January 17, 2021
Sermon by the Reverend Bob Phelps
Well, Can It?
We all feel about some place the way Nathanael felt about Nazareth. Some of you know that, for me, there are several. I’m sure there are good people in Knoxville, but they all tend to wear orange and root for the Volunteers, so can anything good really come from there? Especially in the fall? Will Willimon is United Methodist Bishop and an excellent preacher and scholar. I have read many of his books and sermons. I’ve heard him lecture and preach several times. I’ve learned a lot from him. But he served for many years as Dean of the Chapel and resident preacher at that university in Durham, North Carolina. So can anything good really come from there?
I know that some of you feel the same way about Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge or any number of other places we have learned to hate. While we celebrated a national championship at our house on Monday night, I know that some of you were having other thoughts about that. We all have some place that we’re just not sure anything good can come from.
I know that the situation in Washington these days is a touchy subject, but think about all the decisions that are being made there in anticipation of a new administration. With a change in party and in policy, most of the top positions will be vacated and then filled with new people. Imagine being in charge of filling all those positions, the big and visible ones and the less obvious ones, the ones who do all the work. I’m sure that every one of those Cabinet posts and other appointments faces scrutiny at every level. People’s credentials, experience, and gifts have been vetted and examined more times than we can imagine. Beth Wild and I served on our Presbytery’s Nominating Committee this year. While we were certainly not under the kind of pressure that’s going on in Washington these days, we had to consider many different issues as we recommended people to serve on the various agencies that keep our Presbytery running. Trying to make sure there is an adequate representation from as many churches as we can get on all those committees and groups is not easy. We did our work this year by Zoom call, and all the people involved are nice folks, so no one every asked, “Can anything good really come out of J. J. White?” So we are thankful that two of our members and I will be serving on those groups this year. We welcome others of you to throw your name in that hat when this year’s committee begins its work.
Jesus didn’t have a Nominating Committee to help him pick the disciples. He was probably grateful for that. The way John tells the story of that selection process is a little different from the way it gets told in the other Gospels. Jesus found Philip. I like to think that means he already knew him. But however it happened, Jesus found Philip and invited him or called him or however you want to phrase it: he said, “Follow me!” There was no job description. There was no aptitude test. There was no form for Philip to list the things he was interested in so Jesus could put him on the right committee when the disciples met to organize. Jesus said, “Follow me.” And Philip did. And not only did Philip follow, he thought about his friend, Nathanael. And he went and told his friend, “You need to come and check this out.” Philip and Nathanael were faithful people. They, like generations before them, had waited all their lives for the One God had promised for ages, the One who would make things right and usher in a New Age. Philip went and told Nathanael, “I really think this is the One we’ve been waiting for. God’s Messiah. And you’re not going to believe it, it’s Jesus. The son of Joseph, the Carpenter from Nazareth.” Not some visiting scholar. Not some new priest in the Temple who understands things differently than the others. But Jesus, the guy we know from over in Nazareth.
And that’s where the story hits a snag. Philip was from Bethsaida, and his friend, Nathanael was, too. Andrew and Peter, two of the others who followed Jesus early on, were also from there. So we can already see a little voting block forming here. You know how those Bethsaida boys can be. They tend to band together. Bethsaida was on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. Nazareth was landlocked, southwest of there. I don’t know what kinds of rivalries there might have been between those two places, but Nazareth was nowhere. Landlocked as it was, there was no real reason to go to Nazareth unless you were going there. Bethsaida was, at least, on the water, so people came and went there. You know how small-town rivalries can be. You don’t really have to be better than the next town over. You just have to think you are. Surely the Savior of the world wouldn’t come from Nazareth. Could anything good really come from there?
Philip was from the same place as his friend, Nathanael, but somehow he avoided getting caught up in the limiting thinking his friend demonstrated. Instead of playing along, he simply told his friend, “Come and see!”
I’m going to confess that I am not always as open-minded as Philip was. I have more than one friend who are rabid fans of that blasted school in Durham that I won’t name. One of them in particular is a kid I used to teach in church camp every summer who grew up to become a colleague in ministry. He grew up in Knoxville and cheers for Tennessee, but we got past that. He currently serves on the staff of a church in Ohio and I’ve forgiven him for moving north. The one thing we’ve never been able to get past is that he is a fan of that school in Durham. Back when he was a single person still living in Tennessee, he used to go to at least one and often two basketball games a year at Cameron Indoor Coliseum, where that team plays. For several years, he contacted me and invited me to go with him, never to watch them play Kentucky, mind you, but to actually go into that den of iniquity and watch a game. I never went. Now that he’s married and has kids and lives off up North, I don’t know if he continues to make that trip. He stopped asking me to go years ago. But he could never believe that I wouldn’t even go to see that place with him. I know for a fact that nothing good could ever have come of it. So I’ll stick with my decision. Cameron is one of the hallowed places for college basketball. And more than once, Aaron said to me, “Just come and see. At least you’ll be able to say you’ve been there.” He even said he’d go to Rupp with me, but I never asked him.
I know how foolish my attitude about such things is. I’m thankful that Philip was more persuasive with his friend Nathanael than my friend was with me. It would have been easy for that friend to miss out on all he experienced as a follower of Jesus because of his preconceptions about his hometown. One of the things this story does is caution us about our own attitudes. Another is to keep us aware of the attitudes some encounter about our witness.
Hopefully, most people are not as stubborn as I am about my sports loyalties. But I wonder how many of us fail to learn or to benefit from thinkers and witnesses because they represent opinions different than the ones we already hold. Outside of that place in Durham, I can’t think of many places or people I feel that strongly about. But I will readily admit that when Deanna and the boys ask me for a book list at Christmas and when my birthday is coming up, I tend toward writers and scholars I know. One of my favorite Christmas presents this year is a book called A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. I have just begun to dig into it. It’s seven hundred and forty-nine pages long, so it’ll take me a while to get through it. As proud as I want you to be of me for trying to stay on top of theological trends in this new century, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to confess that the author of that book is a Presbyterian. He teaches at Davidson College in North Carolina, a bastion of Presbyterian theological thinking and practice. So it’s not like I branched out to see what the Free Holiness movement or some other Pentecostal branch of the Church thinks I need to know. I did finish reading a book of sermons from an Episcopalian the other day, but there are still some folks out there I don’t much trust when it comes to helping me hear what God has to say. I remember several years ago when I was reading some pretty controversial theological stuff that I’m not sure I’d want the Committee on Ministry to know about. I was on a plane going somewhere with one of those books one day when we hit some pretty severe turbulence. I put my book up and read the Bible for a while. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reading from that Bishop if I was about to meet Jesus.
Now, I know that reading Presbyterian stuff is a safe option for me. But good things can come from other thinkers, too. And even if what I read turns out to be something I disagree with, sometimes I need the discipline of articulating what it is I disagree with, and I probably won’t get that from my seven-hundred-page book this year. I tried to convince a group in another place that we don’t have to agree with everything we read when we study and discuss things in Church. That conversation didn’t end well. We all have a little, maybe a lot, of Nathanael in us. Can anything good really come from people we disagree with? Sometimes, yes it can. But if we don’t listen to one another, we’ll never know.
The other side of that argument is important for us to consider, too. I wonder how many people miss any opportunity to even know what we’re all about on this corner because of some preconception they have about who Presbyterians are. We had a woman join our church in another place several years ago. She and her husband had lived a military career all their lives, and had retired in the community where we lived. Because they had lived all over the world and had worshiped in base chapels and churches of various kinds, denominational loyalty was not much of an issue for her. She said she joined our church because she liked the people and the preaching was tolerable. She hadn’t been with us long before some health issues came up that required her mother to come from out of state to stay with them during recovery from surgery. When I inquired about how we could help her mom do what she had come to do in a strange place, she replied, “Oh, no. I can’t have any of you around while she’s here. My mother hates Presbyterians, and can’t let her know I am one!” I never learned what caused her animus toward us, but I experienced it first-hand. Some circumstances of that recovery brought us together, and I suggested, foolishly, that maybe as her daughter got better she might bring her to church when she felt like it. “I think not!” were the only words that woman ever spoke to me. I probably got off light.
I’m sure that woman has friends here in our community—people who decided a long time ago that nothing good can come from this corner. But that doesn’t mean they’re right. Philip didn’t let Nathanael’s hesitance deter him from inviting and encouraging his friend to come and see for himself who Jesus was and how he just might be the One for whom they had been waiting.
He was. And he still is. Good things can come from Nazareth and from the corner of Third and Delaware and from the Presbyterian Church, even this branch of it, and from you and me and from anywhere else God chooses to send it. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Prayers of the People
Today, I invite you to join me in praying for the church, for the world, for people we know and love, and for people we will never meet, trusting in God’s grace and mercy and that God will hear our prayer.
We pray, O God, for the world. We are a fractured and broken people, not just in our divided nation, but all of us. We pray that wisdom and integrity will somehow break through all our division and prevail for the good of us and for all people. Without them we have little hope, but with your gifts, we have hope everlasting.
We pray especially for the poor of the world, beginning here in our own community, for places, beginning here in our own community, torn apart by conflict and refusal to listen to one another. We pray that peace might come among us that living together might become something we strive for instead of speak out against.
We pray for all people who share our faith, whether they are our brand of Christian or not, help us to find unity in Christ as we begin this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Prevent our divisions from turning people away from you, Loving God, and from your Church. Even beyond the Christian community, help us to love with the love of Christ and to trust that love to do the changing when change is needed, but always to trust love to do its work. We believe in one God, and we trust that somehow you can rise above our divisions and our efforts to control your call and claim.
We pray for our own nation in this time of conflict. As we experience a change in leadership this week, give us peace and hope that will rise above what divides us. Help those who lead us give consideration to what is good for all of us over what serves the need of some of us.
We pray for all in need in these days, here and everywhere. For the hungry, for those without a place to live, especially children who sleep in cars or under bridges, for those without jobs or with jobs that don’t support them, for those who deal with injustice as a daily reality, for people anywhere who live in fear, of a parent, a government, a predator or any other person or thing that would do them harm. We pray for those who grieve and for those who face uncertainty of health. Send the comfort of your spirit to those who have lost friends and family. Send the comfort of that same spirit to guide those who are dying even today.
We pray for the ministry of our church as we move through uncertain times and look forward to the day when we can resume some things we miss and begin things we have not imagined.
We pray and give thanks for all who have shaped and guided us to follow you, Loving God. We thank you that someone invited us to come and see, and we continue to be thankful for what we have seen when we came. Hear our prayers this day and give us what you know we need. Convince us of our need, O God, so that we can receive what you give. We pray through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who taught us all to pray together when he said: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen
Pastor, J J White Memorial Presbyterian Church
110 Third Street McComb, MS 39648
church phone 601.684.4189