Who do you see? A reflection on Martin Luther King Day, 2015

Forget what you may have been told about salvation.  It may not have to do with being rescued from the fiery pit of hell.  Instead, the Bible seems to say it has more to do with  encounter, meeting, being known for you and what you are, and then allowing Jesus to open your heart.  What if salvation is as simple, and as scary, as a meeting with someone who is very different than you are, and the discovering a in that presence that everything changes?

The story of Jesus' encounter with Nathaniel can easily be read as a story about how the love of God overcomes the fear of the stranger, including the fear of those of another race.  It's a fascinating and timely story given this particular year's celebration of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the commemoration of Jonathan Daniel's martyrdom 50 years ago in Hayneville, Alabama.

The first chapter of John's gospel is basically a series of meetings and introductions.  God meets humanity in Jesus.  Jesus meets John the Baptist.  Crowds from all over Judea meet John.  Religious know-it-alls come to meet John.  Two of John's disciples introduce themselves to Jesus.  One of them is Andrew who goes and tells his brother, Simon, who in meeting Jesus is told he has a new name, Peter, or the Rock.

Then, Philip, a neighbor of Andrew and Peter in Bethsaida, decides to seek out Nathaniel to make yet another intro.  At this point it's important to get some geography.  Nathaniel seems to think of himself as rather sophisticated.  He fancies himself to be somewhat superior because of his birthplace, and perhaps even because of his ethnicity.  We pick up suspicion of strangers when he responds to the invitation to meet Jesus of Nazareth whom Phillip believes to be the messiah.  Nathaniel's cynical response?  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

This was a slur, plain and simple. Nathaniel's assumption was that Nazareth was a backwater town, economically depressed, full of people who scraped by getting a living as housecleaners or laborers, maybe even sanitation workers--the servant class that got by as best they could attending to the needs of the governor of Galilee who was headquartered a few miles away in Sepphoris.  For some reason, Nathaniel, perhaps a self-employed fisherman, living on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, felt himself socially superior from anyone coming from the hick town of Nazareth. 

But what happens?  As Nathaniel reluctantly and skeptically approaches Jesus, Jesus immediately acknowledges him, sees him for who he is, and tells Nathaniel just who he sees...an descendant of Jacob, whose name is Israel.   Israel, as we remember from his stories in the book of Genesis, is actually a man FULL of guile and deceit.  (Remember how he tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing?).   But Nathaniel, Jesus seems to suggest, is perhaps more sincere than his ancestor Israel.  A huge compliment. 

This meeting, this acknowledgement, this recognition for who he really is, causes Nathaniel to sputter, "But, where did you get to know who I am?"  When Jesus tells him how he had seen Nathaniel, even from afar, it leads to this high confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.  Because Jesus sees Nathaniel for the wonder that he is, Nathaniel, in turn, sees Jesus for the wonder that he is.   Nathaniel preceded Peter in making this astounding acknowledgement, confession, of who Jesus is... the Son of God, the Christ.

Salvation comes to Nathaniel in a meeting, in an encounter, in being seen, despite the veil that his culture would use to separate and make Jesus invisible to him and Nathaniel invisible to Jesus.  They see each other.

And this makes this gospel passage one for our times.  Who sees you for who you really are.  And whom do you see?  Who do we NOT see?  And whose presence is God unveiling, revealing, disclosing (in this Epiphany season), to us for our salvation?

This year the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated on Monday, January 19.  We can expect to see a lot of vigils, hear a lot of public reflections (like this one), and perhaps demonstrations meant to remind us of how much work we still have before us to reach that promised land where children of every race will be able to play and worship and work together in harmony, peace and respect.  

Recently I was reminded that the word respect literally means to see again. (re-again, spect- to observe, see).   Nathaniel only needed to be seen by Jesus once to be acknowledged for the disciple he would become.  But Nathaniel had to see again , to learn to respect, Jesus, not as a hick, a low class, idiot he assumed would come out of Nazareth, but as the Son of God, the Christ 

A few years ago, I was leading a meeting in the parish I served in Amherst, Massachusetts.  I believe it was an annual meeting of the parish.  It was one of those settings when the rector stands in front of an assembly, points are made, and the rector tries to make sure everyone who raises their hand is called on to speak.  And, as any priest moderating an annual meeting will tell you, the goal to get through it without acrimony or embarrassing questions about the budget.

 The day was a huge success.  I was happy and relieved. 

The following day, I had a visitor in the office.  She was a relative newcomer to the parish, she and her husband had just started to attend and we were delighted.  They both had joined the choir and the choir director was ecstatic for they added enthusiasm, joy, and great voices into the mix.

They were both African-American.  Professional, educators and counselors.  Well- known and loved in the community.

She sat down in my office on the morning after the Annual Meeting.  Her heart was heavy.  She told me that she was very disappointed in me, and she felt it important to tell me why.

"During the meeting yesterday, when we were having the open discussion, you didn't call on me.  I had my hand up, but you didn't allow me to speak or ask a question,"  she said.

"I am so sorry.  I guess I didn't see you,"  I said.

"Yes. I don't think you did.  And that's a problem.  I was the only black person in the room, and you didn't see me," she said.

All I could do was apologize. And thank her for telling me her experience.  I told her I needed to hear this.  It was hard to hear.  In fact, I felt deeply chastened. I didn't feel scolded or harshly rebuked, but I knew that I had been given a profound gift, one that I would have preferred not have receive, but one that I had to accept and integrate.

Unlike Jesus seeing Nathaniel, I hadn't been aware, I hadn't even been looking. 

When she left my office, I felt deep remorse.  I wanted to fix it.  There was hurt there, and it preexisted the Annual Meeting.  In fact in preceded the day of either of our births, just as the prejudice of Nathaniel against the Nazarenes preceded his birth.  And it will endure.  She and her husband, despite my attempts to meet again and re-welcome them to the congregation, left the congregation soon after and returned to the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  We were cordial and warm in our encounters in the town afterwards, but I was always aware of that the healing is not easy or quick. 

If we take today's gospel seriously our job, our first job, in breaking down the veils of blindness and the walls that divide us as a society, if we take the gospel story of Nathaniel and Jesus to heart, is to see each other as though through the eyes of a God of love.  We might ask in our congregations, in our search committees for new clergy, and our nomination committees for new vestry members, who are we seeing?  Who are we not seeing? 

Not easy, this seeing.   It sounds simple enough, but there seems to be obstacles.  Just look at the nominees for this years Best Actor award at the Oscars.   Who's there?  Who's obviously missing?  Hint:  David Oyelow, the actor who portrays Dr. King is not on the list of the nominees, all of whom are white.  By many reports, Oyelow's performance is stunning and deserving of at least a nomination.  But who is doing "the seeing" for the Academy?

Just a few days before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King spoke these words from the pulpit at the National Cathedral: “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing ‘In Christ There is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour in America.”

That is what he saw.  It is what we see to this day.  But let us not lose sight of the dream that still bothers, inspires, and motivates us to this day.  As Jesus promises to Nathaniel, whose eyes were open to see the Son of God, "You will see even greater things than these.  Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."   May it be so.

The Episcopal Church of New Hampshire