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'Seek My Face'

Epiphany 3A: Is. 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13;

1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

January 22, 2023

C. Partridge


Good Morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the third Sunday after the Epiphany. We’ve made our way these last weeks since Christmastide from the arrival of the Magi to the Christ child, to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, to his calling of the first disciples. A thread of light connects these stories, inviting us to consider how God is revealed in them, in Jesus Christ in different moments of his life, and in how his life lifts up the lives of those around him. Last week I invited us to explore the themes of revelation and perception—of discovery – in the story we heard from John’s Gospel. It was a transitional story in which the newly baptized Jesus begins to shift into his ministry and calls the first disciples. The first words Jesus utters in that gospel showed up in that story when he turned and said to two of John’s disciples who had started following him, “what are you looking for?” or “what do you seek?” Their response was a further question, “where are you staying,” or “where do you remain,” abide, dwell (John 1:38-39)? Given that God had called John the Baptist to proclaim the one on whom the Spirit would descend and remain, we were meant to abide with, to dwell upon, this somewhat strange exchange last week. And so today we do so further as our readings, anchored by a passage from the gospel of Matthew, continue this thread of calling.

The portion of Psalm twenty-seven that we just read together sets this theme of calling in its ultimate frame. “God is my light and my salvation,” it begins. “Whom, then, shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1) Right from the outset, there is a sense of fear and anxiety being released. When God is the very ground of our daily life, our movement, our breath, whatever concerns, whatever major questions we may be carrying, can be loosed of their binding energy. “God is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?” I cannot hear these lines without my internal radio turning on – immediately I recall them in a particular setting of Anglican chant in my mind that I used to listen to on my “Discman” more than twenty years ago as I rode the T into work in Boston.[1] I was so filled with anxiety at the time, with basic existential questions about the shape of my life and vocation. This Psalm could reframe everything. “Hearken to my voice, O God, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me,” the Psalm intones, channeling an anxious inner voice (Ps 27:10). But then it continues, “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’” The boundaries between our cries to God and God’s calling of us are intertwined. The very expression of our seeking is a prayer. It is a prayer God expressly invites. Seek. Seek my face, God says, God invites internally, from within our own hearts. Our call is to respond in echo of that voice, as the Psalmist immediately continues: “Your face, Lord, will I seek” (Ps 27:11).

“What do you seek?” Jesus asked the two disciples last week. “Where do you remain?” they responded. Like the Psalmist here, their question in a way echoed Jesus’ own, or at the very least echoed God’s earlier prompt to John (John 1:33). This exchange strikes me as the heart of our calling, our fundamental spiritual vocation: to seek God as God seeks us, to join in that current of divine seeking, sharing it with others. How might our life be shaped if it is fundamentally founded upon that seeking? What if this question grounded not only our intentional times of prayer, individual and collective, but also continued to abide with us in our everyday lives, our most apparently unremarkable interchanges? Your face, O God, will we seek everywhere we go, with each person with whom we interact, with each creature, with each stream or lake, each majestic tree, each flower. Your face, O God will seek us in each and every moment. How might our lives be shaped and re-shaped, again and again, to take up that fundamental vocation?

In our passage from the Gospel of Matthew, which features the perhaps more familiar scene of Jesus calling the disciples, that seeking takes a dramatic turn. Unlike the account in John’s gospel, in which Andrew and the other disciple of John follow Jesus on the road and then ask him the odd question, and unlike how Andrew introduces his brother Simon to Jesus, this version of the story begins with a different kind of seeking: fishing. Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and sees Simon (also called Peter, we are told) and his brother Andrew who are fishing. “Follow me,” Jesus suddenly interjects, “and I will make you fish for people” (Mt 4:19). Just prior to this moment we have heard that Jesus had begun proclaiming a gospel of turning: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” he preached (4:17). As we will hear particularly as Lent begins in later February, this verb Μετανοεῖτε, translated as repent, means fundamentally to change one’s mind, to get a new mind.[2] It is a verb of transformation, of reframing, of freshly oriented vocation. Jesus’ prompt to the fisherfolk is in keeping with that proclamation. Turn, reframe, collect and connect people with me. Seek them, we might say. Seek them in their seeking of God. Invite others into your seeking of God, be invited into theirs. Fish together as the just reign of God draws near. And immediately, Andrew and Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, turned their way of life, including its familial framing, on its head. They followed Jesus. This was the foundation of a movement of healing, of justice, of proclamation of good news that spread far and wide.

Seeking and turning, turning and seeking, joining and inviting others into this expansive journey. This pattern struck me as I recently listened to a story originally broadcast on KQED’s “Bay Curious” show and podcast back in August.[3] Someone had written in to ask why they encountered so many labyrinths in the Bay Area. In exploring the answer to this question, the authors interviewed Maia Scott, who teaches accessible theater and arts through Disabled Students Programs and Services at City College and, as she says in the audio, loves to geek out about the various patterns of labyrinths.[4] Distinct from mazes, which are meant to confuse the one making a way through it (think of the ancient story of the Minotaur), labyrinths have one path that leads to the center, the same path that leads back out again. I’ve loved labyrinths for years, dating back to around early 1991 or 1992 when I remember walking a canvas one for the first time at a New Year’s Eve event at Grace Cathedral. At Boston University when I was a campus minister we had a labyrinth themed retreat and made one that we would set up outside in front of Marsh Chapel, inviting anyone to walk it. And I’ve learned that St. Aidanites have a history of setting up labyrinths in this space as well, particularly during Holy Week. I love how Maia Scott tells her labyrinth origin story. As someone partially sighted – somewhat like an impressionist painting, as she puts it in the podcast – she describes an experience of walking into a canvas labyrinth but repeatedly getting spit back out of it. Eventually she did make her way to the center and back out again. Initially frustrated, she later came to reflect further: “I was the one who got to be longer, traversing and dancing around that beautiful piece of art because I couldn’t get there, and it taught me in life to really enjoy the journey and not be so fixated on the end result.” Maia, who earlier in life had a negative, judgmental experience of church in relation to her disability, finds labyrinths as spaces “of body positivity… where one’s movement through space, one’s choreography through the labyrinth, is a ritual that goes along with the prayer and meditation… it makes me feel a part of something sacred, and not broken.” She has turned her passion for labyrinths to the creation of accessible ones for those whose physical sight is more limited than hers, writing a book for ages eight and up called Finger Walks: An Exploration of Labyrinths Through Time and Space.[5] She is also on a team at Grace Cathedral that leads a monthly labyrinth walk.

Labyrinths, it seems to me, point to that fundamental posture of vocational openness, of seeking God, of allowing our lives as a whole to be shaped by that prompt: seek my face, seek my abiding, my dwelling. In their turning and twisting, carrying us out to the edge and back in again multiple times before we reach the center, labyrinths can remind us that vocation is dynamic, shifting, moving, far from linear. They can prompt us to live the question “where are you abiding, O God” in spiraling, evocative ways. They can allow the fundamental shape of our lives to reflect Jesus’ prompt: God’s reign is near. Follow me; fish for people; seek; join; invite.

A final image from Maia Scott’s interview: it took place at Grace Cathedral, as it happens, and her guide dog Gleam, whom she describes in the podcast as “a spicy little golden retriever,” joined her in her labyrinth practice. Gleam usually goes to the center and waits for her, and then walks out with her. On the interview day Gleam did just that, but wonderfully, began chasing her tail. The interviewer, who when they first came into the Cathedral had thought she might need to whisper but who had been reassured into regular speech by Maia, now joined her in cracking up at the joyous, spiraling motion of Gleam, living her best life in the center of the spiral. An Epiphany dog, we might say. May our lives take up such a spiral of joy, loosening our fear as we seek God’s face together, our lives shaped by the ever-dynamic call of God’s seeking.

[1] Refuge and Strength: Selections from the Psalter of the Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 2000) - https://dev.churchpublishing.org/products/refugeandstrength [2] William Countryman, quoting and elaborating upon William Temple in Forgiven and Forgiving (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1998), 2-3. [3] https://www.kqed.org/news/11920627/labyrinths-everywhere-why-so-many-in-the-bay-area [4] She is also interviewed here: https://medium.com/@webciissf/finding-clarity-through-art-mfa-alum-maia-scott-4093efc1ef9 [5] https://www.aph.org/product/finger-walks/

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