We don't know much about this disciple named Nathanael. He was a friend of Philip who was from Bethsaida. He probably lived on or near the Sea of Galilee. And Nathanael seemed to have strong opinions. He knew his own mind, that's for sure.
In fact, Nathanael was skeptical and even prejudiced. When Philip comes to him claiming to have found the Messiah, Nathanael does not believe that Jesus can be anyone special because he came from Nazareth.
Nazareth was a rural backwards area in Jesus' day. It had a population of no more than 500 and could not be compared with the civilization of Jerusalem. About 16 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee, it was not near the Mediterranean Sea and was not on normal trade routes. In the eyes of an educated Jew, it would have been seen as a place full of ignorance and simple-mindedness.
Nathanael was prejudiced and he was blunt. He did not believe that the Messiah could possibly come out of a backwater place like Nazareth. So he asked, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Nathanael was blunt but he was also honest. And when Jesus sees him, Jesus does the exact opposite thing to Nathanael than Nathanael did to him. Instead of being critical of Nathanael, Jesus points out the best in Nathanael. Jesus says, "Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" In other words, "Here is an honest man!" And Nathanael knew enough about himself to realize that Jesus had just nailed it. Jesus knew him. Nathanael is converted to believing in Jesus because Jesus knows him and edifies him. He points out Nathanael's best quality.
Have you ever had someone give you an honest word about one of your best qualities? Have you experienced that feeling that someone really sees you and values who you are? I think that is the way that Nathanael felt. Someone really saw him. And he could be a better man because someone knew him.
In his Letter from a Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote to some of his fellow clergymen. They had openly criticized him for demonstrating in a city that was not his own, for demonstrating in a way that was "unwise and untimely." He said that if he were to respond to all the criticism that crossed his desk, he and his staff would have no time for constructive work, for the work of God. So most of the mail or communications that he got that were critical, he simply chose not to respond. But these were his fellow clergy, and he believed that they were faithful people, so he wrote them a letter.
In the letter, Dr King honors and even compliments his critics. He calls them men of "genuine good will." He holds them to their best selves and argues with them about their interpretations of his actions. He turns the tables on them, reminding them of their best qualities, and calling them to be better people. He uses all his gifts as an orator and writer to convince others of his perspective.
In my family, there is an evening ritual which has to occur. We have no choice about it. Someone has to walk Ella the dog. This chore rotates around but we often go in pairs or threesomes because it is a great time to visit. When Max was about five, he was walking Ella in the rain with my oldest son Luke and my goddaughter Ashley. Both Luke and Ashley are a lot older than Max and a whole lot taller, but he was walking in between them when a thunderstorm erupted. Max immediately grabbed both their hands and said, in a very clear voice and without any fear, "Don't be afraid! I have rubber shoes!"
Max was not afraid of being struck by lightening because he had rubber shoes and those rubber shoes, in his five-year-old mind, would keep him safe. God would protect him because of his rubber shoes and if he grasped the hands of his loved ones, God would protect them too. In Max's mind, his rubber shoes were his saving quality.
The writer of the Psalms says, "You (God) knit me together in my mothers womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made."
God has carefully made you and deep down inside each one of you has tremendous gifts, rubber shoes that can get you through anything. There is something that reflects God in each one of you, your greatest gift. It is important that you come to identify that gift, for if you use that gift and join hands with others, you can change the world. But we become so consumed with criticising ourselves and others that we forget our gifts. We forget our best selves.
If Jesus were to see you under the fig tree and call out to you and name your best quality, your rubber shoes, what would he say? Would he say that you, like Dr. King, can speak out against injustice and evil? In our world gone crazy with violence crossing the globe, if you have this gift, then we need you.
Are you a quiet person who can cook and clean and help others with practical aspects of their lives? Can you make a quiet difference by mentoring a child? Are you an artist who can give a glimpse of something infinite to the rest of us through music or dance? Do you have an inner strength and tenacity that can get you through the worst ordeal or are you, like Nathanael, incredibly honest? God knows what your rubber shoes look like but God doesn't often call them out to you as Jesus did with Nathanael. Often God waits for you to discover them.
God also asks each and every one of us to be like Jesus and to take the time to notice and point out the best qualities in others. Where are their rubber shoes? Did you see someone do something incredible, and not point it out? Be sure to edify and see each other. Speak about the gifts of others, for often they cannot see them clearly for themselves.
Dr. King had a moment of revelation late one night as he was sitting at his kitchen table. He had just received another threat to his life, a telephone call that came late at night. He went to the kitchen to heat up some coffee and he pleaded with God. What should he do? He was putting his wife and baby at risk. But the answer came to him over his coffee. He was told to use his gifts, the gift of speaking and writing. And not to worry. Those were his rubber shoes. God would do the rest.
A storm is coming. It is already in Europe. Human beings are being slaughtered across the globe. Even Europe no longer seems safe. It is time for us all to join hands and to find our voice, all of us who believe in the sanctity of human life. It is time for us to speak about the great gifts of every human being and the evil acts that would destroy human life. Why are we afraid to speak? Some Americans are afraid to speak because we want to be compassionate and understand the poverty and suffering of the people that commit these acts. But there is never a reason to slaughter innocent people in the so called name of God. Why do some of us have a problem calling this evil? Jesus told us to pray, "Deliver us from evil." Is this not the time for such a prayer?
We are a people of faith. Jesus knows and loves us. No amount of violence or hatred could ever hurt our souls now that we have found our Lord. So let's find a way to speak out together. Find a way to use whatever gifts God has given you. You are part of an incredible faith tradition that honors the intellect and reason while still holding to belief in God, Jesus and heaven. We believe that every human being is wonderful and marvelously made. Let us not stop until we convince the world that this is true.
King wrote, in this Letter from a Birmingham jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." God has given each of you immense gifts to serve justice and truth. How will you use them?
- The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead