During my elementary school days at South River School, we were graded on our participation. For each subject listed on our report card—be it science or math or social studies—we’d get the grade we earned doing our homework and taking quizzes and completing projects, and then there’d be a grade listed for our participation during the school day. Were we engaged or just phoning it in? The idea was to help parents know that even if Johnny os Susie was earning a C+ in a certain subject that they were in fact taking an active part in the class time as shown by the A- in participation. They weren’t just trying to silently soak it all in by osmosis, nor were they overly distracted by the world outside the classroom window. They were present and active and engaged. They weren’t sitting on the sidelines.
A sermon based on John 1:29-42.
Our reading this morning from the Gospel of John takes place sometime after Jesus has been baptized, and presumably after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. We’re simply told that John the Baptizer saw Jesus walking near the Jordan River one day, and he proclaims: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” John tells any that would listen how the Messiah was coming into the world: not as the “All-Powerful… Deliverer” but as the “sacrificial… lamb,” as one commentator puts it. Jesus comes not in a display of might but with humility to bring about positive life transformation in those who would follow him.
Our gospeler tells us that it takes another day for this to really sink in with those standing nearby, because John has to say it all again. And when he does it this time, two of his disciples decide to follow Jesus. He hears these two walking behind him, and so he stops and turns to speak with them. “What are you looking for?” he asks. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they say. “Teacher, where do you teach? Where do you live?” The Gospel writer himself has already tipped us off to this answer in his prologue a couple of verses earlier. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” or as the Message Bible puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
Jesus looks at these two eager to follow him. “Come and see,” he replies. And they do. They spend the rest of the afternoon with him. They end up spending their lives with him.
Twelve years ago this week, I preached from this pulpit for the first time. In that sermon on this very same text I said these words, “The invitation Christ makes is to ‘come and see,’ yet how often in life—and especially how often in our spiritual lives—do we take a ‘wait and see’ approach? How often do we stand back unwilling to commit or engage because we’re uncertain of what lies ahead? How many times do we waver because we need to think things through more fully or check things out or test our hypotheses about God knows what, instead of hearing the proclamation of the Baptizer and following Jesus?
How many times do we hesitate when faced with Jesus’ invitation to ‘come and see’?”
Because there is another side to that participation grade, right? You might know an awful lot about Jesus and the Bible and faith and say the right things, and answer the questions correctly and ace the exam. But what if there’s no participation to go with it. What if we know it all, but our lives haven’t changed because of that knowledge? What if we’ve been attending church for a long time, and we’ve not acted on the Jesus’ message of love in a meaningful way?
This past week an article appeared in The Boston Globe about the impact of climate change on ocean temperatures. It stated, “The amount of excess heat buried in the planet’s oceans, a strong marker of climate change, reached a record high in 2022, reflecting more stored heat energy than in any year since reliable measurements were available in the late 1950s, a group of scientists reported [this week]. That eclipses the ocean heat record set in 2021 — which eclipsed the record set in 2020, which eclipsed the one set in 2019. And it helps to explain a seemingly ever-escalating pattern of extreme weather events of late, many of which are drawing extra fuel from the energy they pull from the oceans.”
On that front, multiple articles this week in the Globe focused on the atmospheric rivers and cyclones that have been pummeling California, killing over a dozen people. There have been nine of these storms since Christmas, and more expected this week. Rainfall has been 400-600% more than normal there, which could have been helpful given the area has been in a drought for more than a decade, but with the ground already saturated, the water is running off instead of soaking in. Another article on Thursday detailed that this past summer was the second warmest on record for Massachusetts, and that 2022 was the 4th warmest year overall since record keeping began in 1895, when our beloved clock tower was only 5 years old. The 4th warmest in 127 years.
You might be wondering what the connection is between participating in the way of Jesus and the environment. So let me explain. The seismic changes taking place in our climate are simply due to our overconsumption. Way back in 1927, a business article detailed, and I quote, “The New Economic Gospel of Consumption.” A General Motors exec at the time stated, “The key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction.” So that’s what business execs set about doing, creating dissatisfaction in us through advertising, marketing, and news stories. And we have bought into this gospel. We have believed it wholeheartedly, and participated in it with all we’ve got. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1901 20.2% of a family’s spending was allocated to “non-necessities.” 100 years later, in 2002, that figure jumped to 49.9%. Half of our spending on non-necessities, and that is doing a number on our planet—it takes energy to create and move all that stuff—in addition to what it’s doing to our souls. Jesus once said, “What will it profit them to gain the whole world, yet lose their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
You see when we participate in the Gospel of Consumption, we are not participating in the Gospel of Jesus. When we think that we need to keep accumulating stuff and resources and money, then we aren’t hearing Jesus when he says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” When we disregard the flood of information on the changing environment—the very world that Jesus created—and think it has nothing to do with our faith, we accept instead the heresy of the gospel of consumption that seeks to keep us in a stupor of dissatisfaction that will never be sated.
I say this not as one who has figured it out, because I haven’t. I’ve got more books than I can likely read in my lifetime. I’ve got multiple boxes dedicated to holding miscellaneous power cords. My hamper can be full of dirty clothes while I’ve still got a closet packed with other stuff to wear. Clearly I own mountains o’ things, as singer songwriter Tracy Chapman put it. In that song, she croons, “Consume more than you need/This is the dream/I’ll be dreaming of a life of ease/ And mountains, oh mountains o’ things.” But they she gets to the heart of it all when near the end of the song she sings, “Oh they tell me/ There’s still time to save my soul/ They tell me/ Renounce all /Renounce all those material things you gained by/ Exploiting other human beings.” What does it profit me to gain the world and lose my soul? I don’t know, but sadly I’m taking my time deciding on that one. I’ve been sitting on the sidelines taking a wait and see approach as the climate keeps getting worse, and I try to justify my actions when I buy a new piece of technology or book or piece of camping gear. I keep trying to figure out if I can do both; if I can indeed gain the whole world and save my soul.
And yet I long to follow Jesus. I want to see where he is staying. I want to learn from him. So let us hear his words today, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” When we choose to follow Jesus, when we do indeed decide to come and see, our lives can be completely transformed. He invites us into a life of more meaning than we could ever imagine for ourselves. A life that can dramatically change us, our neighbors, and our world. But we need to respond. We have to act. We can’t just wait and see. Let us follow him with determination and urgency. Let us fully participate in the loving way of Jesus, knowing that where he leads us will bring us more joy than we can ever discover on our own.