Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 8, 2015
When I was sixteen, I went on a backpacking trip with my Boy Scout troop to Philmont. Philmont is a beautiful piece of land that runs through the forested hills and rugged plains of New Mexico. Every Scout who has been to Philmont will never forget their journey. You won’t ever forget hanging your food up on a line in the trees, so that bears don’t eat it. You won’t ever forget just how nasty your hiking clothes get after ten days. You won’t ever forget standing on the peak of the Tooth of Time. You won’t ever forget just how sore your feet can get.
There was one day during my trip to Philmont that I will never forget. It must have been about halfway through our ten day trek. It was a long day, carrying heavy backpacks, weaving through the forest. We were headed for Black Mountain camp, and our trail ran along a creek.
Now, our map showed that we were only supposed to cross this creek twice. But as our hike wore on, we crossed the creek many, many times. We were tired. And sore. And now our feet were wet. The sky was getting dark. But Black Mountain camp was nowhere to be seen. And even though that map showed only two creek crossings, we kept going back and forth across it.
When you’re out in the woods like that, your mind begins to trick you. You start asking yourself all sorts of panicky questions. “Are we even on the right trail? How much farther do we have to go? Should we turn around and try to find another trail? And if we are on the right trail, what sort of idiot mapmaker did this?”
Eventually, after about the twentieth creek crossing, we hiked into Black Mountain camp. I remember the sense of relief, the sense of safety and belonging I felt when I finally pitched my tent. I remember the Philmont staff, looking at us and saying something like, “we have been right here all along.”
I had never been to Black Mountain camp before, but I knew it when I saw it. We are on a journey, and we are searching, searching, searching for our entire lives. We are searching for love and mercy and grace. We are searching, and we’ll know it when we see it. We don’t know exactly what love and mercy and grace will look like, but we’ll know it when we see it.
The disciples of Jesus knew it when they saw it. After healing and curing, after proclaiming the good news to the people of Capernaum, the disciples of Jesus found what they had been searching for. And as the sky is getting dark, just when to start to panic, the disciples finally find Jesus out in the wilderness. What the disciples say to Jesus is probably the truest statement in the whole bible. They say to Jesus, “everyone is searching for you.”
Everyone is searching for Jesus. What we are looking for – mercy, grace, love, safety – that is what Jesus has and who Jesus is. The disciples were searching for him. The crowds at Capernaum were searching for him. And now we, we too are searching for Jesus. What Jesus has, is what we have been searching for all along. The grace and mercy of Jesus is that spot on the map of our lives that we never seem to get to. Belonging and acceptance are like Black Mountain camp – just one more time across the creek, and then maybe we’ll get there.
But in our searching, we start to panic. It seems that the sun is setting, it seems that the map is lying to us. Grace, and mercy, and love, and belonging just seem that they don’t exist. Like some mapmaker put them there just to confuse us. We just can’t find what we’re looking for. So we start looking for belonging, and love, and mercy in all the wrong places. We search for belonging by painting our faces blue and red, and screaming till we’re hoarse at a Texans game. We search for mercy and grace by buying yet another pair of shoes that we think will impress everybody else. Believe me, your Facebook news feed will never give you a sense of belonging. Getting that little tummy tuck or that facelift will not make people love you any more. Trying to fit in with other kids at school by drinking, or doing drugs, will not make you feel any better. You’ll only feel more alone because you won’t be yourself. All of us are searching for something. We are looking for grace and love and belonging – but we are searching in all the wrong places.
And I believe that the place to find that mercy, and that grace, and that love of Jesus is right here in the Church. And I don’t just say that because I’m paid to say it. I truly believe it. I know that the Church often gets a bad reputation for being judgmental, elitist, and hypocritical. Yes. We can’t deny that. The Church has surely led many astray, taken them down the wrong trails. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up searching for that place, that community that will share with us the grace, acceptance, and love of Jesus. That place is the Church. Giving up on the Church because it’s not good enough, would be as if I just quit hiking that day because the map said I was only supposed to cross the creek twice, but I really had to cross twenty times. The only way to make the Church better, is for you to make it better. And giving up on Jesus because some of his followers are jerks won’t work either. Because you will only end up bitter, and lost, and way off the map. As fragile, and as weird as the Church can be, I believe it is the only place that is truly home. You can stop searching for love and belonging in all the wrong places. I speak from experience.
When I was a nerdy sixteen year old looking for a place to fit in, it was the Church that opened its arms. The Church didn’t care that I was a little chubby, that I wore super dorky tall socks with tennis shoes, that I played the tuba in the marching band. The Church didn’t care that I had never been to Church before. I found a place to belong. I knew that when I stepped into that place, I had found a home.
When I was in college, I searched for love and grace in all the wrong places. I searched high and low for love at parties. That was a stupid place to look. I searched for grace by joining a fraternity. That was a really stupid place to look. It was the Church, it was the Church that opened wide its arms, and shared with me the love of Jesus. The Church gave me a kind of love that I could not find anywhere else. I had never experienced love like that before, but I knew that I had found what I was looking for.
Everyone is searching for Jesus. We just may not know it. But I tell you, that you can stop searching. You can stop looking for love in all the wrong places. When you feel the strong embrace of a dear friend passing the Peace, when you feel the warmth of the wine of Holy Communion, when you hear every single week that you are forgiven and loved by God – then you’ll know that you have found what you were searching for. Mercy, and grace, and acceptance have been right here all along. What you are searching for is before your very eyes. What you are searching for is the Church. What you are searching for is Jesus.