The Refuge of Questions

Given at the Questions of Jesus Clergy Retreat for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota

What are you looking for?

This is the question Jesus asks us in our gospel lesson today.

In the gospels, Jesus asks 307 questions and only answers 3.

That tells us that asking questions is a core practice of his leadership, of his ministry, of the way he shepherds us as disciples.

We’ll spend time together throughout this retreat listening to Jesus ask us questions, and discovering what answers rise within us—or maybe no answers at all.

Maybe we’ll leave our time together with more questions than we started with. That might be a very good thing.

But in today’s gospel, Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” Let’s take a moment to let that question sit within us. As we enter our time of retreat, what are you looking for?

Maybe you’re looking for peace, respite, haven. Maybe you’re looking to get re-energized, fired up and ready to go back into your ministry field. Maybe you’re here to reconnect with your colleagues, or maybe you’re simply looking for 48 hours to credibly ignore your inbox.

All answers are correct, as is no answer at all.

Notice that the disciples in the story do not answer Jesus—giving him a bit of a taste of his own medicine in terms of not answering questions.

He asks, “What are you looking for?” And they say, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

In the King James version of the text, this is translated as, “Rabbi, where dwellest thou?”

And that may be the urgent question we’re all trying to answer right now. Where is Jesus? Where can we find him? How is he present out in the world that we’re trying to serve? Where is he making his home and how do we find it?

When Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” the response the disciples give by means of their own question is, “Jesus, we’re looking for you.”

As we search for Jesus within ourselves, among one another, and out in the world, biology has an important image to share with us by means of a Latin term, and I do love a little Latin on clergy retreat. The term is “Refugium.”

Have you heard of this? In nature, when a natural disaster happens like a volcano, a flood, a tornado, or hurricane, ecosystems are often disrupted to the point of being destroyed. Plants, animals, and insects die off in incredible numbers.

But every time, there are refugia left over.

Refugia are little pockets of life that remain after the disaster, small clusters of plants, animals, insects, even bacteria and other microbes, that serve as seeds for the regeneration of life in that place. Refugia happen with sudden disasters like an EF-5 tornado, slow-acting disasters like climate change, and even human-made disasters like Chernobyl.

I believe the church in this day is a refugia.

We are no longer hegemonic, and frankly the institution is having a hard time adjusting to that reality.

But the disaster has already swept over our culture. We are no longer a widespread, flourishing ecosystem that covers great swathes of land and creates the basic reality that people live in.

We are refugia, scattered pockets of life that hold on to the gospel of Jesus Christ in terrifying times, cherishing and nurturing the spark of Spirit for the time when it may arise and flourish again. And that is sacred work.

We are refugia, refuge, for the light of the world.

And so the answer to the question the disciples asking, “Rabbi, where are you staying? Where dwellest thou?” is in the refugia. Within us. Within in our congregations and communities.

But that fragile life within us has to be cherished and nurtured. In the harsh volcanic moonscape, in the nuclear wilderness, in the flood-ravaged wasteland of violence, racism, shame, and fear that we live in, the place within us that Jesus dwells needs protecting and nourishing.

We do that by our fidelity to prayer, and by our rock-solid commitment to stick together, especially in the hard times. Refugia survive because they’re tough and resilient, and because each organism within them keeps relying on the others, to keep the biodiverse ecosystem alive.

Not every refugium holds plants, animals, and the full complexity of the food chain. Sometimes the disaster is so great that there’s not much left above the level of microbes.

But you know what endures almost every time, in every type of refugia? Seeds.

After Mt. St. Helens erupted, scientists predicted that it would take decades or even centuries for the ecosystem to regenerate, for any signs of life to return to the miles and miles of devastated rivers and leveled forests buried beneath 2 billion tons of rock and ash.

The volcano erupted on May 18, 1980, destroying 234 square miles of land. By mid-June–not decades, not centuries, within 6 weeks!–scientists noticed a small, purple flowering plant sprouting up all through the ash field.

That plant is called fireweed. The seeds survived the crisis and bloomed in the most inhospitable environment possible.

I would invite you to consider the Questions of Jesus as fireweed seeds. They are compact powerhouses of potential, of curiosity and wonder that thrive in a burned-out, used-up environment, much like the one we and our people live in every day.

What are you looking for? Jesus asks.

Do you want to be made well?

Which of you by worrying can add an hour to the span of your life?

Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?

Where is your faith?

Take a moment and search out the refugia in your own soul. Look back at the moments that demanded that you say yes to this crazy vocation we share.

What are the most vivid experiences of God you’ve ever had?

Every person in this room, at some point in their lives, reached a point where you were at the end of your road. You were all out of strength, and the spiritual or emotional or physical pain was so great that you said, “This is it. I’m done. I can’t take one more step.” And in that moment, something reached out and pulled your forward into your next breath.

Or maybe it wasn’t a time of suffering, it was a time of joy. One day, whether it was in nature, in worship, a moment of intimacy with your partner or the birth of your child, the light flooded your being, and you knew, in that moment, that you were seen, that you were loved, and that everything was going to be okay.

As the routine disasters of 21st century life as clergy sweep over us, those experiences may have sunk underground, may have had to hide in sheltered corners of our souls, holding the memory of life abundant even when the experience of it seemed distant.

As clergy we fight cynicism and despair as the hours grow longer, the pews grow emptier, the needs surrounding us grow deeper. But even in our professionalized and commodified souls, there are refugia. And in those refugia, Jesus dwells, loving us and believing in us.

He asks, “Do you love me?”

There is no need for force or effort. There is only waiting in faith as the sun gently warms the careworn land of our spirits.

The healing and new growth will come, far sooner and far greater than we could ask or imagine.