Come First, Then See

(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on the Second Sunday after Epiphany 2018). 

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I want to note two special prayer concerns for today, one of them sorrowful and one joyful. First, I have added Steve Homberg to the prayers of the church. Few if any of you have ever met Steve, but he is the associate to the bishop for financial matters. He touches every part of the ministry we do here as Lutherans in Chicagoland. He suffered a major stroke while in surgery in November and has not yet been able to return home.

The joyful prayer today is for Todd Wright and his family—Jill, Cassidy, Bridget, and Ian. Todd was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament last night in a beautiful service. Bishop Miller presided, Pastor Bob Davis from Holy Cross, where Todd served as an intern, preached the sermon. Pastor Ellen Arthur, who had supervised Todd as a field education student, was part of the service. So was the supervisor of chaplaincy education at Condell hospital, and the group of students Todd is learning with right now.

In these prayers we remember that we are tied together with so many people we do not know and may never meet. And we could not be the church without them.

As I pondered the Gospel for today, I was thinking of one of those people to whom I am tied through the church. I was anxious about meeting him for the first time. He was interviewing me to be an intern at his church. And the only thing I’d heard about him was that he could be rather blunt and harsh with people. I was probably not at my best during our meeting because of this anxiety. You know how you can get kind of cool and protective when you’re nervous about the person you’re with? That was me.

But he was perfectly fine in the interview, and I evidently didn’t blow it, because a couple months later I was starting my internship at his church. And again I was anxious, because this church is in the Englewood neighborhood and I mostly knew that neighborhood by reputation. I’d lived in two different neighborhoods on the South Side and I had worked in many more, but my experience in Englewood was very limited. And it had—still has—an intimidating reputation.

So there, too, I arrived with my guard up. Cool. Protective. Watchful.

I didn’t think at the time of how that would make people there feel. When you’re an idealistic white person showing up in an African American community that has high levels of poverty and significant social challenges, you feel so pleased with yourself that you really can’t imagine people there being turned off or hurt by your own fear and aloofness.

But in any case, the nerves passed quickly. I found a church, and a neighborhood, that was warm, passionate, kind, friendly, dedicated. Despite all the challenges. Despite the kind of poverty that comes from being starved by the financial system for decades. Despite the crime. To the point where I would plead with people: come down here and check this out. Come and be a part of this, just for a Sunday or for a Friday night youth gathering.

But there was another side of this: I developed a chip on my shoulder about Englewood. It had to a join a stack of chips that were already there about places I’d lived: the South Side overall, the White Sox ballpark, the city of Chicago, Wisconsin in general, northern Wisconsin in particular, my own hometown. But it was worse with Englewood. “Why on earth would you want to be down there?” I was asked. In a church.

At the right time, this made me want to answer the question straightforwardly. The people are good, the spirit is strong, the sense of community is greater than anything I experienced on the North Side, church matters. At the wrong time, it just made me furious. Who the heck are you, buddy, to look down on these folks and the place they call home? They are real people and you don’t get to dismiss them because of where they live.

Not often enough did I give the right answer: Come and see.

Because it is really, truly a vile thing to dismiss human beings based on their country, their city, or their neighborhood. And anyone can do this. During a recent special election I saw memes ridiculing residents of a whole state, shared by people who consider themselves liberal and progressive. 

Yes, people suffer under corrupt governments or chronically poor economies or bad infrastructure. But they didn’t choose those things. And they are as highly regarded by the God who formed them in the womb and who hung on the cross for their salvation as anyone, anywhere. They are as full of human possibility, and as likely to astonish the world with their gifts if they’re given the chance, as anyone anywhere. It may even be that living with poverty or bad government has given them kinds of strength we don’t know anything about.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is calling his first disciples. And one prospect, when he hears that this so-called Messiah is from the town of Nazareth, says “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Now this man, Nathanael, is from Bethsaida. Today no one remembers the all-time record between Bethsaida High and Nazareth Consolidated. But local rivalries and reputations are what they are, and Nathanael looked down on Nazareth.

But I’m glad that Nathanael asked that question. It’s the question that would be asked, implicitly and explicitly, of Jesus’s followers ever after. Can anything good come from Galilee, can anything good come from the province of Palestine, can anything good come from the people of Israel, can anything good come from these unimpressive fishermen and their very ordinary followers. For that matter, can anything good come from the first century A.D.? It’s so distant and barbaric. Every single one of those questions gets asked, over and over, down to our own day.

And because Nathanael asked that question, Philip could give him the only answer that matters: Come and see. Come and see this Messiah. Come first, and only then will you see. Philip could have wasted his time arguing that Nazareth is a good place, or criticizing Nathanael for scorning it. Or he could have said, “Sure, Nazareth is a dump but here’s why I think this guy is the Messiah anyway.” Instead he just said, “Come and see.”

The arguments almost never matter. When someone tells me “I want to believe, I just want more evidence,” it’s almost never the case that evidence is the real problem. People don’t want to come. It is safer and easier inside—inside your home, inside your community, inside your own soul. To come out, to go where the Messiah is offered to you, is hard. You will never see enough evidence to get you to do it. You just have to get up and come.

That’s how faith works: Come first, then see. Go to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and behold, I will be with you always. Leap first, then look. It’s true when you are seeking assurance or forgiveness or grace. It’s true when you are pondering whether to put down some heavy sin. It’s true when you are wondering whether there is any value in another human life that is in some way at your mercy. It can seem impossible. It can seem pointless. But it is the only way God breaks through our hardness of heart. It is the only way God breaks through our pride. It is the only way God breaks through our prejudices and our habits. Come first, then see. Because God does not call you to see what you expect, or what you want, or what seems reasonable to any of us. God calls us to see his salvation—to see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending upon God’s incarnate Word, born among us and pitching his tent among us all. Amen.

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