Seek and you shall…

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 40:1-11, John 1:29-42

This week we will let Paul David Hewson (aka Bono) be our exegete. Bono, the frontman for the Dublin-based band U2, wrote two songs that intersect with today’s lectionary passages. Our texts for this reflection will be Psalm 40 and John 1:29-42, and alongside the Biblical text will be “40 (How Long)” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from U2.
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First Psalm 40. This is one of those lovely/troubling imprecatory psalms. “Imprecatory” means “to curse or pray evil upon another,” a definition which makes these passages difficult to preach.

In 1983, U2 wrote their War album. On the last night of recording, they were about to be run off by the studio manager. They needed one more song, so they quickly wrote and recorded a song based on Psalm 40. The whole thing came together in under an hour, and thus their hit “40 (How Long)” was born. A tradition developed around the song during their album tour. At the end of the set, the band would play through the song, during which one by one they would lay their instruments down and leave the stage. The crowd/congregation would then continue to sing the refrain, “how long…to sing this song?”

Recently I was talking with some young adults in Sunday School about canonization and the difficult passages of our Bible, the parts we would have excluded from our Bible if given the chance (think Psalm 137:9). If we are honest, there are parts of our Bible that we would not miss if they disappeared. Maybe the parts of Paul that sound misogynistic. Maybe the conquest narratives, baptized battles and divinely sanctioned slaughter. Sanitize it. make it safe.

When U2 wrote another hit “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” their record company boss told them to drop the “blood” parts, because that would not play well on the radio. They were told to sanitize the song.

But life in Ireland during those years was anything but sanitized. The Trouble, those decades of nationalistic conflict in Ireland, were the backdrop to U2’s string of hit songs, from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to “40 (How Long)” to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Their music was honest, brutally so, and they made no apology for it. It turned out others found that honesty compelling.

I find that most of the troubling parts of my Bible are also the most honest parts, where humans seem to forget self-censorship and speak from the gut. Because the truth is that we all live in the muck and mire and sun and rain, in the struggle one way or another. And if there are no true words for that in our Bible or our art, then there is no room for us either.

This is the art of liminality. Honest speech in the time in between.
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Our passage from John 1:29-42 confronts us with the question, what are we looking for? It is the question Jesus asks to John’s disciples. These two never answer Jesus, instead asking their own question: “Teacher, where are you staying?” Which Jesus doesn’t answer outright either. He invites the two deeper into their question. Come and see.

John’s Gospel uses the language of sight/light/seek/blind/darkness repeatedly, so that illumination becomes a main theme of the book. Jesus’ question, “what are you looking for?,” looks for its answer throughout the book.

“…they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.” (6:24)

“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (6:26)

“…the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” (7:1)

“The Jews were looking for him at the festival…” (7:11)

“The Jews were looking for him at the festival…” (7:11)

“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (6:26)

“…the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” (7:1)

“The Jews were looking for him at the festival…” (7:11)

“Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” (7:19)

“They were looking for Jesus…” (11:56)

“Whom are you looking for?” (18:4)

“Whom are you looking for?” (18:7)

“I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” (18:8)

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (20:15)

Notice the shift in the question. “What” becomes “whom.” We are looking for a person. To be more precise, the characters in the Gospel are looking for the chosen one spoken about in the Hebrew scriptures. They see Jesus and keep saying that they have found him, found the messiah, found what/whom they were looking for. But the problem is that they keep losing Jesus. So they keep looking, all the way through to the cross and empty tomb. The question, the search, it never seems to end.

U2’s album, Joshua Tree, included the hit song “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” There is a version of the song featuring a gospel choir from Harlem. The band talks about the gospel roots of the song, which captures the unending yearning and search that is part of the spiritual journey. The song places doubt and uncertainty at the heart of faith. Which is troubling for many people who need the certainty that they have found some truth to end their searching.

I have heard plenty of preachers take Bono to task for his refrain, “but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” The assumption is that he could not have found Jesus if he is still looking. As if Jesus is the answer that ends all questions, the treasure to end all searching.

I have a white little schnauzer at home. He has been with us for many years, most of our marriage and before the kids arrived. He is a fixture in the house, until he is not. Lately my kids have been leaving the back door open, and Albie the schnauzer slips out. Sometimes it will be up to an hour before we realize that he is gone. We always find him, but lately it has felt like we are looking for him a lot. He takes off down an alley or finds a new friend to walk beside for a bit. People around our neighborhood recognize him in part because they have found him in their yards, content to be in the sun and grass.

Every time my son finds a new treasure in the driveway or buried in some drawer, I know that it is only a matter of time before we are looking for his new precious-but-lost item. He will carry a shiny rock everywhere, until he sets it down and forgets to pick it back up. I have torn apart every room looking for a fragment of glass he is convinced is a space crystal. Losing his treasures is part of his having them.

There are some things in life that I will forever be looking for, no matter how many times I find them. And maybe that is the point.

You can locate and trap an idea, a proposition, a belief, but a person…can you ever truly find and never lose another?

 

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