Anything Good? Come and See
As I’ve been home on break this winter, my Mom and I have been watching the sitcom How I Met Your Mother. We’ve seen it before, but it is just something light and relaxing and kind of mindless we can watch together. There’s an episode where one of the characters, Marshall, is worried that his job as a lawyer for a large bank is at risk. His friend and co-worker Barney tells him that he has to find something that no one else does that he can offer that will make him indispensable at work. It doesn’t seem like bad advice, does it? Make yourself necessary, irreplaceable. Have a skill no one else has. Of course, since it is a sitcom, Barney means that Marshall should come up with some “extra” talent like being the guy at the office who runs the fantasy football league. But the gist of the advice is: make sure there’s something that you can do that no one else can do, and then you have security in your position. Have you heard advice similar to that before? I have. I’ve even given advice like that. One of my brothers works at a bank, and he consistently gets ranked highest in production - he’s accomplishing more everyday than the others on his team. And I’ve told him how good that is, because whenever he takes a vacation day, they really miss him and can’t wait for him to get back. It’s good for them to know how much they need my brother, what a valuable employee he is, I think.
On the other hand, I’ve been thinking about my path to ordained ministry, and how my childhood congregation and pastor nurtured me as I was exploring my sense that God was calling me to become a pastor. I think some of you have met my childhood pastor, Bruce Webster. Bruce was the pastor of my childhood church, Rome First United Methodist, but he retired last year from Kirkville UMC not too far from here. Bruce was my pastor when I was in the process of discerning my own call to pastoral ministry. I had a lot of ideas, and not a lot of experience. When I look back at that season in my life, when I was exploring and figuring out what God was calling me to do, I’m struck by how willing Bruce was to share with me. He shared his wisdom and knowledge with me, but he also shared his authority and his status. He shared the pulpit, letting me preach often. He took me on visits with him. He let me design and lead the youth group retreat. He invited me to meetings and introduced me to the other clergy in the community. And he always encouraged me, affirmed me, and built me up. He never once made me feel like what he was doing as a pastor was something I wouldn’t be able to do too. He never tried to project part of his work as off limit or beyond my understanding. Instead, however he could, he invited me into the work that he did, and shared what he knew so that I could learn and grow. That’s a different kind of model than the advice in How I Met Your Mother, or advice we might hear in some other settings, the advice that says it is best to make sure everyone knows that you can do something no one else can do, isn’t it? I realize the contexts of say, my brother’s bank and my childhood church are a bit different. But I’m struck by the different ethos that favors sharing wisdom and power with others over getting ahead and securing one’s own position first.
I was thinking about these things - how we do or don’t share our wisdom and knowledge, our power and authority, as I turned to our scripture text for today. Our passage today is a scene from the Gospel of John. We’re in chapter 1, and we pick up as Jesus is calling some his first followers. In our scene for today, he first calls Philip with a simple “Follow me.” And then Philip in turn finds his friend Nathanael and says, “We’ve found him! We’ve found they were writing about in the law and the prophets: It’s Jesus of Nazareth!” But Nathanael is skeptical: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I’m not sure what our modern day equivalent is - what neighborhood exactly comes to your mind, but it’s like Nathanael says, “Can anything good come out of the wrong side of the tracks?” Philip just answers, “Come and see.” If we’d read a bit earlier in this chapter, we see that Philip is just modeling the example of Jesus. When Jesus called his very first disciples, and they asked him a question, he responded in the exact same way: “Come and see.” Nathanael does indeed “Come and See,” and Philip takes him to meet Jesus. Jesus seems to know Nathanael already - to know Nathanael’s heart, and in response, Nathaniel also realizes who Jesus really is. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” he proclaims. “You are the King of Israel.” In response, Jesus promises that as a disciple of Jesus, Nathanael will witness even “greater things” than Jesus being able to look into his heart. He’ll see heaven opened - the boundary between earth and heaven traversed.
“Come and see.” These words that Philip shares with Nathanael, words that are an echo of the way that Jesus called his friend disciples, are words that reflect the ethos of Jesus’ ministry. We worship Jesus as God’s own child, God in the flesh, fully human but fully divine. And yet, over and over again in the gospels, Jesus is invitational, ready to share his power and authority, his wisdom and knowledge. Even though Nathanael is skeptical and dismissive of him at first, Jesus already wants to show Nathanael what the power of God can do - not something he holds over Nathanael, but something he intends to share with Nathanael. And that doesn’t just happen in this scene. Over and over, Jesus tells his disciples and other followers, and even those who are just in the crowds listening to what he has to say that they can do just what he does and more. If you want to dig a bit deeper this week, I encourage you to flip through the gospels and make a list of times when Jesus tells his listeners that he’s inviting them to receive and use God’s wisdom and power in some way. On the other hand, we see the other religious leaders - the priests and scribes and Pharisees with whom Jesus interacts - always appearing anxious that somehow their power is slipping away. They’re more like the example from How I Met Your Mother. They can only feel safe and secure if no one else can do what they do. That’s not the way of Jesus though. “Come and see.” Jesus invites us to be part of his mission and ministry - not just as someone that he’ll direct and order around. His way is to make us co-laborers in the reign of God, sharing wisdom and power so that we too can share the good news of God’s grace that transforms the world. How about us? Are we willing to share what we know of God, what we’ve learned from following Jesus? Are we inviting others in - to our lives, to our worship services - virtual or otherwise - to our ministries, to our communities? Or are we holding on tightly to our power and authority, afraid that sharing will mean that our position isn’t safe and secure?
Our gospel text brings up another question for me too. Sometimes we’re holding on too tightly to our power and status and knowledge. And other times, we’re convinced that others don’t have anything valuable to teach us, no wisdom that is important to us. Who do we assume has nothing to teach us? At first, Nathanael is tempted to believe that someone like Jesus - someone from Nazareth, something that for Nathaniel clearly means some “low class, ignorant, unqualified person” couldn’t possibly know anything. His first response suggests that he believes that there is nothing he could have to learn from a person from Nazareth. He discounts Jesus because of where he’s from, assuming that Jesus doesn’t have anything worth sharing. When do we act like Nathanael, and about whom?
This coming semester, I’m going to be a teaching assistant for a class that uses some tools offered by Wikipedia - students will learn how to edit and contribute to articles on the online encyclopedia. I’ve been pretty impressed so far with the training modules I’ve completed. You can’t just add any topic on Wikipedia. A topic has to be notable - and to be notable, a topic has to be documented by several independent, reliable sources, like books or academic journals. But Wikipedia is also aware that these requirements, meant to increase the accuracy and usefulness of articles, also results in what they call “content gaps.” Content gaps are important topics that end up not getting covered, or not covered as thoroughly on Wikipedia as they should be. And Wikipedia realizes that there are more content gaps when it comes to topics related to women, or topics related to people of color, or other minority and marginalized groups than when it comes to topics about men, or white people, or people in power, because the minority groups have had less access over time to traditional publishing, or traditional academic positions, than others. So, are marginalized populations and their individual and collective wisdom truly less “notable”? Wikipedia knows the answer is “no,” and is working to address the problem, though imperfectly. How about us? Who have we written off as not “notable” enough to learn from? What individuals or groups are we overlooking, sure that “nothing good” can come from them?
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I’ve been thinking about his concept of the Beloved Community, adapted from Josiah Royce, which King spoke about and wrote about often. His vision resonates with me as a vision of the Kingdom of God, or the kin-dom of God. Sometimes when we say “Kingdom of God,” we think of God as King who is all powerful and rules over everything. There are ways in which that is true, of course. But Jesus tries to show us that the way God reigns and rules is a bit different than we’d expect. God reigns through sharing everything - knowledge, wisdom, power, and authority, in really radical ways. In fact, God even share’s God’s self with us in the person of Jesus. So many folks have used the term kin-dom to help us think about the way God draws us in - “Come and see.” That’s what I hear - the kindom of God on earth - when I read about King’s Beloved Community. He wrote, “The way of acquiescence [to evil] leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.” “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think the end of that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community” And “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” (1) Dr. King, whom many have dismissed and do dismiss as having nothing valuable to teach because of the color of his skin, gives us a model for the kindom of God, the Beloved Community, that is shaped by a God, by a Savior who shares in everything with us, wisdom and knowledge, power and authority, compassion and grace. In turn, we don’t need to cling so tightly to our status and power either. God’s reign grows not when we store up for ourselves, but when we build each other up in love. Can anything good come from such a strange kindom that turns things so upside down and inside out? Jesus says to us: “Come and see.” Amen.