I Samuel 3: 1-10
John 1: 43-51
Remember, when you were about to learn how to drive and you had to get that Learner’s Permit, which meant studying a book of rules for the road. Before you get a driver’s license, you must pass not only a road test, but also a written test. All states have driving rules, and sometimes the rules differ with particular localities. For example, though New York State allows right turns on red, the city of New York does not, and woe to the one who does not know that rule.
Some states and cities have other rules. For example, in Little Rock, Arkansas, “no person shall sound the horn on a vehicle any place where cold drinks or sandwiches are served after 9 P.M. In Montana anyone who is driving a truck with a sheep in it is not allowed to leave the sheep unattended, so if you stop to use the bathroom, you had better find someone to watch the sheep while you are inside. In Oregon, you are allowed to make a left hand turn on a red light, if you are turning into a one way street and Tennessee has a rule, which says it is illegal to shoot at any animal from a car, unless the animal happens to be a whale!
Knowledge of the rules matters, but when it comes to Christian discipleship, let’s face it, the rules are a bit fuzzy, not at all black and white. Some people will tell you that to be a Christian means you must consent to a list of beliefs, such as, Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins. But what do those statements really mean? Does calling Jesus the Son of God literally mean that he received half of his 46 chromosomes from God, rather than from a human father? When it comes to Christian beliefs, there is a tremendous amount of interpretation that goes on. And Christians interpret beliefs quite differently. Furthermore, when we consider this morning’s text from John, what strikes me is that Christian discipleship here seems to be more about following than believing.
Andrew had been a follower of John the Baptist, but when he heard John say that Jesus was the Lamb of God, he decided to follow Jesus, and he told his brother, Simon, that the Messiah had been found. With no hesitation at all, Simon too became a follower, now with a new name given to him by Jesus, Cephus or Peter. Admittedly, in our more skeptical age, we might be unnerved by the rapidity of their response. No struggle, no doubts, no questions. In fact, Jesus was the one who asked the question, “What are you looking for?” He did not ask for whom are you looking, but rather for what are you looking. It is an existential question whose answer is not exhausted by saying, “We are looking for the Messiah.” After all, what is it that the Messiah can actually do? What difference can the Messiah make? How can the Messiah actually change lives? And those questions can only be answered by following, which is what Jesus commanded Philip to do. Follow, and you will see what changes come.
John’s gospel then tells us that Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And that bit of geographical information is important, because Galilee was an ethnically diverse region, removed from the stricter religious demands of Jerusalem. It was also home to a great deal of anti-Roman sentiment, the site of much political turmoil, so Jesus’ journey there signaled him as someone, willing to move outside the mainstream circles. And this is where Jesus found Philip to whom he gave the command, “Follow me.” He did not offer Philip a suggestion or make a request, but he issued a command, “Follow me.” Jesus did not say, “Believe in me, or consider me, or think about me.” No, it was follow me. Where I go, you go too. And, of course, no one had any idea where such following would take them. Neither Andrew, nor Peter, nor Philip was offered any guarantees or promises or projections about the future. Jesus simply issued a command, “Follow me.”
Now according to the text, Philip immediately recognized Jesus as the one predicted by the Hebrew Scriptures, and so, exactly as Andrew had done, Philip went and got his brother, Nathaniel. Notice how suspicious Nathaniel was. When he learned that Jesus was from the no-count town of Nazareth, he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a backwater town, a boring place. Even little Bethlehem, nine miles south of Jerusalem, had more to offer in terms of trade and diversity. But still Nathaniel went. Maybe it was because Philip did not try to argue or coerce his brother into going. He did not try to change Nathaniel’s mind about Nazareth by offering counter-examples. He simply issued an invitation “Come and see.” This was apparently one of Philip’s great strengths as a disciple, at least according to the Book of Acts. He was good at inviting people without pressuring them.
And so Nathaniel came and was mightily impressed, especially when Jesus recognized Nathaniel as an Israelite without deceit. Now the term Israelite is important, because John’s gospel never uses that term, except here. Elsewhere he says Jew or Jews. The word Israelite is supposed to prod our memory of the Old Testament character, Jacob, who after gallantly wrestling with the angel of God, had his name changed to Israel, which means “one who strives with God.” But whatever credit we want to give to Jacob for brains, courage and perseverance, we also have to acknowledge that he was a trickster, full of deceit. He had cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and his father’s blessing by pretending to be Esau. But here in John’s gospel we are shown one who strives with God and is yet without deceit. That is what discipleship is supposed to look like: Strive with God; argue with God, if you must, but do so without guile or deceit. The reference, by the way, to Jesus seeing Nathaniel under a fig tree most likely comes from the rabbinic tradition, where the Torah is compared to a fig tree and searching for figs is a metaphor for the study of Torah. So if you do these things, or try to, you will see. As Jesus promised to Nathaniel, “You will see greater things than this.” These three words: follow, come and see are the essence of Christian discipleship.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, when we remember the life and legacy of this great man. Oh, he had his limitations and failings, yet no one can deny that his leadership changed the consciousness and the laws of our nation. Raised in a Christian home, both his grandfather and father were Baptist ministers, King had his own struggles with the faith, intellectually as well as spiritually. Like many people, he wanted a good life, which included a successful career. He earned a PhD at Boston School of Theology with a thesis on the theologies of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and his plan was to become a professor at a seminary. He never wanted to lead the Civil Rights movement, and after he was drafted to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he tried to resign when death threats came his way, but his resignation was refused. While the gospel shows us a Nathaniel who was invited to come and see without pressure, King felt tremendous pressure. He felt pushed and pulled and prodded to follow, to come and to see Christ in so many different places----Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Washington, Chicago, Memphis.
Late, one winter evening, King, overwhelmed by fear after receiving another death threat, sat in his kitchen and bowed his head, calling on the one who could make a way out of no way. In the darkness of that night, King said that Jesus came calling, and King was never the same. Oh fear never completely left him, and he, along with his wife, Coretta, had to come to terms with the hard truth that he would one day be assassinated, but still, he said that he knew he was to follow. He was called to take up his cross and follow Jesus, and though there were certainly times he wondered if a particular tactic or campaign was the right way to follow, he knew what his call was: follow, come and see. And so we remember his journey, not because it was always successful, but because it was faithful. King was not a perfect man, but he did try to follow Jesus. He did come and see. We too are invited to follow, to come and to see, and how we do that is the gift of freedom and the challenge of destiny.
1/17/2018 0 Comments
Where does Christ meet you? This is, after all, the season of Emmanuel: God is with us. So where and how is God with you? Someone said to me, “Wherever love is, there is Christ,” so here is a true story of love---love from a baby.
It was less than a week before Christmas, 1978, and Jim and Laura, a married couple with a nine month old baby boy named Christopher, were in a panic about Christmas presents. They had not bought any. They both worked full time; she, as a city planner in Chicago, and he worked for the city as a public defender. Between their demanding jobs and taking care of Christopher, the time had simply gotten away from them. So they hired a sitter for the day and prepared their Christmas shopping list---but the sitter came down with a bad cold, so they had no alternative but to take Christopher with them. It wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be. Christopher was fascinated by all the decorations and the crowds, and so, they managed to get their shopping done by dinner.
Let’s eat out, Laura suggested. We can go to Lennie’s Diner, where the food is decent and the service fast. And so they pulled into the Diner, went in and sat down. The waitress promptly brought them the menu and in no time at all they were eating. Christopher was busy gumming some bread, when suddenly out of the corner of Jim’s eye, he noticed this disheveled and dirty man, wildly waving at and talking to his baby son. “Hi there, little Buddy,” the man practically shouted. “Can you wave back to me?” Christopher smiled----a great big smile! “How about patty cake?” the man said, as he started to gesticulate the well known rhyme. Christopher began laughing and clapping in response. He was clearly taken with this character, who was well, a bit drunk. “Hey, little guy, come on now, give me a really big laugh!” Christopher complied by cooing with delight.
Laura leaned across the table, and whispered to Jim, “Why are they letting him remain here? He is creating a scene.” And indeed, the stranger was. People were staring. At this point the manager came out and said. “O.k., Phil, quiet down. You’re making too much noise. Go in there, and I’ll give you something to eat.” Phil complied, but not without shouting to the baby, “Hey little guy. Don’t go away. I’ll be right back.”
“I wonder if he is a relative,” Laura said to Jim---in a voice loud enough for the waitress to hear. The waitress gave Laura an icy stare, and then in a cold voice said, “He is not a relative---just someone who has had a lot of trouble in life. And so we feed him without charge as she deliberately put their bill on the table. Laura was taken aback by the tone the waitress used. She realized she sounded like a snob, and she knew she should be at least a little bit ashamed, but really having a loud drunk in this family diner was not particularly good for business.
Laura and Jim got up to leave. “I’ll pay and you go to the car,” Laura said. Just then Phil emerged from the side room. His face was smeared with ketchup and his dirty hands were holding a bunch of fries. As he drew nearer to Laura and Christopher, Laura noticed he smelled. “Hi Little Buddy” Phil started in again. “You are such a cutie.” Now Phil was standing right before them, practically blocking the door’s exit. He kept right on talking to Christopher, as Laura made her preparations to get away. Suddenly with no warning, Christopher arched his back and catapulted himself right out of her arms and straight into Phil’s arms. Laura was shocked and horrified. Here was this smelly alcoholic, holding her baby. She was about to grab Christopher and run, but she was stopped by the sight of Christopher gently laying his head on Phil’s shoulder, as Phil gently stroked Christopher’s head. Phil rocked back and forth very slowly, singing Silent Night, as Christopher’s eyes grew heavy with sleep. In less than a minute tears were rolling down Phil’s cheeks, and then very gently he passed Christopher to his mother. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he said. “You’ve given me the best Christmas present ever. Take good care of this little guy, he continued. He’s special, very special.”
By the time Laura reached the car, where Jim already was, she was crying. What’s the matter? Jim asked. I almost lost Christmas, she sobbed, and it took that drunk in there and our baby to teach me something I obviously forgot. Whoever doesn’t receive God’s Kingdom like a little child will miss it or lose it. she said. What are you talking about? Jim asked. That man in there, she said. All you and I could see was someone who was dirty and drunk and well, a loser in our world. But Christopher did not care about any of that; he accepted him as he was and that was exactly the gift the man needed.
Well, a year passed and Christmas rolled around again. Laura was out shopping one evening, this time by herself and she stopped in at Lennie’s Diner for dinner. She had not been there since the previous year, and when she sat down, she had the same waitress, who promptly took her order and served her. I hope she doesn’t remember me, Laura thought to herself. But when she had finished eating, the waitress, very promptly, brought her the bill, accompanied by something else, an object wrapped in some torn and dirty green tissue paper. The waitress just stood there while Laura unwrapped the gift. It was a handmade Christmas ornament, chiseled out of wood, a baby with his arms held up high and on the back were these words: the best Christmas present ever. Phil died last month, the waitress said, but before he did, he asked us to give this to you or your husband if we ever saw you again. He made it himself, worked on it for days, not long after he met you. Laura just sat at the table as tears streamed down her cheeks. She looked up at the waitress and said, “This is the most precious Christmas present I have ever received.”
Well, 40 years have passed and Christopher is all grown up. He’s a doctor now, working at a clinic for the poor on Chicago’s South Side, in the same area where Barack Obama had done his community organizing years before. A group of students from the University of Chicago along with some employees went to that clinic to throw a Christmas party for the kids who use the clinic’s services, children insured by the CHIPS Program. One of those employees is a close friend of mine from my undergraduate days at the University. And there in the middle of the room stood a huge Christmas tree on which the ornament hung, a baby with outstretched arms, hung there by Christopher’s mother, who still maintains it is the most precious Christmas gift she has ever received.
Many people spend way too much time and too much money shopping around for Christmas presents. We all should probably spend more time considering what it is people really need. Most likely it can’t be found in a store. But perhaps it can be found inside of us---in that deep and mysterious place where head, heart and spirit meet. Find that place and discover what goodness, truth and beauty are there--- and then pass it on. Give it away---because that is what Christmas is really all about. Yes, Christ is born; it is, indeed, the Holy Night, but what does that really mean if Christ is not also born in us?
You have just seen and heard the familiar story of Jesus’ birth. Birth: in so many ways it is an ordinary event. You and I are here today because someone, somewhere, at some time gave birth. Birth happens all the time; right now, this very minute, women are giving birth across the globe. And Mary, mother of Jesus, also gave birth. The Gospel gives us no details; only Matthew and Luke mention the birth in less than one line, but we should not be at all surprised. Birthing has always been (until very recently) a woman’s experience, and women’s experiences have often been ignored. And yet in this story, in the ordinary experience of giving birth, God is intimately involved. And that is what the Christmas story is really all about: God entering into the most ordinary of human experiences. Yes, God meets us in the ordinary. We do not have to search in some exotic way to find God. God comes to us; God meets us, and in fact, God can and does meet us in birth.
I am here today as a minister, because I have given birth----4 times. When I was pregnant with my first child, about two weeks before she was born, it was a hot, sticky July night in Boston, and I had trouble sleeping, trouble getting comfortable. Tossing and turning, I finally fell asleep around 4 AM, just a few hours before I needed to arise for my job at MIT, where I worked as an administrative assistant. It was then I had this dream. I dreamed that my husband had the baby for me. He came to me, holding in his arms this beautiful newborn and said, “Look what I have done for you. I have saved you from giving birth.” Obviously very proud of his accomplishment, he expected me to show my gratitude. But I was furious. What have you done? I demanded. You have stolen from me a piece of the divine. And then with a start, I awoke, and with relief could feel my still pregnant belly.
The dream was disturbing to me, because at that point in my life, I thought of myself as an unbeliever. Oh, I had been raised in the church, a liberal Presbyterian, but in college I had read the great atheistic thinkers: Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, and looking at the world in all its messiness and evil and pondering it all, I concluded that these great thinkers were right. God is a projection, a fulfillment of wishes, even an opiate of the people, who promise rewards in heaven while they suffer injustice here on earth. So why this dream, this message that birth is a piece o the divine? Was my unconscious trying to tell me something? Was God trying to tell me something I had been ignoring ? “It’s hormones,” my husband insisted. He was a PHD student in molecular biology at Tufts Medical School, and biologists were and are the great reductionists. But I was not so sure this could all be reduced to hormones.
And so when I was giving birth during that period known as transition, (and those of you who have had unmedicated births, know it is the hardest time), when the waves of contractions come rushing on and on and on, and you are ready to call it quits---take me home now, I insisted. I don’t want to do this any longer; it was then, with Dr. Charles Edes gently commanding, “Relax into the contraction; don’t fight it; work with it, it was then that an image came to my mind’s eye, an image I had seen in an art book of a female Buddha, squatting to give birth with such a completely serene expression on her face. And I tried very hard to concentrate, to keep that image in my mind’s eye. In less than a year I returned to church and two years after that I enrolled in seminary. Hormones? No, it was far more than that. I wanted to know something more about this piece of the divine that met me in the experience of giving birth.
In seminary I would be transformed by the thinking of Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian of the 20th century, who named God “The Ground of Being.” Like a great womb, I thought, stretching, straining, taut, yet marvelously elastic, the great Ground of Being releases us into life. Ultimately, there must be separation, or there can be no life at all, but we are never so separated that we are completely cut off. And that too is the story of Christmas. Yes, there is separation and even heartache. Herod tried to murder the newborn king, whom he saw as a threat to his power, and he murdered other innocent babies, whose mothers must have wondered where God was for them. Power: it is always a theme, then and now. Who has the power and who tries to grab it?
But in this story the power in this story belongs to a mother and her baby as well as all the characters, who bothered to show up. Mary gave birth, and God was there and is there, in each birth, in each life, though admittedly sometimes God’s presence does seem hidden. Yet God does show up in the most ordinary experiences of human life, including birth, and with God the ordinary can become extraordinary.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!