January 14, 2018, True Israelites and Homeless Beggars – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000059
I just arrived back, Friday morning, from spending two weeks in Dublin, Ireland, with my daughters Judith and Louisa. Dublin is a beautiful city, very old, and truly enormous compared to anything I’m used to. To me, one of the most wonderful things about Dublin is how old everything is. We attended a Compline service at Christ Church Cathedral, which was built a thousand years ago, and so many of the buildings and the bridges and the little winding cobblestone streets are hundreds and hundreds of years old, beautifully constructed, and just absolutely dripping with history. It is a wonderful place.
But like every big city, one of the less wonderful things about Dublin is that there are so many homeless people there. Every time my daughters and I went out, we would see people begging along the streets: young people and elderly people, both men and women. They very rarely would approach you or ask you for anything directly, but they would sit along the sidewalk or by the side of one of the many bridges, all bundled up and sometimes with a blanket or sleeping bag over their knees – because it was always chilly and almost always windy and frequently drizzling – and holding a paper cup, hoping that the people walking by might drop in a few coins as they passed. It was heartbreaking, and I don’t know which was more so, the girls and boys who were barely adults and just seemed to have no future, or the elderly who looked so alone, with no one to care for them in their old age.
One of the things I noticed is that they almost always kept their eyes down, except to glance up quickly and say “Bless you” or “Happy New Year” when you gave them a bit of change. It was almost as if they were afraid to really be noticed; or as if they don’t expect to be seen as a real human being. Because the homeless, in Dublin and everywhere else, do tend to become invisible. People walk by them, on the way to work, or to the market, and maybe occasionally they give them some money if they have spare change, but the vast majority of people are in a hurry and the homeless man or woman crouching by the roadside becomes so commonplace that most people barely even see them anymore.
I thought about those people when I read the gospel story this week, about Nathanael, whose life was transformed forever by finding out that Jesus saw him. Because not being noticed, not really being seen for who you are as a valuable human being, isn’t just a problem for the poor. Everyone, whether we are rich or poor, has a need to be seen, to be noticed, to be known. From what John tells us, Nathanael was a little skeptical about this Jesus person Philip was so excited about, surely anyone who comes from a place like Nazareth couldn’t be a great Prophet – and he also seems to have had a pretty good opinion of himself. When Jesus greets him by saying, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael isn’t shocked or embarrassed; he just asks Jesus, “How do you know me?”
But then…..when Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree, Nathanael is undone. All his skepticism is swept away, all his self-righteousness falls by the wayside, all his defenses come tumbling down. All he can say is, “Truly, you are the Son of God! You are the King!”
John lets us remain in the dark about what Jesus saw Nathanael doing under the fig tree. We might be curious to know what Jesus saw, but clearly that’s none of our business; it’s not “our story” as C. S. Lewis would say. What John does want us to learn in the story of Nathanael is that in Jesus we find out that our God is a God who sees us. Before we call out to him, before we believe in him, before we find him – he has already found us, he has already seen us, he already knows us. And that is something that every person has a desperate need to know.
It is a fact that when our Lord Jesus walked on this earth, homeless beggars were some of his favorite people to pay attention to. People told the blind beggar to pipe down and stop bothering the Master; they told the lepers to keep their distance; they told the grubby little children to be seen and not heard. But it never stopped Jesus from seeing them, each and every one. And that is incredibly good news for us, because the truth is that we are all homeless beggars, whether we know it or not.
Just think about it – no matter how rich and secure you are, , no matter how much education you have, no matter how skillful or famous or powerful or hard-working or well-insured you might be: what is there that you have on this earth that time, or circumstances, or misfortune, or death, can’t snatch away from you at any moment, even in the blink of an eye? No matter what we tell ourselves, in ourselves we have nothing, nothing whatsoever, that we can hold onto, nothing that is ours for keeps.
Which doesn’t sound like good news until we remember that we worship a God who has his eye on all homeless beggars: the homeless poor of Dublin, the ragged beggars of Palestine, Syrian refugees in the Middle East, poor immigrants in our own cities, Nathanael…you….me. He has searched us out and known us. He knows our rising up and our sitting down and is acquainted with all our ways. And before we even cry out to him, he has already seen us, and filled our cups to overflowing with his love, which is the one thing that can never be taken from us.
It was David who wrote Psalm 139, the Psalm we read this morning. David, of all people had reason to know that God is a God who sees us. God saw into David’s heart when he was just a boy, and chose him out of all his much more impressive brothers to be High King over his beloved people. God saw David at his best, and he saw him at his absolutely worst, a murderer and a schemer and an adulterer. But David understood the glory and the comfort of being held in the gaze of his Lord, no matter what. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that whether you are a homeless kid or an Alzheimer’s patient or a single Mom or a King, none of us are invisible to our God. And he wrote this Psalm out of that deep knowledge:
Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
For you yourself created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.