During the three years from 1960 to 1963, no less than twenty four African countries achieved independence from the European colonial powers that had oppressed them.
Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, The Central African Republic, Chad, The Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ivory coast, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Togo, and Uganda all achieved independence from French rule.
Burundi, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda, were liberated from Belgium…
And Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Tanzania, broke from the colonial thrall of the United Kingdom.
With such a momentous wave of liberation sweeping the globe, the great moment also seemed at hand for Americans of African descent to trim their sails and catch the winds of change.
Labor organizer and founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Negro American Labor Council, A. Philip Randolph, had long envisioned trying to orchestrate a March on Washington DC, and in the spring and summer of 1963, he found that the momentum that had eluded him for decades was now gathering behind him.
Black people of all ages were responding to the summons and acting with discipline – facing dread violence with moral courage. When Eugene Bull Connor ordered the use of firehouses and police dogs against Black children in Birmingham Alabama, the resulting images and footage shocked many white Americans out of their complacency – was this a true representation of America’s moral nature? Civil Rights leaders like A Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. all agreed that America had come to an inflection point.
The time had come to act.
Considered against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, today’s passage from the Gospel of John takes on a new, weighty significance.
This story, like the build up to the 1963 March on Washington, is the story of a summons.
In any story that involves a summons, there is a crucial question that must inevitably be resolved:
Will the person who is summoned heed the call?
But in this story, when Jesus encounters Philip, the question doesn’t even come up! There is no prevaricating, no drama, no humming, and not even a hint of hawing.
“Follow me,” Jesus commands.
The text does not even bother to state that Philip heeded the call – it is taken for granted. Philip does not even need to think about it, he just follows. And the next thing we know, get this… it is Philip, doing the summoning on behalf of his new master:
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
If Philip was a bit of a pushover, Nathaniel is the opposite. In response to Philip’s call, Nathaniel responds with incredulity:
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Did you hear that? Nathaniel says:
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
I wanted to admire Nathaniel for at least having a mind of his own, but then this deplorable sentiment came out of his mouth.
Nathaniel does not want to bother meeting this guy from Nazareth because Nathaniel has already decided that nothing good comes out of Nazareth. This attitude that Nathaniel has is not based on any true understanding of the person Philip is telling him about – how could it, he hasn’t even met him yet! Instead, Nathaniel’s attitude is based on the assumption that everyone who comes from Nazareth is worthless.
To this regrettable display of ignorance, Philip offers a simple but, as it turns out, completely effective answer.
“Come and see.”
And they came…
They converged on the nation’s capital.
They had determination in their hearts and freedom on their minds.
Some came by car, by train, or airplane.
Most took buses – thousands of them – that were sponsored by local organizations and churches in their cities and towns.
Still others came on foot, thumbing rides as they could.
They were from all walks of life.
They were old and young,
able-bodied and impaired,
poor and wealthy,
average citizens and the very famous.
They all had a shared purpose, a common insistence – that the “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is intolerable. The idea that a certain “kind” of people can be automatically denied their essential humanity as children of God – this idea cannot stand unchallenged.
On August 28th, 1963, a multitude of 250,000 people converged in Washington DC from all the points of the compass. They came to be a part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was the largest non-violent demonstration for civil rights that Americans had ever witnessed until that time.
To his credit, despite any misgivings he might have had about this hayseed from Nazareth, Nathanael allowed himself to be brought into Jesus’ presence, at which point a curious dialogue ensues. I will let the text tell the story:
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
Do you see what has happened here?
When Jesus sees Nathanael, at first it seems like he is giving Nathanael some of his own medicine, identifying him by way of a generalization: “Here is an Israelite…”
But after this, Jesus goes on to make a specific observation about Nathanael’s character:
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
So, rather than dismissing Nathanael based on a generalization, Jesus accepts Nathanael based on a quality that is particular to his character: that is, his quality of having “no deceit.”
This is another way of saying that Jesus did not judge Nathanael by the color of his skin. Jesus judges Nathanael by the content of his character.
On August 28th, 1963, Clayborn Carson was a 19 year old kid who was about to start his second year at University of New Mexico. A son of one of a handful of black families in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he’d been watching the Civil Rights Movement from a distance, and that summer, he’d managed to get to Bloomington Indiana, where, at a conference organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC – he found himself influenced and radicalized by the charismatic Civil Rights leader, Stokely Carmichael.
The day before the march, he found his way onto a bus headed to DC, and in the morning, bleary eyed from lack of sleep, he wandered out onto the Mall.
I was amazed by the multitude of marchers,—many more black people than I’d ever seen growing up in New Mexico. he wrote in his book “Martin’s Dream”
I was impressed that most of the adults were well dressed in the sweltering heat, but the sweat on my white cotton shirt compelled me to take off my sport coat.
I noticed a black contingent from Mississippi who energized the crowd by snaking through the marchers shouting some of the spirited freedom songs… Although I imagined that most black Mississippians lived in conditions only slightly removed from slavery, these demonstrators exhibited a sense of freedom that I found enticing.
By the late afternoon hour when King was introduced to speak, I was preoccupied with thoughts of finding the bus that had brought me, but I didn’t want to miss his remarks. I edged my way toward the rear of the crowd, so that I could quickly depart when he finished speaking. His initial words confirmed that my decision to attend the march was wise…
Up on the stand, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King seemed to be speaking directly to those Mississippians, and even to Carson himself, the nineteen year old from Los Alamos:
I am not unmindful, King said, that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
The question, about a summons, is this: will the person summoned heed the call?
Ultimately, Nathanael heard and obeyed the summons. He did so because, upon actually meeting the hayseed from Nazareth, he discovered that the content of his character was very compelling indeed.
In August of 1963, people from all over the United States heeded the summons.
They came from Mississippi, and Alabama. They came from South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana. They came from the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities…
And they returned along the long dusty roads to those same places, filled with a new hope – a dream – that
we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This call to the dignity of all people is the summons that Jesus offered and Dr. King heeded.
This too, is the call that God makes to each of us.
Can you hear it?