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Come and See

Come and See

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Why are you here this morning?

It’s a rhetorical question so don’t panic. I don’t really want you to answer it out loud. But I do want you to think about it for a moment.

Why are you here?

It’s also a terrifying question, not just for you but for me. Terrifying for you, because I know that if some random person were to ask you why you go to church, it would not be easy to explain. And terrifying for me, because I’m afraid if you really thought about it you might not come back.

But fear aside, why are you here this morning… not just in church, but in this church?

I don’t think it’s out of a sense of fear or obligation.

I don’t think it’s because you have nothing better to do.

And I’m well aware that there are churches that require less maintenance and have more children, churches with better preaching and more programming, all of which you can now access online from the comfort of your own home.

So you making the effort to actually be here - in person or on-line - it means a lot. It matters. I see you. I’m grateful for you. I want to honor the choice you have made to be here, and I think that begins with trying to understand what it is you’ve really come for.

So I’ve been giving it some thought, and I wonder if you’re here this morning because you want to know and be known.

Know God and be known by God.

Know other like-minded people and be known by them.

I wonder if you are here because you want to find and be found; find something that is meaningful and true and be found by something meaningful and true….found by God, by others, and even by yourself; found to be someone who is doing your part to make a difference in this world by putting all this meaning and truth into action.

But putting our finger on exactly what that meaningful and true thing is….

Trying to explain precisely what it is to others in such a way that they would understand why we are here right now and not sleeping in or out finding God in nature or waiting in line for brunch….that’s tricky.

I think something real and powerful happens when we come together, but it isn’t easy to explain to someone who isn’t here.

Which may be why Phillip didn’t try.

Our reading for today begins with Jesus finding Phillip and simply saying, “Follow me.” And something about his encounter with Jesus is so compelling that Phillip does. He doesn’t hesitate. In fact, he is so convinced that he has found the messiah that he runs to find his friend Nathanael so Nathanael can follow Jesus too.

‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’

But Nathanael is not convinced.

Phil, come on. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And in all fairness, Nathanael has a point. Nazareth was a backwater; a little town of no account. There were no prophecies that pointed there. Nothing of any significance that had ever happened there.

If the prophecies pointed anywhere, they pointed toward Jerusalem or, more precisely, Bethlehem. The messiah was to be a son of David, a descendent of the royal house. No one expected him to be the son of a poor carpenter working up in the hill towns.

Nathanael has no reason to believe Philip, so Philip does something incredibly wise. He says, “Come and see.” Because the truth is, there’s really no rational explanation for Phillip’s behavior.

Had he tried to defend his decision to follow Jesus, or explain just what it was about Jesus that moved him, that made him so sure Jesus was “The One,” there’s no way Nathanael would have been convinced. 

It would have been as fruitless as trying to describe a really good dream, define the color purple, or explain what fresh strawberries taste like. There are some things you just can’t do with words. There are some things you just have to experience for yourself before you can understand.

So Phillip took Nathanael to meet Jesus, to experience him first hand, to hear his voice and look him in the eye. And lo and behold, bringing him into the presence of Jesus worked. In the context of their very brief encounter, Nathanael came to see that something good could come out of Nazareth.

He saw Jesus, and perhaps even more importantly, he knew that Jesus saw him. He came to know even as he was fully known.

“Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” says Jesus, and in that moment, Nathanael is hooked.

“How do you know that,” asks Nathanael? You don’t know me.

But Jesus does, knows Nathanael right down to his core. And looking into his eyes, Nathanael knows that Jesus does.

“I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” adds Jesus.

And it’s funny because Jesus’ second observation pales against the first. It is such a little miracle - nothing more than a parlor trick really - and yet to Jesus’ great delight the combination of the two charms Nathanael and he is all in.

He replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’

“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree” asks Jesus?  Well buckle up Buttercup, because you ain’t seen nothing yet. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Yeah, I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading this passage I feel like everything is trucking along just fine and then I’m like, what? That never happened. What does that have to do with anything. So, I think we need to pause here and unpack this promise before we go any further.

“…you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Can anyone remember a story in the Hebrew Bible where angels were seen ascending and descending? They’re on a ladder, if that helps.

Jacob’s ladder! That’s right.

All the way back in the book of Genesis, we find the story of Jacob. One night, while on his way home, Jacob went to sleep and dreamt about a ladder full of angels that connected heaven to earth. When he awoke, he named that place Beth El, literally, “The house of God,” and said, “surely the Lord is in this place.” He built an altar there that eventually became a temple for the people of Israel.

Now, add this to the fact that we are still in the first chapter of the gospel of John, a chapter that begins with the wondrous news that the “Word (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us,” and you begin to see that a theme is already emerging.  Because, you see, the word dwelt here literally means “pitched a tent” or “tabernacled” amongst us.

You’ll remember that the presence of God traveled with the people of Israel in a sacred tent called the tabernacle when they wandered with Moses in the wilderness; a tabernacle that was eventually replaced by the temple in Jerusalem.

If you trace all of this together with red yarn on the bulletin board of your brain, I think you’ll see what John is doing here. He is letting us know that Jesus is the new temple, but he’s not rooted to one place. He can move with his people like the tabernacle. Which means that Jesus is now the place where heaven and earth meet. John is letting us know that when you are in the presence of Jesus you are in the presence of God and if you are in the presence of God, something holy is bound to happen.

This helps explain why Phillip was immediately taken with Jesus. And this helps explain why he knew that the best way to convince Nathanael was to get him into Jesus’ presence as well.

Which is all well and good for Phillip and Nathanael. But what about us? We don’t have a living, breathing Jesus we can bring people to meet. So how do we explain our presence here? How do we explain why we are still Christian?

For those of us who have committed our lives to following Jesus, sometimes it is hard to describe to those who don’t know Him, precisely why; why we love as we love; why we live as we live; why we show up here week after week hoping to know and be known, hoping to find something meaningful and true that we might be part of something meaningful and true.

I’m sure to most of the world we look and sound about as ridiculous as Philip did when he came running up to Nathanael. We live in a cynical, secular, postmodern age, after all, where the abuses of religion often seem to far outweigh the good it can do. Christianity, at least according to the common narrative we read about in the media, is becoming a religion that is more and more aligned with faith in Trump than it is Jesus.

It is as hard as it ever was to convince the Nathanaels of this world to “come and see,” and really just as risky, for even if they do come, we are right to wonder what they will make of what they find here.

After all, church people certainly aren’t perfect and for the most part we make lousy theologians. Our worship can be beautiful, but it isn’t always transcendent. We want to feel the presence of God here when we sing and when we pray, when the word is read and the sermon is preached…but I question sometimes if what we do here is enough.

I was actually feeling a little down about all this when we met for Bible study this past week. I actually asked the group, “if we told people to come and see what happens here would they meet Jesus?”

And then Cathe B___ started talking about the way she sees Christ at work in our church. She mentioned the thank you note from Treehouse that was printed in the newsletter. “They didn’t just thank us for the Christmas gifts we sent to the children. They thanked us for staying in relationship with them for 13 straight years,” she said. “That means something in this day and age.”

And she is right. Friends, Treehouse thanked us for our faithfulness to them, and I realized in that moment that I sometimes take for granted the good we do around here because in my mind, it’s just what we always do at First Churches.

We raise money every year for dozens of kids to attend the CONASPEH school in Haiti. We don’t think twice about it. We just do it. We provide an informal network of support that provides meals and rides to those who need a little extra help. We cover expenses and we cover people with our prayers. We form circles of care for refugee families and circles of care within our own church family with groups like Dorcas and the Men’s Group and the Young Adult Group.

We’ve always been the sort of church that shows up whether it’s delivering flowers, responding to the call to clean out the basement, or calling attention to the needs of those who are suffering. And frankly some of the ways you are showing up right now are extraordinary and needed more than ever.

My clergy colleagues and I are finding ways to come together to support our local rabbinical colleagues, even as the Rev. Peter Kakos and our Peace and Justice team are building an ever widening network of inter-faith peace activists who are fasting daily and praying for a ceasefire in Gaza. That is powerful work.

I know many of you are serving at Manna and the Survival Center. We’re about to start a weekly breakfast with Community Action that will get our unhoused neighbors off the street first thing in the morning and give them a safe space to warm up and tell us what else we can be doing right now to help them.

And our weekend nutrition program that sends backpacks full of food home with kids every week is already expanding. We recently got a note, not from a recipient, but from one of the volunteers that said:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, for this amazing program! I am the lucky person who gets to deliver the backpacks each week - I wish you could see the smiles, and even once the dancing, when I came through with the bags. …”

“I wish you could see…”

“Come and see.”

Friends, we might not be able to see “Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth” anymore or take people to experience him first hand, hear his voice, and look him in the eye. But we can still see and bring others to see Jesus the Christ at work in us and amongst us.

We can be Christ’s hands and feet in this world as we serve others, and open our eyes to see Christ in those we serve. We can see Christ in each other and let others see Christ in us.

Honestly, I think that’s why you are here. I think you’re here because you’ve seen some of this already, and I hope that having seen a little you will want to see more. I think you’re here because you’ve done some of these things already, and I hope having done a little, you’ll want to do more.

Because the more we come and see each other - really see each other - the more Christ becomes manifest within us and among us. The more we allow people to see our needs and use what we have to meet the needs of each other, the more we connect heaven to earth. The more we see Christ in each other, the more we can say and know and will find that the “Lord is in this place.”

That’s why I’m here and I’m glad you’re here too, because it is only through each other that we can know and be known, find and be found, do and be a part of something that is meaningful and true. Thanks be to God and thanks be to you. Amen.

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