Today’s sermon from John 1: 43 – 51
This weekend, I had the remarkable experience of watching The Greatest Showman, based on the story of P.T. Barnum. The movie drew me in from the beginning, and the unfolding story on the screen had all the hallmarks of a powerful narrative: loss, love, hardship, and perseverance.
Phineas Taylor Barnum has spent a large portion of his life trying to pull himself up out of his circumstances. He was born to a very poor fabric merchant and when his father died, he was left with nothing. Over his adolescence and into adulthood, he finds a decent job and saves up enough to marry the love of his life, since childhood, Charity Hallett.
After marrying, Phineas and Charity Barnum move to New York City to begin their life together. They have two girls and live happily in a New York City loft until one day when Phineas loses his job. He secures a loan from the bank to start a wax museum, which is unsuccessful.
One night after talking to his daughters, Phineas has a revelation, thinking back to a time when he was younger and starving, and someone showed him kindness – that someone being an outcast of society because of a disfigurement.
The words of his daughters, “you should have things that are not stuffed in your museum, daddy!” ring in his ears the next day as he travels to find Charles Stratton, who is 25 inches tall and weighs 15 pounds. Charles becomes Tom Thumb in the show which will later become P. T. Barnum’s Circus.
Barnum manages to convince several other people, whom he calls “oddities,” or “curiosities” to join his show. He does this in a way that draws them in, makes them feel valued, and gives them a sense of being part of something larger than themselves. In fact, toward the end of the movie, one of his performers tells him that “even if it was for the purpose of making a buck, you gave us a family, you gave us a place to belong and a home.”
The crowds also come from miles around to see this show. Ringmaster Barnum has gotten their attention, invited them to curiosity with a charismatic smile and the promise of entertainment beyond imagination.
And people are drawn in.
An unlikely young man from questionable roots who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks marries into the New York elite and excels. The circus doesn’t go untouched, or without its problems: daily protests and constant verbal abuse of the performers; constant questioning of the circus’ place among society’s elite. But the fact remains that P.T. Barnum has given performers a life beyond what they had imagined for themselves, a family, a place to belong, and a home.
I was touched by the Barnum story because when I was in seminary, I was given a place to belong while I explored and discerned whether I was being called to minister in a church, or in a hospital or hospice or even at all.
I was drawn into relationship with people who taught me all about Baptist life, and walked the journey with me through countless hours of reading, tests and papers. And when I felt like I didn’t belong there, I was met with affirmations that I certainly did.
It is in this place of wanting to belong that we allow our own stories to intersect the stories of the people Jesus draws into himself by his very nature. The cross section of these people Jesus calls is diverse – encompassing the well-educated, tradespeople, and even tax collectors. Each one has their own story and each has a reason for being a follower of Jesus.
One day, Jesus decides to go to Galilee, with some of his followers in tow. Jesus’ home town of Nazareth is located in Galilee, though you’d hardly know it because it’s barely on the map. As they walk the streets of the bustling downtown, they run into Phillip. Phillip is intrigued, likely having heard of Jesus and bought into his reputation as one who cares for people. Excitedly, he joins the ranks, and then runs off to find his friend, who really needs to know about what’s just happened.
He finds Nathanael, studying the Hebrew Scriptures as usual, under the shade of a fig tree, for it is a hot day. Philip says, “Put your scroll away and come meet the real deal! We found the one that Moses and the Prophets were writing about, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
“Nazareth? Pfft. Can anything good come out of that terrible place?” he responds, not even trying to hide the sarcasm in his tone. “Nazareth is barely on the map – and not even mentioned in any of the passages that talk about Messiah. How can anything good – especially the one we’ve been waiting for, possibly come out of a dump like that; that’s not even mentioned in the prophecies and has nothing to show for itself?” Phillip is unfazed, “Come see for yourself,” he responds. So, Nathanael packs up his scroll and follows behind a very excited Phillip.
As Nathanael approaches, Jesus sees him coming and says loudly, with enough sarcasm to match Nathanael’s own, “well, here’s someone I want to meet. Someone who tells it like it is, who doesn’t mince words. Someone who speaks his mind.”
And then something happens. Maybe it’s the way Jesus matches Nathanael’s own biting sarcasm with an eye-twinkling wit that conveys that this is no ordinary Nazarene. Maybe it’s the way that Jesus sized him up so accurately and quickly. Or maybe Jesus actually has some kind of otherworldly messianic glow. Who knows?
What we do know is this: within minutes of meeting Jesus, Nathanael’s entire demeanor and mindset changes. He instantly professes his faith in Jesus, immediately drawn in to this person who makes him feel valued and part of something larger than himself. Maybe he feels it too, that inkling in each of Jesus’ disciples’ souls that keeps them coming back to Jesus – he feels drawn in to a family among this rag tag group of rebels – a place to belong, a home.
What is it about Jesus that draws you in?
Think back to the time you confessed faith in Jesus through your baptism. What about Jesus led you to make that decision?
What are some of the barriers that you can see, to someone not being able to see Jesus as we have seen him, or what are some of the things that get in the way of people being drawn to Jesus?
Sometimes it’s easier in the moment, to decide that we know what it best for ourselves, that waiting on God’s timing is taking forever. With easy access to news all the time, we can easily find ourselves swept into despair, which clouds our ability to see Christ’s hope.
Can any good come about in our time? Can any peace be found? How can we have any hope?
These questions become our own version of Nathanael’s question, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” His hostility toward the idea of the Messiah coming out of Nazareth stems from a genuine concern that Nazareth wasn’t mentioned in the prophecies about the Messiah. How could the redeemer of all things who would right all the wrongs come from such an unlikely place of no regard?
And how can we offer a hope to a world that is so skeptical of things that can’t be seen, touched, or proven?
The answer, for us, is the same answer that Phillip gave to Nathanael: “come and see.”
This is a great relief as well as a great charge and challenge to us, to people of faith. On the one hand, we don’t have to have all the answers, and this is a relief. Because I don’t know about you, but I feel like I hardly have any answers as I live my life from day to day. Not having to have all the answers is helpful because it gives us all an even playing field.
When someone who is having a hard time seeing the light asks us “what good can I find in this situation,” we don’t have to have the perfect answer. We can invite them to explore the situation, and even join them in the process, inviting them to come and see for themselves, the goodness of God with us in joy and sorrow.
And the charge for us is to continually live our lives in a way that invites people to come and see for themselves the light of Christ reflected in the things we do and say.
“Can I offer anything to the world in my old age?”
“Come and see! See Eli mentor the boy Samuel in the temple, see Simeon and Anna prophesy to their dying day of the coming messiah, see Timothy’s grandmother raise him in faith.”
“Can our church offer anything without a building and with few people?”
“Come and see! Come and see how Christianity in its inception spread throughout the world by way of small gatherings of home worship, and how the light and love of Christ continues to expand to society’s most neglected by way of Scott Blvd’s ministries of Care Partners and Church at Home.”
Our lives as individuals, and our life as the people of Scott Boulevard Baptist Church are an invitation to invite the Nathanaels of the world: those whose expectations have let them down, those whose experience of aging has left them with little hope, those who fear for their lives daily because of the color of their skin, the person they choose to love, or the place of their birth; to come and see a most unlikely messiah from questionable roots, born on the wrong side of the tracks, who can show them grace, love and acceptance.
The messiah that we profess is one who offers to everyone, without condition, a place to belong, a family, a home.
And we are the ones charged with the remarkable task of offering the invitation, everywhere we go and to everyone we meet, to come and see.