Sunday, January 17, 2021

Come and See

January 17, 2021

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 1:43-51

What brought you to church today? What compelled you to log on to the live-stream? It is a four-day weekend for the schools, after all, and a three-day weekend for many businesses. Some of us, of course, have to be here. But even if we didn’t, I suspect we would be here anyway. There is, certainly, the joy that comes from gathering as a community, even at a distance. We all enjoy the music of the organ and the hymns. And it is good to set aside time to hear the scriptures read, to pray, and sing. But could it be that we are attending worship today because we hope to catch a glimpse of God at work? Could it be that we want to see someone who knows us, who understands what we’re struggling with, sees into our hearts, who shares our hopes and our concern for the world? Could it be that we want to see, somewhere among us, Jesus son of Joseph?

What brought you to church for the first time? For most of us it was our parents. Somehow in a congregation somewhere, maybe even here, they encountered something holy, something sacred and worthy, and they wanted us to have that experience too. But if it was a choice, whether to come to this church or another, was it because of someone who invited you? Did they say, “Come and see”?

We don’t like to use guilt to get people to come to church. Yes, we try to track attendance, but not so that we can call up the people who weren’t here and tsk, tsk at them. We don’t use the cram-it-down-your-throat kind of approach. If you’re here on a Sunday morning, we’re glad to see you. And if we missed seeing you this Sunday, it’s because we hope you’re alright and want you to know we care. You came here today, I hope, because you were invited and you felt welcome, and that feeling never went away. You’re here because the gospel of God’s love for us and all the world is so good that someone invited you to check it out. It is news that is too good not to share with those we care about.

Philip encountered something in meeting Jesus that was more than he expected. Surely there must be something missing between Jesus-found-Philip and Philip-found-Nathanael. Maybe it was that quick, but I suspect that it was more than the words “Follow me” that gave Philip the idea that Jesus was “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” We don’t know, however. What we do know is that Philip found a person so intriguing, who had such good news to share, that he had to share it. So, he found his good friend, Nathanael.

That Philip picked Nathanael to introduce to the Messiah is an interesting choice. He must have known Nathanael well, and if he did, he must also have expected Nathanael to be skeptical. Nathanael scoffed at the unimpressive résumé of Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth was a small village, maybe 300 residents. One scholar relates that “The Hebrew Scriptures never mention Nazareth, much less associate it with messianic expectations.”[1] Nazareth is nowhere special. In Nathanael’s view, Jesus’ hometown is a rather insignificant village in Galilee. Wouldn’t the Messiah have more prominent parents and come from a more significant town? And yet, when he does come and see, Jesus looks into his heart and knows him, and Nathanael is never the same.

God often chooses people who don’t seem like they’ll amount to much, those with an unimpressive résumé. Samuel was a young man, only twelve years of age, serving as a Temple assistant to Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh, when God first called him. Samuel became the last of the Hebrew Judges and a prophet in Israel. It was Samuel who anointed the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. David, the famous king, was the youngest son and a shepherd. An unwed, pregnant girl named Mary became the mother of God-With-Us. The son of a carpenter from an insignificant town grew to become the most significant figure in history. Something good did indeed come from Nazareth, and he overcame the world.

There was a young man, inexperienced in public leadership, his theological diploma still wet with ink, who was called upon to lead a movement for freedom. He lived in a city from which “nothing good” had come. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. In December of 1955, King was elected head of a newly formed protest group, the Montgomery Improvement Association. This was four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for violating segregation laws.

On that day, over sixty-five years ago, when the bus boycott began, no one could have predicted we would erect monuments and establish a holiday to commemorate the life of Dr. King. But God has been known to call upon people much less prepared, and much less gifted than Dr. King, to rise to the occasion and take on what seems insurmountable.

And it did seem insurmountable. For far too long the African-American people of Montgomery, Alabama, faced shocking and humiliating treatment for simply trying to ride the bus to work. Early the next morning, the day after Parks’ arrest, Edgar D. Nixon called King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and together they called for a meeting of ministers and civic leaders to discuss a proposed boycott.

The decision to boycott the buses was exciting, and the next morning an army of women and young people took seven thousand leaflets and distributed them by hand. Yet, as King describes in his autobiography, an article in the Sunday morning newspaper caused him to have doubts about their approach, and he began to think seriously about the boycott method. He asked himself “Isn’t it a negative approach to the solution of a problem? Was it true that we would be following the course of some of the White Citizens Councils (the white-supremacist organizations opposed to racial integration)? Even if lasting practical results came from such a boycott, would immoral means justify moral ends?”[2]

Ultimately, King came to a different understanding of what the boycott was really about. “As I thought further,” King wrote, “I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our support from the bus company… From this moment on I conceived of our movement as an act of massive noncooperation. From then on I rarely used the word ‘boycott.’”[3]

On Monday morning, after a long and worrying weekend, wearied but no longer doubtful of the morality of the protest, King waited with his wife, Coretta, to see what would happen. King heard Coretta cry, “Martin, Martin, come quickly!” Outside their window they saw a slowly moving empty bus. As he drove through the morning rush of traffic, it became apparent to King that “A miracle had taken place. The once dormant and quiescent Negro community was now fully awake.”[4]

A year later King spoke at an address to the First Institute for Nonviolence and Social Change. These were his words:

Little did we know on that night that we were starting a movement that would rise to international proportions; a movement whose lofty echoes would ring in the ears of people of every nation; a movement that would stagger and astound the imagination of the oppressor, while leaving a glittering star of hope etched in the midnight skies of the oppressed. Little did we know that night that we were starting a movement that would gain the admiration of [people] of goodwill all over the world. But God still has a mysterious way to perform wonders. It seems that God decided to use Montgomery as the proving ground for the struggle and triumph of freedom and justice in America. It is one of the ironies of our day that Montgomery, the Cradle of the Confederacy, is being transformed into Montgomery, the cradle of freedom and justice.[5]

The call of God often comes to those the world believes to be insignificant. The invitation to come and see brings us face to face with much more than we expect. It brings us into an encounter with God, with Jesus, and with a new understanding of who we are. In Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael found the one who could look into his heart, and he called him the Son of God. Through Martin Luther King, Jr. and the citizens of Montgomery, God performed wonders and revealed to an oppressed people a new expression of human dignity. They showed us all that day that the sons and daughters of God are not the few, not the many, but all of us. They showed us that each person is important to God.

When we hear God calling “come and see,” when we encounter Jesus in the room with us, it changes how we understand our inherent worth, the value of our human life and all human life. When Nathanael encountered Jesus, he encountered the presence of God fully expressed in human form. And when we learn to see and value the image of God that resides within ourselves, and within all other people, then we can no longer be complicit in the violence of the world. We can no longer be complicit in the oppression of others. We can no longer cooperate with an evil system.

The struggle for justice and peace continues. You have seen what is happening and that people still march in the streets. You have seen too much that makes you suspicious, that makes you doubt yourself and your ability to make a difference. You have seen the power of violence to destroy human life. But that is not all there is to see.

There is non-violent resistance to see. There is courage in the struggle for justice and peace to see. There is bravery in the face of terror to see. There is equality and respect to see. There is beauty, peace, and love to see. There is music and prayer, laughter and tears to see.

I invite you to tell others, come and see. We’re just a nowhere church filled with nobodies, but come and see. Come and see the Body of Christ that gathers on Jefferson Street in Union. Come and see what a community of faith can be. Come and see the family that we can be together. Come and see how we walk through grief together. Come and see how we celebrate together. Come and see the power of faith, hope, and love at work. Come and see the people who remind me of Jesus. Come and see the loving spirit of the living Christ. You’re invited. You’re welcome here. Come and see. Amen.

[1] Leslie J. Hoppe, Exegetical Perspective on John 1:43-52 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 261.

[2] The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1998).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Facing the Challenge of a New Age" by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., address delivered December 3, 1956 at the First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change, Montgomery, Ala. Available from: