- Parish House
Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany – John 1:43-51
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
It was my husband Jason’s birthday recently. Don’t worry, it’s totally fine to talk about him when he’s in the room. You might not know that he’s color blind. This means that every year, when his birthday rolls around, several of his friends and relatives ask him if he would like a pair of those special sunglasses that correct for color blindness. When I asked him this year, he patiently restated the answer he always gives, which is no. He sees the world the way he sees it, which is different from how I see it, but that doesn’t mean it’s deficient. But we all keep asking him, especially after we see videos of people putting on those glasses for the first time and having an amazing moment – tears of joy running down their faces, full of wonder at the world in technicolor for the first time. We want him to have that moment. Or maybe we want to have that moment of watching him having a moment. So, we’ll probably ask him again next year.
I bring up this little birthday anecdote because it’s perplexing to think about people seeing the world differently. It shakes our confidence in what’s true. Color blindness is an interesting case study, because if you start to question color, things get weird. What if we all see color differently, and while we agree that the altar hangings are green, my green might be a little different than your green. It would be awkward if we held different truths about green.
Of course, there are plenty of similar questions about seeing the world differently that are far more pressing. How is it, for example, that two faithful Christians can study the Bible and come to opposite conclusions about what it teaches on a particular issue? Or, how can two people who both love their country and the common good cancel each other out at the polls? My parents did that their entire 58 years of marriage. It became a running joke in the family. But the truth is they never talked to each other about it because they had no idea how to resolve the fundamentally different way they viewed politics. It’s unsettling when we look at the world and see it so differently. The Enlightenment brought us the idea that any two rational people will look at a question and answer it in the same way. Since we’re still steeped in that idea, it’s difficult when people don’t see things the way we do, and we’re divided over what’s true.
Maybe being stubborn and close-minded over we believe is true is human nature. John’s account of Jesus calling some disciples starts from that place. When Phillip asks Nathanael if he’s heard about Jesus, he responds from the gut, from a truth he thought he knew deep down. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was a backwater town, not exactly the location for messianic expectations. Hearing these words today should give us pause. This week we heard political comments about immigration that I can’t repeat from the pulpit, asking essentially the same rhetorical question – can anything good can come out of certain African nations and Haiti. It’s the same kind of gut response as Nathanael’s, based on an entrenched narrative of what’s true about others deemed inferior or less consequential. This is not the pretty, shiny side of human nature. It’s the part that dehumanizes the other. It comes from that same place in ourselves that rejects the possibility of truth beyond what we already think we know. At first glance it would seem that not much has changed in 2000 years.
What Jesus does next in the story is extraordinary. He does not condemn Nathanael for his response. He does not get hooked into judgment of Nathanael or defensive as we might be prone to do. Instead he calls him to be a disciple, even after the slur. Jesus goes so far as to honor Nathanael as a kind of new Jacob, saying that will see angels ascending and descending just as like the original Jacob’s ladder. That’s remarkable after the Nazareth snub. Jesus was able to see a nobler side in Nathanael, a side that could be cultivated and used for his mission. What started out as a gulf between them was bridged. Jesus was able to see Nathanael with different eyes, and it healed something in Nathanael.
As followers of Jesus, this is our higher calling as well. To not get so easily hooked by those who see things differently from ourselves. To not judge, categorize, dehumanize, or dismiss others. And to not let our divisions be the final word. This gospel shows us that another way is possible. Those gut places in us can be healed. Following Jesus is a path of reconciliation and hope that our divisions are not inevitable or permanent.
It’s not an easy or quick path, but it’s a faithful one. And it’s something that we have to offer as a community of different minded people who manage to come together week after week despite whatever separates us. Jesus told us that we would know him in the breaking of the bread. And so we gather for an encounter with him, to be changed by his presence. We come for many reasons, including to be changed like Nathanael, for our gut reactions to be tempered and for our nobler character to increase.
Sara Miles, a champion of a locally famous food pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, has a wonderful description of this process. She talks about the diverse sampling of humanity that frequents the pantry. Some of the people are easy to love and to want to help, of course. And some are very difficult, almost downright impossible to love, as in any true sampling of humanity. But something clicked for Miles. She describes an idea that came to her one day at the pantry. She imagined putting on Jesus goggles, and suddenly being able to see each person as God does, imperfect and challenging, but also holy. Suddenly everyone was refracted into a common humanity. The Jesus goggles allowed for spiritual eyesight that could see beyond what divides us – money, stability, mental health, political views, all of it. The scriptures tell us that Jesus saw Nathanael like that long ago, and it healed him. And something is surely healed in us when we glimpse how we are seen by Christ, and in turn see other people the way he does.
I loved the idea of Jesus goggles as soon as I heard it. It’s a playful image for a profound path. The gospel calls us to see ourselves and one another through a different lens, as God does. On a good day that’s not so hard. The hard part is what comes next, actually living it out. It’s far easier to stay divided and to judge and to get hooked, especially by people who claim a different truth. But we’re called to stay in relationship through Christ so that what is broken can be healed.
I have wondered if putting on Jesus goggles would be like the videos of people who put on glasses for colorblindness for the first time, suddenly seeing the world in it’s full glory. Such a moment is offered to us each time we hear the gospel. It’s like putting on those glasses to see the one who came to redeem us all, refracted in our common glory, which is how God has seen us all along.