Archive for January, 2018

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Sermon, January 14th, 2018)

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

John 1: 35-51

 

“DO YOU KNOW JESUS?”

Who in this church didn’t just have a full body shudder at that question? I ask that without making assumptions. Some of you probably didn’t have that reaction, and I’m so glad! Because there’s a reason that for many of us that question is shorthand for a horrifying inescapable interaction, utterly alien to the actual experience of meeting Jesus.

For too many people, this question is a trap, because there’s no answer that will extricate you from it. If you say “No,” prepare to be treated as not only a future victim of hell, but a victim too stupid to know how much danger you are in. But if you say, “Yes,” that can actually be worse, because then all too often you will be treated to a longer conversation where you will be led down dark theological pathways where there most definitely be dragons. You’ll be asked if you or your church is “Bible-believing,” and we all know what people who use that phrase think it means, don’t we? You’ll probably be asked if you made a personal commitment to a one-on-one relationship with Jesus, who is all too often treated as a sort of celestial boyfriend slash school principal having long walks on the beach with you while also keeping a tally of your many errors. You’ll be asked what you and your church think about women, queer folks, and non-Christians. You’ll be given sword drills, and God help you if you think it’s less important to know the letter of the law than to know the spirit, and God help you twice if you don’t even know what sword drills are.

Think of how much easier it was when, in answer to the question “Do you know Jesus?” you could say, “Yeah, that guy,” and point.

And yet I wonder if that particular occasion ever really occurred, because the story we read today, and many other stories we have read in church, show us that it was never so simple as “that guy over there.” Because Jesus was, above all things, compelling.

This tale of Nathanael cements the writer of the Gospel of John as a master storyteller. Jesus finds Philip and says, “Follow me.” And what is the immediate response? No hesitation. Part of that is John’s Jesus, who is almost supernatural in his attraction, and who knows each of his sheep by name. But I can’t help but believe that there was some truth to this trait of his, because we find evidence for it in the very fact that the Christian faith exists today, two thousand years after the fact. This person was a spiritual magnet. Jesus finds Philip and says, “Follow me,” and Philip not only thinks, “Okay!” but he runs immediately to find someone else to join him. He has to tell someone about this person.

He finds Nathanael.

Nathanael makes a very old joke, one which seems most appropriate this week in light of a certain president’s comments, and one which is still repeated today in Nazareth. Actually I was in Nazareth a year ago, and we learned that there is an answer to that question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “No – the good ones stay.”

City pride aside, Nazareth was such a podunk place that up until very recently archaeologists were arguing about whether it ever actually existed in Jesus’ time. It was likely just a few families, maybe no more than 200 people at the most, living together and resisting the Greek lifestyle that the Jewish puppet kings were promoting, trying their best to live a Jewish life. There were probably rebels among that crowd, Zealots and fundamentalists praying for the redemption of Jerusalem and the overthrow of the Roman Empire. A sketchy profane place which surely could never produce the titanic spiritual figure that those Jewish peasants believed would be the Messiah. A sh – well, you know.

So Philip comes to Nathanael with wild starry eyes, and you can imagine now why Nathanael was skeptical. But here’s where we really get to the heart of the matter. When Nathanael asks his famous question, Philip cannot even provide a real response.

All he can say is, “Come and see.”

This is a very special phrase in John, a Gospel which is basically a Jenga tower of special phrases and words. It does not only mean “Come and see.” It has thousands of millions of strata beneath it. It should not be disentangled from another phrase which comes up a lot in John: zoē, the Greek word translated “eternal life.”

“Come and see. Come into the presence of eternal life.”

Christianity cannot be distilled into one prayer of salvation, or one service, or one set of rules, or one church, or even one important book. If Christianity is a tree, the roots are a series of thousands of charged encounters between disciples and this strangely compelling person who walked the dusty roads of forgotten towns changing lives with his words and his presence – a presence so powerful, so utterly seductive, that his followers claim it left a sort of afterglow when he had gone, like the smear a bright light leaves on the eyes; a presence that left everyone who came into contact with it inexplicably changed; a presence which filled those people with a holy wildfire that could not be contained but spilled out across the whole earth; a presence which people were willing to die proclaiming and honoring.

The story doesn’t end with “Come and see.” Nathanael comes to find Jesus, and Jesus makes his own joke: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This isn’t just an assessment of character. The word Israel comes from the name that God gave to Jacob, which for Greek-speaking Jews was tied to the Greek word dolos, which means “cunning,” or “crafty.” Here is a son of Jacob in whom there is no Jacob! We can read it as Jesus knowing about the kind of person Nathanael is, or Jesus making reference to Nathanael’s biting honesty in his earlier comment about Nazareth. It doesn’t really matter, because what the writer of John is trying to say here is, “Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who knows his own.”

Nathanael is perplexed that this guy not only knows him, but saw him “under the fig tree.” We’re not sure exactly why this excites Nathanael so much – does it demonstrate a sort of second sight? It’s not clear – and Jesus is right in his teasing response: “What, you believe because I say I saw you under the fig tree?” It’s true: Nathanael will surely see greater things than these – he will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. This is a continuation of that earlier joke, referring to Jacob’s ladder. Nathanael, a new Jacob, shall not only see but befriend a ladder for angels – not in dreams, but in his waking life. Nathanael, and all of the disciples, shall find themselves always walking on holy ground.

And we children of these latter years, far removed from the dusty roads of the Galilee, will and have seen greater things than these. We see these things in our churches and in our day to day lives. We have inherited a robust faith which engages hearts, minds, and bodies. This is why it’s so important to look beyond the kind of faith that relies solely on miracles and superstition. Jesus himself pushes us past this. It’s not just about seeing people under fig trees, or performing magic tricks. It’s about affirming that the holy came down to us in order to call us upward. It’s about becoming like Nathanael, seeing angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, the one who put on our flesh in order to bridge the gap between created and uncreated order and thereby became a channel for all creation to ascend.

It’s about being lifted up to join our ancestors, to become saints, in our earthly lives.

It’s about being invited into eternal life – on earth, as in heaven.

Do you know Jesus?

Look around you. You do.

“Andia and the Wild Star,” (Story sermon, Epiphany tr. January 7th 2018)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:1-12

 

It was still dark when Andia awoke, left her warm bedroll, and walked down the gentle slope to the river with her water jar. In the distance she could see the strange brilliance of what she called the “wild star.”

As she approached the campsite, she saw movement.

The Magi had awakened.

She still couldn’t believe they had brought her on their journey.

“She’s just a little girl! She is not strong or fast or wise!” her father had cried.

“Neither am I!” laughed cheeky Kaspar, and winked at Andia. He was her favourite.

“She has much to learn from us – and we from her,” said thoughtful Melchior.

“What can you learn from a child?” grumbled her father.

Andia loved her three teachers, but she feared he was right.

She did her very best to be helpful. Whenever anyone gave her an order, she ran to do it as fast as she could. She had tripped a lot, but she hadn’t cried once. Not loudly, anyway.

When the Magi were ready to depart, Andia mounted Kaspar’s camel and waved until her parents were tiny dots in the distance.

That was months ago.

Now Andia joined the Magi in their morning Yasna prayers before the sacred flame, then enjoyed a simple breakfast around the cooking fire. Kaspar asked how she slept.

“I had a dream!” she said.

“What was it?” Balthazar asked. He always asked about her dreams.

“I saw the wild star come to rest in a valley,” she said.

“Did you see where the valley was?” asked Melchior.

“No. But it felt safe.”

Melchior said, “Hmmmmm.”

“Andia, do you know what a fravashi is?” asked Balthazar.

“It is a gift from our god, Ahura Mazda. Before we are born it is one with our soul. While we live, it protects us, and when we die, we will be one with it again.”

“Very good,” Balthazar said. “Important people have special fravashi, and they can appear as stars.”

He pointed to where the wild star burned its cold fire. “We think that this is a fravashi.

Andia was amazed. “It must belong to a very important person.”

 

When the sun began to set that day, Andia saw lights in the distance. “What’s that?”

Balthazar smiled. “That’s Jerusalem. We will meet someone there.”

“Who?”

“King Herod,” said Melchior.

“Is that his palace?” she asked, pointing to a massive building at the top of the hill.

Kaspar laughed. “That is the temple of Adonai, the god of the Jewish people.”

Andia was filled with awe. That god must be a great god indeed.

They entered the city gates. The rabbit warren of cobblestone streets were fragrant with exotic spices, adorned with colourful fabrics, and ringing with voices. But Andia also saw many poor and disabled people begging for food.

Finally, they arrived at Herod’s palace.

They were welcomed with great ceremony. Servants brought food piled high on golden dishes. Beautiful women danced and an orchestra played.

And yet Andia felt uncomfortable. She couldn’t explain it, but a little frost had formed on her heart.

She thought it was Herod himself. It wasn’t just that he was chubby while outside there were so many hungry people, or even that he laughed when Melchior explained Andia was receiving religious education. She couldn’t explain it.

Finally, their bellies full, Balthazar told the king about the star, and that it belonged to the King of the Jews.

Andia frowned. Wasn’t Herod the King of the Jews?

King Herod’s mouth curved in an ugly, mean way that made Andia shiver. He snapped his fingers, and a crowd of old men appeared with scrolls. After a hurried conversation, King Herod turned back to the Magi.

The smile on his face did not meet his eyes.

 

The Magi and Andia left in the morning laden with provisions. Herod urged them to search for this king so that he could also pay homage.

Andia did not trust him. She was relieved to leave the palace.

They left Jerusalem and retreated into the countryside again. One night as the sun set, they crested a hill. Spread out in the little valley below was the small town of Bethlehem.

Balthazar cried, “Look!” and they craned their necks upward.

The wild star had stopped.

They urged their camels on. Shepherd boys gaped at them as they passed. Andia waved.

They passed through the sleeping city. The few people outside stared at their camels and resplendent robes. But the Magi did not stop.

Eventually, they came to a shabbier part of town. A little light burned up ahead, and they found themselves before a run-down hut.

Andia gasped. “This was in my dream!”

“This can’t be right,” said Balthazar. “This is no place for a king.”

Kaspar chuckled. “Andia’s wild star must belong to a wild king.”

The door was a woollen blanket hung on the inner lintel. Melchior reached for it, but Kaspar stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“A wild king will not be impressed by men like us,” he said gently. “Andia should go in first. You were right. I think we’re learning a lot from her.”

They all turned to look at her.

Andia took a deep breath and approached the doorway. She heard a soft voice inside, singing what sounded like a lullabye.

“Hello?” Andia squeaked.

The blanket was pulled aside. A bearded man with kind eyes, dressed in threadbare clothing, stood in the doorway.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Um…my name is Andia, and I am here with my teachers,” Andia replied.

The man’s eyes widened as he saw the Magi.

“We are here to see the King of the Jews,” said Balthazar.

The young man stepped back, leaving space for Andia to come in.

She entered, and the Magi followed.

The house was tiny, with a packed dirt floor. A small fire burned in a pit toward the back wall, and by the fire sat the woman who had spoken. She was young, with a bundle in her arms.

King Herod had made Andia’s heart frosty. This woman made it feel like embers stirred up in the morning for a new fire.

The woman smiled. “Come closer, little girl.”

Andia did, and the woman shifted the bundle in her arms. It was a baby.

The embers of Andia’s heart caught fire.

The woman handed the baby to her. He looked like an ordinary baby, and yet Andia somehow knew that he was not.

Andia turned to the Magi, full of awe. “This is the King of the Jews.”

The Magi stared, then looked at each other, confused.

After a long moment of silence, though, the three fell to their knees.

“We have gifts for the king,” Melchior said with great reverence.

The baby snuffled and wiggled.

The Magi produced their treasure chests. The young woman opened them, and Andia laughed to see the baby’s eyes grow big as the gold flashed, and his little nose wrinkle at the bitter smell of the herbs.

Joseph insisted they spend the night. Andia was glad they still had provisions to share, for the couple did not have much food. Later, they all bedded down in the same room. Andia put her bedroll next to the baby’s, and fell asleep watching him kick his tiny feet.

She woke up a few hours later in a cold sweat. Balthazar was on her other side, and she snuggled against him, afraid.

“What’s wrong, Andia?” he said sleepily.

“We can’t go back to Herod. Something bad will happen.”

“How do you know?” he asked, eyes dark with concern.

“A man told me in my dream. He shone brighter than the sun.”

Balthazar’s eyes widened. “Don’t worry. We won’t go back that way.”

She was afraid to say more, but felt comforted by his trust.

“I saw more things in my dream. A tree on a hill. It blossomed, withered, and blossomed again.”

“What do you think it means?” he asked.

“I don’t know. But it feels…important. Do you know?”

He shook his head and told her to go back to sleep.

She could tell he was hiding his thoughts from her.

 

When the Magi awoke in the morning, Balthazar mentioned Andia’s dream. Melchior looked at her for a long time, then nodded. She was amazed at their trust.

The young woman, Mary, hugged Andia for a long time. The baby grabbed her finger and squealed, which made Andia laugh.

They left not long after, although Andia wanted to stay forever.

The further away they got from the little hut, though, the more the previous night began to feel like another dream.

Andia could not stop thinking about the wild infant king, and her dream of the tree.

Somehow, she knew in her heart of hearts that she would never dream a more important dream.

Sancta Viscera Track #7: Silent Night