The Power of Vision: A Sermon for MLK, Jr. Day
First rule of preaching: don’t talk about your parishioners in the sermon. I'm breaking that rule. The day before Thanksgiving, I saw Courtney in the grocery store. She didn’t see me so well because she had just gotten back from her annual eye exam and her pupils were still dilated. Unable to see labels clearly, she asked over the crowded meat section, “Pastor is this packaged ham?” Having a little fun, I said, “No, it's lamb” and we had a nice laugh.
There is a difference between sight and vision. There are plenty of people who can not see and yet have vision. As eyes grow dimmer with age often times our vision of life becomes clearer. Often it our vision is perhaps more failed than our sight.
God sees. One of the symbols of God is the seeing eye surrounded by a Trinitarian pyramid. It’s on our money. The first two things we know about God, going all the way back to Genesis Chapter 1, is God speaks, “God said, Let there be..” and God sees. “God said let there be light.. and God saw that it was good.” God sees the truth about what is and God sees what can be.
God’s calling of Nathaniel in John 1 illustrates the way in which God’s vision of us proceeds our own. God’s vision of us proceeds our own. The primacy of God’s vision has implications for our politics and economics, unsettling our assumption that the world is measured and determined by our sight and valuation.
Look how the story unfolds.
Jesus found Phillip and Phillip said to Nathaniel “We have found the one… Jesus of Nazareth” Wrong! Jesus found him; the first instance of not seeing things as how they really are in this passage.
Nathaniel replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Can anything good come out of what I assume is not going to be good?”
Phillip says ”Come and see.”
Jesus was a victim of prejudice! More to the point Nathaniel would learn that he was a victim of his own prejudice and shortsightedness. His vision was clouded. When told of the Good News of Jesus Nathaniel dismisses it because Jesus is a Galilean and from the center of Galilee Nazareth, too boot.
Nazareth was a town with a reputation. In fact all of the Galilee was considered a backwater. Galileans were considered a bit like hicks, backwoods, not as bad as Samaritans but they certainly weren’t Judeans.
I imagined when Nathaniel said this, Others, maybe even Phillip probably chuckled at this like people do at stereotypes. I can see him shaking his head and saying I know I know, come on. Philip’s response “come and see” is as much as a response to Nathaniel’s statement as anything. Can anything come out of Nazareth? Well, you come check it out else.
Typically, this passage is used among Christians as a verse for evangelism. “Come and see what we are doing at our church” and yes that is an invitation. But this passage is a different kind of evangelism. It is a “come and have your assumptions challenged” invitation.
The key to that is further on, in the conversation. Listen again. Nathanael asked Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
In Deuteronomy, Israel is described as a land of fig trees and pomegranates. And Deuteronomy says that there will be a day when each shall live in safety under their own fig tree. The prophets used fig trees as examples and it appears in the Song of Solomon and Proverbs as well.
Resting under the fig tree was perhaps resting smugly in his religion and birth right. He’s Judean privilege. He probably thought of himself as a good person, didn’t see any need really to change or change the world around him.
He is being called from the religion that he was comfortable with to discipleship. An invitation to transformation.
Dr. King was arrested in Alabama for leading some protest a group of so-called moderate clergy had taken out an ad asking for him to wait on justice and be more patient give things a chance to change. To rest under the tree. Weren’t things better they asked? Be patient!
He smuggled a letter out of the jail in response to their statement. It was written on toilet paper and scraps of paper. The Letter from a Birmingham City Jail says in part.
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
“I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
Dr. King was calling Christians to leave the shade of the fig tree and join a movement.
To paraphrase Jesus, I see you chillin-out under the fig tree. Time to get up.
That clarion call is still being sounded today.
I broke the first rule of preaching with my Courtney story and now second infraction: Don’t talk about yourself too much. Nobody likes a name dropper.
In 30 years of preaching, I don’t think I have ever told this story from the pulpit. There was an instance of calling that I would like to share with you about my faith. This is my testimony. That’s a phrase we don’t use in Lutheran circles very often.
MY first year of seminary, I was quite unsure about my place in the church. I had no idea if I would be a pastor or not. I felt a nudge to go to seminary rather than a calling. While taking a course in Atlanta in the 1987’s, The Rev Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, was running for president and was to preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The church where Dr. King had been the pastor.
The place was packed. As the service ended and the clergy recessed, Rev. Jackson noticed me in a pew. I wasn’t hard to pick out, and a he walked past the pew, he leaned over to me and said, “Follow me.” Hmm, where have I heard that before?
Admittedly, I was easy to pick out of the crowd, being as melanin challenged as I am. Stunned by the use of our Lord’s words “follow me,” I did. I’m sure he had no idea he was using Jesus’ words but that’s the way I heard it. I don’t think that he was inviting me to a life changing but to a photo op, understandably so.
Oh, the name dropping has just begun…. I left the church with him, Coretta Scott King, and Congressman John Lewis. How’s that for a troika of name dropping. It gets better. Carried more by that tide than by decision, for all the world to see in front of network cameras and CNN I went with this group to lay a wreath of Dr. King’s tomb. And I never felt like a bigger hypocrite in my life.
I had done nothing to earn that tremendous honor. I was the guy that thought all things racial had ended. Things had gotten better. I was the one who told a little racist joke. No harm done, I thought. I said things like “why do they riot and burn down their own businesses?” “Why do they..” being the key part of that. I was the one who never challenged other’s racism. In my secrets, I felt I was somehow better. I did not see privilege or accept it. And God was not having it. I converted that day from a racist to an anti-racist. This is not to say I am better than anyone else. I am not and I am sure that I don’t need to tell you that. But I do believe firmly that God was telling me that I need to take a look at my life and when I do that, to stop resting under the tree. I was on the news for all the world to see but God had already taken a look at me. God sees us long before we see God. We don’t find Jesus. Jesus finds us.
Not everyone has such dramatic or obvious instances of calling. But everyone does have a calling. Everyone has “a come and see.” And what we are invited to see is the mess that we are in.
This week and the last few years have been and is a time of dramatic and obvious calling for all of us, the whole church, the churched and the unchurched.
This violence on our streets is the fruits of white blatant white nationalism and supremacy. It is symptomatic that the surrender of privilege will not go easy. It never does. It is wholly contrary to scripture and an abomination in the presence of God. And we are called not to rest under the tree, there will be time for that, but to confront our own prejudices and call to task these around us. We can not be silent from the pulpits or around the dinner tables.
I realize that this congregation is leaps and bounds away from the racism on the steps of our capital. IT should be noted however that our words and actions, sermons and prayers do travel across the internet and in our circles, among those we interact with and to those we encounter.
The wonder of our Gospel today is what Mark Davis calls “the humble awareness of being seen.” Jesus saw Phillip, Jesus saw Nathaniel and Jesus sees you. The God made known in this Messiah is the God whose power of vision comes first.
The invitation to come and see is still a genuine invitation. More than that it is a privilege. And it begins with the knowledge that we are seen by God, and that our callings matter. Our discipleship matters. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!