Nathaniel: The Awkwardness of Strangers

Proper 2,   January 18, 2015

John 1:43-51

With today’s gospel reading we move from the high drama of the past weeks to something more everyday: from the great stories of Christ’s miraculous birth and baptism at the Jordan, with their angels and exotic magi on camels and spectacular voices from heaven, to an ordinary tale of strangers meeting strangers, a story that could, and in fact does, happen all the time in our lives.

There’s a similar kind of effect if we sit down and start reading John’s gospel through. It begins, of course, with the mighty words: in the beginning was the Word. It continues with the powerful prophetic testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus: this is the Lamb of God, this is the Son of God. And then, in chapter two, we move on to the first of Jesus’s great miracles, the wedding at Cana. But before we get there, we have this little down-to-earth digression about the first disciples finding their way to Jesus: first Andrew, then Peter, and then Philip and Nathaniel. The message is clear: this stuff is important too.  All the grand inspiring stories of our faith lead us back to the everyday matters of how we relate to one another, in all its banal awkwardness.

Because they are awkward, these stories. The passage just before the one we heard tells of John the Baptist pointing Jesus out to two of his disciples – so they start to follow him home, like a couple of stray dogs. When Jesus turns around to ask them what they want, they can only think to answer “Teacher, where are you staying?”, like a couple of stalkers. Awkward! Or take Nathaniel. When Philip tells him about Jesus, he just blurts out “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  I bet that’s a question he came to regret – especially because it wasn’t forgotten, but passed down until it became part of the gospel story. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had teased him about it. If every now and then, as he followed Jesus as one of his disciples, the others turned to him and said “Well, Nathaniel, can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And then there’s that weird business about Jesus seeing him under the figtree. We don’t know what that’s about, that is between Nathaniel and Jesus – except that whatever thoughts or prayers Nathaniel was having under the figtree, he thought he was alone, and yet Jesus apparently knows about them. Awkward!

And yet it is precisely the kind of awkwardness that happens all the time when we meet new people. I don’t know about you, but this feels awfully familiar to me. There is so much potential for blurting out the wrong thing. We usually want to make a good impression, so that can turn up the anxiety a notch or two. Meanwhile, there is a lot of sizing each other up going on, a lot of it at an unconscious level. We are looking for a way to relate to this new person, something to talk about that will interest them, a tone to take that will put them at ease. And so we start seizing clues and jumping to conclusions about them. And sometimes we get it wrong, and end up blurting out something, and even as we are saying it, we’re thinking to ourselves, I sound like a blithering idiot, shut up already.

Now, clearly some of us are better at this than others. There are those who seem to have to gift of moving up effortlessly to strangers, of finding just the right tone to put them at their ease. That is a real gift, to be valued by the whole community. Others of us hold back more, and then we move in, blathering away, and eventually we find our way, but it can feel awkward. Still others find the whole business of approaching strangers too anxiety-provoking, and prefer to stick with the people they know, if possible. Not that we can’t say stupid things to them, as well, but they know us, it won’t change their opinion of us that much.

Except of course that we lose out. As a naturally relatively shy person, I have experienced so often over the years this loss. For every failure of nerve, for every refusal to face the awkwardness of that initial encounter, there is the loss of another potential relationship. That person, with their particular story and way of looking at the world, their particular insights and sense of humour, is a potential enrichment to my life.

I love the fact that our sacred scriptures acknowledge the awkwardness of getting to know new people.  It’s right there, with the disciples nervously saying stupid things. But I appreciate also what is behind these stories if we go a little deeper: these are also stories about the potential that people, that strangers have.

Certainly it is about the disciples recognizing something of the potential in Jesus. John sees it first, pointing him out to his disciples as the Lamb of God. Interesting that John sends his disciples to follow Jesus, but doesn’t go himself. And then the disciples themselves have obviously seen something in Jesus.  They may not be able to say why they are following him home, but there is something there. Nathaniel is struck that Jesus saw him under the figtree, though Jesus’s response is also interesting: basically, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

And Jesus sees potential in the disciples. When first he lays eyes on Nathaniel, he sees something in him: an Israelite, in whom there is no guile. Or, in more vulgar, contemporary language, there is no BS in this guy. He speaks what is on his mind, what is on his heart, he just comes right out with it: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Say what you will, you know where you are at with Nathaniel. And so with the other disciples. Simon, whom he immediately nicknames Peter, the Rock. So presumably with all the others. Jesus saw potential in people.

That is what we are called to do, as his church. To be a place where we see the potential in people. To be a place, if you like, where we bear the awkwardness of the initial encounter – because, after all, we sure don’t come here to be cool! – for the sake of what is there. A place where we approach one another with a basic assumption, rooted in our faith: that this person is endowed by our Creator with unique gifts, and that it is our business to try to help those gifts to flourish.

Many of you know that before moving to Nova Scotia I worked for 12 years in a seminary. As Director of Pastoral Studies it was my job to work closely, often one-on-one, with the students. The agenda was very clear: it was to help them identify and develop their manifold gifts for ministry. It was a process that was full of risks: it usually involved them trying new things, with all the awkwardness that comes with trying new things we’re not yet very good at. But it was also incredibly rewarding work, as any teacher doubtlessly knows: watching them discover and claim new aspects of the gifts they had been given.

Well, it strikes me that what we do here isn’t that much different. We may not have it written front and centre that the purpose of our church is to help people discover and develop their gifts – perhaps we should. But it is what we do. As we work and worship and socialize with one another, we should be keeping our eyes open for the potential in one another; not seeing just the old familiar person we think we know inside out, but also the gifts, both the gifts we know and the ones that are still hidden, waiting to be coaxed out. And as we greet the stranger in our midst, the first time visitor, for example, let it be with a lively and eager expectation that this person is bringing gifts that will enrich our lives and our community.

One word of caution: looking for potential in one another is not the same as cherishing illusions about them. The Quaker writer Parker Palmer warns us about the dangers of placing too much of the wrong kind of hope in one another. He points out that life in Christian community can be a bit like a marriage, in that it can start out with rather romantic illusions about one another. We join the church in a cloud of good feelings about the community, and can come to assume that it will fulfil all of our emotional needs. And then, inevitably, it won’t. The question is, what happens when the honeymoon is over. Some people leave, disappointed; others settle in for a lukewarm relationship to the church. The challenge, when others disappoint us, as they inevitably will, is to look beyond the awkwardness, beyond the hurtful things that are sometimes said – which in most cases are blurted out thoughtlessly and are not meant to be hurtful – and continue to rediscover the real potential in one another. Parker Palmer writes:

The function of community is to disillusion us about each other and ourselves, remembering that “disillusionment” is a positive process in the spiritual life: It means losing our illusions so that we may come closer to reality. The human failures of community teach us to put our trust in God, where it belongs, and not in our own skills and charm. In trusting God we become more trustworthy to each other, more available for the authentic community that is grounded in God’s power and not our own.

You know, I was very moved and gratified by the warm welcome you gave me last week. At the same time, I know I will disappoint you in some ways. That’s not negative thinking, that’s simply reality. Inevitably, I will blurt out something stupid now and then, and maybe it will be heard as hurtful. Inevitably, I will miss some clues, and perhaps you will feel neglected. It happens. It is part of the awkwardness of human relationships. When that happens, I pray that you will forgive me, and call me out on it, gently, if possible, and that we will remember together that the task we are called to here is to discern and call forth the potential in each one of us.