Do You See What I See?

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Every once in a while, the appointed passage speaks so clearly to our own day and time that it’s nothing short of arresting. This is one of those weeks.

Matthew’s portrayal of John the Baptist’s doubts about whether Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah is heartrendingly poignant. John, the fiery prophet who proclaimed Jesus’ coming… John, the fearless messianic herald drawing crowds and rebuking religious leaders… John, the eschatological visionary scouring the banks of the Jordan with his call for repentance… that same John is now pacing a small cell and wondering if all his ministry has been for naught. And so, desperate for some validation — of his ministry, his suffering, himself — he sends a messenger to ask a question as momentous as it is simple: “Are you the one?”

Refusing to give a straightforward “yes” or “no,” Jesus instead recounts the deeds he has been accomplishing: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” I wonder how John took Jesus’ answer. It’s an impressive list, for sure, but it assumes that John didn’t know Jesus was doing these things. But what if it was precisely that John did know what Jesus had been up to that was causing him doubts? Given our earlier exposure to John, we might guess that he was looking for something a little more spectacular. Perhaps restoration of sight, health, and even life seem to John a little too ordinary, too mundane, to signify conclusively that God is at work in and through the one John had earlier heralded with such confidence.

If this is the case, then Jesus’ answer probably sounds more like a rebuke. And then there’s that last part about not taking offense. Could John fail to wonder if that were directed at him and his doubts? Taken together, I’d wager that Jesus is telling John that he should, perhaps, reconsider his sense of who and what the Messiah is. John’s problem, judging from Jesus’ response, is that he hasn’t yet recognized Jesus’ actions as messianic because he hasn’t been trained to see these things as indicators of God’s presence. John, according to Jesus, needs to stretch his imagination of what the presence and power of God look like.

And here’s the rub: are we any different? Or, to put it another way, what limitations have been placed on our imagination and expectations? Maybe at this point, it’s best just to put my cards on the table: I suspect that one of the reasons many of our traditions are withering is that we haven’t trained our people to see God at work in the ordinary arenas of their life. Each week, that is, our people come to church, hear the Scriptures read and preached, sing the hymns and say the prayers, and, if lucky, have an experience of God. But do they carry that experience with them out of church and into their everyday lives? Do they look for God in the ordinary arenas of home and work, economics and politics? Can they imagine that God is using them in their various roles as employee, parent, spouse, friend, citizen, and volunteer, to extend God’s love, blessing, and steadfast care of all creation? Can they, in short, see God at work outside of the church?

In January of 2007, The Washington Post videotaped the reactions of commuters at a D.C. Metro (subway) stop to the music of a violinist. The overwhelming majority of the 1000+ commuters were too busy to stop. A few did, briefly, and some of those threw a couple of bills into the violin case of the street performer. No big deal, just an ordinary day on the Metro. Except it wasn’t an ordinary day. The violinist wasn’t just another street performer; he was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest concert violinists, playing his multi-million dollar Stradivarius. Three days earlier he had filled Boston’s Symphony Hall with people paying $100/seat to hear him play similar pieces. The question the Post author and many others since have asked is simple: Have we been trained to recognize beauty outside the contexts we expect to encounter beauty? Or, to put it another way, can we recognize great music anywhere outside of a concert hall?

I’d ask the same of our people: Can we detect God only when God is surrounded by stained-glass windows and organ music? I’m afraid that we can’t. Even more, I’m afraid that we preachers have contributed to this state of affairs. How often, that is, do we point to the everyday lives, occupations, and opportunities of our people as examples of God at work? Or are most of our examples things happening at the church? David Miller, at the outset of his 2006 book God at Work, shares an exercise he regularly uses with groups of congregational leaders. “How many of you,” he asks, “install Sunday School teachers at the beginning of a new program year.” Almost all the hands go up. “And how many call the youth group and their advisors forward for prayers during worship before they leave for a mission trip.” Again, most hands are in the air. “And how many,” he continues, “early in April have all the Certified Public Accounts stand for prayers during the busiest time of their year.” Typically, no hands remain. Miller’s point is that through this and a thousand other ways we unintentionally signal that the primary place our people can expect to see God is at church…and often only at church.

So here’s the million-dollar question. If Sunday after Sunday the sermon has next to nothing to do with life Monday through Friday, and if week after week we fail to use the hour gathered for worship to train our people to see God alive and active in the other 167 hours of the week, how long can we expect people to keep giving us that hour when they could probably find numerous other ways to spend it that would strengthen them for the rest of their week, life, and world? The answer, I think, is given each week as one more family doesn’t show up to worship.

We won’t know how John responded to Jesus’ answer. But we do know that Jesus wasn’t finished. After giving his response to John’s messenger, he went on to say that John was the greatest of all the prophets. Why? Because at one point he had recognized and heralded Jesus as the messiah. And then Jesus goes even further, saying that the least in the kingdom of heaven — that is, every Christian disciple — is greater than John. Why? Because we have perceived in Jesus’ “ordinary” actions of restoration the very hand of God at work to heal, redeem, and save.

Please, Working Preacher, please help me — help all of us — similarly to see God at work in and through all the “ordinary” elements of our lives so that we might come running back to church each Sunday ready to hear of God at work both in the biblical world and our own. Who knows, after a short time of such preaching, we might even come to church eager to share where I’ve seen God at work in and through my life in the world. And then who knows what might happen!

For this and for all you do, Working Preacher, thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

In Christ,

PS: To see The Washington Post article and video click here