By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, September 18, 2022
Readings: Genesis 28:10-19a; John 1:43-51
I don’t usually start preaching with a prayer. I figure by the time we’re half an hour into Sunday service we’re sort of prayed up, you know what I mean? But I do want to share with you a prayer that has sustained me as I’ve transitioned here to TEMC. It comes from the Northumbria community in the north of England. Let us pray.
Christ as a light, illumine and guide me.
Christ as a shield, overshadow me.
Christ under me, Christ over me,
Christ beside me on my left and on my right.
This day be within and without me.
Lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
This day be in the heart of each one to whom I speak.
Be in the mouth of each one who speaks to me.
This day be within and without me.
Lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
Christ as a light. Christ as a shield.
Christ beside me, on my left and on my right. Amen.
That’s my prayer for us, that we would see Jesus everywhere, and follow.
The passage you heard earlier is part of Jesus’ introduction of himself to the world. He just waltzes into people’s lives and asks them to drop everything and follow him. He charges into our business, like he owns the place. And when he does that, and he still does that sort of thing, it is wise and good to drop everything and follow him. Here we get quite specific. The Bible names names and gives addresses. Philip, Andrew, Peter, Nathaniel. They’re all from Bethsaida. It’s a specific place you can still visit. A lakeside village. Fishermen.
I got to meet a pastor from one of the largest churches in the Netherlands. I asked why his church was still booming: multiple sites, thousands of members, when most of that country is disinterested in Christian faith these days. He said it’s simple: The sea. His is a seafaring village. No fool goes to sea without praying first. They’ve all seen people swallowed up, never heard from again. That’s enough to keep you praying. I said, it’s not much of a strategy for church growth to move churches to the ocean to get them growing. I was looking for some tips for leading well in Toronto. He said, “Well, it’s not working anymore here either, despite appearances. Fewer of our people go to sea now. We’re becoming a tourist town. And though most outsiders don’t know it yet, our internal numbers are trending down. Not a growth strategy at all, is it? To move the church to the sea and go back to fishing.”
How do we stay in awe of God then? Aware of the dangers of life? Desperate for divine mercy to save us? Willing to drop everything and follow?
This magnificent building marks our faith here, doesn’t it? It announces something. God is breathtaking. Awe inspiring. Majestic. I trust that’s part of why you come here. It’s why I wanted to join you. But there’s a danger in all this. The very thing that draws us: a perch over which to peer down into the dizzying depths of God—that thing can put off others. They see this building and say, well, that’s not for us. That’s for someone else. Different people. Religious people. Upper class people. The very thing that says to us “welcome to all!” can say to others “oh, no, not you, you stay out.” This is no accident. In Europe gothic churches were the greatest buildings ever built. They were built partly to instill awe in God, but also fear in the “wrong” people. To be fortresses against attack. Not a metaphor. Durham Cathedral, which I know best in Europe, was part house of God, part fortress against the Scottish. It wasn’t built to be full of worshipers. It was built to dazzle Saxons. To show the wealth and power of England’s Norman conquerors. When I see a church, I rejoice: God is working from this spot. When some of our neighbours see a church, they roll their eyes: You know, that place doesn’t pay any taxes? It’s an uphill battle y’all. The Eaton family built this church to give it away. They made it huge so countless people could have a perch on God’s majesty, could drink in all this beauty. Back then we were in a field way outside most of Toronto. Now we’re midtown Toronto, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the world. And we still want to invite all our neighbours into the beauty of God. How do we do it? When they, and we, can see things so differently?
I remember a family I worked hard to invite to church back home. They lived in a trailer, had faced enormous obstacles, but loved God and wanted to draw closer. I spent hours with them. When they finally came to church, I was elated – until I saw the looks on their faces. They’d come because I invited them over and over again, but they didn’t look drawn into the beauty of God like I was in that majestic space. They looked . . . scared. Terrified to make a wrong move. To do the wrong thing. Frightened that they were going to be judged or kicked out. You won’t be surprised they never came back. It is a tall order to invite folks into a space that feels to us as much a part of our lives as our home, our workplace, our community centre. The very sign that says to us “welcome to all!” can look to others like it says, “stay far away.”
But here, as ever, Jesus Christ is ahead of us. We heard where the fishermen are from. When one of the fishermen hears where Jesus is from, he scoffs. Belittles. Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth suggests poverty. Backwardness. It’s a place to pity. Think of the place you make fun of in your circles. Go ahead, take a second. Now, where did the Son of God make sure to be from? That place. Scarborough. Right? Don’t y’all like to drag poor Scarborough? No offense to Scarboroughians, I’ve never been to their fair city, I’m new in town, bear with me here, just trying to fit in. Where I’m from in North Carolina we’d make fun of towns with names like Possum Trot (really!). Bat Cave (yep, we got that one too). Whynot (for real). We hear Jesus of Nazareth and think, well, right, that’s one of his names. Nathaniel hears of Nazareth and laughs out loud. That place is a joke. The family I mentioned from the trailer park saw our church and thought, this is for rich, educated, high-class, posh people. Jesus, God in our flesh, moves into the trailer next door to them: the trailer they look down on for not being as nice as theirs and becomes their poorer neighbour and washes their feet.
What about us? How do we both maintain this treasure in midtown Toronto, this gift and legacy of majesty, and also follow the man from Nazareth? Scarborough? The place you make fun of, wherever that is? Because God could’ve grown up in Rome. Or Jerusalem. Or Caesarea. There were proper places to raise a kid with the best schools and opportunities. In that day, academies, coliseums, and markets. But our God grew up in a place that was considered garbage. Scholars say Nazareth would have had about 100 people in it. Barely even a village. Super religious and conservative. Very little contact with the outside gentile world. No legacy of creativity or opportunity or growth. And God says, perfect. In the south, we make fun of places poorer and more inbred than we are. North Carolinians look down on West Virginians and Mississippians. It's a way of deflecting from the fact that the whole south is historically poorer and more inbred and racist than the rest of America. With 100 people I promise there would have been jokes about cousins marrying and people too stupid to dress or eat or wash properly. That’s where God grows up. That’s the place permanently affixed to God’s name. Jesus of Nazareth. God from a punchline.
And Philip’s answer to Nathaniel is so priceless it’s easy to overlook. Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come out of that place? It’s a dumpster fire. A place of ignorance and bad hygiene and worse dental care and abominable schools.”
And Philip says, “Come and see.”
Come and see! This is too good. When people today think of faith we often think of beliefs. Okay, have this idea right in your head. Check. Now this one. Good. Or better, we think of practices: Get baptized; take communion; read the Bible. Those are good too. Worse, we think of avoiding certain behaviours. Like drinking or smoking or cussing. As if the Son of God got raised in Scarborough to stop people from saying naughty words. Give me a break. Philip says, “Come and see.” Come and see! Lots of faith the last 200 years has been go and do. Be a missionary. Fix other people’s problems. Bring up the poor’s standard of living. There has been glory in that. And some shame too. This is something different. Come and see. What does it mean?
A friend is a Catholic priest from Uganda, who teaches in the US. We had the Neema children’s choir sing for us at a picnic after church last week from that same beautiful country. When my friend asked me to visit his country it wasn’t to go and fix anything. We westerners have done quite enough of that. It was to come and see how lively faith is in East Africa. It’s not just that churches are booming, though they are. My friend says, “If it’s a religion, it’s growing in Africa”—no credit for that. It’s that hair salons and car dealerships and little village markets are named for Jesus. Faith has to do with hair and business and life. His fellow Catholic priests perform healing masses there. Why? Because if they don’t people will go to the Pentecostals for healing. Rivalry is everywhere too. They all believe in healing in every church. Not that they don’t go to doctors. They do that too. But they also pray. They’ve seen miracles. And they want more. Another Catholic priest friend told me he would retire in Uganda, not America. He said the health care would be worse, sure, but in East Africa, people respect their elders. Honour them. In America, he said, I would have a hospital, but in Africa I would have kindness as I grow frail. And that is more important, if you have to choose. I met women there who had adopted dozens of children. Fierce and funny nuns with no husband but Jesus, and a hundred children—orphans they’d taken in. School mistresses raising not just a family but a next generation for a country. In the west we think of Africa as a place to pity or go fix: Send an army or aide or t-shirts or people to paint. In reality, I found it Nazareth. A place God is from. Come and see. And be changed instead of trying to change anyone else.
When Jesus sees Nathaniel, he says this amazing thing. He says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” I like an older translation: “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Jesus sees Nathaniel and blesses him. “This is a faithful Jew,” he says. A son of Abraham. A child of Sarah. I’ve known people in whom there is no deceit or guile. People who are innocent in the best sense. Full of goodness. I’m not such a person. I hope God can change me into a person like that. Folks that are not naïve but overflowing with hope despite full awareness of all the problems. The great poet, Wendell Berry counsels, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” One who sees the best in people. When Jesus sees Nathaniel for the first time, he really sees him. And is delighted. Many think that if God looked right at us full in the face, God would be repulsed. Nuh uh. God sees us and absolutely melts with desire. God says you are the best thing I ever did. It may be the kindest thing anyone can say to you is they really see you. That’s God-like. I don’t think we can make ourselves good like Nathaniel is, only God can do that. But we can practice seeing people as God intends them to be. As God sees them: Treasured. Beloved. Nathaniel is puzzled. Dude, we’ve never met. Jesus says, oh but we have. Before Philip even invited you, I saw you, under the fig tree.
Now, on the scale of miracles, this one isn’t all that great. Jesus saw Nathaniel under a fig tree. It’s the Middle East: lots of figs, lots of sun, people stand in the shade. But Nathaniel erupts. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus says, whoa, chill dude, not a big deal. Or the actual words, “You believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things.” I love this. Nathaniel believes too much, too fast, slobbers all over Jesus, loves him up like a puppy and Jesus says hey, easy boy, settle down now, try and be cool. There’s plenty of time for amazement. You believe because I saw you under a fig tree. You’ll see me befriend the poor. Heal the sick. Challenge Rome. And raise the dead and empty out hell. Then you can love me up a little.
I remember when I first became a Christian for real at age 15. I worked all summer at the camp where I’d converted and became super dedicated to Christ. Memorizing Bible verses, praying constantly. I charged back into my high school and led the Christian group. We strategized how to convert our friends, how to bear witness in class at our public school, how to avoid temptation. It was heady stuff. I miss those days in some ways. And . . . we did damage. Our enthusiasm turned people off from Christian faith—the very thing we were trying to commend. We were Nathaniel, without being seasoned by patience or wisdom. We made a mockery of ourselves and our faith at times. Still, give me that enthusiasm back over being jaded, bored, tired, whatever man. You ever notice how someone is with a new band they want you to hear? Or a show to watch? Or a place to eat? Here, come with me. Listen to this, take my earbuds. Stop what you’re doing and be amazed with me. Can we all have that back for Jesus? I know it risks being mocked. Making a mistake. Looking foolish. There are worse sins. Since my teenage days I’ve gotten real respectable: Lots of degrees and a long resume and whatnot, I wear robes and use big words. But what about Nazareth? That’s where God is from. A place with none of those things. What’s on Jesus’ resume? No degree, no publications, no money, no descendants. All the things I pursue with all my energy. Not on his agenda.
I met a man who still has that energy later in life, seasoned with patience and wisdom. He’s a priest on the downtown East side of Vancouver, the poorest postal code in this country. He’s a sort of street angel. I call him the mayor. Everyone greets him. He stops and has time for all of them: Prays, jokes, offers care to folks I mostly swerve to avoid. I so admire his ministry. When I told him I was coming to TEMC, he looked at me amazed. That’s the first church I ever went to! He said. He hadn’t grown up in church but had a weird experience with Jesus as a teenager and got on his bike and went looking. He found us first and stayed. He loved the sense of awe here, the majesty, the beauty. He later became Anglican and was just as amazed to find Jesus among the poor. That radical vocation was born right here, 40 years ago. You planted that and didn’t even know it. You see how Jesus doesn’t just love the poor and even us more privileged folks. He brings us together and makes one church, one world out of us, a whole new humanity.
“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Now that’s quite a promise Jesus makes. He’s referring to the Genesis story we heard earlier, Jacob’s ladder, a story that still impacts our culture. If Led Zeppelin sings about you with “Stairway to Heaven” in 1970, you did okay 4,000 years ago. Our ancestor in faith, Jacob dreams and sees this ladder and angels going up and down. He wakes, takes the rock pillow he’d slept on, anoints it with oil, and calls the place Beth El, house of God. Quite a place to find God. In a dream for someone sleeping rough. A rock pillow, a place that was no place at all a moment before. That’s the house of God, the gate of heaven.
Jesus does something outrageous here. He takes that story—beloved in Israel—and says, “That’s about me.” Remember, he’s from Nazareth? The punchline of the joke? He says he is also Jacob’s ladder. He’s the way to heaven. There is traffic between heaven and earth. And Jesus is the escalator. The way to ascend and descend. Ascending is good and impressive. We human beings can build great buildings like this. Most cultures have them. Lots of folks in here have done well, climbed up high. That’s great, praise God, keep climbing and never stop, I’m right there with you. Here’s what’s more impressive. Descending. Divesting. God from Nazareth. Going to Uganda to learn not just teach or spend or pad a resume or snap pics for Insta. Anointing not just midtown but also the trailer park or homeless camp or the soulless suburb as the house of God. The gospel is weird. I’m not going to lie to you. But it’s the only way to life.
There was a storefront church in my home state in one of the Podunk towns that folks where I’m from make fun of. This particular church had a few older African American Pentecostal women. Not much cultural power. And the church was being evicted. They couldn’t pay the rent anymore. So, they did what God’s people do. They prayed. And one said to the local paper about the bank and the landlord, “They’re messing with the wrong people. God’s people.” We have much that church doesn’t: A building that literally cannot be moved, a grand history, leading citizens, and resources. Yet, incredibly modest, and generous. Gifts aplenty. That all made me drop everything in my life on the west coast to come be with you. But they also have something we lack. Blessed poverty. Raw need. And what our Jewish neighbours call chutzpah. They pray with desperation because prayer is all they got—and it’s actually the only power worth having in the world. Taunting their landlord in public without a leg to stand on. Together, Jesus says, we are one church. And isn’t it interesting that the things we have they lack, the things they have we lack. Maybe we can arrange a little gift exchange, eh? We could almost say God arranged things to show us we need each other, like two pieces of a puzzle that snap in place.
I know I told you I don’t usually pray to start a sermon. I also don’t usually pray to end one. I usually just dismount. You’re not going to believe me if I keep saying I don’t pray and then pray anyway. But I’d like to end with a prayer. Hearing no objections, let us pray. “Jesus of Nazareth. Stairway to heaven. God from a punchline. One who sees us. All of us. With love. Draw us to come and see you. You are Jacob’s ladder. Angels not just going up but down. And we are amazed. Undone. Made new. Teach us to dream again. Amen.”