My mother used to tell a story about me from the time I was a young child. Like many toddlers, I had a blanket I liked to carry around – actually, it was a cloth diaper, in those long ago days. Whenever an adult spoke to me sternly, or I thought I was getting trouble for something, I would pull the diaper over my face, so no one could see me. At that young age, children think that if they can’t see a person, then can’t be seen themselves. Closing their eyes, covering their face, or hiding under a blanket is a way of trying to be invisible.
Some of us still feel this way, not wanting to be in the spotlight, not wanting any undue attention brought on ourselves. Others of us are different, and step onto the public stage whenever possible, basking in the attention. And probably most of us are some mix between those two extremes – happy to be seen when all is going well and we have something we want to share, but shrinking back and trying to blend in with the wall-paper when we feel we’ve messed up, or otherwise come up short.
And yet, in our heart of hearts, we all do want to be seen, noticed, valued, appreciated, respected, loved – even only by one other person.
In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus calls Philip to follow him, to join up with the group that is apprenticing themselves to Jesus to learn from him about God and God’s kingdom, God’s purposes and plans, and way of living life in the world. Philip then goes right out and finds his friend Nathanael, saying that they had found the Messiah, the One of whom all the Law and the Prophets had spoken and attested to. But Nathanael was very suspicious – how can anything good, anything of God’s purpose, come out of Nazareth? The Messiah, after all, was to be from Bethlehem; everybody knew that!
But Philip is not deterred. He doesn’t argue, or cajole, or try to make Nathanael believe what Philip believes. He just says, Come and see. Come and see for yourself. Come check it out. There is something here worth seeing.
So Nathanael goes along for the ride, to where Jesus is. And even before Nathanael has opened his mouth, Jesus says to him: Here is an Israelite in whom there is not deceit, a straight-shooter, someone who knows and values our religious truths inside and out.
Nathanael, of course, is astonished. Jesus has hit the nail on the head, has “gotten” him spot-on. Jesus has seen Nathanael for whom he truly is. Of course, Nathanael is still a little suspicious: How do you know me? You haven’t even met me yet! And Jesus says, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” This is about Jesus’ ability to see and read the human heart, even from a distance. And Nathanael knows what this must mean. Anyone who can see, who can have that kind of insight and spiritual wisdom, must be from God; must be directly connected to the Lord of universe. And so Nathanael says: Rabbi, Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! And for Nathanael, that means he must embrace who Jesus is, and what he is doing, because here is the Messiah, right in front of him.
And Jesus says to him, in effect: Hang on, Nathanael, don’t get so excited because I see you and know you. If you cast your lot with me, you will see even greater things – the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man; a reference to the dream of their ancestor Jacob, who, sleeping in the desert, saw the angels moving up and down a ladder from earth to heaven and back again, and realized that God was present in that place. If Nathanael stays with Jesus then he will see and experience the realities of God’s presence, whether visible or invisible.
So, Jesus saw Nathanael – truly saw and understood and valued him – and it made all the difference in the world.
How is it when we are seen for who we really are, in our best selves? How is it to be recognized for what we have to offer, what our gifts are, what the world is like because we are in it? None of us are perfect or flawless people, but we are all made in God’s image, we all have qualities and personalities that are unique and wonderful and beautiful, and if we were not here, the world and humankind would be diminished somehow. When others see this in us and respond with affirmation and acceptance and recognition, that part of us that wants to shrink back and pull the blanket over our heads has the courage and the joy to step out of the shadows, to stand up a little straighter, to open our hand to others with gladness.
Can you think of a time when you were seen and valued by another person? Did that make you unfurl a little bit, like a flower in the spring time? Did you feel less afraid or ashamed or alone? Did the other person’s recognition make you feel as if you count? That’s what it means when God sees you and knows you, valued, recognized, beloved, being OK at a fundamental level.
God sees and knows and loves us to the depths of our being – even during the times when we want to run away and hide, and we are precious to God….no matter what.
Who else do you know who needs to experience that? Who needs to be Nathanael to your Philip?
Just like Philip, we don’t need to cajole or convince anyone to believe in God and trust in Jesus. But we do need to see the other person, to know them for who they really are, to see them with God’s eyes – warts and all – and give them the courtesy and honor of hearing their story: who they understand themselves to be; what matters to them; whom do they love; what do they fear or worry about; how does the world look through their eyes?
When we do this, we are acting as Jesus’ disciples in the world – learning from Christ how to see the hearts of others; learning from others how much bigger and more multifaceted is God’s world than just the part of it we live in.
When we are able to see another person, and he or she accepts that gift of being seen, it can open up a bridge, a channel, between them and God that might not have been open before. And the only thing you have to do is see, and listen, and be willing to learn, standing in that place where Jesus is with you both and longing to love you both into wholeness and peace.
Let us pray.
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. Thank you, Lord, and help me to share this gift with someone else who needs it. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 18, 2015