church has been called to tell. It's the only story the church has to tell, the story of its home, the place from which we draw hope and strength and power. That place is a person, and the best way to tell his story-perhaps the only way-is with our lives. Amen.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, our beginning and end, no matter where we are, help us remain yours. If we are far from our best selves just now, whatever the reason, hold us close so we can remember our home in you. Remind those who are far removed that nothing, not even death, can bring an end to your forgiveness and love. Comfort those who mourn, protect the weak in ways they can discern, even if others cannot. Surprise the smug and confuse those who are certain about you, just enough to open them to newness. We give you thanks for signs of home around us, anything that makes us feel a moment of belonging to another person or place. And hear our silent prayers for whatever lies closest on our hearts, for we ask in the name of the person place, the Son you gave to make us your own, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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