When I first walked into the nave this morning, I had to suppress a wave of disappointment. “The chairs are back.” This past week we took the chairs out of the central expanse of the Cathedral, an experiment we called “Seeing Deeper.” For five days the center aisle was entirely cleared of chairs, and we used the space to try out a wide array of different offerings: Tai Chi on Monday, a cappella polyphonic choral music on Wednesday and Friday, Muslim noon prayer, the labyrinth and healing prayers on Thursday, an all-night vigil Friday night into Saturday. And we used the space in a combination of ways. We moved the musicians around the space in the evening concerts and held our regular Daily Offices in a chapel we rarely use, St. John’s Chapel over here behind me to your right. And there was plenty of time for walking around in the open, empty nave.
“Seeing Deeper” was a powerful experience for everyone who entered it. We allowed the building to do its work in us simply as a transcendent space. But for those of us who regularly serve here, much of the power of the week lay in the way people responded to it. As the week went on the crowds grew, and especially in the evenings the Cathedral was filled with people who were obviously moved by the sheer beauty and elegance of the building. And as the week went on I found myself increasingly moved by the depth of the spiritual search that so many people in our world find themselves on.
In this morning’s Gospel, John 1:29-42, Jesus encounters two of John the Baptist’s disciples and asks them what they are looking for. They respond with the Hebrew word, “Rabbi,” which means teacher. Do they mean that they’re looking for a rabbi? Or do they mean that they recognize Jesus as their rabbi? It’s hard to know. But Jesus’ next statement changes the terms of the discussion. He says, “Come and see.” We know that they have been looking for him. It turns out that he has also been looking for them.
As the passage unfolds, one of the two (Andrew) goes and gets his brother, Simon (who will become Peter). He tells him, “We have found the Messiah.” As we think together about this little story, it’s clear that what we have here is a parable of the spiritual search that all of us are on. Whether we come to church week after week, or wander in because we’ve heard about something mysterious and beautiful, each of us is looking for something. We may not use the words “rabbi” or “Messiah” to describe it. But by whatever name we call it, we are drawn to the possibility that something ineffable lies beyond.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus poses a simple question: “What are you looking for?” This story asks that we acknowledge a truth about the relations between God and us. All the time we have been searching for God, God has been searching for us. Christians have come to name that search “the call.” God calls to us, as in this story when Jesus invites Andrew and his friend to “come and see.” Jesus not only calls this first pair. He calls Simon and changes his name to Peter. In this encounter Jesus’ followers not only get a life; they get a community. And more than that, they find their true identity. The one we have been looking for turns out all the time to have been looking for us. That one knows that we need life and purpose and meaning. They have always been on offer and are ready, any time, for the taking.
Today’s Gospel prompts two thoughts. One concerns this story’s mysterious, gracious implication that God has called each and all of us into fellowship with Jesus and each other. Just as we sometimes take the givenness of this Cathedral building for granted and miss the transcendence that is always present, so we find ourselves strenuously looking for one who is seeking us at the same time. The other thought has to do with Martin Luther King, Jr., whose national holiday we celebrate tomorrow.
Because Dr. King preached his final Sunday sermon in this pulpit, we here at Washington National Cathedral feel a special connection to him. Yet I think he remains a misunderstood figure in American life. I love King’s writing, and I’ve taught several of his pieces to high school and college students. As great as the “I Have a Dream” speech is, though, its over-exposure tends to obscure the sharpness of King’s theological intelligence and make him sound like a bit like a greeting card. The great Cornell West refers to this process as the “Santa-Claus-ification of Martin Luther King.”
Sentimentalizing King blunts some of his force; he had, after all, one of the great, analytical minds in the history of the Christian tradition. If one point this morning is God’s search for us and the call to follow, the other point is that God is always leading us toward some place specific. Yes, God is looking for us, but God is looking for us with a deeper purpose than only to love and bless us. God is looking for us to be disciples, witnesses, agents of love and blessing ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and witness give us a good image of that specific place toward which Jesus asked Andrew and Peter to go then and you and me to follow today.
One of King’s greatest achievements was the letter he wrote to the Birmingham, Alabama clergy when he was imprisoned in the Birmingham Jail in April of 1963. The white clergy had criticized his practice of civil disobedience, calling him that favorite phrase of the 1960s, an “outside agitator,” and he replied with a defense of civil disobedience grounded in a profound analysis of Christian history. The letter is usually referred to as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Here is one bit of what he says near its end:
I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.… We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.… If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. (Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963)
Like Jesus, like Andrew and Peter, Martin Luther King, Jr., answered God’s call to follow. Like them, King understood that the call was not only to follow but to go with God toward a specific place—the place Jesus called the “Kingdom of God,” a zone of blessedness, peace, compassion, and health, a place where we experience the world on God’s terms, a place where the blind see, the lame walk, the prisoners go free, and the poor have good news preached to them. King knew that the Kingdom of God was less about his own personal salvation than it was about building a world where wrongs are set right and all of God’s precious children can share in the abundant blessings God holds out to everyone.
If you are here in church this morning, I will bet that you, too, are searching for the one who is behind and in this transcendent space, the one we come to know in word and sacrament, music and liturgy, fellowship and service. That one is already searching for you, and that one holds out to you the gift of life, of identity, of community, of meaning and purpose. That one calls you into a life in which you can become not only a seeker of God but a seeker with God of others, a life in which you serve as an agent of love and justice, healing and hope in the world. This search and call are not only about being found and saved. They are about a new life in which we, as Jesus did, offer life and hope to others. That new life takes as many shapes as there are people, but this weekend we honor one unique life and witness that transformed our nation and our world.
God called Martin Luther King, Jr., and in answering he gave himself up to a vision of America and humanity that continues to inspire and bless us today—a vision of justice, equality, compassion, and love. This vision is more than a dream. It’s the destiny God holds out to all of us. It’s a picture of how the world and the universe finally are. God’s search for us has led us first into this Cathedral and now out into the world. “What are you looking for?” “Come and see.” Amen.