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"Together We Serve" -- John 1:35-51 (Third Sunday After Epiphany)

This week, as I worked with this Scripture, I also kept returning to another sacred text –

a text that, this week, was new and fresh – a text, a poem, that, this week, infused so many of us with life and hope. On Wednesday, a little after noon in Washington, DC, amid the pomp and ceremony of the presidential inauguration – Amanda Gorman, America’s Youth Poet Laureate, stepped to the microphone and offered the nation her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”[1] She began with the question:

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light

in this never-ending shade?

And from there, she named our experience – “we’ve braved the belly of the beast,” “we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation not broken, but simply unfinished,” far from polished and pristine – yet striving for a union with purpose. Amanda Gorman pointed us to a future built not by blade, but by bridge – pointed us toward the work of repair and “just redemption” – the rebuilding of a country

“bruised but whole

benevolent but bold

fierce and free.”

As the best words do, the best poems, the best sermons, the best books, the best of us – Amanda Gorman’s poem – and her speaking of it – embodied glimpses of answers to the question that she raised:

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light

in this never-ending shade?

There is a question like that lingering in the air at the start of the Gospel of John – we know its poetry: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with and towards God, the Word was God. Through the Word, all things were made; and in him, was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. And the Word became flesh and dwelt in us, full of grace and truth – and we have seen it.

And from there, the Gospel of John goes on – opening up glimpses of answers to the questions that it raises: How is it that Word has become flesh? How is it that we come to see light in this “never ending shade”?

Some of the first glimpses the Gospel offers are these opening scenes in which Jesus gathers a community. That’s the first thing he does –John the Baptist says a little bit more about the One who is coming – and then Jesus arrives on the scene, and he gathers a community. John points two of his own disciples to Jesus: “There’s the Lamb of God.” They follow Jesus; Jesus asks them what they want; they want to know where he’s staying; Jesus says: “Come and see.”

They follow Jesus, and then one of them, Andrew, goes to get his brother Simon, and says: “We’ve found the Messiah, the Christ.” And they go to Jesus, and Jesus gives Simon a new name, Peter.

The next day, Jesus finds Philip and says, “Follow me.” And Philip goes and gets Nathanael. “We’ve found the one about whom Moses and the prophets spoke: Jesus of Nazareth.” And we get this funny exchange: “Nazareth??!? That backwater town? Has anything good ever come out of Nazareth?” And Philip says to him: “Come and see.” And as Nathanael approaches Jesus, Jesus says, “Now there’s someone in whom there is no deceit.” Nathanael replies, “Do you know me?” And Jesus says, “I saw you sitting under that fig tree.” To which Nathanael responds: “Rabbi. You are Son of God, King of Israel.”

At which point Jesus says, “Oh, if you’ve said that just because I told you that I saw you under a fig tree. Just you wait. You will see greater things than these. You all will see the heavens open and angels of God ascending and descending on the Human One.” The heavens opened – no separation between the heavens and the earth. Just you wait.

And there you have it – just like that – in 16 verses – a community has come to life. It happens quickly, but there are some things to pause and notice.

The first thing to notice is the mutuality of this new community. Did you notice that? We often talk about this passage as “Jesus calling his disciples.” But did you also notice that they are calling each other? (I think it’s actually hard to keep track of who is calling whom.) It’s John the Baptist who points the first two towards Jesus. It’s one of them, Andrew, who goes and gets his brother Simon Peter. The next day, Jesus calls Philip. But then it’s Philip who goes and gets Nathanael, using the same words that Jesus uses: “Come and see.” Jesus, Andrew, Philip, Simon Peter, Nathanael – they call each other into this community.

And then there is this free exchange of questions and answers – the disciples ask Jesus questions – he answers some, he asks some back – and throughout – they say each to each other, “Come and see.” We might forget for a moment that all this is taking place in a world of Empire and oppression and hierarchy – here we have these folks calling each other – asking questions of each other – answering as they can.

And that connects us to the second thing to notice – as they gather and enter into this experience together – did you notice that each one of them brings a Word about Jesus? The first two call him Rabbi. Andrew tells his brother that they’ve found the Messiah, the Christ. Phillip tells Nathanael that they’ve found the one about whom Moses and the prophets spoke. And then Nathanael fills in some more titles: Son of God. King of Israel. As they each come and experience Jesus, a particular Word rises up in each of them. I like the way that Gail O’Day and Susan Hylen talk about this.[2] They say that no one name or title can carry a full expression of who Jesus is, and none of us has the whole picture – but each one of us brings our own particular glimpse –our own particular embodied Word – and we bring them, and hold them together, in community, as we share and grow in understanding.

And that’s the third thing – in this rapid-fire exchange there is a new understanding coming to life. What’s happening is not what folk would expect. “We’ve found the one about whom Moses and the Prophets spoke, Jesus of Nazareth?” “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – Nazareth, that tiny town that has no significance in Empire, no significance in our traditions – it’s not mentioned in Moses or the Prophets or in any part of the Scriptures.[3]The Word is becoming flesh – we’re finding light in this never-ending shade – not at the centers of power – but in the vibrant pulse of life at the margins – in everyday folk and our everyday lives – in this Jesus of Nazareth, in this community of mutuality.

What a great Scripture to sit with as we turn to these words we say: “Together We Serve.” An expression of community – of this community. Some might say that it’s become part of your “brand.” In the business world, a brand is a promise – this is what you can expect when you encounter me – my promise of who I will be to you and with you. For a business, a brand says what you can expect of its product or service. For a politician, a brand might express what we can expect in their policy. We’ve even started to talk about a “personal brand” – for any given person, what the world can expect – who we will be – when they encounter us.

Together We Serve.” It’s become part of the fabric of this community – words that have been voiced, experienced, and claimed over time as your own. To get to our website, folks type in There’s even a hymn – “Together We Serve” – commissioned for the church’s 100th anniversary – that has made into the Presbyterian hymnal, and that says at the bottom of the page, where they list the name of the tune: SAN ANSELMO.[4]

A few weeks ago, Dave Jones shared with me his first experiences of those words here, and said that I could share the story here. One of the first invitations to serve that Dave received here, years ago, was an invitation to serve on a Pastor Nominating Committee. That’s no small first invitation. Dave wasn’t sure what that would involve, but he said yes, and showed up to the first meeting, and the first order of business was to elect a chair of the committee. Someone asked Johnny Holm, if he’d serve – Johnny said he’d serve as a CO-chair with someone else, but not as chair on his own– and, yup, Johnny and Dave ended up serving as co-chairs together – Dave leading the meetings, Johnny leading the communication with the candidates.

Over the course of their serving together, Dave noticed that Johnny signed all his letters and emails from the committee with these words: “Together We Serve.” Not “Sincerely,” not “Yours in Christ” – “Together We Serve” – and sometime later, Dave asked Johnny about that.

Johnny explained that it was something he brought with him from the business world. He’d served as a consultant on some really big projects – with all sorts of company representatives, officials, and consultants. And he said that he started signing his letters “Together We Serve” as a reminder to everyone that they all served the same client – that they all were on the same team – that they all were serving together – “Together We Serve.” And here, in Johnny’s letters, it came to be the way this church greeted the candidates who were applying to be pastor – and over time, this community said it again and again, experienced it in the life of community, and took those words as your own – the Word you bring – one of the Words you bring: “Together We Serve.” They are the closing words of the Centennial History that Walt Davis and others wrote – as you looked at this community’s past, as a window to the future: “Together We Serve.”

Dave and I talked again this week, and Dave said that they weren’t just words on a page – that over time he’s experienced these words as a continuing invitation to serve – as he was invited to be a part of the choir; and then as Ash Wood invited him to serve in the tree-planting Bare Roots project in Afghanistan; and as he was invited to serve in Hurricane Katrina rebuilding, and the Keep Hope Alive project in Israel-Palestine.

For Dave, and maybe for others on this Zoom – and maybe for others beyond this Zoom – “Together We Serve” has become a continuing invitation – an invitation that you extend to each other – not unlike the invitation we see in this morning’s Scripture – into the life of Christ – the life of serving the world in Christ – Come and see. In my fifteen months here (and even before that), I’ve seen that – this mutual invitation – and I’ve also seen how each of you brings a Word – a particular Word.

o With Bare Roots, I’ve watched Asma continue to invite folks into life-giving, tree-planting community that spans an ocean and continents

o The Anti-Racism Movement team is calling us into learning and action to repair and rebuild and heal the harm done by systemic racism.

o Lisa Della Valle has led folks into a season of letter-writing to support the right to vote – and to make real the promises of the Constitution.

o This spring, May Lynne Lim invited us support the mask-making ministry of pandemic action.

o The deacons invite us and each other into the tender care of this community.

o I hope that folks like Katie Morrison, and Virginia Thibeaux and Anne Towler and I have invited this community into an embodied experience of what life looks like when LGBTQIA+ people and our families are welcomed into the full life of the church.

o The Zoom Team and the Worship Team and our Choir and the Moving Forward Team have invited us into new experiences of worship and service and connection.

o Those who are now part of this community from a distance are inviting us to create ways to continue worshipping together, because we love to worship and serve with you.

And I could go on... “Together We Serve” – a mutual invitation into living the life of Christ by serving a hurting world – each of us bringing and sharing a Word.

Now I’m not saying this to flatter you. But to confirm what I have seen in you. I’ve heard your promise – “Together We Serve” – and I’ve experienced it embodied in you. In a number of ways, you’ve invited me into service – I was ordained in this community; you’ve called me to be your pastor. I’m saying all this to confirm what I’ve seen, and to reflect the invitation back to you – this mutual invitation – to keep it going.

What is the Word that you bring? The questions you bring? The passion? The new idea? The glimpse that you are seeing of light – of how these Words that we say might come to life next? Who are the folks you might invite into community and serving together? I’m saying this as part of my turn in our conversation – to invite you to continue to speak up – to trust the Word welling up in you – and to share it – with the folks on this Zoom – and with the folks beyond this Zoom. Together, how can we bring to life the next Word that is welling up in us?

The Gospel of John is about the Word coming to life in the fullness of our humanity. We see that in this morning’s Scripture – as the Word comes to life in community – in a community of mutuality – where we invite each other into life – each of us brings a Word – and together, in Christ, we create a world beyond we thought we could imagine. Together We Serve.

An embodied Word – that’s also the gift that Amanda Gorman gave us on Wednesday as she asked us:

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light

in this never-ending shade?

And then, as she pointed us to the life we live, as a nation, each of us, all of us, together in community.

And so, we’ll let the last words of this sermon be hers:

When day comes

[when day comes]

we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid

The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

if only we’re brave enough to be it

[1] For the full text of the poem (and video) see [2] Gail O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), p.32. [3] Leslie J. Hoppe, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), pp.261-65. [4] See Glory to God (PCUSA hymnal), #767.

© 2021 Scott Clark

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