Sunday reflection

Today’s reading is from John 1: 43 - 51

What do you think about people from Nazareth? I suspect you don’t have a view, not knowing many people from that particular part of the world. But let me ask you your  opinion on people from say England or America, and you are more likely to have something to say. What about people from Glasgow? Being from the west myself I can’t speak for what Edinburgh people think about Glaswegians but I can share a saying from where I grew up that says you can have more fun at a Glasgow funeral than an Edinburgh wedding – is that true? Is it fair?

How about even closer to home – I suspect not many of us living in Corstorphine have views good or bad on, say, people from Leith, but I bet people from Leith have plenty of opinions about people who live in Corstorphine – what’s that phrase that includes the words ‘all fur coats and nae…’ How does that finish? I can’t quite remember, but you get the gist. Even here in the old village of Corstorphine we talk about the people ‘up the hill’, the folk in the big houses, although I’m never quite sure which people and what big houses and what’s wrong with them exactly, while my colleague at Clermiston assures me his parishioners talk about looking down on the people of Corstorphine which they literally do.

My point is that we have a tendency to look at other people with suspicion and judgement, but most especially other people we don’t know. We are happy to fall back on stereotypes or hearsay and judge a stranger rather than welcome them and their culture, or their strange west coast habits, with open arms. And that habit goes back a long way.  Nathaniel, in his response to Philip’s news that he had ‘found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph’, Nathaniel’s reaction was to ask ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Nathaniel’s reaction to an outsider, a stranger, a different place two thousand years ago was very similar to ours when we are confronted with someone new – disbelief, perhaps disappointment, perhaps even jealousy that Nazareth should have produced the Christ – whatever his emotions, his first reaction is to dismiss and find fault and push the possibility away.

Imagine what he was pushing away – the fulfillment of a prophecy his people had waited generations for – the chance to witness at first hand healing and sharing, words and actions of forgiveness, energy and possibility springing up not in the holy places of the temple or synagogue, but in people’s homes and the streets of towns and around the gathering places of villages - stories of the kingdom of God being found in fields and widow’s homes and in the actions of loving fathers and kind strangers – all people and places Nathaniel would have known and loved and taken part in. Imagine had he responded to Philip as he had and Philip walked away from Nathaniel, leaving him with his grumpiness and dismissal. Imagine what Nathaniel would have missed out on.

Philip’s reaction to Nathaniel’s negative words should be a lesson for us all – come and see, he says. He doesn’t berate or argue, or join in, or snap back at Nathaniel, instead, I suspect with a rolling of his eyes and a slightly exasperated sigh, he says Come and see. In other words ‘give it a chance’, suspend your disbelief, or even ‘try harder Nathaniel’. It is a tribute to Philip’s patience and perseverance that Nathaniel goes with Philip and they see Jesus who greets Nathaniel in a way Nathaniel understands: Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile. Jesus likes Nathaniel’s straight talking ways, his honesty, his calling a spade a spade, and Nathaniel, it seems, is hooked because he has been seen and noticed and recognized, because he has been called and invited - because of, rather than in spite of, his attitude. And despite Nazareth and the poor opinion Nathaniel has of it, Nathaniel finds himself warming to this man Jesus and becoming part of his followers, the first disciples.

I wonder why Nathaniel was so negative about Nazareth? I wonder if he was jealous that the Messiah should have come from a wee town in the north, rather than an important place in his own region. We tend to be proud when a pop star from Paisley hits the number one spot, or a schoolteacher’s son from Argyle does well in politics, or a doctor from West Lothian discovers penicillin – we love the local and the known and when a Scot does well in the public arena we bristle with pride as though we all had a hand in the success of Sean Connery or Alexander Graham Bell or Alex Ferguson. But woe betide any of those same sons and daughters of Scotland when they get a little bit too big for their boots – when they adopt a transatlantic accent or splash their money about or say something we don’t want to hear. Our prejudices and insecurities all come to the fore then. Perhaps Nathaniel’s initial annoyance about Nazareth came from a similar feeling – why Nazareth, why not his own village or town, why not his own people?

Or perhaps Nathaniel’s negative reaction came from fear – perhaps fear is too strong a word – but if what Philip said was true,  if they had indeed found the promised one, then Nathaniel’s life would have to change – he had long looked for the coming of the Christ, he had spoken with his friends about what they would do and how they would do it which would have inevitably meant upsetting the establishment and speaking out to change people’s minds and habits, and that position of agitator, albeit a fairly benign agitator, is a comfortable role to play – asking questions, making jokes, arguing back, being disgruntled. But now Nathaniel and his friends would have to put their money where their mouths were and make a leap of faith and follow this Jesus, and perhaps that was a frightening prospect for Nathaniel, one that he could dismiss and laugh at by asking ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’

Is it that what is so difficult to accept about others, about people from Nazareth or Glasgow, or up the hill – that we might find our prejudices challenged or be asked to change, to meet someone and something new, when really we’re happy where we are and think we know it all? Is that what makes us see what is different in other people, rather than what we share – when hijabs or turbans make us turn inwards to what we know rather than engage in conversation about something that we don’t know? Is that why labels such as Remainer or Brexiteer, Democrat or republican can be so polarizing, leading to mistrust, rather than safety where conversations can take place and working partnerships formed – because that requires hard work and negotiation and the possibility of change? The scenes from the Capitol building last week in the United States showed us where those divisions can lead, and it didn’t make for pleasant watching.

Most of us have been Nathaniels at some point in our lives – I wonder how many of can be Philips, people able to find common ground rather than what makes us different. People who gently ask others to come with us and see. People who don’t rise to prejudice but don’t hide from it either, and persevere to find out and celebrate and see possibility.  Thanks to Philip Nathaniel met Jesus, this man from Nazareth, and through Jesus he met the living God, healing, forgiving, inspiring, loving. Come and see Philip said. Imagine what we too might experience in our lives if we find the courage, the faith to seek out the different and trust the stranger. Imagine how we might be peacemakers as Philip was, and what joy and breadth that might bring to our communities, our countries, ourselves. Imagine where we might meet God, and in whom, and how that meeting will enrich our lives and calm our fears. We don’t have to imagine. Come and see, said Philip, and by going to see, we find and recognize God.

Let us pray:

Loving God, at a well asking a woman for water, under cover of darkness speaking to a man of importance,

In a public street spotting a frightened tax collector in a tree, at the waterside calling rough fishermen to follow you,

In the house of a tanner at the edge of the village, we find that you have already found us,

In ordinary places among people in need, the proud seeking peace,

The hurting seeking healing, the ignored spotted and welcomed,

The judged finding understanding and forgiveness,

People seeking you out, but being sought out by you,

And called to follow, to walk in your ways, to learn at your side.

Today you seek us still, asking us to be peacemakers and bearers of light,

To seek out our neighbours and celebrate life in all its fulness,

To listen and learn, to share and celebrate,

And for that trust, that invitation, we give thanks.

We pray for the Nathaniels of the world – those who fear rather than seek, or hide rather than be bold.

We pray too for the Philips, the companions and encouragers, those who help us to see and act in love and trust.

Guide our leaders we pray, give strength to careworkers and shopworkers, to teachers and parents, to those on their own and those who need space.

Comfort those who mourn and bring strength to the frightened,

And let us realize your presence beside us, guiding us, holding us, calling us and walking with us,

Our friend, companion a saviour. Amen.