Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
January 21, 2018
You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.
You are the one who created my innermost parts;
you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
when I was being put together in a secret place,
when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my embryo,
and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
before any one of them had yet happened.
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you.
John 1:40-50 (The Message)
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard John’s witness and followed Jesus. The first thing he did after finding where Jesus lived was find his own brother, Simon, telling him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, “Christ”). He immediately led him to Jesus.
Jesus took one look up and said, “You’re John’s son, Simon? From now on your name is Cephas” (or Peter, which means “Rock”).
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. When he got there, he ran across Philip and said, “Come, follow me.” (Philip’s hometown was Bethsaida, the same as Andrew and Peter.)
Philip went and found Nathanael and told him, “We’ve found the One Moses wrote of in the Law, the One preached by the prophets. It’s Jesus, Joseph’s son, the one from Nazareth!” Nathanael said, “Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding.”
But Philip said, “Come, see for yourself.”
When Jesus saw him coming he said, “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.”
Nathanael said, “Where did you get that idea? You don’t know me.”
Jesus answered, “One day, long before Philip called you here, I saw you under the fig tree.”
Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi! You are the Son of God, the King of Israel!”
Jesus said, “You’ve become a believer simply because I say I saw you one day sitting under the fig tree? You haven’t seen anything yet!”
I hope you laughed when you heard this morning’s Gospel passage.
The humor is a little lost in the New Revised Standard Version we usually read, which is why I chose The Message – a translation meant to meet us in our common vernacular.
First off, we have Jesus handing out nicknames to his newly recruited disciples. I can only imagine what Simon must have looked like for Jesus to give him the once over and christen him “Rock.” Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky come to mind.
Then Jesus and his newest (so far, only) followers decamp to Galilee, where they run into Peter and Andrew’s hometown friend, Philip. An endearing enthusiast, Philip joins up without a second thought, then runs to tell his friend, Nathanael, who is not having it:
“Let me get this straight – the Son of God, the savior of Israel, is from Nazareth? That backwater?” Nazareth was considered a hick town defiled by the presence of Gentiles; the Messiah coming from Nazareth would be like the president of the United States being elected fresh from wherever the movie Deliverance was set.
You can almost hear Nathanael rolling his eyes – “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I imagine Nathanael as a no-punch-pulling cynic who is not easily impressed. Living in an occupied country that had long been promised a savior, Nathanael has probably seen his share of would-be prophets proclaiming their messianic status, and he is not about to be swayed by his overeager buddy gushing about some newcomer who is from, of all places, Nazareth.
But to humor his friend, Nathanael goes to check this Jesus guy out. With a rueful smile, Jesus sizes Nathanael up – then sums him up: “Now here’s an honest Israelite – you sure tell it like it is, don’t you?” As we learned in Bible study the other week – where you get all the back story to the sermon text – Israel, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel, started life as Jacob, a Hebrew name meaning “full of deceit” or guile. (He did, after all, impersonate his older brother to deceive his elderly father and steal Esau’s inheritance.) It’s like Jesus is saying, “Well, it took us a few thousand years, but we’ve finally found an honest descendant of that trickster Jacob!”
Nathanael knows a fellow truth-teller when he sees one, and he owns up – “You got me. So how did you get to know me so well?”
Jesus merely answers “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” We often read what comes next as an instantaneous conversion, but given the context I think it’s far more likely that Nathanael is still unimpressed. “We-he-hell, if you saw me under a fig tree, that seals it. Teacher!” Nathanael replies sarcastically, “You are the Son of God, King of Israel!”
Jesus decides to play along: “Oh really? You’re going to believe just because I saw you under that fig tree?” Another rueful smile. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
I love this passage for a couple of reasons. One, Jesus is funny. We so often read over the humor in the Gospels, but I love that the one who calls us to joyful but often challenging self-growth has a sense of humor about it.
And two, Jesus doesn’t just call the earnest, enthusiastic, supremely sincere or pious types. He calls a wisecracker who, I imagine, will continue to be a little skeptical about all the crazy things Jesus will ask his disciples to do as they journey with him.
I deeply appreciate that Jesus knows all about Nathanael’s cynical, hard-to-impress heart, sees the core of who Nathanael is (an impressive feat even if Nathanael remains unmoved) – and instead of telling him to drop the attitude or become more like his simple-hearted friend Philip, he jokes along with Nathanael and invites him along for the ride.
Many of us have some peculiar personal attributes we’re pretty sure God can’t – or wouldn’t want – to use: a penchant, like Nathanael’s, for telling it like it is; a neurotic streak; a love affair with impatience; an introverted disposition; a surfeit of doubts and questions or a tendency to think of yourself first. But in this passage Jesus calls both Simon Peter, who would later betray him, and sharp-tongued Nathanael, reminding us that no one, no failing, and no personality trait is beyond God’s call.
After all, as the Psalm says, God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. God knows the landscape of our spirits because God was there when we were created – when the plumbing went in, so to speak. And because God has been there ever since, God also knows the darkest, strangest, and least pious corners of our souls.
I’ve been catching up recently on episodes of Call the Midwife, the BBC show about midwives working in London’s impoverished East End in the 1950s and 60s. The midwives are about half secular nurses and half Anglican nuns, and the collection of personalities called to their ministry is quite, shall we say, varied.
One of my favorites is Sister Evangelina, a wide, squat nun of bleak working class origins who grumbles about piles and heartburn and is always taking someone to task for failing to live up to her exacting, old-school standards.
Jennifer Worth’s books, on which the series is based, describe how in the convent Sister Evangelina is somewhat a fish out of water. She doesn’t share the background of the other Sisters (or even the lay midwives) and doesn’t get their genteel humor. A modern-day Nathanael, she is blunt to the point of rudeness and is often at odds with aristocratic Sister Monica Joan, who senses her discomfort and teases her about it. Yet Sister Evangelina is the one who has the best relationship with the East End people whom the convent serves. This is in large part thanks to her jokes about bodily functions, which far from being the subject of middle-class shame and embarrassment were seen by her patients as the very stuff of life.
Jenny, the author and narrator, describes her struggle with Mrs. Jenkins, a seemingly catatonic patient who refuses to respond to any of her questions and thwarts all attempts to care for her. After an opening salvo or two, Sister Evangelina is similarly frustrated. “You’re a tiresome old lady,” she grumbles. “We’ll see what this does.” Jenny writes:
Slowly [Sister Evangelina] leaned over Mrs. Jenkins and as she bent down she let out the most enormous fart. It rumbled on and on and just as I thought it had stopped it started all over again, in a higher key. I had never been so shocked in my life. …
A throaty chuckle came from [Mrs. Jenkins’] armchair.
“Cor, that’s better,” said Sister Evangelina happily; “Nothing like a good fart to clear the system. Makes you feel ten years younger, eh, Mother Jenkins?”
The bundle of clothes [under which Mrs. Jenkins was buried] shook, and the throaty chuckle developed into a real belly laugh. Mrs. Jenkins, who had [rarely] been heard to speak…laughed until the tears ran down her face. …
Sister Evangelina sat down beside her, and the two old ladies…rocked with laughter about farts and bums and turds and stinks and messes.
….From that moment on, Mrs. Jenkins lost her fear of us. Sister Evangelina’s action had been brilliant. A masterstroke.
Though it seemed a contradiction in terms, Sister Evangelina’s “fart [had somehow] cleared the air.”
Sister Evangelina took her utterly impoverished upbringing, one that had made it nigh impossible for her to become a nurse, let alone a nun, and turned it into the key to her ministry. She was under no impression that her lack of refinement or her penchant for bathroom humor would disqualify her from following Jesus. For the thousands of patients over the years whose trust she gained through being herself, and for the nuns and midwives who loved her dearly despite their differences, thank God she was right.
Still, it must have taken guts for Sister Evangelina to stick with a group of women so at odds with her personality. And it must have taken guts for Nathanael to follow the Messiah when Jesus knew all about him – including the particularly unflattering remark about Jesus’ hometown he had just made! Disciples in Jesus’ time were itinerant, just like their teachers – they followed them around the countryside, traveling and living together. That’s some close quarters for someone who can read you like a book! Every uncharitable thought you have, every selfish impulse, every grumble about “When is this guy gonna be done preaching so we can EAT?” will be exposed – yet for some reason, Nathanael says yes.
In a way, though, it makes a lot of sense – there is also freedom in knowing that you belong in the inner circle despite – or rather, including – your foibles and follies and fuck-ups. Whatever you thought would exclude you – would keep you from acceptance, from doing meaningful work, from belonging, from love – is a non-issue. There is a deep power in that kind of unconditional honesty – I think it’s why places like AA meetings speak so powerfully to the people who find their way there. They are reminders that you are not just okay just as you are, but that you are good for something, useful, necessary just as you are.
The image on the front of your bulletin was commissioned by our sister denomination, the United Church of Canada, in 1973. It was drawn by Canadian artist Willis Wheatley, and although it’s frequently referred to as The Laughing Jesus, the title is actually Jesus Christ, Liberator. A laughing liberator – a quick-quipping Jesus trading ripostes with Nathanael – reminds us that there is joy in being freed from not just the hierarchies and injustices of our world, but from our own narrow conceptions of what we must do or how we must be in order to follow Jesus.
Maybe you’re familiar with the Marianne Williamson quote that asks, ” ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? ” I’d like to tweak it just a bit: ” ‘Who am I to be a beloved, chosen disciple of Jesus, to be doing God’s great work in this world?’ Actually, who are you not to be?” Marianne continues: “You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. …We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
In other words, “You[, God,] are the one who created my innermost parts, [and y]our works are wonderful—I know that very well.” When you call me and I accept, when I become part of your family, one of your beloved friends and followers, just as I am – when we laugh together about my quirks and shortcomings you know so well – I become free. And others see that you call me whole, even with all my imperfections, and that I have accepted your call, and they feel free, too.”
It’s not that Christian discipleship doesn’t call us to change and to grow – maybe, possibly, perhaps, to be slightly less cynical or to give up some of our anxiety or our impatience or to occasionally temper our bathroom humor or our need to know how everything will turn out. It’s that none of these things disqualify us from discipleship or from ministry. Friends, whatever you’ve been waiting on to deepen your spiritual life, to get more involved in your faith community, to share about what God means to you with your kids or your friends because you aren’t doing faith perfectly, or you’re not holy enough, or you have doubts, or there must be someone better qualified than you…be a Nathanael. Come on board anyway, with your questions and your uncertainty and your surprise that God can and already is working through you towards something far beyond the pedestrian. Be a Sister Evangelina, unafraid to give your life and your vocation to God even if you don’t look like anyone else’s model of holy.
The Rev. Gary Peterson, former United Church of Canada moderator, described Jesus Christ, Liberator as “a drawing of Jesus with head thrown back, mouth open, a face full of laughter… a laughing Jesus, as he announced the good news of God’s love, and invited everyone to experience the Kingdom of God that was breaking into their midst. Sure…he recognized the wild incongruity between his vision, this holy promise, and the reality that surrounded him, with Roman oppression, economic hard times, religious authorities [invested in simply] maintaining the status quo,” and of course, a motley crew of disciples – skeptics and doubters and head-scratchers who sometimes struggled “to catch the dream. But Jesus laughed, trusting that nothing was impossible for God.”
Let us laugh, too.