“Jesus said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi…where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’” John 1:38-39a
I read some strange things, but I never could have imagined the article I stumbled upon this week. In it I learned about an artist named Richard Hansen.[i] Hansen is known for creating art out of organic materials – banana skins and other kinds of food. He’s also, by the way, the current Guinness World Record Holder for having created the world’s largest connect-the-dots puzzle in 2017.
Last fall Hansen decided to create an 8-foot by 10-foot portrait of 19th century American writer Edgar Allen Poe out of – wait for it – earthworms. Living, squirming, fresh-from-the-ground earthworms. He first got the idea when he was taking a walk about ten years ago after a summer rainstorm. As often happens after a storm, he found himself dodging the earthworms on the sidewalk. Inspiration struck, and he was soon collecting earthworms and creating molds into which he could insert the earthworms. As the worms crawled into the various spaces within the mold, they created a picture. Hansen started with smaller projects and perfected his technique over time. Any guesses how many earthworms it took for the portrait of Poe? 7000.
What does Hansen want people to take away from his project? Here’s what he says:
“Of course, I want people to laugh and be entertained. I [also] want people to consider the small things in life and look at them a little bit differently. Almost all of us have had that experience of seeing worms on the ground as we’re going on a walk.” [But I hope my portrait will get people] “to just look at that experience in a new light.”[ii]
This is what I love about artists – that ability to look at something as ordinary as earthworms and see new possibilities. To see something in a completely extraordinary way. Artists need the skill to execute the vision, but it begins with seeing.
That invitation to see in a new way is found throughout today’s gospel. The first person who reminds us to take another look is John the Baptist. He points us directly to Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John wants people to see Jesus, not just as a teacher or as a friend but as the Lamb of God. He uses an image that suggests sacrifice, hinting at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry that Jesus will in the end give his life for our sake. I’ve always wondered how people made sense of that image. I’m sure plenty of folks dismissed it as John being dramatic again, but John also invited people to look closely, to see that Jesus was the messiah.
It helps that John is able to give some eyewitness testimony. As we heard last week, John had the closest possible vantage point for the baptism of Jesus, and he tells people what he saw there: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John has witnessed some things. He has seen the Holy Spirit resting upon Jesus. He has heard some things too – the voice of God declaring Jesus to be God’s beloved Son.
I saw it, John says. I saw it all. And now I’m going to tell you about it.
The next day John does it again. He’s hanging out with two of his own followers, and Jesus walks by. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Those two people are intrigued enough that they begin to wander with Jesus, and then Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”
Pause for a moment and consider what you would say if Jesus asked you that question. What are you looking for? What do you hope to see here? What do you hope will happen? What new possibilities do you seek?
These two disciples are clearly not prepared for that question, so they do what most of us do when confronted with a question we’d rather not answer. They change the subject. “Where are you staying,” they ask Jesus.
To which Jesus replies with an invitation: “Come and see.”
So they go with Jesus. And they see – at first literally. They see the place where he is staying. But after some time with Jesus, talking with him and seeing what he is up to, they come to a deeper realization – one that we hear when Andrew goes off to find his brother Simon Peter and reports, “We have found the Messiah.”
It all starts with an invitation to see. To see Jesus. To see that Jesus offers new beginnings, new hope, new life. To see how Jesus sees us – with love and with forgiveness, which makes the rest possible.
On this weekend when we honor Dr. King’s legacy, it’s good to remember how much he helped us see the world in new ways – to see that many things that were technically legal were spiritually and morally wrong. Dr. King summoned church folks – especially white church folks – to help bring about change, and he was often left disappointed. As he writes in “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail”[iii]:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
That phrase always convicts me : “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” I read this letter at least once a year because it makes me look more closely at my own complacency. It makes me ask: How, in the name of Jesus, am I continuing to learn about the experiences of people of color? How, in the name of Jesus, am I working to challenge and disrupt racism? How, in the name of Jesus, am I learning to see what I might not want to see – and then do something about it?
I don’t always feel capable of doing that work. But Jesus sees me – and sees you – as someone who is capable of doing that work, not because of our own strength but because of his.
Jesus looks at ordinary people like us and sees new possibilities. He sees us as more courageous and more creative than we feel on most days. And so he says to us: “Come and see.”
Come and see what you did not expect to see.
Come and see your neighbors as people who are precious to me. Every last one of them.
Come and see what God is up to in the world, the change that God makes possible.
Come and see the new pathways that God is opening.
Come and see. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ