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January 14, 2018

“Can Anything Good Come From…?”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Put your hand on our shoulder and point us in the right direction. Put our hand on someone’s shoulder and let it matter. Amen.<<

Among the many attention-getting headlines this week, one in particular caught my eye from the Huffington Post Religion Section: “Cross Mysteriously Appears on Rabbit’s Forehead,”[1] reads the headline. The reporter, David Moye, begins the article by playing with words: “Hare has risen,” he writes. “That’s one hot cross bunny,” he says. And then, continues Moye: “A rabbit in Cornwall, U.K., had something happen to it that is truly hare-raising.” “A few days before Christmas,” writes Moye, “Kate Hazel says a cross suddenly appeared on the forehead of her pet rabbit Fluff. ‘It was just really bizarre,’ [she said,] ‘we went out there one day to feed her, and [my daughter] Rosa said, ‘“Mum, Mum, Fluff’s turning into the Baby Jesus! … She’s grown this cross right in the middle of her forehead.’” … Hazel said the cross didn’t appear gradually but … very quickly before the holiday. … ‘We were then calling Fluff the Baby Jesus because [the cross appeared] in time for Christmas,’ she [said].” “Jess Wright, who runs a rabbit rescue clinic … [said] that it’s common for different patterns to develop on a rabbit’s fur depending on the season or the weather. ‘Some rabbits can change color completely or some will just get a patch that changes,’ Wright said.” Kate and her daughter Rosa can’t wait to see what appears on Fluff’s fur at Easter.

At the bottom of the page of that article is a link to fifty pictures taken throughout the world of similar, we might say, “religious sightings.” One picture is of a tree trunk from a lumber yard in Tennessee with what looks like an image of Jesus on it. The picture is titled “Tree-sus.” On another log in another picture there’s an image of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Chuck Rickman snapped a photograph of the sun reflecting off the exterior windows of the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego. If you look carefully, and use your imagination, you can see a robed Jesus in the window. Rickman says he’s not religious, so the reflection could also be, in his words, a picture of “Led Zeppelin.” A crowd in Aurora, Colorado stopped and stared at what looked like an angel in the clouds, hovering above a movie theatre. The Virgin Mary appeared on the wall of Hamburger Mary’s restaurant in Tampa, Florida, and on a concrete overpass in Chicago. Tourists snapped a shot of Jesus’ face on cliffs in Ireland. And the face of Jesus appeared on a pizza in Brisbane, Australia, on a rocking chair in Orange County, California, on Naan bread in Surrey, England, on a piece of sheet metal at Hardy’s Hardware in Manchester, Connecticut, on a pierogi in Toledo, Ohio, on a breakfast taco in Texas, and on the belly of a Sting Ray near James Island, South Carolina. In 1859, a Belgian woman claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her at The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin, and commissioned her to teach religion to children. That sighting remains the only one in the U.S. that has been officially approved by the Catholic Church.

…I’ve never been one to judge such sightings; people see all sorts of things that are meaningful to them whether in the material world – on hotel windows, cliffs, tacos, pizzas, in the clouds, or on strips of sheet metal – or even in scripture. In his new book God: A Human History , Reza Aslan explains why we do this by delving into our evolutionary past as a species.[2] Aslan tells a story about our prehistoric ancestors. He calls them “Adam and Eve” – not literal people but symbolic people living thousands of years ago. “Eve’s day begins early,” writes Aslan, “far earlier than Adam’s. Before the sun rises and the forest floor is flooded with light, she will rouse her children and lead them into the woods to check the traps she set the night before. While the children climb the trees to gather fruits and nuts and any birds’ eggs they may find in abandoned nests, Eve will club and collect her captured prey. Afterward, the family will wade knee-deep in the nearby river for crabs and mollusks and anything else edible they can find in the water. … Through these actions, Eve and her children provide the bulk of the family’s food. It may take a week for Adam to chase down a bison. Eve can bring that much food home every few days. After all, there is as much fat and protein in a pound of nuts as there is in a pound of meat – and nuts do not fight back. Our Paleolithic ancestors were primarily hunters, but what kept them alive was scavenging and foraging … . Now imagine,” Aslan continues, “that as Eve and her children begin to trudge back to camp in the early morning darkness, she suddenly sees, out of the corner of her eye, a face staring back at her through the trees. She freezes. Her muscles stiffen. Her blood vessels constrict. Her heart rate accelerates. Adrenaline floods her body. She is ready to pounce or flee. Then she looks again and realizes that what she thought was a face was actually knots on the trunk of a tree. Her muscles relax. Her heart rate drops. She lets out her breath, and continues on her journey through the woods. Cognitive theorists have a term for what Eve just experienced,” writes Aslan. “They call it her Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, or HADD. This is a biological process that arose deep in our evolutionary past, all the way back in the days when hominids were still stooped and hairy. In its simplest terms, HADD leads us to detect human agency , and … a human cause , behind any unexplained event: a distant sound in the woods, a flash of light in the sky, a tendril of fog slithering along the ground. HADD explains why we assume every bump in the night is caused by someone doing the bumping.” And HADD, says Aslan, might help us explain the origin of belief in God, and – returning to the story I began with – it might help to explain why we see Jesus or Mary or angels on hotel windows, tree trunks, cliffs, tacos, pizzas, in the clouds, or on strips of sheet metal. We explain what seems to be unexplainable with the words, images, categories that are familiar to us.

…This process may be at work in today’s gospel reading from John, when those first disciples meet, and try to explain Jesus. Like Eve in the forest, they try to make sense of; they try to classify; they try to interpret. They see in this person, Jesus, standing before them all the hopes of Israel. In today’s gospel story, Jesus meets Philip and Nathanael – two disciples who get little play in the New Testament beyond this text in John’s gospel. Jesus encounters Philip first in the story, and says to him, “follow me.” Just two words in both the English translation and the Greek original. Jesus says nothing else to Philip in this story – just these two words; Philip had never met Jesus prior to this, and yet, he sees in Jesus everything he had hoped for as a young Jew living under Roman occupation in the first century. Philip races to find Nathaniel, and between gasps for breath, says to him, “We have found the one of whom Moses and the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathanael is skeptical, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” he asks. (I’m going to return to this question is just a bit.) The scene shifts from Nathanael’s question to his own encounter with Jesus. Seeing Nathaniel, Jesus declares, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathaniel is stunned, and asks Jesus, “how do you know me?” And then Nathanael blurts out – without knowing anything about this Jesus from Nazareth – “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!”

This story in John is seductively simple. Two soon-to-be-disciples meet Jesus, are changed in the interaction, and follow him. Without reading the whole gospel, we readers might easily miss the subtext of the story. Each encounter is intimate. Jesus “found” Philip. Philip “found” Nathanael. Jesus “saw” Nathanael. Nathanael saw him. And Nathanael is promised that he will see greater things if he follows Jesus. But there’s more. The theme of “seeing” is everywhere in John’s gospel. People “see” the light of Jesus. They “see” that he teaches truth. The woman at the well in John ch. 4 “sees” that Jesus is a prophet who can “see” into her soul, and “see” her broken past. Jesus “sees” the man born blind in John ch. 9; Jesus heals him, and the man begins to “see” not just physically but also spiritually – a kind of soul-seeing. And neither the religious leaders nor Pontius Pilate ever really “see” who Jesus is even when he stands before them. John’s gospel invites readers to “see” with spiritual eyes; to recognize truth, and follow him.

But there’s even more to this story about Jesus, Philip, and Nathanael. When Philip and Nathanael see Jesus they, like Eve and the face in the tree, make assumptions about who he is. They foist onto Jesus all the categories familiar to them from the Jewish scriptures: Jesus is the one who Moses, the law and the prophets spoke about, says Philip. You are a rabbi, a son of God, a king of Israel, says Nathanael. But when Jesus “sees” Philip and Nathanael, he sees “into” them. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” says Jesus of Nathanael. In whom . The Greek grammar in this sentence suggests a piercing “seeing” – a seeing through the external and into the heart. When Jesus “sees”, he doesn’t see categories or surfaces – faces in trees like Eve or images on tree trunks or on pizzas or on the sides of cliffs. Jesus just “sees” people. See into people. Sees their humanity with all of its frailty and beauty; all of its accumulated junk from years of life; he sees and he doesn’t judge; he sees with love. He sees children of God. The woman at the well in John ch. 4 was a Samaritan: Jesus sees through her gender and her ethnicity and her religious difference, and just sees her. He sees through the disability of the man born blind in John ch. 9, and just sees him ; and the man leaves seeing with more than just his eyes. And Jesus sees into Philip and Nathanael – sees through their human-made categories of political and national hope about kings and prophecies. He even sees past Nathanael’s insulting question about Nazareth: Can anything good come from there?, asked Nathanael.

This question – can anything good come from there? – is sadly still being asked in our day, even at the highest levels of our government. Can anything good come there? Can anything good come from Haiti or from countries in Africa? Can anything good come from Mexico or Puerto Rico, or a thousand other places where people are assumed to be “different.” Can anything good come from…? This is a surface question. A question that fixates on race and place – on immigrants from “other” places – and doesn’t see into , see beyond , see through what is visible with the eyes. It sees categories instead of human begins. It’s not Jesus-type-seeing. It’s not the seeing of the Psalmist in today’s reading from Psalm 139, who sings of God’s piercing eyes that see – that see into us; see and know our rising and our lying down, our thoughts, our words before we even speak them. The Psalmist sings of God’s intimate knowledge of us, like the knowledge two life-partners have of each other deepest drives. It’s a seeing past , a seeing beyond surfaces, a seeing into , a seeing with the eyes of love.

…Such sight is illustrated well in the story told by theologian Peter Rollins in his book Insurrection . It’s a story about the power of seeing as a form of love.[3] Rollins writes: “While love cannot be directly seen, love in a very specific way enables us to see. For in daily life we perceive others in much the same way as a cow gazes at cars. We walk past thousands of people every week, not necessarily seeing any of them. I was reminded of this recently,” continues Rollins, “when a friend of mine told me of something that happened when she took a train from Connecticut to New York. As the conductor – a large and imposing man – approached, she realized that she had left her purse at the house. When he got to her seat and asked for her ticket, she, with much embarrassment, explained the situation and braced herself for the worst. But the conductor sat down in the seat opposite and said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Then, for the remainder of the journey, they talked. They shared photos of their families, they exchanged jokes, and they spoke of the ones who meant most to them. When the conductor finally got up to continue his rounds, my friend began to apologize again, but the conductor stopped her midsentence and smiled. ‘Please don’t pay it any thought; you know, it’s just really nice to be seen by someone.’ This might initially seem like a strange thing to say,” writes Rollins, “as the conductor was seen by thousands of people every day. But only in instrumental terms, only as the extension of a function he performed. In this brief conversation with my friend, he felt he had actually been seen as a unique individual, and that was a gift to him. This is what love does,” concludes Rollins. “It does not make itself visible but, like light, makes others visible to us.”

…I think this is God’s call to us in these trying times when hate-speech pours forth even from the highest offices in the land. A call to see into ; to see human beings instead of categories. To, as Lin Manuel-Miranda puts it: “see the world with new eyes.” To, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “stick with love,” because “love is ultimately the only answer to [our] problems.” Amen.

1 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/kate-hazel-fluff-cross-forehead_us_5a53bb57e4b0efe47ebb8b7f?section=us_religion

2 Reza Aslan, God: A Human History (New York: Random House, 2017), 37-39.

3 Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine (New York: Howard Books, 2011), 120-121.