Come and See

This message was originally written for FWCC’s Section of the Americas meeting, March 21-24, 2019.  The theme of the gathering was “Come and See.”

 

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked.

And Philip saith unto him, “Come and see.”

 

I wanted to see the context of the phrase “come and see.” “Come and see” can mean almost anything. I considered lots of ways of thinking about that phrase as I prepared this message, but in the end, I was surprised to discover that in the original passage, it’s not “come and see” that jumps out to me.

It’s the question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

That question sounds so familiar. When I used to work in the field of education, I taught in kindergarten and first grade and second grade classrooms in the South Bronx. The South Bronx is a neighborhood in New York City. Two hundred and thirteen thousand people live there. Ninety percent of them are people of color. Forty-seven percent are legally defined as poor. There’s graffiti everywhere. Police officers with guns walk the hallways of the schools.

Can anything good come out of the South Bronx?

I met a kindergarten child named Smerling. She spoke only Spanish, and her parents spoke only Spanish, and this is very difficult in a school system that teaches in English. Smerling also was not naturally bright. Many of her classmates, even those who also spoke Spanish, appeared to learn to read and write and do math much more quickly.

There was something special about Smerling, though. This little girl tried. She demonstrated persistence. Tenacity. Even at the age of five, she listened to every word her teachers said. She also always finished her homework, which was quite a remarkable thing, since the instructions were written in English. I asked another teacher once how Smerling managed this. She told me that Smerling’s mother and father took her homework to a neighbor every day, asked the neighbor to translate the instructions, and then sat down beside their child and offered all the help they could until the work was complete.

Can anything good come out of the South Bronx?

Last year, I traveled to Kenya to visit with Friends. We were driving along in a car in a region with no paved streets when I saw an image that seemed familiar to me. It was a very small child, a boy, I think, wearing nothing but a long T-shirt, and that had a rip near the collar. He was squatting in a field of dirt and playing with some sort of scrap of metal. He looked up at our car wistfully.

This is the sort of image that we see on television sometimes. Organizations that are raising money show us pictures of children like him and tell us about the desperation of this child and how we must have pity and send him money. But these pictures on television are deliberately zoomed in to show only the child. They give the idea that the child is doomed and helpless. They do not show the entire image. When you look more widely, you see that the child has a mother doing laundry and a baby sister toddling around and an older brother driving the cows home and an entire community around him that is hospitable and loving.

When you really see the people of Kenya, you see faith and solidarity and selflessness and cooperation. I remember most fondly how, when one woman in the village needs to clean her house, the women of all the surrounding houses show up to help scour the floors and shake out the mats and clear the cobwebs. When someone is sick, every neighbor stops by. The people I met pray together every day.

How much my people could learn from them . . .

Can anything good come out of Kenya?

I now travel in the ministry full-time, and I hear versions of this question all the time. Can anything good come out of Palestine? Can anything good come out of Tanzania? Can anything good come out of New York Yearly Meeting? Can anything good come out of evangelicals? Can anything good come out of Facebook? Can anything good come out of rich people? Can anything good come out of police officers? Can anything good come out of Bible-thumpers? Can anything good come out of atheists?

The answer is always yes.

Everywhere I go, I meet someone who’s afraid of somebody else, and I find that almost always, the person we’re afraid of is the person we’ve never met. In most cases, it’s hard to fear someone—to doubt the possibility of good in someone—once you’ve sat down to dinner with them. Can anything good come from that other place?

Come and see.

I don’t feel critical of anyone who fears, or even hates, the unfamiliar. It’s extremely difficult to widen our perspective beyond what we have been shown and taught. I grew up in rural Illinois. Illinois is a state in the middle of this country that has a few cities but mostly just fields and fields of corn. Only one thousand people lived in the town where I spent my first ten years. Almost every one of us was white. Almost every one of us was Christian. There were two Jewish children in school and one Muslim child, and everyone knew exactly who they were. We also came from families that looked alike. A mother and a father. The mother mostly stayed at home or worked a part-time job. The father probably went to an office every day. Each family had two or three children and a dog. We knew what our futures would look like: we would grow up, graduate from high school, attend college, marry, have two or three children and a dog, and replicate our parents’ lives.

My mother grew up this way. My father grew up this way. My grandparents even grew up this way.

Because we had only one model for life, we could not imagine what it might be like to come from the South Bronx or from Kenya or from elsewhere overseas, or to be something other than Christian, or to have a different kind of family, or to not go to college, or to work outside an office or at a time other than nine to five Monday through Friday. What we saw and read about other types of lives was not very complimentary. Sadly, most people are more likely to watch a television program or read a book that tells about strange and scary things, and the people who make television programs and write books know this, so they rarely produce programs and books about nice, normal, good people who are hospitable and hard-working and kind to their neighbors. Doing anything other than reproducing the lives of our parents felt unsafe.

I want to say a word about safety.

A very dear friend of mine once said something to me quite unexpectedly. We were talking rather casually about nothing in particular when she announced, very intensely, “I will not pray for you to be safe. To be safe means to be inside a box, and I need you to grow bigger and taller than the box. Instead, I will pray that you have all that you need to be nourished and to grow. But not that you’ll be safe.”

Just to make this clear, I hadn’t actually asked her to pray that I’d be safe, but I have to say that up until that point, I’d been a big fan of safety. Not getting hurt is generally preferable to getting hurt. To wish for safety, I think, is a pretty normal thing. But she was right. If we encase ourselves in anything, either physical or metaphorical, that will keep all the potentially harmful things out, by definition we are also restricting ourselves to a limited area. We are preventing growth.

Just as we do this individually, we tend to do this collectively. Some new idea, new person, new invitation, new opportunity comes to our faith community and we might react as though it’s dangerous even when it’s a blessing. Change of any kind can feel like a threat to safety. Anything not-like-us can feel like a threat to safety. And yet, God doesn’t call us to be safe. God calls us to grow.

If you’ve made it as far as this room, you’ve already answered God’s call to “come and see.” And though this is a bit of a strange thought, when we go home to our local faith communities, we will all be just a little bit scary. At least some of you in this room will have heard the question from time to time: “Can anything good come out of FWCC?”

What we experience here, being with God in the presence of other types of Friends, other languages, other cultures, other perspectives, other races . . . we are stretched. And when we go home, we bring bits of that other-ness with us. We are not quite the same people that we were when we left. We’ve accepted God’s invitation to change.

God’s invitation doesn’t feel safe. And it’s not. When God invites us to “come and see,” that doesn’t come with a description of what it is we’re about to experience. If we knew all the details ahead of time, I have no doubt that we would all say no. We are changed, step by step, along the way, and in this way, we are able to be ready for the next change. I can testify from my own experience that this is true. The person I was in 2010, when I became a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting, would not have recognized me. She would have been deeply frightened at the idea of becoming me. She would have chosen a smaller life. A safer life.

The world around us, especially the media, reinforces the idea that everything outside of our own little box is unsafe. What we’re told is incomplete, like the image of the little boy in Kenya that cuts out his community. But I have to acknowledge that there’s some truth to the idea, that there are times when travel in the ministry is physically or spiritually dangerous, that following God’s path to new jobs or new relationships or forgiveness all comes with the risk of being hurt.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Yes.

Can anything harmful come out of Nazareth?

Of course.

I think that the important thing is not to expect to be safe. God does not promise us that we’ll be safe. God’s invitation is to “come and see.” When we stop trying to protect ourselves, when we stop asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” in a defensive way, as a reason not to go there, or as justification for not meeting a Nazarene, then we can really follow God’s leadings.

What did come out of Nazareth that day?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they should be called the children of God. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Forgive others their trespasses. Judge not, that you be not judged. Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is really good stuff. And it turned the tables on traditional teachings—flipped everything over, just like Jesus later did in the temple—and it shook things up and frightened people. The message Jesus brought was anything but safe. It was a call to grow.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked.

And Philip saith unto him, “Come and see.”

2 thoughts on “Come and See

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s