St. Luke's Episcopal Church – Homily
Rev. Heidi L. Edson – January 17, 2121
Terry Tempest Williams (b.1955) is a beloved professor, conservationist, writer, and lecturer who lives in the southern part of Utah. There is a quote from one of her writings that's included in The Episcopal Church's worship resource, Daily Prayer for All Seasons that's included in the weekly Morning Prayer.
The quote goes like this: "The eye of the cormorant is emerald. The eye of the eagle is amber. The eye of the grebe is ruby. The eye of the ibis is sapphire. Four gemstones mirror the minds of birds, birds who mediate between heaven and earth. We miss the eyes of the birds, focusing only on feathers."
Prof. Williams strikes a nerve with is quote. How many of us have taken the time to pay attention to nature's beauty and to what nature can reveal about us? I confess that, when it comes to my observation of birds in nature, I look at the feathers! Maybe that's because the feathers are easier to spot.
In our Gospel passage this morning from John, Jesus is beginning His public ministry. Jesus is looking for disciples who will accompany Him in this missional endeavor. Jesus goes to Galilee and finds Philip. He tells Philip, "Follow me." Philip then goes to his brother, Nathanael, and tells him: "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth."
Nathanael who comes across (at least to me) as a "crusty" type of guy is not buying what his brother just told him. He has already formed his own thoughts about Jesus: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nathanael asks. Philip, in turn, says, "Come and see." Taking his brother's words to heart, Nathanael rises and goes to Jesus.
On his way towards Jesus, Jesus sees Nathanael and comes to him. Already knowing Nathanael, Jesus pays him a compliment. He appreciates Nathanael's straightforward, no-nonsense approach to life. Then Jesus points out that He already knew Nathanael under the fig tree. Why would Jesus point this out? As a faithful Jew, Nathanael likely spent some time reading and studying the Torah under or near a fig tree. The fig tree in Scripture is sometimes likened to an outdoor synagogue or, for Christians, an outdoor church, perhaps. In other words, the fig tree symbolized a place for worship.
Fig trees were also wonderful sources of food for weary travelers such as Jesus. Jesus would often go to a fig tree for its fruit. In Mark's Gospel (Mk 11:12-14), though, we hear the account of Jesus' going to pick fruit from a fig tree but there was not fruit to be found.
Let's take a moment to reflect on the way we worship here at St. Luke's and how this might point to the fig tree that Jesus found was barren. My field internship during seminary was with an Anglo-Catholic Church in the heart of San Francisco. Our Sunday worship was never short on the "smells, bells, and whistles" that served to enhance our worship experience. Despite the elegance and beauty of this way of coming to God, I think we know deep within our beings that liturgical "trappings" never can replace the true worship of God that begins in the heart of the worshipper.
Thinking again of Professor William's quote about the bird and what it is we notice, we can conclude that our worship with all the liturgical trappings but without the heart is akin to seeing the feathers of the bird but not the eyes. Scripture teaches that it is the eyes that mirror the soul within. (Mt. 6:22-3).
In this Season of the Epiphany, Jesus the Light of the world is made "manifest". Jesus has come from heaven down to earth to make His dwelling among us. What an incredible Gift has been given to us! In this Season of the Epiphany, we, who claim to follow Christ, stand in the wonder and Light of His appearing.
This Season of the Epiphany is the "aha moment" in our lives. Something new and wonderful has come that will change us forever if we but come to know Jesus from the heart. Knowing the Christ within each of us just might alter how we view our own icons in the Church. Our "smells, bells, and whistles"- far from being a distraction from looking within- can serve to draw us closer to Christ if our heart's intent to engage God is real and genuine.
When Jesus remarked to Nathanael how He had first seen him under the fig tree, something happened within Nathanael. For the first time his eyes were opened to see Jesus' eyes and to know Jesus to be his Messiah. Nathanael was able to move beyond the fact that Jesus was just a Nazorean. The words of the Torah Nathanael read near the fig tree now took second place to the Living Word who stood right before him.
In these difficult days of COVID-19 that doesn't allow us to worship inside our Church building at all, we , like Nathanael and Philip have this wonderful opportunity to worship God as we walk Christ's path. Each and every day is our new beginning to meet with God who stands among us and all of creation. The journey we take with Christ before us is God's journey for us and not our own. The Spirit of God will lead us into new ways of being and of acting in our own broken and unpredictable world.
In this Season of the Epiphany where heaven meets earth and where earth catches a glimpse of heaven, let's try to look beyond just the "feathers." We think of heaven as a futuristic hope, but the truth is that heaven is our here-and-now reality. Heaven has come to us as God Who become flesh for us who live on earth.
For the sake of the world we live in, let us embrace the invitation to "come and see." Maybe the next time we see a bird, we just might see the eyes, too. There mirrored in the eyes of the bird are the eyes of our Creator who is ever present in our lives and in our worship.