Sermon for Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie. Here are the Sunday's readings.
My name is Jonathan Melton, and I serve the Episcopal Student Center on campus, St. Francis House, at the University of Wisconsin, just down the road. Go Badgers!
A lot of you know that information already, because we have had occasion to get to know each other, at least a little; Good Shepherd and St. Francis House have shared a special friendship through the years, for which I am grateful. If we haven’t gotten to know each other yet, I hope you will introduce yourself over the coming weeks. I look forward to spending this next season with you, through May, and I look forward to sharing with you the good work of praise that God gives to God’s people. It is a real joy to be with you for these weeks and months - and - as we lift up our hearts this morning. Can I ask you something? Not that you've given off anything to occasion my asking. Just want to check in...Are you glad to be here?
And not just because it's warmer here than outside? Good! Turn and tell someone! Say, “I’m glad to be here.”
It's what Bishop Curry calls Evangelism 101: turn and tell someone something about something.
It’s a good thing to do, to turn and tell, but today it is especially meet and right so to do, because you are in some especially good company this morning: in the gospel we just heard, Philip turns and tells Nathanael, “Friend, we found something beautiful. The Messiah, come from Nazareth.”
It’s beautiful, and y’all are beautiful, but Nathanael isn’t biting so easy. Nathanael’s been around the block enough to have a healthy skepticism about him. You don’t just go running into messiahs every day, he knows this. Not least from the hill country, he says. And in this, Nathanael strikes me as a realist, if not a cynic. In other words, Nathanael would fit right in with us 21st century folk. Nathanael has chased his hopes, he’s been burned, felt disappointment; maybe he likes his job, maybe he doesn’t; maybe he’s reached his dreams, maybe he hasn’t; Nathanael has trusted and been failed by institutions, leaders and anti-leaders, and Nathanael has learned that sometimes resignation is a noble thing. At least it’s honest. Nothing’s changing. “Same problems that we’ve got now, me sitting here under this fig tree,” he reasons, “will still be with us when I get up.”
But this is what is beautiful about Nathanael: all that going through his head, he gets up anyway. He follows Philip. Why? Philip answers his cynicism not with a guarantee, but with a challenge; instead of more information, he gives an invitation: “Come and see.”
Come and see!
And maybe Nathanael sees the glint, the sparkle, in Philip’s eyes. Maybe there is this smallest part of him that feels himself beginning to doubt his doubts.
Maybe he just figures he can shut his friend up by humoring him, and that will be the end of it. In any case, Philip says, “Come and see!” and Nathanael does.
Now, the lectionary hid this from you this morning, but when Philip says, “Come and see!” Philip, for his part, is plagiarizing Jesus. Maybe not plagiarizing, but he’s already starting to act like Jesus. In John’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t call the first disciples out of nowhere, but before that John the Baptist is out there by the river in his camel hair, eating bugs, preparing the way, and he points to Jesus, yells out, “There! That’s the one!” and a couple of John’s disciples turn around and start following Jesus. Jesus notices, because it’s not like social media, where strange followers aren’t creepy, and he turns and asks them, “Uh, excuse me. What are y’all doing?” They ask him a question. Where are you staying? Now, they ask for information, but they’re praying for invitation. Jesus, knowing this, makes the invitation, “Come and see.”
Philip does, too, but before he comes and sees, he runs and turns and tells his friend Nathanael. And there’s a favorite prayer of mine that Philip’s turning toward Nathanael to tell him the news makes me think of. The prayer goes like this
“O Lord…give us such a heart that as we turn toward you, we turn also to each other, in perfect charity and in the bonds of friendship; for you have called us friends and welcome us all into the one and eternal kingdom.”
Turning to God, Philip turns to his brother. And the same generosity Christ gave to him, he gives in his turn to Nathanael. Oh, this is good.
Philip speaks this invitation, and Nathanael receives this invitation because (I think) they have both experienced the fairly ordinary truth that sometimes you have to move in order to see. Sometimes you have to move - or be moved - to see clearly.
Have you experienced this? A family member, trying to show you a full moon through the window. I don’t see it. Well, there, it’s right there. I see a tree. And your finger. Oh. I guess you can’t see it from where you are. Come over here. There. Do you see it now? Ah! Now I see.
Or maybe, as a child, someone hoisted you up high, on their shoulders, so you could get a better look. Or a mentor brought you under her wing so you could see how things really work. They say seeing is believing, but sometimes you have to move in order to see. So faith, says St. Paul in the epistle today, is about our bodies and movement. Faith, like love, is not a head game, not a trivia contest. Belief is not a secret answer held behind the curtain of your mind. Sometimes we have to move before we can see. Abraham and Sarah received a promise, but they had to move before they could see it. Moses and the Israelites, wandering through the desert, and they had to move for forty years before they saw the promise with their eyes. Zacchaeus climbs a tree! The magi follow the star. Even at the end that’s not the end, the women at the empty tomb, Jesus says, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There I will meet them.” It’s not so much conditional, as logical. Trust happens, faith happens, in the moving, in the entering the promise, by abiding in the presence of the living and moving God. There is faith in the moving.
Which isn’t to say you have to move in exactly the right by yourself to do this life of faith thing. Sometimes it’s hard to move. Sometimes you’re tired. Sometimes you’re hurting. Sometimes you don’t know where to go. God gets that. The witness of Scripture is that, when we couldn’t move, God moved first. God moved for us. God moved toward us. God even helps us to move toward God. The invitation isn’t to do it alone, but to be open to God. God will help us, even to be open to God. But make no mistake to desire to see is to be ready to move.
Most of the world isn’t ready to move. The world, by and large, is stiff. Arthritic. We belong to a world in the habit of picking sides and polarizing and avoiding the ones on the other sides and, just to make sure we don’t pick up cooties, we back ourselves into corners and sit in the familiar, with the faces that most remind us of us. And if that’s your game, you’re not alone, you’re just not in the rhythm of Jesus. Jesus moves. To believe, to be oriented to God’s presence, is to pick up a posture that’s open and willing to move, even and especially when you don’t see how it all fits together.
You might not be much up for moving or feel like you can do it alone. And you are probably right. But God will help move you. Because God knows sometimes you’ve got to move in order to see. The name for this movement, inspired by God, is what the Christian calls freedom. And through the centuries this freedom has taken Christians like you and me into prisons and schoolyards and apartments and hospitals and all kinds of hopeless places, dangerous places, even inside-themselves broken places, where they in their turn have witnessed and tasted the goodness of God.
I don’t know about you, but when I don’t move, it’s because of this thing I learned about in science class, called inertia. Objects in motion are gonna stay in motion and also the opposite: it’s easier for a stayed put thing to stay put. So I’ve gotta move before I want to move, but the moving will make it easier to keep moving. A man one time asked the famous poet Gerard Manly Hopkins how the man might grow in his faith. What advice did he have? Hopkins' answer was short. Two words. Give alms, he said. Sometimes you’ve gotta move in order to see.
Are you stiff? Have you been moving but your movements have grown predictable? It happens. What would a new movement look like? Where in your life is the unexplored forgiveness, the unwritten letter, the unspoken prayer, the unspent generosity? Where in your life have you stopped looking for God? Hoping in God? Where in your family or workplace or neighborhood or church are you avoiding, with your body, for fear? I’m not talking abstractions, I’m talking your ordinary life and being open to the personal call to seek and serve, to take up the vulnerable, self-surrendering love of Jesus, that you’ve been excusing yourself from for days, weeks, months, because it all felt so uncertain. Maybe the call is to ask another for help and so to experience belonging and trust in the Body of Christ. What could it look like to follow your Lord into the love and trust of his goodness, though how it’s all gonna work, where it might lead, doesn’t yet fully compute?
Come and see. Jesus says. To this table. Out these doors. Back again. Today and every day, come and see.