It is a rare and unconventional event to stare intently at someone. We would call this behavior rude and uncouth. We do it so infrequently that children make it a game, to stare back and forth at one another to see who averts her eyes first. The thought of looking at another person in the eye for an extended period of time makes us twitch in anxiety – how could we ever stay so focused? I always thought of it this way, too, as an event wherein I am the main actor, the one staring at another. But a staring contest goes both ways. To be stared at is a whole other level of discomfort.
When we meet Nathanael and Philip in John’s Gospel, they are at the beginning of their discipleship. Christ is calling them into a new life and does so with simple commands. Philip is first to follow, going immediately with Christ when he says, "Follow me." Philip, filled with the adrenaline and devotion of a recent convert finds his friend Nathanael and invites him to meet this new savior. "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth," Philip says. Nathanael is skeptical, guarded. He asks, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip is on to him, on to his doubt, his slight prejudice and says, "Come and see."
As Philip and Nathanael continue to walk, I wonder what Nathanael was doing. I wonder if he, like me, perhaps like you, would start to put his guard up, his skepticism on display. I wonder if he furrowed his brow ever so slightly and clenched his jaw a bit. I wonder if he tried to puff himself up to make himself look stronger, more assured. I wonder if he thought, "What’s this guy going to tell me that I don’t already know?"
But then I also wonder if he saw Jesus from afar and something happened to him, something changed. I wonder if he let his hands open a bit wider and let out a deep breath, if he softened his gaze and tilted his head out of curiosity. I wonder if, as a final gesture of openness, he took the invisible thread that held him together in one solid piece and tugged at it, letting his seams show.
I wonder what it might look like if we resisted the urge to put our guard up, to let our true selves be seen. In last week’s New York Times column Modern Love, Mandy Len Catron wrote of a scientific method for falling in love. After completing a 36-question survey, the two test subjects or would-be-lovers are meant to stare into one another’s eyes for four minutes without looking away. Catron tried the experiment herself which is how she ended up "standing on a bridge at midnight, staring into a man’s eyes for exactly four minutes." Using the timer on her phone, she and the man that would one day become her husband stood face-to-face in an uninterrupted, full-on staring contest. Catron admits that it "was one of the more thrilling and terrifying moments" of her life. The four minutes kept on until both finally settled in. Then, Catron writes, a revelation occurred: "the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me." Seeing someone really seeing me.
I wonder what it would look like if we went around letting people see us – see us for who we really are, wherever we are in life, with whatever baggage we bring. I don’t know about you but I run a pretty tight ship on what’s really going on. There are few people in this world who can see not just past my guard, but deep into my guard, who can pull at just the right thread and gain a peek inside. There are few people who can call me out on my nonsense "I’m great" and I let them get away with it. There are few people who look at me and I don’t look away but instead, stand there and see them see me. Some people are natural at this seeing business. A friend of mine and Katie’s is like this. Kathryn can look at you in such a way that it almost feels impossible to turn your head because you know that she is seeing you, seeing into your eyes, into your heart. When I was but five weeks pregnant and running around Camp New Hope and Vacation Church School, Kathryn grabbed me outside of the bathrooms at the pavilion. She didn’t say anything but instead stared at me. I was motionless for what felt like hours. She tilted her head ever so slightly and began to cry and smile and quietly jump up and down. I want to say that I have no idea how she figured it out, how she could tell, but I knew the answer: I didn’t look away when she looked at me.
From afar, Jesus sees Nathanael. And "he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!". Imagine Nathanael’s reaction – this man whom he does not know is making a claim, a personal judgement on the goodness of Nathanael’s heart. This man sees something in Nathanael that is at his core and maybe something that he doesn’t let show that often. Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" I love this line, don’t you? Where? How did you know who I was, what I was about? And now, standing closer, face-to-face, Jesus can see Nathanael and Nathanael can see him. Where? Jesus answers, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." No action had taken place, no chance for Nathanael to show that he was a man without deceit. Nathanael hadn’t spoken or interacted with another. Jesus didn’t need to see proof of Nathanael’s pure heart; he saw everything he needed to see with one simple glance. Something in Nathanael shifted at that moment, a move from being a stranger to being known, of being alone to being welcomed. Something in Nathanael shifted when he could see that he was being seen. This man was indeed everything Philip had said – the one the prophets promised, the one for whom he had been waiting. Nathanael, filled with humility and joy, exclaims, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" And Jesus looks at him, perhaps coyly, perhaps knowingly and says, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these."
This would be a far more believable story if Jesus and Nathanael interacted more before Nathanael became a disciple. It would make more sense if Jesus had seen Nathanael grow and mature into a faith becoming of a follower. It would be more practical if Nathanael had weighed the pros and cons of such a lifestyle before leaving whatever he had to follow a stranger from a poor, backwards town. But, the Gospel breaks into our world in unexpected ways, with scandalous, absurd twists of what we think things are supposed to look like. The Good News of Jesus sees past whatever thick coats of paint we put on to make things seem fine and put together and clean and perfect and strips the walls of our hearts to reveal what truth lies beneath. This Rabbi, this King of Israel can call us out on our nonsense and we let him because, well, he’s always right.
Last Sunday night, our youth group and youth families gathered in this Sanctuary for worship. We wanted to spend time together before the spring semester got under way, time to listen to one another, pray, and study Scripture. In small groups, parents and youth discussed the story of the prophet Jeremiah, of the plans God had for him, plans of hope and not harm, of a future. We thought about this hope for a future – hope for our future, hope that reached beyond whatever sadness or stress or situation we found ourselves in. We thought about how we could hold on to this hope when someone tugged on the strings that held us together and our seams began to show. After our small group discussions, each parent and child got an index card. On it, the parents wrote their hopes for their children and the youth wrote their hopes for their parents. It took a lot of chatter and busybody-ness to write the prayers and collect them but once Allie Ruffing and Anna Meyer and I collected them all, we stood right here in front of the communion table and read the cards as our Prayers of the People. It seems that in the midst of all the things we do, the things that take up our time and weigh us down, in between the arguments in the minivan and the hurried dinners and the late night not-so-quiet discussions and the crossed arms and the lonely moments, it seems that we’re catching glimpses of each other. It seems that we are seeing one another for what is really going on inside.
My hope for my mom is that she is less stressed by us. My hope for my dad is that he has time in his day to relax. I hope that my parents won’t do the same things that they complain about their parents doing. I hope my mom enjoys her job because she’s had a hard time lately. I hope my dad has some free time soon because he always drives me to the places I need to go. I hope my parents can live in the present and not worry about the future. I hope my daughter doesn’t worry as much. I hope my son develops closer relationships with his peers. My hope for my son is that he will love himself as much as I do. My hope is that my child will be confident. I hope that you know that God loves you no matter what.
Jesus saw Nathanael and Nathanael saw Jesus seeing him. In that moment, something shifted inside of him forever. To be seen and called and accepted for all that is inside of you is the Good News, friends, the Good News of a Savior, Rabbi, King of Israel who sees us and everything we are and loves us still. May we see one another and believe the Good News again and again. Amen.
1. "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This," Mandy Len Catron, The New York Time, 1-9-15.