May 1, 2019 - St. Philip and St. James
Last night, I was on a conference call with a group that is exploring the ways in which The Episcopal Church has articulated its theology of money. We've only just begun our work, but a colleague on the call expressed what it means to be the church in a world dominated by love of wealth in a compelling way: "People come to church looking for a god that is better than money." Think about that for a second. The god of our world is self--self-sufficiency, wealth, power, control. That god does not give itself to the people. It is never satisfied. It demands unending sacrifice. Nothing is ever enough. You can call it money or fame or success or accomplishment, but, whatever it is, it isn't good. We need something else. We come to church in search of something better than that.
We hear the prophet Isaiah offer good news to the children of Judah. They have been searching for God, and the prophet promises that they will find what they seek: "The Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore, he will rise up to show mercy to you." Even though Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, the Teacher will not hide himself any more. You will see the Teacher with your own eyes. When you turn to the right or to the left, you will hear a gentle voice from right behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it."
We are in search of a better Teacher. We want something better than the gods of this world guiding us on life's path. We need the Teacher to show us the truth of love and mercy. We come to church, we say our prayers, we read daily devotions, we go to Bible studies, we do all that we do in search of the God who will lead us, guide us, rescue us. Even if it is at times difficult or painful, we want to be on the path that leads us eventually to freedom, peace, love, acceptance, forgiveness, redemption. That path leads to God. Our God waits to be gracious to us. Our God is a God of justice. The Lord is not an all-consuming, never-ending fire that consumes all we would give and more but a God of complete and perfect love, accepting and forgiving even God's imperfect children.
Sometimes the religion we pursue helps us get a little closer to God, helps us find a path that leads to deep peace, but sometimes we are led on a path that leads further from that truth. We confuse religion with God. We replace the Teacher with one who demands complicated, impossible, hard-to-discern tasks that never lead us anywhere. We find a preacher who tells us that we aren't good enough unless... We read a book that tells us the secret to happiness lies within us if we only try... At first, the promise of real achievement through personal struggle gives us hope that we are on a path that leads to peace, but, when the only force that guides us is self-improvement, the illusive and empty promise of perfection becomes our unattainable goal. We wander.
In his farewell address to his disciples, Jesus spoke of this path: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Don't get lost in the Jesus-only access to heaven piece. That's a conversation for another day, which is less a response to this gospel lesson and more a response to those who misuse it as a weapon. Instead, focus on the hope that fills this passage. How will we get to the Father? How will we find our way to God? Who will show us the right path? What voice will tell us to turn right or left? Jesus. "I am the way," Jesus says.
Philip, giving voice to the longing of all humanity, says, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Philip knows that he and his companions are close to the truth. Jesus has led them this far. If he could just give them a glimpse at the ultimate destination, Philip and the other disciples could make it the rest of the way. But Jesus' response is better news than he expected to hear: "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." It's like running the exhausting last mile of a marathon and discovering that you've already passed the finish line. Where will we find the right path to the Father? It's not illusive. It's not difficult. It's right in front of us because God has already found us.
Life is a journey. Faith is a journey. But the goal, the end, the destination isn't ahead of us. It's already behind us. It's already with us. It's already within us. God has come to us in Jesus. We journey ahead not in search of the right path but knowing the path has come to us--that we are not alone in our pilgrimage. When to go right or left, therefore, isn't a matter of finding the answer but remembering it, of hearing that voice we already know so well, of knowing the Teacher who stands behind us and points us onward.