Sermons

Can Anything Good Come from This? Rev. Dee Ledger, January 17, 2021

You may not remember Nathanael from the bible.  You might not remember that he was a friend of Philip’s from Bethsaida, which I can’t help reading as “Bethesda.”  You might not remember this passage from the gospel of John where Jesus calls both Philip and Nathanael to his mission and ministry.

An excited Philip runs to his friend to share news of the Messiah.   And we hear this:

“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  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.’  Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ (John 1:43-51)

It’s a slam on the people of Nazareth that Nathanael gives.  Nazareth was a backwater kind of town according to Nathanael.  It is important to note that this isn’t his village.  Nathanael is from a neighboring town.   His prejudice towards the people, towards the entire town, has directed his thoughts about the area.

According to Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage, written in 1706, we should carefully “observe the objection Nathanael made. All who desire to profit by the word of God, must beware of prejudices against places, or denominations of men. They should examine for themselves, and they will sometimes find good where they looked for none. Many people are kept from the ways of religion by the unreasonable prejudices they conceive.”[1]

For Nathanael, at least initially, nothing good could come from such a place as Nazareth.  The Messiah come from THERE?  Nah.  Nazareth was too small, too insignificant, too backward, and too messed up to produce anything worthy of distinction.

Like many of you, I watched from some distance as Washington, D.C. began to resemble a military zone.  I watched as fencing went up, as streets were closed, and as the guard was called in to assist us in having a so-called peaceful transition of power and in anticipation of the inauguration. I listened as the National setting of the United Church of Christ urged liberal churches to meet virtually and to be aware that there have been threats made against progressive church settings.  I listened as more and more information about the riots and siege of Capitol was revealed, including threats on the Vice President and others.  In the last week, we watched as the President was impeached a second time and as daily Covid deaths in the United States reached an all-time high, both of which are present realities layered on top of any kind of peaceful transition of power.

And I thought—perhaps you did too—“Can anything good come out of this?” echoing the words of Nathanael.  The past 12 months, the near constant state of anxiety, grief, loss, and fear– This is our Nazareth, so to speak.  This is the place where we find ourselves now as individuals, as a church, and as a nation.

Philip doesn’t list for Nathanael all the reasons why he should believe or trust Jesus or how Nazareth actually birthed a prophet, healer, and teacher par excellence.  Philip doesn’t try to talk Nathanael out of his prejudiced opinions about the so-called backwaters of Nazareth or why the little town might be worthy of a second look.  He simply says, “Come and see.”  That is, Philip gives an invitation—an invitation to participate in a transformation underway.

“Come and see.”  How do we hear those words?  Come and see what, exactly?  Well, for one thing, perhaps we are invited to “come and see” how we might be part of the changes for which we yearn.  Rather than bemoaning the lack of social justice or poverty in our country, perhaps we might choose to become more directly involved in those causes that are often underfunded and under-represented by white, privileged Americans.

One of the blogs that recently crossed my desk reminded me of the good work of Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.  This movement was inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  As their website states, “In 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others called for a ‘revolution of values’ in America. They sought to build a broad, fusion movement that could unite poor and impacted communities across the country. Their name was a direct cry from the underside of history: The Poor People’s Campaign…Today, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has picked up this unfinished work. From Alaska to Arkansas, the Bronx to the border, people are coming together to confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” [2] (see https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/)

“Come and see,” may mean this kind of advocacy for others, or perhaps not.  Perhaps you are being asked, like Nathanael, to change your way of thinking about the passion of your involvement or non-involvement in Jesus’ movement to bring healing and restoration to those on the margins.  Perhaps you once were enthusiastic, motivated, and encouraged to educate yourself or to assist the cause of justice, but your fire has slowly been reduced to embers by the relentless nature of time and your own private affairs.  Maybe you have become cynical, numb, or helpless in the face of so much that needs still doing.  Each day, I open my mailbox to pleas for more money, more time, and more attention.  Just looking at the overflow of appeals can be overwhelming.  One cannot “Come and see” everything at every time or one sees nothing in particular very well.

Yet surely there is some invitation to “come and see” that you could answer this week as one who takes Jesus’ vision seriously:  perhaps an invitation to regularly listen to someone’s experience that is vastly different from yours, or perhaps a struggling family member who doesn’t know how to face a particular problem, or perhaps an invitation to explore an area of your life that you’ve had on lock-down since before the pandemic even happened.

Can anything good come out of our grief and pain, our lack of collective truth-telling about the state of things, this disunity, and this rampant white supremacy?  Yes.  For one thing, if we can acknowledge our collective shadows, and the ways in which we have been blinded by the glare of our own complicity in systems of oppression and injustice.  Yes, if we can acknowledge our short-sightedness as a country and the more toxic forms of our own Christian faith.  If we can “own” the ways in which our faith has been both complicit and distorted, while lifting up what is life-giving, then perhaps we can foster more healing than harm.  We can finally see that which has been hidden in plain sight to our eyes, but what our siblings of color have had to deal with throughout multiple generations.  In terms of our collective story as Americans, we can begin to understand that there are, and always have been, several stories at play, but one has predominated and oppressed others for far too long.  We can acknowledge a more complex reality and truth than we, as a people, originally wanted to believe.

Dr. Colleen Wessel-McCoy writes, “Jesus came from the poor, from those who are not expected to bring forward what is good. We know today that the best news comes from Nazareth, but we know that because we read knowing the end.

We do the same with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We become accustomed to the national holiday. But the day to celebrate him was not easy or automatic. People fought against it. We forget that the Montgomery Bus Boycott began with the demand that black people in the South can keep their seat only if the back of the bus is full; and that at the time meaningful desegregation was a vision only a few believed could be immanent. We know the conclusion and so take for granted that good came out of Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis. Good came from a people who were oppressed, pushed to the margins, terrorized with violence and humiliated with second-class citizenship.”[3]

In 2014, I shared with you the warning that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer and storyteller, gave against the dangers of allowing a single story to predominate.

She writes:

“I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight, we got a new houseboy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, ‘Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.’ So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family. Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”[4]

Chimamanda Adichie spoke of how we can restrict the human imagination to the prejudices that are imparted to us.  We can also restrict our capacity to grow and learn from one another when we tolerate deceit or racist voices to shape a worldview which questions or loudly proclaims that “nothing good can come from this place or this people.” We can warp and twist the human capacity for divine attributes such as compassion, equanimity, holy “seeing,” respect for dignity, understanding of difference, appropriate humility and positive self-regard, and realized belovedness.  When only one story or one voice prevails, we can forget how to tell a different, more complete and more truthful story.

Siblings in Christ, we – of all people—should understand the value of complex, multiple stories.  Our bible is a collection of stories; in the New Testament there are four different gospels, four different accounts, of Jesus’ words, parables, and perspective.  We also have inherited a biblical testimony that continually shows that good can come from the most miserable and messiest of human affairs.  I don’t know when that blessing will come or from where it will arise next.  But I trust that our faith will give us eyes to see it, hands to help it grow, and a heart to love it when it comes.

May it be so.

 

 

 

[1] http://biblehub.com/commentaries/john/1-46.htm

[2] https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/

[3] Colleen Wessel-McCoy, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A Sermon Celebrating Dr. King. https://kairoscenter.org/can-anything-good-come-nazareth-sermon-celebrating-martin-luther-king/

 

[4] http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en