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Where I See Jesus (or, in a pinch, what to say to atheists, those who are "spiritual but not religious," or who want nothing to do with "organized religion")

In the Gospel assigned to be read this Sunday in church, we hear the story of a group of people who approach the disciple Philip and say, "We wish – we would like – to see Jesus."

"We would like to see Jesus."

I think this ties directly into the "negativity fast" theme we've been advocating this Lent.

Because I think the author Dan Kimbal is right when he says, in the title of his book, They Like Jesus, but Not the Church.

People now days -- you and I, and society in general -- like Jesus and are hungrier than ever for Jesus: his compassionate attitude, his expansive nature, his Joy.

And at the same time, they -- we -- are as fed up as ever with "the church" in the negative sense of the word: its judgmental attitude, its inflexible doctrinaire nature, its dour humorlessness.

The writer Andrew Sullivan has popularized the term “Christian-ism” – the politicization of Christianity, trying to equate Christianity with one particular mindset or political philosophy – and he points to studies that say an increase in Christian-ism is tied to an increase in atheism in our country.

“Go to any college campus and ask the uncommitted their views of Christianity,” Sullivan writes, “What I hear is “intolerance, anger, anti-gay prejudice, sexual obsession, and hatred of Islam.”

Young people turn on the t.v. or go to You Tube and see the worst aspects of Christianity being broadcast and say well if that’s Christianity, then I’m an atheist.

I can identify with that, personally: in late high school, I was turned off of Christianity by some “Christianists” (before they were called that) and walked away from Christianity.

I can see in retrospect that during those days, my first few years in college at Wabash College, God put certain people in my life, two philosophy professors in particular, Drs. William C. Placher and Dr. Eric Dean.

I’ve shared this story many times before but I share it with you again today in the context of the negativity fast because I think what Drs Placher and Dean said to me is something I hope you use with people you know who are atheists, or who want nothing to do with church, or who are negative to or have rejected organized religion.

What they said to me was,

“One, tell me about this god you don’t believe in.”

And as I told them about an angry and judgmental (or distant and remote, uncaring) god, they’d say, “Well I don’t believe in that god, either!”

And when I railed against religion and religious people, they’d say “John, every objection you make to religion and religious people is somewhere in here (the Bible). And spoken, by the way, a lot more eloquently.

And when you get upset about the abuses of religion? You’re in good company: everything that drives you up the wall about bad religion drove Amos and Hosea and Isaiah – not to mention Jesus – up the wall, too.”

And sure enough:
When the religionists of Jesus’ day tried to corner him, trap him on a doctrinal matter, a legal matter of the law, Jesus said the law that trumps all doctrines and laws is “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
And when they asked “who is my neighbor?” instead of giving a legal answer, he told them a story, the story of the Good Samaritan, a remarkable story in which all the proper religious people come off poorly and the person who demonstrates tangible concrete actions of compassion comes off as the hero.

People are looking for Jesus, evidence of God-Alive in our midst.

And – according to the Bible – one of the ways Jesus…God alive in our midst…is found, is when his followers are…well…following him, with tangible concrete actions of compassion.

Every Sunday, after the bread and wine are blessed, the ministers of communion hold up the bread and wine and we say “The gifts of God for the people of God.”

And sometimes – based on one of the communion prayers – we add, “holy gifts for holy people,” or “the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ.”

You are the people of God. You are the Body of Christ.

People are looking for Jesus, the Body of Christ.

And so I see Jesus – the Body of Christ – in the Worship, Outreach, Pastoral Care, Discipleship, and Administrative ministries of this church.

We’re not perfect – far from it – but none of us are pretending to be; we all know we have a lot to learn and a long way to go.

But you want to see Jesus?

I think you can find evidence of him right here, each week in your tan insert.

Just look:

The very first words you see are perhaps the most important for people to hear:

“Welcome! No matter who you are, or where you are in your spiritual journey, you are welcome here.”

No matter who you are –
liberal or conservative,
republican or democrat,
black or white or Latino or Asian,
gay or straight,
married or partnered or divorced or widowed, dating or recluse,
student or retiree,
mother of seven or child-free,
former (or current) Catholic or Baptist, lifelong Episcopalian or never having stepped foot in a church in your life,
making $300,000 a year or $30,000 a year or between jobs or sleeping in your car,
believing every word of the creeds or the Bible and powerfully feeling the presence of Christ in the liturgy
or doubting every word of the creeds and never having read a word of the Bible and just going through the motions of the liturgy with secret resentment because part of you really doesn’t even want to be here!

…no matter who you are, or where you are in your spiritual journey: You are welcome here.

You. Are. Welcome. Here.

And not only that but what’s the next thing you read? “please join us for coffee and fellowship”

You know one of the things people say they love about the Episcopal Church? When church is over, people don’t just head for the parking lot. They stick around, if only for little while, and chat with one another.
(Now I admit that most people, if you asked them why they stick around after church, wouldn’t say they are looking for Jesus. They’d settle for a decent cup of coffee, or some sense of community, connection.)
But I see Jesus – the Jesus of table fellowship and radical welcome – in the casual “how are you doing?” – in the informal conversation after church – every bit as much as in what happens during church.

And what’s next? Next week is Palm Sunday: Palm Sunday is the day we commemorate Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and people spread palm branches and coats on the ground. For years we did what most churches do: process carrying palms. That’s fine. But it runs the danger of being a little precious. And it leaves out the part about the coats.

So last year we tried something different. And you LOVED it. Knowing it’s Spring cleaning time, we asked you to bring in any coats you have that are just hanging in your closets, unused. And bring them to church on Palm Sunday and hang them on the end of the pew. And last year we gave away over 400 coats! And we’re doing it again this year so our worship service will be biblical: the fast we choose is “when we see the naked, to clothe them.” Are you looking for Jesus?

I see Jesus in that.

On Maundy Thursday, we’ll keep vigil with Christians all over the world with an all-night prayer vigil. I see Jesus when Christians get together and remind themselves that we belong to something larger than ourselves, a world-wide community of people praying together one night a year.

Flip a few pages – in the “reaching out to others” section, you can read about the work we’re doing in Haiti. Rev. Kate met this weekend with a group of people who are organizing another trip to Haiti to help them rebuild a school and vocation center to help them recover from their earthquake. There’s an open house today at 10:00 in the Janney Parlor if you’re interested in learning more. Preston and Marcia Aldridge of Haitian Hope, a ministry of St. Francis-Macon Georgia are here with us at 9:00, along with Bill Easton of Trinity, Upperville.
When I see people coming together from our church with folk from Trinity Washington and Macon Georgia and taking vacation time and paying out of their own pockets for airfare to help people who are suffering, I see Jesus.

When I see Anna M. or Cindy B. setting up the Grace to Go tent to feed people no questions asked, I see Jesus. When I see that the Dowlings are asking for more money for Project Abraham, because the response to our ministry in Costa Rica has been so great, I see Jesus.

When I read the creative ways Diane B. is ministering, in Jeremiah’s Table, with Loudoun Mental Health, I see Jesus.

When I see Bobbie W. and Jim and Nancy Q. and Mary P. making a point to welcome newcomers to the Thursday Night Discipleship group or the Foyer Groups or Book Club and hear stories of people attending there and receiving radical welcome, I see Jesus.

When I see Terry Y. step up and offer his wonderful sense of humor and deep spiritual insights in a brand new class on prayer, I see Jesus.

Serving Today: When I see Dottie B., our acolyte master, or Kay G., our new verger, or the acolytes themselves and the Lay Eucharistic Ministers and Fellowship Hosts and Ushers reverently serve God, and the Altar Guild lovingly prepare not only this Altar and House of Prayer that we might meet Jesus literally, Sunday after Sunday, in his Word and Sacraments, but throughout our entire our worship service, and when I see Dr's Cooksey and Knobloch and Avery lovingly prepare the choirs they direct so that God is glorified in our they insist on excellence in our music yet excellence without fussiness....I see Jesus.

Turn the page: caring for the property. So many people have commented on how wonderful the church is looking, how great it is to see all the improvements and restoration efforts.

We had a GREAT workday yesterday.
When I see Joy G. on her hands and knees lovingly weeding alongside the church building – at a space where most people won’t even notice – when I see all that mulch spread – in the rain – and the kitchen taken apart and components moved in preparation, finally, for the kitchen restoration so we can meet Jesus in the face of the hungry, when I see
Larry G.
Mike S.
Bill L.
Dean K.
Andrew and Charleen P.
Frank R.
Bill B.
Dan T.
Robin H.
Clark R.
Sheri and Sam D.
Sander F.
Tom and Peggy C.
Roy M.
Al K.,
and even Ken G. on his John Deere tractor smoking his cigar,
When I see these people, coordinated by Tom S., taking care of this sacred space, paying it forward, with no expectation of thanks or recognition, just doing it out of love, I see Jesus.

When I see all the children’s ministries blossoming, preparations for Shrine Mont falling into place, and all the pastoral care that goes on described on the back cover -- work you’re going to hear about from Judy P. – I see Jesus.

“We would like to see Jesus,” those crowds told Philip.

We would like to see Jesus, crowds still say today. They’re looking for his compassionate attitude, his expansive nature, his Joy.

Well Jesus – the Body of Christ – is alive and well.

Again, we’re not perfect – far from it – but:

You want to see Jesus, the body of Christ?

Here you are.



  1. John, I read a couple of your sermons on line courtesy of Greg's FB posting. I see the outlines of Dr. Placher's gentleness of spirit in your pastoral tone. To God be the Glory, Bob Kachur

    1. Very kind of you to say, fact I can't think of a higher compliment than to be put anywhere close to the same category as Dr. Placher. How wonderfully encouraging for you to say such a thing. Thank you and To God be the Glory indeed.


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