Sermon for 2nd Epiphany -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
In today’s Gospel lesson from St. John, Jesus is beginning his active ministry. He has just called Andrew and Peter to be his disciples. In today’s text, Jesus calls Philip and Philip brings his reluctant friend Nathanael to meet Jesus.
In so many ways, it was the unlikeliest meeting. Nathanael did not even want to meet Jesus. He was just doing it as a favor to his friend, Philip. You can just imagine what Nathanael was thinking, some of which he said aloud – “I mean, honestly? The one of whom the prophets spoke? Some self-appointed teacher from that back woods little town of Nazareth?” Nathanael probably had a grin on his face as he said and thought these things.
Jesus probably grinned also and quipped right back, “Glad to meet you, Nathanael. You are an Israelite without deceit.”
Now, it might have been a backhanded compliment. Maybe Jesus was saying he appreciated Nathanael speaking his mind and did not take offense at the whole Nazareth comment.
But we who are overhearing this conversation realize there is a double meaning here. Jesus' calling Nathanael an "Israelite" also brings echoes of the Old Testament Jacob story into the conversation. Jacob, the deceiver, who would be known as Israel.
But Jesus says that Nathanael is an Israelite without deceit.
This was an unlikely beginning for a relationship.
And, you can just imagine Nathanael's mind is racing.
Jesus wasn't there for the Nazareth comment. How did Jesus know what Nathanael had said? But even more, Nathanael presses further, how could Jesus know me?
Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under that fig tree, something that Nathanael certainly felt could not have literally happened. Jesus had to have “seen” Nathanael spiritually.
Philip was right. Nathanael is convinced and proclaims to Jesus, “You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.”
Jesus confirms it with yet another Jacob reference--this time to Jacob's ladder. He says, "The angels will go up and down on the Son of Man." That is, upon Jesus himself.
He's talking now about Jacob's experience at Bethel in Genesis 28 where heaven approached so close to earth that the inhabitants of the two realms could meet. Now in Jesus--not just in one geographical place--in Jesus, God would come, had come that near to people.
It was an unlikely beginning to Nathanael's walk with Jesus. What is more unlikely than heaven touching earth?
Heaven is where love reigns. Where there is room for all God's children at the table. Where, as Dr. Sharon Watkins states in a wonderful sermon on which this one is based, nothing is broken and no one is missing.
Not at all what earth is like. We know what earth is like. A glance through the morning paper shows us a world that couldn't be more different than God's realm of love . . . terrorism, war, global warming, political gridlock.
And yet, in Jesus, the unexpected happens. And Nathanael sees it. Heaven gets a foothold on this earth.
My friend Jim Wallis says, "In Jesus, God hits the street." Nathanael--now a follower, however unlikely--will walk that street, too.
I think it is no coincidence that this lesson is our text for the weekend over which we celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the only religious figure who has a US national holiday in his honor.
The time is 1955. The place is Montgomery, Alabama. The issue is forced segregation on city buses. Local pastors are gathered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--strategizing. Rosa Parks has recently been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. Her trial will be coming soon.
There are a lot of ideas going back and forth, but nothing clear emerges. Until--the most unlikely thing. The young pastor of the church, new to town, unknown to the city fathers (and, some say, not yet intimidated by them)--a guy just in his 20's--raises his hand. The boycott has a leader.
A very young Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is this new leader. He is a newcomer to Montgomery, but like Nathanael, he has this experience in Jesus of the reign of God come near and is now an ambassador of that place - that meeting of heaven and earth - inviting others to walk on that street where the reign of God has gotten a foothold.
Many years later, now very well known, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would describe his glimpse of what it looks like when the reign of God comes near. Dr. King said:
". . . one day (he said) every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low . . . and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
". . . one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”
With Martin Luther King's words, through his actions, according to his dream, we could see it, too. Because he had raised his hand, had stepped up to walk in that place where heaven and earth come near. Because he stepped up to walk with Jesus, it turned out that "one day" was unexpectedly closer than we thought.
It's hard to follow Jesus to those unexpected places sometimes. Too often the Reign of God enters our world with a cost. Dr. King knew this, too.
From the unlikely location of the Birmingham jail, King wrote about a letter he had just received from a white brother urging caution, who said:
King’s white friend wrote, "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but. . . The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth."
Dr. King responded, "Such an attitude stems . . . from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually . . ." he said, "Human progress . . . comes through the tireless efforts of (persons) willing to be co-workers with God . . ."
". . . When early Christians entered a town . . . in the conviction that they were 'a colony of heaven,' called to obey God . . . Small in number, they were big in commitment . . . By their effort and example they brought an end to . . . ancient evils . . .
" . . . The time is always ripe to do right."
Martin Luther King, who we celebrate this weekend, helped a whole generation see where the ways of heaven begin to get an unlikely foothold on this earth. He helped us remember that walking with Jesus means working for justice - revealing in our midst already a world where love reigns, a realm of God's shalom - of wholeness - where nothing is broken and no one is missing, where a table is spread and all are welcome.
Where a table is spread and all are welcome – a wonderful image of heaven. I have been blessed to have experienced this sort of welcome several times in my life, all during times I was traveling in Africa, the Middle East or Latin America for our Lutheran church. Once when Kris and I were visiting the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Holy Land we visited a West Bank Palestinian area, under Israeli occupation, where the Isreali army had bulldozed Palestinian family homes, just to create more open space. As we walked through the area of demolished homes, all of which had been reduced to rubble on the ground, a former-home owner appeared to tell us his story and, tearfully, show us photos of what his home once looked liked and of the bulldozers demolishing the home he had built with his own hands. As you can imagine, it was a very moving experience. But we were only brought to tears when we heard a tinkle of glass behind us and saw the home-owner’s wife coming toward us with a tray of tea and cakes. We had no idea where she found these refreshments, but there she was in the midst of the rubble that once was her home, still offering hospitality to her guests. A table was still spread and we were welcomed.
Theologian Karl Barth is supposed to have said, "When you preach, you've got to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." He was right. The call of Nathanael reminds us that when we walk with Jesus, we walk in those unlikely places where heaven and earth come near. In this fragmented world, we represent God's reign gaining a foothold here already, and our actions need to show it.
An act of simple hospitality and thankfulness in the midst of devastation and a hand raised to volunteer for leadership in a community witness, moments, so often unexpected, where the reign of God comes near, where we catch a glimpse of a time and place where nothing is broken and no one is missing, and a table is spread for all God's children.
A table spread for all of God’s children. Where nothing is broken and no one is missing. As Dr. King said so well, “the time is always ripe to do right.” May it be so.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Where Nothing is Broken and No One is Missing
Sermon for 2nd Epiphany
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
January 17/18, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica