I have a confession to make. When I was in college, I was so focused on being an academic student that I paid little attention to Martin Luther King. It was shortly before his death that I began to take notice of him, of his message, and of his methods.
Of course, I am not alone. Many, many people did not pay much attention to King, even though many, many others were telling us, “You’ve got to come and see this guy!”
I was skeptical. What does this guy have to do with me? How will my life be any better because I pay attention to this man? After all, he’s so different from me: he’s African American, from the south, stirring up conflict, and willing to go to jail for his principles.
But, after he was killed, I began to really pay attention to what King had been saying and doing. He preached justice for all people; he used non-violent demonstrations to bring attention to his cause; and he was against the war in Viet Nam. His words sounded like Jesus, and like what I believed, too. I should have been paying more attention!
... In our gospel reading, Nathanael is sitting under a fig tree when Philip finds him. We are not told why Nathanael is sitting under a fig tree. It could be symbolic for wisdom; it could be that Nathanael has some authoritative role in the community; it could mean that Nathanael is prosperous – able to own land and fig trees; and it could simply be that it was where Nathanael happened to be sitting when Philip found him.
Philip says to Nathanael, you should come and see this guy. Nathanael responds to Philip, saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In other words: “This Jesus is so different from me, how will my life be any better because I pay attention to this man?” In response, Philip does not try to explain, or argue Nathanael into coming and believing; he simply invites him to come and see for himself.
So, Philip and Nathanael set off to see Jesus. Jesus has apparently observed the conversation, or knows about it in some special way. He greets Nathanael by commenting that Nathanael is a man who speaks his mind. Jesus knows what Nathanael thinks of people who come from Nazareth – they are country bumpkins, hopelessly unsophisticated. Perhaps like the Beverly Hillbillies. J
When Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip found you,” Nathanael realizes that Jesus is no country bumpkin, but someone with a keen insight, and special powers. And he names Jesus “Rabbi,” “Son of God,” and “King of Israel.” Nathanael has gone from skeptic to believer, and begins to really pay attention to Jesus.
... At the end of each Sunday worship, we close with two challenges: “Go in peace. Remember the poor,” and “Next week, bring a friend.” Those are not just words we say, but they are intended to remind us to take what we have felt and learned here in the sanctuary with us, beyond these doors, out into the world. It’s pretty easy to remember the poor – to bring our offerings of cash and food and toothpaste.
But it’s a lot harder to bring a friend. Jan once said to me that she had knocked on all the doors in her neighborhood many times inviting people to come to worship with her. And no one ever came. Many of us have had the same experience. We know which of our neighbors are already involved in their own church and which of our neighbors turn a blind eye to religion of any kind. It’s no use inviting them, and we know it.
So, why did it work for Philip and Nathanael? I think it was the friendship factor. Nathanael knew Philip well enough to give him a chance. And Philip knew Nathanael well enough to not argue with him, but to invite him to decide for himself.
Philip’s own excitement must also have played a part. He didn’t say, “Hey, maybe you’d, well, sort of, like, want to come with me some time.” Philip said, “We have found the Messiah, the one promised in Scripture!” and then he said, “You’ve got to come and see this guy!” His excitement was enough to convince Nathanael to at least go with him, if only this one time.
... Jesus sought out Philip. Philip sought out Nathanael, and took him to see Jesus. If we are going to grow as a congregation, we will need to be like Philip and invite others to come and see Jesus. But, Lutherans are not typically very good at this. Many Lutherans believe our faith is a private matter. We hold fast to the notion that we should keep our faith, our money, and our politics out of our conversations.
In addition, Hope is not a big, flashy congregation, with lots of dollars, lots of people, and lots of programs. We are rather like Jesus. People might say of us, “Can anything good be happening at Hope Lutheran Church?” Our answer can easily be, “Come and see.”
When people ask me about the congregation I serve, here is what I tell them. “Hope is a small congregation with a lot going on. We love to get together for a pot luck supper or a pancake breakfast or a wedding shower. We really enjoy giving cash and in-kind offerings away to those in need. We care about each other in large and small ways. We love to have visitors, and we want them to come and share their gifts and talents with us. We have been through some difficult days and have grown stronger and more faithful to God because of those challenges. I invite you to come to worship or an event, and see for yourself.”
There are lots of people in our communities who have been disillusioned with religion, with the church, for many reasons. They are looking for a more authentic, welcoming worship and community experience. That is exactly what Hope has to offer. And that is something we can proudly share with people who need to meet Jesus.
... Let me close with a story. Cathy met Ron at the bookstore where he was working. After several encounters, Cathy invited Ron to come with her to church. She knew Ron didn’t go to church, and that he was looking for a way to learn more about Jesus. She also knew Ron loved to eat. So Cathy said, “Please come to church with me next Sunday. After worship, we have a pot luck.” Ron asked, “What’s a pot luck?” Cathy explained about pot lucks, and Ron accepted the invitation. A few months later, he was baptized at that church. When I knew him, he was serving on the congregation’s council.
Cathy knew Ron well enough to not try to convince him with words that her congregation would be a great place for him. She used what she knew about him – that he was looking for Jesus, and that he loved to eat. She invited him to come and see for himself. You all know people who are looking for Jesus, but don’t know just how to find him. Perhaps Hope is just the place for them. They will never know unless you invite them to come and see. I challenge you this week to pray for God to help you identify people who are looking for Jesus.
... Please pray with me. Gracious God, every week, we are here, to share your love with each other. Help us to identify some folks we can invite to come and see and feel your love, too. Amen