Come and See (A sermon from John 1:43-51)
Our story opens with Jesus extending an invitation, “Follow me.” Isn’t it interesting that Jesus never says worship me, he says follow me. Learn from me. Do what I do. Love the way I love. Philip decides to follow Jesus.
I heard about a minister who was called upon to officiate a funeral of a war veteran. Before the funeral service, a few of the deceased’s military friends asked the minister if he would lead them up to the casket, where they could have a solemn moment of remembrance, and then lead them out through the side door. This the minister proceeded to do, but there was a kind of awkward moment when instead of leading them out through the side door, he let them straight into a broom closet, from which they had to make a hasty retreat. I suppose that the lesson that can be drawn from that story is that if you are going to follow someone, make sure the one you are following knows where he or she is going.
Apparently Philip was convinced that Jesus knew where he was going. We are not given any details, so we do not know what conversations or experiences Philip may have had with Jesus prior to his commitment to be one of his disciples, but whatever experiences he had it was enough to convince him to pick up and go with Jesus on his mission. Philip wanted his friend Nathaniel to become a disciple to. He says to Nathaniel, “We have found the one spoken about in the law and the prophets.” Philip is convinced that Jesus embodies the best of the mercy and justice the law and prophets talk about. Philip believes Jesus is the real deal – that Jesus embodies the best of what we are all called to be.
Nathaniel is not so sure. Nathaniel is skeptical and incredulous. Nathaniel seems to be stuck in his second-hand faith. Second-hand in the sense that this is what he had been indoctrinated and socialized in to. He couldn’t imagine how Jesus of Nazareth could be a true teacher or prophet of God.
If you remember from the Gospel reading a couple of weeks ago that Jesus grew up poor with little economic comforts and securities. There was a popular thread of Jewish teaching (just as there is today in the church) that wealth was an indication of the blessing of God and poverty a sign of the curse or judgment of God. In addition, Jesus was from the little insignificant town of Nazareth. Nathaniel was so prejudiced against Nazareth he said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel’s narrow beliefs and biases prevent him from seeing the truth that is right in front of him. I wonder how often we get stuck because of our confining and limiting prejudices and beliefs.
In Samir Selmanovic’s book It’s Really All About God he shares how his parents tried everything within their power to turn him away from Christianity soon after he became a Christian. His parents were not religious, though their background was Muslim. They recruited one of Europe’s best psychiatrists in their effort to dissuade him. They asked relatives to talk to their son. They even went to his former girlfriends to persuade him to abandon his new Christian faith. They responded to their son converting to Christianity just the way some Christians I know would respond to one of their children converting to Islam.
On one occasion they invited Imam Muhammad to their house to talk with him, a man respected in the Muslim community of their city. His parents, who were non-religious, figured Islam was the lesser of two evils. Samir says that Muhammad “was the most environmentally progressive and socially conscious person” he had ever met. He was a vegan who walked to his house from the other side of the city, avoiding transportation on principle in order to protect the environment. He was a small gray-haired man with a large smile emanating peace and playfulness.
Samir was expecting some sort of talk on the evils of Christianity and the superiority of Islam and the Quran, but instead, after some initial small talk, Imam Muhammad simply let time pass in silence. He didn’t try to persuade him of anything. When he could tell that Samir was ready, Muhammad stood quietly, walked over to Samir, sat down, lightly touched his shoulder, and said calmly, “I am glad you are a believer.” And nothing more.
After sitting in peace for a little longer they stood up, and Muhammad opened his arms to invite an embrace. Samir opened his. Samir had been converted into an exclusive version of Christianity, so even though his take on the experience was different than his parents, he wasn’t sure what to make of it either. In reflecting on that experience Samir says, “He smelled like wooden furniture and soap—old but fresh. Hugging him, I thanked God for giving me this break in life.” Samir’s parents nicknamed him “Crazy Muhammad” and word of his foolishness spread in their family.
I think of what Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, that the wisdom of the cross is foolishness to the world. The wisdom of self-giving service, the wisdom of humility and vulnerability and non-violence is utter foolishness to the world and to those in power. Think about those in the halls of power in Washington today. The wisdom of humility and vulnerability and non-violence is utter foolishness to those folks.
Reflecting on that experience years later Samir says, “The grace and truth I had first met at the cross were embodied in this man, who was willing to be taken for a fool in order to make me whole.” Even though Muhammad was of a different faith, Samir experienced the love and compassion of the Christ in Muhammad’s presence and actions.
There are some Christians . . . well, not just some, probably many Christians today who would call me “crazy” for just telling you that story. In fact, some Christians would be angry with me for telling that story, because they cannot possibly imagine how God could speak through a Muslim. Like Nathaniel their beliefs and biases prevent them from “seeing.” Of course, Islam like Christianity is often dominated by exclusive versions of faith as well. Just as there are many Christians who cannot imagine God acting through a Muslim, so there are many Muslims who cannot imagine God acting through Christians. Unfortunately, pettiness, narrowness, and prejudice transcend any particular religious faith. But the good news is that love and mercy and a passion for justice does to.
Nathanial may be biased and narrow, but his mind and heart are not closed. So when Philip says to him regarding Jesus of Nazareth, “Come and see,” Nathanial is willing “to come and see,” he is willing to consider the possibility that he needs to “see” some things that he presently cannot see. By heeding the call to come and see Nathaniel is at least willing to concede the possibility that he could be wrong, that he could be blind to some things. And when he meets Jesus his second-hand faith gives way to first-hand personal experience. I said a few weeks back in a sermon, God doesn’t need a huge opening. God just needs a little crack in our shell to get in, just a little bit of openness and humility and honesty and readiness. When I met Jesus again as if for first time years ago, after I had been in ministry over a decade, I discovered what Nathaniel discovered – just how wrong I had been. And a whole new world opened up to me and I was gripped with a new vision.
Tomorrow we will honor a man who gave his life in pursuit of truth and peace and justice and helping others to see with a new vision. The very fact that we will do that speaks of how wrong we once were, and the progress our nation has made in overcoming our bigotry, prejudice, inequality, and injustice. King said that the arc of moral history bends toward restorative justice, but it bends ever so slowly. And there are those who try to bend it back, so that progress is often three steps forward and two steps back. King was killed by those who wanted to bend back the arc of moral justice. We have made some progress, but we have a long way to go.
Tomorrow when we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. we do so with a broken immigration system, where our government is mercilessly deporting people who have lived here for years and contributed to our society, separating family members in the process. Violent criminals and those who traffic in drugs of course need to be deported. But Homeland Security is not making any distinctions these days. We have a long way to go
We will honor the accomplishments of Dr. King tomorrow in a country where still many families do not have the medical coverage they need, and where more children go to bed hungry than in any other industrialized country in the world. We have a long way to go.
Tomorrow we will honor a man who died for equality and justice, though we just passed a huge tax bill that is anything but just. The way I understand it is that folks like you and me are going to get a little bit of a tax break. Wealthy people and big corporations are going to get a huge tax break. But the poor folks, and those struggling to survive on minimum wage jobs are going to get the crumbs that trickle down from the rich man’s table. Yes, when we honor Dr. King tomorrow we can celebrate the progress we have made. But we can also mourn the face that we still have a long way to go. And that, of course, is true of us individually as well.
Any progress that we make personally will be dependent upon our willingness to come and see. If I am to overcome my negative habits and patterns, my biases and prejudices, my greed and pride, my selfish ambition and self-centeredness, I must have enough humility and honesty and openness to look into my heart and see what is really there, without trying to rationalize, excuse, deny, and cover over my sin.
If we as a people are to make progress toward a more just society then we must be willing to put aside partisanship in both religion and politics and work for the common good. We must be willing to see how we are all complicit in injustice and be willing to give more than we take. We must be willing to see that all human systems are tainted with evil and how we must constantly weed and purge and change. We must see that all people, regardless of religion, or nationality, or legal status, or sexual orientation, are treated fairly and justly, because all are children of God.
A whole new world opened up to Nathaniel because he was willing to come and see. Jesus tells him he will see heaven open and the angels or messengers of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. What does that mean? For those of us who like Philip and Nathaniel have made a commitment to follow Jesus, Jesus, of course, becomes the definitive expression of the glory of God that fills heaven and earth. But this is not limited to Jesus. This wouldn’t be much of a vision if all it did was show us something that we could never emulate. When Jesus says follow me Jesus says if you do what I do, if you live the way I live, if you love the way I love, then you, too, will become a place where heaven and earth meet, you, too, will become a place where the divine glory, the glory of love and compassion and mercy and justice come to dwell. The great paradox of this vision is this: the more fully human we become the more like God we become, and the more like God we become the more human we become. Our task is to embody the very best of our humanity, for when we embody the best of our humanity, then we incarnate the grace and truth of God, we reflect the very glory of God. J
Jesus has given us a vision of a just world. He called it the kingdom of God. He envisioned a time when the first would be last and the last first, when the high and mighty would be brought low, and the low and humble would be lifted up. Dr. King envisioned a day when all God’s children of every race and nationality would be seated around the table and there would be enough for everyone. Dr. King said, “We must never feel that God will, through some breath-taking miracle or a wave of the hand, cast evil out of the world. As long as we believe this we will pray unanswered prayers and ask God to do things that God will never do.” God is not going to do for us what God expects us to do. God expects us to be the body of Christ. So much of it, sisters and brothers, hinges on our willingness and readiness to come and see. We need the courage to let go of our prejudices, our pettiness, our exclusive beliefs and attitudes, our greed, and selfish ambition, so that we might envision a new creation and work to bring it to pass.
Our good God, as we come now to share in the bread and cup, we remember the one who is central to our faith, we remember and give thanks for how he lived and how he died. We give thanks for his death, because he died laying down his life in service, in the cause of mercy and justice, for the healing and liberation of all people, and especially those who were considered nobodies and who were ignored and rejected and despised by those in power. As we remember his death, may we be empowered to live the way he lived, to love the way he loved, to not be afraid to confront injustice, and to be a living sacrifice willing to give ourselves in service for the good of all people. Amen.