September 17, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Finding and Being Found
(first in the series “Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel”)
A few weeks ago, I read an article about an elite detective unit in London’s Scotland Yard. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day the BBC decides to develop a series of crime thrillers about this unit since these detectives have an actual super power. They’re recruited because they possess an uncanny ability to recognize faces.
For a long time, the prevailing idea was that most people share a similar ability to recognize faces, that we’re all equally equipped to mill around a party, and meet someone and say, “I think we’ve met before; you look familiar.”
Actually, when it comes to facial recognition, there is a whole spectrum of ability. Some people experience “face blindness” called prosopagnosia. In extreme cases, they can look at a picture of themselves and not know who it is. At the other end of the spectrum, there are people like these London detectives who see a face once and can’t forget it. (Imagine watching a movie with one of these detectives, I’d keep asking, “Hey I’m sure I’ve seen that actor before in something else, where do I know him from?” And they’d tell me! )
The discovery of this spectrum leaves me wondering whether facial recognition is not just an ability we’re born with, but something we could get better at or worse at over time. Studies show, people are much better at recognizing people from their own racial background, but would this be true for a child who grew up in a multi-racial household? Nature, or nurture, or both?
In London, the intersections are covered with security cameras, but security camera footage is only as useful as the person reviewing it. That’s where these detectives come in. They spend hours poring over the footage to see whether they recognize any faces from mug shots or previous encounters, and they’ve been successful in making numerous positive identifications.
Of course, even if you identify a shoplifter on a security camera, you might figure out her name, but you still don’t know her story. You don’t know whether she’s stealing fancy cupcakes in order to create a distraction and conceal the theft going on in the back room, or whether she’s dealing with an eating disorder. You know it’s her, that’s enough to make an arrest; but we don’t know her.
When it comes to recognizing someone, there is some part we can control. You can know what you’re looking for and seek that out with sensible determination. In recognizing someone, there is also something we cannot control. You might discover an unexpected connection; we might discover there’s a lot we don’t know about each other.
Friends, we are beginning the fall sermon series which explores stories of the disciples in the Gospel of John. Today we hear the story of Jesus calling the first disciples to come and follow him, but this story is not like how it goes in the other gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus approaches the disciples who were fishing. “Leave your nets and follow me. You already know how to catch fish, now I will make you fishers of people” and so the Gospel got going.
It’s a whole different story in John, but that’s not surprising. The Gospel of John was pieced together from a variety of sources. Whoever put it together probably did not have access to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so the differences make a lot of sense. It’s when the Fourth Gospel has something in common with the other three gospels, that’s when things get interesting.
In today’s scripture, John the Baptist is standing with two of his disciples when he sees Jesus walk by. “Look there goes the Lamb of God!” he says. So the two disciples begin following Jesus. Jesus turns and asks them what any of us might, “Can I help you? What are you looking for?” And they say, “Rabbi, where are you abiding?” The Gospel of John is very concerned about where people are abiding. Usually it is in God, and God abides in us. But here, Jesus doesn’t say “in God;” he says “Come and see.” The disciples follow him and stay overnight.
The next day Andrew goes and gets his brother Simon Peter. “You’ll never believe what happened to us last night! We found the Messiah! You’ve got to come see.” So Simon Peter goes to meet Jesus, and right away Christ recognizes him: You are Simon, son of John. I’m going to call you “Rocky” (Peter).
Next Jesus goes to Galilee. He finds Philip and tells him what he says to all of us, “Come, follow me.” Okay, but first Philip goes and finds Nathaniel saying: “We have found him, the one written about by Moses and the prophets.” And Nathaniel sighs. Really? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Philip doesn’t miss a beat. “You’ll have to come and see” he says. So Nathaniel does.
All through the Gospel of John is the same question: Who is Jesus? Who can see the truth of Christ? It’s a good question for us to consider. Do we see Christ is divine, the beloved son of God? And there’s this. Do we see Christ in each other, as though we human people are divine, beloved sons and daughters of God…
The work of seeing Christ in one another reminds me of that story in Matthew Twenty-Five. A king is sorting out the righteous from the unrighteous, and the righteous ask him, “When, Lord, did we see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we visit you in prison or welcome you into our homes?” And the Lord says, whenever you did this for those who are least important, you did this for me.
See Jesus in the eyes of the man standing by the road, holding a sign, asking for money. See Christ in the face of the woman whose mug shot is on the news after she was arrested for a DUI. Look at the little boy from Aleppo covered in dust, left to live while the world around him dies. Look at his face and you’ll recognize him. You’ll see Jesus Christ. I encourage you to try doing this sometime. Whoever seems different from you, maybe a little strange, maybe a little scary, you could look right at them and see if you recognize them. Because you might.
Or this might happen… A few years ago when we lived in Ohio, Chris and I were helping our church deliver Easter gift bags to children who had a parent in the county jail. For the first family, we had to drive way out into the country until we arrived at, I’m not kidding, a run-down abandoned amusement park. Under the shadow of a decrepit roller coaster was a cluster of small houses, like a trailer park. We had to leave our car and walk down the dirt road. While we were walking, I made a decision. I will see Christ in whoever opens the door.
The person who answered the door was a woman younger than I was. It seemed like we had taken her by surprise, but she was gracious and patient. She called the kids over who were watching cartoons, and she let us give them their bags, you know, like Jesus would.
If you ever want to know what Christ looks like, it never hurts to look at somebody who’s taking care of children. And what is her life like? Is she raising them by herself since their dad is locked up? This is what I was wondering as we were walking back to the car. Chris says to me, “Did you see what she was wearing?” No, I didn’t see what she was wearing; I was focused on seeing Jesus. Chris says, “You know she has your pajamas.” Of course she did. She was wearing a hoodie over pink pajamas with white polka dots, and I have the same pajamas, but I didn’t even notice.
I was so determined to see Jesus, I didn’t really see this woman. I’m so ready to imagine a story about the challenges of her life. But the critical truth is, I don’t know her story. I don’t know if she’s married, or how long the kids’ dad has been locked up; I don’t know the last time she got enough sleep. I’m pretty sure she and I have more in common than pajamas, but I don’t know her life.
When it comes to seeing another person, there is something we can control. I can choose to make eye contact, or see Jesus, or stop and consider whether I’ve ever seen this person before. But when it comes to seeing somebody, there’s also something we can’t control. We risk getting surprised, seeing just the edge of their sacred story. It’s like the quote that goes: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
So maybe there’s more to it than my determination to see Jesus in the eyes of a stranger. Maybe I need to see the other person as a person and honor their story that I don’t know. Maybe it’s less about me finding Jesus and more about the possibility that Jesus could recognize me. Less about knowing exactly what I’m looking for. More about being open to the possibility that I could get found… or found out.
A long time ago in Galilee, Jesus found Philip; so Philip got Nathaniel saying “We have found the one written about by Moses and the prophets.” Nathaniel sighed, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip said “You’ll have to come and see.” Well right away Jesus recognized Nathaniel: “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” And Nathaniel said what would most of us would: “Where did you get to know me?” “I saw you under the fig tree,” said Jesus. And Nathaniel says “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” Now I know who you are!
The Gospel teaches that seeing Christ is connected to believing in Christ. But what happens if he sees you and believes in you? What if Jesus sees the deepest truth of who you are, and who you are is love? “Follow me” says the Lord. “I see you; you’re not lost. Now come on.” And maybe that’s the blessing, or maybe that’s the threat.
Either way, we’ll have to come and see. Amen.
 Keefe, Patrick Radden. “Total Recall” in The New Yorker: August 22, 2016, page 48.
 Ehrman, Bart. D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Oxford UP: New York, 2004. page 163.