Let me ask you a question, “Have you ever been in the wrong place at the wrong time?” A young preacher was contacted by the local funeral director to hold a grave-side service at a small cemetery for someone with no family or friends. The preacher started early but got lost, making several wrong turns along the way. He arrived a half-an-hour late. The hearse was nowhere in sight and the workman were eating lunch. The preacher went to the graveside and saw the vault already in place. Taking out his Bible he conducted the service. As he was returning to his car, he overheard one of the workmen say; “Do you think we should tell him it’s a septic tank?” Wrong place, wrong time.
Here’s another question: “Have you ever been in the wrong place at the right time?” I read a wonderful and amusing story this past week by Rev. Rosemary Brown about beginning her ministry in a small southern congregation. When I was assigned to the first church I pastored, she writes, I was so excited you could hardly stand me. I had been a director of Christian education for 17 years and now feeling God’s call to preach, I stepped into the pulpit ready to be what God was leading me to be–a clergywoman. The cabinet and bishop sent me to a little church with a congregation of 30 people and I was ready to go. I had been there three weeks when a member of the church called me and said, “Rosemary, my aunt has fallen and broken her hip. She’s 85 and hasn’t been able to go to church for some time. She doesn’t have a pastor. Would you go to see her?” Oh, would I? I got so excited. My first official pastoral call to a hospital. She gave me the room number at Baptist Hospital and I left immediately. I hurried into the hospital and caught the elevator up to the 5th floor and made my way to the room I had been given. I looked in and there she was, leg up in traction, weight hanging off the end of the bed. I circled the bed and reached in and got her hand and said, “Hi! My name’s Rosemary Brown and I’ve come to see how you’re doing today.” She smiled and said, “Good. But clumsy old me, and I turned around too fast and fell and broke my hip.” Now, I continued to listen to her life story and got so engaged that I lost track of the time. I’d been there 45 minutes and they had instructed us in seminary never to stay over 15 minutes on a first visit. Here I was, already blown it by 30 minutes, so I reached in and got her hands and I said, “I need to go now, but would you like to have prayer before I go?” “Sure,” she said and closed her eyes. I closed mine and began, “Dear God, please be with Mrs. Morgan.” But then I felt a little tap come on my shoulder and I opened one eye and looked at her, and she whispered, “My name is Mrs. Jones, dear. Now you go on with your prayer.” So I started over. “Dear God, please be with Mrs. Jones.” When I finished, I leaned over in the bed and hugged her good-bye, knowing that I was going to have to find Mrs. Morgan and start all over again. You see, they had given me the wrong room number and somewhere in that hospital Mrs. Morgan was still awaiting my visit. But as I left the room, a nurse was standing there and she had tears running down her face She said, “Lady, I don’t know who you are, but Mrs. Jones has been in this hospital for two weeks and you’re the first visitor she’s had.” For 45 minutes, I had been in the wrong room at the right time.[i]
Wrong place, right time. I wonder if this story would have resonated with those who were by the riverside with John that weekend. Maybe right place, right time would be a better description their calling. Because there they were, hanging out with John the Baptist when suddenly John shouts “Look, here comes the One I’ve been talking about. This is why I’ve been baptizing. I watched the Spirit make a home in his being. There’s no question in my mind, this is God with us!” “And,” the text tells us, “the two disciples heard him and went with Jesus. Jesus [then] looked over his shoulder and said to them, ‘What are you after?’” To which they replied, “…where are you staying?”[ii]
Now, the answer Jesus gives to the two men is interesting. There’s no long-winded sermon full of obscure theological truths, but instead just three simple words: “Come and see.” Come and see. Jesus’ response here is brilliant. It’s brilliant because it’s both an invitation and a promise. “Come” is an invitation to join him on an unknown adventure and “see” promises that this adventure will lead them, perhaps, a little closer to God. These two disciples were indeed in the right place at the right time. But that’s not all, they also had the right response! They took Jesus up on his challenge. But right response doesn’t end with accepting the invitation. We must also “live into” the promise. The disciples didn’t stop with following Jesus, instead they became a living testimony attracting others to “come and see” as well.
And this still applies in our time too. In his reflection on this text, theologian Charles Campbell claims that “In the power of the Spirit, which Jesus has breathed upon us, we offer our fragile and vulnerable testimony to Jesus, backed up by the faithfulness and integrity of our life together.”[iii] In other words, as individual people of faith and as a congregation we are the living-breathing embodiment of God in the world today. And our calling, our invitation to “come and see” beacons us to do more than simply follow; we are challenged to share our experience of God and the healing and restoration and hope and peace that God has brought into our lives, with others. Right place, right time, right response!
John Dominick Crossan reinforces this thought when he says: “Heal those who are hurting and then eat with those who are healed. And out of the healing and out of the eating will come a new community.”[iv] So right response leads to community. And that makes sense to me because community was a hallmark of Jesus and those who had the courage to follow him. And community for Jesus took many forms. Community existed among the inner circle, the twelve disciples, but community for Jesus also included large crowds gathering around him. But there was another aspect of community as well. Jesus often created community in a one on one sense. There were numerous occasions when he brought healing and restoration into the life of an individual. And we, my friends, are invited to participate in this same kind of ministry.
I read the following story this week composed by an unknown author who had just such and experience. One evening, he writes, I was parked in front of the mall wiping off my car. I had just come from the car wash and was waiting for my wife to finish work. Coming my way from across the parking lot, was what most people would consider a bum, a homeless burden on society. From the looks of him he had no car, no home, no clean clothes and no money. There are times when you feel generous, but there are times that you just don’t want to be bothered. This was one of the don’t-want-to-be-bothered times! “Hope he doesn’t ask me for money,” I thought. He didn’t. He came and sat on the curb in front of the bus stop and he didn’t look like he could have enough money to even ride the bus. After a few minutes he spoke. “That’s a very nice car,” he said. He was ragged, but had an air of dignity around him. I said “Thanks,” and continued wiping off my car. He sat there quietly as I worked. The expected plea for money never came. As the silence between us widened, something inside said, “Ask him if he needs any help.” I was sure that he would say yes, but I held true to the inner voice. “Do you need any help?” I asked. He answered in three simple, but profound, words that I shall never forget. We often look for wisdom in great accomplishments. I expect it from those of higher learning and accomplishments. I expected nothing here but an outstretched grimy hand. Then, he spoke three words that shook me. “Don’t we all?” he said, “don’t we all?” Right place right time but right response? Sometimes God surprises us. Sometimes we are the one who stands in need of grace, in need of healing and restoration, in need of community.
Friends, God places opportunities to come and see every day. Invitations to walk with those who are struggling, suffering, who are on the margins of society. But that invitation is always accompanied by a promise. A promise that we will never walk that path alone. Don’t we all stand in need of something greater than ourselves? Don’t we all stand in need compassion and forgiveness and grace and hope? Don’t we all stand in need of community; community with God and community with our fellow sojourners as we, like the disciples of old, take Jesus up on his offer. My prayer for all of us as we depart this service today, and go about our busy week, is that we will all become aware of those opportunities that God has placed in our path and that we will respond with all the grace and compassion and hope and love that we can muster. My friends, we are all invited “come and see” what’s possible when we find ourselves in the right place at the right time. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
[ii] The Message. Ed. Eugene Peterson. John 1:37-38.
[iii] Charles Campbell. The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels (Duke Divinity Lectures)
[iv] John Dominick Crossan. God and Empire. (Harper Collins 2007) pg. 118