The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Can Anything Good Come Out Of Nazareth?: A Sermon on John 1: 43-51

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, January 14, 2018]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to John, has often called the charter of Christian mysticism. It opens with a beautiful hymn interspersed with the arrival of John the Baptist, called by scholars “the Logos Hymn.”

If you leave out the story of John the Baptist, and use the King James version, the hymn reads:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

The poetry is important, though it requires you to pass over the the sexist language that uses male pronouns to include women; but if you do, the hymn comes more clear as a poetic summary of the entire Gospel story, from the beginning of creation to Jesus’s lifetime, his rejection by his own people, and his death. And, although it isn’t spelled out for us, Jesus’s resurrection is subtly portrayed, too, in the fact that the world itself was created through him, and he is somehow both inside and outside time. And the end of the story is a gift for a hope-hungry world: the power Jesus brings each and every one of us to become children of God, ourselves, flawed as we are daughters and sons of God.

In my old King James Bible, that amazing poetic hymn ends on the same page as the funny little story of Nathaniel we just read begins.

We’ve descended from the poetic heights of the Logos Hymn to the “Israelite in whom there us no guile,” to stay with the King James for the moment. And not just because I like the sound of it better, but because the word “guile” means more than just deceit, although it certainly encompasses that as well. It means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cunning,” “wily,” “artful” (in the sense of “tricky”).

A guileful person may be untrustworthy, but he or she is clever, rooted in the real world.

And that’s how Nathaniel tries to come off.

You can almost hear the bored yawn in his voice as he asks, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” After all, Nazareth is tiny, a rural little nothing in the middle of nowhere, Some might even call it a hole, or worse.

And yet this would be sophisticate from the City looking down on that hick town of Nazareth, is sized up by Jesus at first glance: “Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” Jesus says as Nathaniel approaches.

Nathaniel, shocked, asks “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus simply answers “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

And, somehow, that’s all it takes for Nathaniel. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” he exclaims. “You are the King of Israel!”

Even Jesus is a bit taken aback by this. "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these," he promises.

But Nathaniel doesn’t need anything more. He believes. And, as the Logos Hymn I just read out to you makes clear, in John’s Gospel, the power to become children of God is granted “to those who believe in His Name.”

We’re still in the first chapter of the Gospel, and we’ve got a new-minted child of God already.

How do we explain Nathaniel?

Not very often, but sometimes, we meet people who, although they have grown up, have not entirely lost the child in their eyes. The world remains fresh to them—its hurts as well as its pleasures.

Rather than embarrass a living person, I’ll give a fictional example who has stayed with me since I first met him in Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Warden. A Church of England clergyman, the Reverend Septimus Harding. He is a good man whose great love is music, and whose lifelong friend, now his bishop, assigns him a very well paid, easy job—he runs an almshouse for old men. He’s kind, and generous, but more of the almshouse’s budget is spent on his salary than on the charity. When the newspapers get a hold of this, they criticize Mr. Harding severely. And the institutional church, in the character of Mr. Harding’s son-in-law, the Archdeacon, rises to his defense, full of anger and self- righteousness.

The criticism hurts Mr. Harding terribly, but, as he later tells his daughter, if he believed that right was on his side, he would bear it, and fight on. He can’t though, because Mr. Harding, who open to even criticism, comes to believe that that his critics are right. And so he resigns, over the objections of the Archdeacon and his lawyers.

When, many years and five novels later, he dies, his worldly son-in-law speaks his epitaph: “He couldn't go wrong. He lacked guile, and he feared God—and a man who does both will never go far astray.” And the Archdeacon reflects on what Trollope calls “the sterner ambition of his own life,” and uncomfortably asks himself if he has lacked guile.

We live in a world where the Archdeacon’s question can cut to our own hearts too. After all, we swim in an ocean in which cunning, wiliness, trickiness, deceit, and, in a word, guile, are passed off as worldly wisdom. Step outside these doors, and you can feel the atmosphere of distrust and cynicism—the cheap laugh at a village, a community, a continent, as some kind of hole. The power play, the easy lies can seep into your lungs.

All this worldly wisdom can make truly human relationships impossible; we can all become guarded, afraid to be vulnerable, to be open. To be without the protective armor of guile.

And we can’t say that it can’t be done, that it’s not worth doing. It’s so worth doing that, 2,000 years later we read the story of Nathaniel, and, even if we smile at the ease with which he recognizes Jesus as the King of Israel, we are here doing the same thing in our 21st Century way.

And we especially, sisters and brothers, who gather here should not take refuge in cynicism, in trickiness, in guile. After all, we stand here today in a building commemorating a man without guile.

Oh, didn’t you know?

Nathaniel is better known by his surname, son of Tolomew, or, in the style of his people, bar-Tolomew.[1]

St Bartholomew’s Church, our own St. Barts, commemorates that man who’s openness to his experience didn’t require a great miracle, a transformation of water into wine, or even, as Jesus promised him, “heaven open[ing] and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

I’m sure he was very impressed by all those things, but St. Bartholomew didn’t need them. Jesus’s recognition of him, as the man he was, lacking in guile, was enough. He loved because he was known and understood.

And this great building, this community of faith, honors that loving response, and urges us to try to find it within our own hearts, however cynical our times, however guileful the world becomes.

At the end of the day, our faith isn’t about doctrine or intellectual precepts. They have their place, of course, and I wouldn’t deny that for a minute. But Christianity done right is about loving God and our neighbor. It’s about being willing and able to make that leap of faith into love, into relationship, being willing to offer radical welcome to the stranger, knowing sometimes it will have costs.

Whether it’s a smile to a stranger, doing a shift at one of our community ministry programs, visiting the sick, or even just being kind to that really annoying co-worker, and persevering with it, we can find our own ways to respond to the recognition and love with which we have been welcomed.

Because guile loses, in the end. As Stephen Moffatt recently put it, and as St. Bartholomew demonstrated so many years ago, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

[1] Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, vol. 3, p. 233 (1928).

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