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Epiphany 2 – St. Paul’s – 1/17/21

Our readings for the second Sunday after the Epiphany are all about seeing.  In the book of 1st Samuel, we encounter the priest, Eli, whose physical and spiritual eyesight has grown so dim, he cannot see what’s right in front of him.  The Psalmist describes a God who searches and sees us; a God who probes our secret thoughts, words, and ways; a God who beholds us when we’re still unformed “in the depths of the earth.”  In his letter to the troubled Corinthians, St. Paul urges his readers to see themselves rightly, to understand that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  Not cheap and expendable commodities, but sacred vessels bought at a high price for the glory of God.  And in our Gospel reading, Jesus sees Nathanael — sees into his heart, sees who he is and what he needs — under a fig tree, prompting Nathanael, the skeptic, to look past his stereotypes, and see Jesus for who he really is: the Son of God.

When I was a youth minister, the phrase WWJD—what would Jesus do was everywhere. Youth  came to church with the acronym emblazoned on bracelets, t-shirts, caps, and hoodies.  WWJD? Preachers used the question to title their sermons, and youth group leaders chose it as an organizing theme for summer camps and Vacation Bible Schools.  Goldmine industry though it became, the spiritual goal of the paraphernalia was to encourage kids to orient their daily lives around the example of Jesus’s life and teachings.  If Jesus were here right now, facing the situation we’re facing, what would he do?

As we’ve now left Advent and Christmas behind, and entered into the brief,  luminous season of Epiphany, I wonder if we might shift the WWJD question a bit, from What would Jesus do? to What would Jesus see Epiphany, after all, is a season of light and revelation, a season of searching, discovering, finding, and knowing.  As we read the Gospel stories that shape this liturgical season, I wonder what we can learn from the penetrating and grace-filled vision of the Messiah.  If Jesus were here right now, looking at what we’re looking at, what would he see?

Jesus said….come and see….we are being invited to come and see with the eyes of Christ. Come and see. This is not about a theory, or a doctrine, or a philosophy- this is about direct experience. It’s about meeting Jesus here and now.

How can God happen here? How can anything good come out of Nazareth or Marfa or Terlingua or what took place in our capital? Come and see. Those first disciples are overawed in their initial reception of Jesus. We have just found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote,  Philip announces to Nathaniel who is sceptical at first but a few minutes later is himself saying to Jesus; You are the Son of God, the King of Israel!  It’s going to take him, and all of us, the rest of our lives to realize the implications of that spontaneous revelation. As Jesus says to him: You are going to see greater things than this. You are going to see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

Think about those words come and see. There is an openness to that invitation. They are not saying you’ve got to answer this problem or solve this mystery- they are simply saying you’ve got to be open to it- attentive to all that is about to happen.

Come and see is not about control or mastery but a choice to participate in a story greater than our own.

Come and see is about the Spirit of inquiry- the courage to set out into the unknown with your eyes and heart open on a journey of discovery.

Come and see is not about judgment, or recrimination or bitterness for the past but about hoping in God’s future.

In our story from the Hebrew Bible, we meet a priest named Eli who no longer expects to see or hear anything from God.  Not because God has abandoned him, but because he can’t find the courage, will, and moral fortitude to do what God desires.  Eli’s sons are also priests, but they are priests who have lost their way.  Priests who have made a habit of dishonoring God through extortion, greed, and sexual sin.

When Eli fails to restrain his sons, God turns to the boy, Samuel.  A child on the periphery.  A child whose sight and hearing remain uncompromised by the political interests and machinations of his elders.  A child who will tolerate an unfamiliar voice and an uncomfortable message without holding back.

God calls on Samuel to prophesy the fall of the house of Eli.  Meaning, God tells Samuel to name corruption in his own religious home.  To call sin out for what it is, even as that calling out upends the institution that sustains him.

What would it look like for us to do the same in this difficult cultural moment?  What does truth look like now, and where and how are we being called to speak it?

Some of the most disturbing images I saw during Wednesday’s attack were images of mobsters carrying Christian signs and symbols into the Capitol Building.  Jesus Saves.  God, Guns & Guts Made America, let’s keep all three.

I am tempted, like many Christians, to simply disavow such images, and move on as if they have nothing to do with me.  What would it be like instead to ask a harder and more painful set of questions?  Questions like:

How has the progressive church in America failed in its prophetic duty to represent the Jesus of love, mercy, hope, and restorative justice in the public square, such that we’ve allowed Christianity to be co-opted in violent, hateful ways that grieve the heart of God?

Where are the blind spots in our theology that allow white supremacy, bigotry, nativism, and populism to fester unchecked?

Are we enamored of power?  Of proximity to power?  Of approval from the powers?

How have we privileged personal piety over communal responsibility, such that we spend more time agonizing over what we believe about God’s grace, than we do embodying that grace to the world outside our church doors?

In this week’s reading from the Gospel of John, a skeptic named Nathanael makes a dramatic journey from doubt to faith, from ignorance to knowledge.  He experiences an epiphany, discovering for himself that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the Son of God, the Light that has come into the world.

But the story at its core is not about what Nathanael sees; it’s about what Jesus sees.  It’s a story about Jesus’s way of looking and seeing, and about what becomes possible when we dare to experience his gaze.  In this story, what makes salvation possible is not what Nathanael sees in Jesus, but what Jesus sees in Nathanael.

Seeing is always selective.  We have choices when it comes to what we see, what we prioritize, what we name, and what we call out in each other.  The selves we present to the world are layered and messy, and it takes both love and patience to sift through those layers and find what lies at the core of who we each are.  But there is great power in that sifting, too.  Something healing, something holy, happens to us when we are deeply seen, known, named, and accepted.

Jesus had a choice when it came to seeing Nathanael.  I wonder what would have happened if, instead of calling out Nathanael’s purity of heart, Jesus had said,  Here is a cynic who is stunted by doubt, or Here is a man who is governed by prejudice, or, Here is a man who is blunt and careless in his words, or, Here is a man who sits around, passive and noncommittal, waiting for life to happen to him.

Any one of those things might have been true of Nathanael.  But Jesus looked past them all to see an honesty, a guilelessness, a purity of thought and intention that made up the true core of Nathanael’s character.  Maybe the other qualities were there as well, but would Nathanael’s heart have melted in wonder and joy if Jesus saw and named those first?  Or would Nathanael have withdrawn in shame, fear, despair, and embarrassment?   Jesus named the quality he wanted to bless and cultivate in his would-be follower, the quality that made Nathanael a person of beauty, an image-bearer of God.

What would happen if we routinely saw as Jesus sees?  If beneath the anger, we saw a passion for justice?  If beneath the shyness, we saw a hunger for connection?  If beneath the bossiness, we saw a great capacity for leadership?  If beneath the loudmouthed banter, we saw prophetic truth-telling?  If beneath the quietness, we saw a gift for meditative reflection?  If beneath the recklessness, we saw courage?

Is it possible for us to see our present moment as Jesus sees it?  Instead of deciding that we know everything there is to know about the political others in our lives, can we ask God for fresh vision?  Instead of assuming that nothing good can come of the cultural mess we find ourselves in, can we accept Philip’s invitation to come and see?  What would happen if we left our comfortable vantage points, and dared to believe that just maybe, we have been limited and hasty in our original certainties about each other, about God, and about the world?  To come and see is to approach all of life with a grace-filled curiosity, to believe that we are holy mysteries to each other, worthy of further exploration.  To come and see is to enter into the joy of being deeply seen and deeply known, and to have the very best that lies hidden within us called out and called forth

Epiphanies are funny things — deeply personal, and hard to explain outside the context of our own lives.  I wonder how Nathanael told his friends about his Epiphany story in later years, and how they reacted: No, no, you don’t get it!  He saw me!  Don’t you understand?  He really saw me! And then I just knew!

But he was telling the truth.  Whether anyone else understood or not, it’s because Jesus saw who Nathanael is, and where Nathanael was (Here is a man without deceit.  I saw you under the fig tree) that Nathanael was able to see who Jesus is: Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!  In other words, it is when we have been seen in that profoundly personal way that we find ourselves able to see others.  It is when we have been loved right down to the core of who we are that we find the capacity to love other people as God loves us.

This week, we honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who dared to see as Jesus sees.  A man who dared to call forth the best in all people — both black and white, both victim and oppressor.  A man who looked deeply into the racial hatred of his day, and yet envisioned a world where justice would roll down like mighty waters.  

This is the call of Epiphany. We are to live boldly into the calling of Epiphany.  See.  Name.  Speak.  Bless.  God is near and God is speaking.  Many good things can come out of Nazareth. Many good things can come out of the insurrection in Washington.

We live with a fragile hope, but hope nonetheless.  Not because we’re capable of clear vision on our own–Jesus invites to come and see with his eyes…. because we are held by the eternal promise of Jesus who said: You will see greater things than these.  

We will.  We will see heaven open.  We will see angels.  We will see the love and justice of God. To see.  To call forth.  To dream. And to bless. Come and See