Text: John 1:19-28

Who Are You?

Who are you? This is the question, isn’t it?  This is the question that is asked of us, by the church, by our colleagues, by the world.  Who are you?

This is an interesting question to be posed by our reading today, this day before  Ash Wednesday, this last day of Epiphany, this day of transition. The Pharisees, representatives of the religious authority, are sent to find out just exactly who John is.  They don’t waste any time going about their task, they go directly to the source, they ask John.  His answer: I am NOT the Messiah. He answers by telling them who he is not….not the Messiah, not Elijah, not Moses.

I am a Diaconal Minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and this conversation is echoing an email thread that I have been following on my community’s list serve over the past week.  Our denomination is, after 15 years, re-visiting the structure of our rosters, which is what we call the lists of set-aside public leaders in our church.  We have four rosters, the ordained pastors, those called to a ministry of Word & Sacrament and the “lay” rosters, those called to a ministry of Word & Service, of which there are three expressions, Deaconesses, Diaconal Ministers and Associates in Ministry.  We will be in discussion for the next three years about how we define that second group of rosters, and a first preliminary report has just been released.  The people in our church, including the pastors, and the people of the world are continually coming to us and asking us “Who are you?”  Our answer frequently sounds like John’s:  “I am NOT a pastor.” We are not half- pastor’s, incompletely trained ministers.  No, we don’t think we will go back to seminary and “complete our training”, thank you for the suggestion.

Lest you think that this homily is all about me, and that this conversation in my church has no bearing on the rest of you, think about this, if you will.  Here at Seattle University’s  School of Theology and Ministry, we are involved in the process of forming leaders for the Church in the 21st Century.  We are called to leadership in some way, to minister to a people who are not only asking “who are you”, but are also asking “who are we”?  As the mainline denominations face the challenges of diminishing numbers, as our seminaries see fewer students coming to training, as more and more leaders begin to think about being bi-vocational ministers, and as our congregations face the fact that we will no longer be conducting our ministries following the patterns established in the 1950’s when we had Sunday Schools bursting at the seams, we are being asked to answer that question.

John’s answer:  “I am, as Isaiah prophesied, the voice of someone crying out in the wilderness, make straight our God’s road!”  and “among you stands someone who you don’t recognize—“  That is our call, that is our mission in this day and this time, to introduce the world to the one who staqnds in their midst. 

As we stand at the eve of Lent, as the world around us observes this day as an excuse for excesses of all kinds, John reminds us of what we are doing here, at this school.  We are being set aside to show the world the God whom they do not recognize.  Not some God set up apart from us in some heaven above, not some God who set the world in motion then sits back to watch what we do with it, not some God who is too fastidious to get dirty with that Creation. 

John, and by inference, we ourselves, came to make the way to God straight, to point out that God was– is –in our midst; walking among us, living with us, embodied, incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us. As leaders of the church in the 21st century, we are not called to sit inside the walls of our church buildings, waiting for the world to come inside.  We are called to be, like John, across the Jordan, in the wilderness of the world in this place, pointing out that God is in the midst of us, helping the world to recognize the one who is already among them.

John’s ministry did not look like anything the Church in Jerusalem recognized.  He was not a priest, he was not a Pharisee, he was not a Sadducee, and he wasn’t one of the great prophets of old, Elijah or Moses.  But the world, and the church of his time, recognized that he was someone to whom they should listen.  John had a message of invitation; he invited repentance, he spoke truth, and he cleared the way for the Messiah, who was already in their midst, to be recognized.

Whether your call is to Pastoral Counseling, to Spiritual Direction, to the ordained clergy or to Diaconal Ministry in one of its myriad forms, this time, right now in your life, is a transitional time.  This is the process by which you leave your former life as a member of your community, and move into a time of leadership for the future. 

As we sit here at the start of Lent, preparing to spend some time in reflection, I invite you to ask yourself: “Who am I?  Where is God calling me to be, in this time, in this place?  Where do I see the Holy One in our midst?  How do I clear a way for God to be here?” 

Amen and Amen.

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