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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Nathanael: A Person for Such a Time as This, Part 1

First preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC, January 15, 2012

John 1: 43-51

     What sort of time is this?  It is a time of economic crisis affecting families.  Families struggle to maintain their homes, to keep or find jobs, and may have to delay or set aside their educational goals.  It is a time of economic crisis for institutions.  Institutions such as churches and universities, public schools and medical facilities, struggle to keep their programs running at minimal funding and staffing, hoping for a change that will bring donations, remuneration, government funding, faculty, employees, student enrollment, and service workers back to a more reasonable level.  It is a time of economic crisis in the housing industry.  Housing values continue to drop, putting homeowners under water.  People wanting to sell a home receive offers far below their expectations, and people wanting to buy search far and wide trying to get a loan.  Many neighborhoods have as many empty, foreclosed homes as there are occupied homes.  It is a time of economic crisis for jobs.  With so many jobs shut down and taken overseas, the employment base has crumbled.  Jobs dependent on high levels of consumption have disappeared along with the easy credit of the housing boom and bubble.  All the paper wealth five years ago has turned into unemployment and foreclosure for workers.
     What sort of time is this?  It is a time of war.  War drags on almost endlessly in the strategic battle to control oil and gas reserves.  Wars are threatened or break out over trade as countries try to maneuver for advantage over one another.  Wars continue in Africa over cattle or control of precious gem mining.  Wars erupt when popular movements demand change in dictatorial regimes across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  Leaders foment wars in the name of revenge.  Bigots go to war because they nurse hatred toward their neighbors.
     What sort of time is this?  It is a time of political disarray.  Four who hope to run for president accuse one another of the basest of motives and most despicable acts.  Congressional leaders stand in the way of just and humane policies for the sake of defeating their opponents.  Political speeches target scapegoats as the cause of all social problems, all the while ignoring the obvious roads to progress.  Corporate money plays an ever-bigger role in political decisions, and the politicians seem happy to keep it that way.  And as the political wheels keep turning round and round, the public sentiment increasingly disapproves of everyone in government and politics.
     What sort of time is this?  It is a time of change and unexpected arrangements.  I can be a full-time professor at Shaw in North Carolina and a resident of Texas, spending one-third of my time in North Carolina, teaching both face-to-face and through the technological advances of the internet.  It is a strange time, a time of change, a time of challenge, a time of struggle, and a time for people to rise up and hear the call of God.
     Today’s Gospel reading tells a familiar story about the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry.  Two of the four gospels introduce Jesus to us through stories of his birth, infancy, and early childhood.  All of the Gospels tell us about his cousin John, the forerunner, who begins the work by stirring the hearts of people throughout Israel.  Then just as we are getting acquainted with the grown man, Jesus, he begins to call together a team of followers.  The stories are brief.  These thousands of years later, we only know the sketchiest of details about most of the early followers of Jesus.  Even among some of the best known, the twelve we often call “the disciples,” our knowledge is limited. 
     Perhaps in the first century, when these literary works were being composed, many more stories and details about these followers of Jesus were circulating.  At least in Galilee, families and church elders had told stories about Jesus and the people around him, stories that did not all get transcribed into the record of Jesus’ life and times that the Gospel writers finally recorded.  Thus, what we are left with are a few fragments of a greater story, a story whose fullness would be too great for all the paper and ink that we could gather.
     Yet we need not be despairing about the fragments that come down to us in the Gospels.  They are not mere random scraps patched together.  They are stories chosen with a purpose.  They convey central truths about the presence of God in this world as revealed in the divine and human one, Jesus Christ.  Therefore, with this premise that what we can read in the Gospels is rich with significance, there should be much for us to glean by examining stories about the ones whom Jesus invited to join in his work.  We can still learn from the ones who left behind their work and homes and families to take up the great adventure of announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, when God will reign in love and justice in this world.
     At this point in the Christian year, after Advent and Christmas, after celebrating Epiphany, we enter the season in which the Lectionary offers us stories from Jesus’ months and years of preaching, teaching, healing, confronting, and ministering, the fruition of the life to which he was called and for which he was born.  Here on this second Sunday of the season, we read about an episode during which he was gathering others to work alongside him.  Nathanael, who is likely also known as Bartholomew in the other Gospels, is one of the twelve.  Some others are better known to us:  Simon Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Judas Iscariot, Thomas, Matthew, Andrew, and Philip.  Others may be less well known—another James, Thaddaeus (who may also have been called Jude), and another Simon. 
     Reading this story of Nathanael elicited questions in my mind.  What was significant about this story that made it important enough to write down in John’s Gospel?  Who are these people, and why did the Gospel writers remember them?  Why does knowing about these people help us to know and love God better? I propose that there are good reasons to look at the stories of Jesus’ calling of the disciples.  Above all, we can learn about the way Jesus is still calling people today.  Jesus did not come into the world to be a recluse or a solitary old codger.  He came into the world as an outpouring of the love of God for humanity.  He came to draw people to God, to attract people to a way of life, to bring people together who had divided themselves from one another.  He came to enjoy God and enjoy his fellow human beings.  Jesus is still calling you and me to let God’s love flood our lives.  He is still offering a better way for us to live.  He is calling us to stop building walls that divide us.  He is inviting us to a feast, to relish the wonder of this marvelous world where God has placed us.  Yes, the stories of the disciples help us understand that Jesus steps out into our world and says, “Come with me.” 
     We can see evidence of those very things in the story of Nathanael.  Off by himself, perhaps a bit too sure of himself, or should I say a bit to full of himself, even a bit too self-satisfied, Jesus calls Nathanael to join in his mission.  So Nathanael leaves his comfy little shade tree to take on the challenges of Jesus’ way.  He lets Jesus break the yoke of self-satisfaction and enters the yoke Jesus offers, a yoke in which Jesus is bearing the greater burden.  Nathanael becomes overwhelmed by the power and wisdom of this man he previously underestimated.  In the brief story of Nathanael, there are many things we can learn.  Among those things, one may be that we can learn why Jesus called this particular person to become his partner in ministry.  I will come back to this story of Nathanael.  But first, let’s take a look at the other eleven whom Jesus called.
     Maybe, in fact, we can discern something similar about the other disciples as well, if we give some freedom to the sacred imagination.  Why did Jesus choose these people? 
     John’s Gospel suggests that the very first of the twelve to begin following Jesus may have been Andrew and Philip.  It tells us that these two had been following John the Baptist, listening to him preach, even assisting in his work.  When John introduced Jesus to the crowds, they determined to follow him to see what sort of person he was.  Andrew and Philip were devoted to God.  They had already, even before meeting Jesus, focused their lives around becoming close to God and serving people who were seeking after God.  They were not merely satisfied to meet the legal requirements of religion.  They were out in the countryside, helping set up the camp meetings, listening, praying, and doing what John asked them to do.  So when they inquired after Jesus, he told them to come along.  They spent the whole day together, and Jesus saw what kind of people they were.  Jesus called Andrew and Philip because he could see in them an unquenchable thirst for God.
     Do you thirst for God?  Do you long to be in a right relationship with the one who made heaven and earth and placed you in the midst of it?  Longing for God’s presence and love is in the very nature of who we are, and nurturing that longing helps us to get on the path toward its fulfillment.  Jesus looks upon our longings and seeks to redirect them in the right path, a path that will lead us to know and love God better.  Count it a gift if you already find in yourself a deep thirst for God.  Like Andrew and Philip, Jesus will honor your longings and draw you near.
     Andrew’s brother was Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter.  Peter was not exactly like his brother.  He was busy with the family business.  Maybe he thought Andrew was not being practical enough.  Yet he must have been raised by his parents to understand that nothing else can replace having a right relationship with God.  After spending the day with Jesus, Andrew went home to find his brother, and he brought him to Jesus.  Based on the many stories of Simon Peter in the Gospels and Acts, we have a better picture of him than of any other member of the twelve.  Peter was strong and solid, and not merely in bodily strength.  Jesus called him a rock.  For the most part, the stories of Peter show his courage and exuberance.  These qualities are what Jesus saw in Simon Peter, and they show us why Jesus called him to join up. 
     The reasons for calling James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were probably similar to the reason for calling Peter.  They picked up the nickname “Sons of Thunder.”  They were bold, outspoken, perhaps excitable and boisterous.  Thunder is loud, and it can shake the buildings we are in.  The stories tell us that on the day Jesus called them, James and John were at the seashore working hard.  He must have observed their work ethic and perhaps their lively and boisterous conversations.  Maybe on another occasion he had seen their tempers explode into shouting.  Such passion misdirected can lead to harmful actions and violence, but if powerful passions are turned toward love and justice they can bear fruit for good.  Jesus saw in these powerful fishermen a potential for bold preaching and hard work to change the world around them.
     What makes you become passionate?  Do you sometimes feel a welling of emotion, of anger or resentment, and wonder if you can keep control?  God made us to be emotional beings, and covering up our emotional side, trying to hide our passions, is not what God wants for us.  Rather, God wants us to learn to aim our emotions toward the right objects.  Love our neighbors, not our money.  Hate injustice, not people.  Be angry and sin not.  Do not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth.  God has made us passionate beings that we may pursue what is good for us and our neighbors.  Thus, our loves have a direction.  They should all move in the direction of loving God with our entire heart, mind, and strength.  Jesus saw the potential for such powerful love in the brothers, James and John.  He still calls people who can turn their passion toward doing good for others.
     When Jesus was getting to know people around the towns of Galilee, he sometimes fell in with a disreputable crown.  That is how he found himself having a party with a group of tax collectors and other shady fellows.  He came to know one of them named Matthew, probably also called Levi.  Matthew enjoyed having the gang over for a good time.  He also was a shrewd businessman.  Jesus saw him in the city gates taking care of business when it was time for work.  He saw how Matthew had turned his talents toward getting rich and having a good time with his riches.  What if his active mind could be busy with the Lord’s work?  What if his insight into what makes people tick could be channeled into ministry?
     It’s so common in our lives that we find what we are good at doing, but then we keep it to ourselves.  By that I mean that we figure out how to do our thing for me, myself, and I.  We use our talents to boost ourselves, and the friends we make become just so many stepping stones to getting our own little kingdom.  But Jesus sees our skills and talents as ways to bless the people that come our way.  He sees the energy and effort of Matthew repurposed for the good.  He sees a way that every one of us can do what we are best at in service of God.
     Judas Iscariot must have been a man with a purpose.  He had a strong focus on what he wanted to accomplish.  Some think he may have been part of a revolutionary cell who attached himself to Jesus as the most promising leader of the day.  Others see him as more self-serving.  We read about him in hindsight.  The Gospel writers introduce him as the one who betrayed Jesus.  But when Jesus called the disciples, that betrayal was far in the future.  I have no doubt Jesus could anticipate that someone close to him might not remain loyal, but I don’t believe Jesus went out looking for a traitor to join his team.  Jesus attracted and invited followers who would devote themselves to building up God’s reign on earth.  Judas Iscariot showed promise in his hard-nosed dedication to keep things moving toward the goal.  He may have struggled with patience, wanting Jesus to get on with the revolution and not dilly-dally with things that Judas saw as frivolous.  But that is not necessarily a bad quality; it just needs refinement.
     Jesus needs some people who are impatient about the injustices of this world.  Jesus needs some people who don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over when it has not worked the first ten times we tried it.  Jesus needs some people who don’t want to burn daylight when they could be making a difference.  Jesus may call you to use that inner drive, that longing for change, that love of getting things accomplished, and to direct it toward the work of the Kingdom of God.

Continued in next post

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