God With Us...In the Struggle for Justice

God With Us  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  17:30
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Jesus invites Nathanael to have his perceptions and skepticism confronted, offering him a way forward to come, see, and participate in God's way of justice.


Revised Common Lectionary 1-17-2021: Second Sunday after the Epiphany


John 1:43–51

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

It was just about 1 year ago that I had the opportunity to travel to Atlanta, GA, with Stacy for her to speak at an educators conference. (I believe this was the last time I flew on an airplane, such a dramatic shift in how our world works in just a year. We heard rumblings of a virus potentially beginning to spread in the US, but certainly were not prepared for all that has happened since.)
I spent much of the week walking and running around the city. We love to walk when we travel and so we experienced many neighborhoods on foot, exploring the sprawling city filled with history and culture. We visited the hipster restaurants and shopping areas, obviously, but we also made a point to spend time at sites of the Civil Rights Movement. We visited the King Center (my second pilgrimage to this hallowed site, the first had been with college students about a decade before). We saw the eternal flame, burning in remembrance of Dr. King’s life and legacy. We saw Ebeneezer Baptist Church, the pillar of the community and home to many impassioned civil rights leaders and courageous Christians. We saw Dr. King’s home, and wandered the neighborhoods soaking up the history. Looking back, it was for me a clear time of preparation, God showing me the places of Dr. King’s great work, inviting me to reflect upon my own participation in the work of justice and my complicity with the struggles of racism and segregation that still persist.
Tomorrow is the day our nation celebrates the legacy of Dr. King’s work. And at least for me, this will be a year unlike any before it, where I feel very clearly invited in to sit at the feet of Rev. Dr. King’s work and listen, learn, and reflect on how I can respond to participate in the calls for racial justice that I hear now. For me, this work must be done with humility, caution, and deep respect. This is not a space for me to capture Dr. King’s words and make them my own. This is a space for me to attend and be changed, to “come and see” as our text today invites.
How will you honor and experience the legacy of Dr. King? How will you be invited into participation and solidarity with the courageous calls for justice, now and going forward?

The Text

Let’s turn to our text from the Gospel of John. This month, we’re looking at the lectionary texts through a lens that reminds us, “God is with us.” Where is God in this text? What is God inviting these hearers of the Good News to do and how do they respond? What does this have to do with the struggle for justice and the work of anti-racist, courageous action that we are invited to?
We hear it in the story, Jesus is moving through Galilee, following his baptism and calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. We hear that he is in Bethsaida, the town of Peter and Andrew, still. These brothers are fishermen, if you recall. And we hear that Jesus is still there, in that town, calling Phillip to come and see what God is doing. Phillip, in turn, calls Nathanael, and this is where the text gets interesting.
As we’ve recalled this is a fishing village and do some imaginative reading of this story. A fishing village — blue collar laborers, men who work hard with their hands and backs. Without stretching too far, we could probably call this a union town, factory and processing workers, probably skeptical of some wandering preacher. Let’s take it another step further and consider Nathanael’s question about Nazareth for a moment.
Nathanael hears from Phillip that this guy who is supposedly the Messiah has come around and that he should come check him out. Nathanael betrays his skepticism and, possibly, his social discomfort, by exclaiming, “What good can come out of Nazareth?” I actually believe I preached on this text a couple of years ago, right at the time when our nation’s leaders were caught discussing barring people from “backwater countries” from coming to the US. (The word they used was not “backwater.”)
So Nathanael is skeptical or perhaps biased against Nazareth. Those Nazarenes, people from the hills to the West, those people from that other part of Galilee, those people. What good can come from them? That Jesus, what is he, some traveling tourist? Oh, he’s a carpenter, maybe he’s here to steal our jobs...
You see where I’m going here. Not to demonize Nathanael too much without reason, but let’s imagine for a moment that his balking at the Nazarene, Jesus, is not only related to the distance from Nazareth to Bethsaida, but also for cultural, ethnic, or racial reasons. What good can come out of a Black neighborhood in Atlanta? Do you hear it?
Thankfully, for us and for Nathanael, Phillip is persistent. He shares that this Jesus is the one Moses and the prophets had spoken of. He reminds Nathanael of the bigger story, tying in their religious tradition, not letting what neighborhood Jesus hails from to derail the calling to “come and see.”
So Nathanael, perhaps still skeptical, perhaps still harboring some prejudice against this Nazarene, gets up and talks with Jesus. Jesus is clearly aware of the preceeding interaction and seems to chide Nathanael, calling him an Israelite without deceit. I hear this as Jesus saying, “Look at this guy, he tells it like it is, he doesn’t hold back on his opinions.
Nathanael remains skeptical — “where did you get to know me?” Or how about “you don’t know me, who do you think you are?”
And here is where Jesus catches Nathanael’s heart and imagination. Jesus has somehow had the vision to know where Nathanael was and what he was up to, perhaps even the condition of his heart and the skepticism of his remarks regarding the approaching Messiah. The man is caught.
In all that I have read of Dr. Martin Luther King’s writings and speeches, his activism and proclamation of God’s way of justice, it has all had an air of passion and invitation to it. Dr. King knew the Christ who says, “follow me” and Dr. King shared that invitation with those who would join in with the call for justice.
I have to also imagine that there were plenty of these kinds of interactions that Dr. King faced. Marching through the streets, standing in solidarity with striking workers, I’m sure that Dr. King had interactions with skeptics like Nathanael. What good can come from a Black preacher calling for civil rights? Picture the white laborer sitting on his porch, watching with intrigue at the crowds of peaceful activists. Perhaps there is a spark of interest and desire to participate in that White man’s heart....but how could anything good come from a Black preacher from Atlanta?
I don’t want belabor the point I’m making here, but while this texts feels somewhat hard to parse out and “get at” what might be going on between Jesus and Nathanael, it also seems like the perfect example of our continued struggle to get past issues of racial bias or social difference to move into more generative spaces where the true justice work can begin.
Thanks be to God for the work of Christ — something happens in Nathanael. He is wowed by Jesus’ knowledge of his place before the interaction, sitting under the fig tree. This seems to be enough to pique is his interest and make him follow Jesus.
I love Jesus’ final words — “You will see greater things than these…Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
You think it’s something that Christ knows where you’re coming from? Well wait and see — you’re going to be blown away at what the revelation of justice and shalom looks like when Christ is in his fullest glory!

The Rest of the Story

Before moving back into how this all hits us, we have to have a Paul Harvey, “rest of the story” moment with Nathanael.
Nathanael gets up and follows Jesus. But we don’t hear a lot from him throughout the gospels. He’s generally pretty quiet. He shows up again at the shoreline where Jesus, resurrected, eats breakfast with the disciples before his ascension into heaven. But Nathanael’s quiet way has something to teach us.
Many of you know that I am in the first year of my Doctor of Ministry work. I’ve been exploring a topic to focus on and am beginning to land on something to do with speaking up on issues of justice. Particularly, I’ve been drawn to contemporary Black writers and speakers who are speaking up with renewed fervor for racial equity and justice. People like Jemar Tisby, Christina Cleveland, Ibram X. Kendi, and Willie Jennings. And while I love reading these folks and sharing their ideas, I have felt concerned about what is my role to speak as a White, Cisgender Male in a position of religious authority. Who am I to speak up now? Who am I to think I have anything to say to support the cause of those who have been so beaten down by racist policies that have actually benefited people like me?
I think I can learn something from Nathanael, right now. Nathanael is quiet, yes. But Nathanael is also faithfully present to the work of Jesus through the whole journey. He is there, he is listening, he is pointing to Jesus and probably telling others, come and see, just like he was told.
I wonder if the role for the White church, like ours, is to take a page from Nathanael’s story. I wonder if our work is to walk with the leaders who are speaking up, to support them, to make space where we can for their stories to be told. And to speak to the ones like us, who need to hear it. To be like Phillip, as well, showing up to our skeptical Nathanael friends, who may harbor some embedded racist attitudes, and invite them to come and see too.
Jemar Tisby, in his book “How to Fight Racism”, lays out a model for how all people can engage anti-racism work. He calls it the ARC framework, which stands for Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment. The work of anti-racism calls for an intertwined movement of those three categories: We become aware by listening, reading, and learning about the issues of racism all around us. We build relationships with people who are not like us (like Bethsaidians and Nazarenes, getting into relationship and learning with and for each other). And then we make commitments to work to dismantle racist policies and laws that perpetuate the problems we face, together.
On this Martin Luther King weekend, we are invited to “come and see” what God is and has been doing in the struggle for justice. Because the truth is, God has been present with this work from the beginning. The work for us, in this mostly white, affluent church, is to step in and follow after those “come and see” opportunities. Dr. King said of us, of our resistance to this work, as a church: “All too many religious leaders have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
It is time for us to get courageous, to follow along and learn, to become aware, build relationships, and commit to action. This is the moment. Come and see.
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