Sermons

Voice: A Message for the Annual Renewal of Baptismal Promises, Rev. Dee Ledger, January 14, 2018

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 back water 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.

In Mark, when Jesus rises from the baptismal waters having heard, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased,” it is another reminder to each of us that we are, each of us, cherished by God, and made in the image of our Creator.  We may dislike a person; we may disagree with a person, but we may not, as Christians, write-off people as if we are writing off a bad check, or a bad investment, or treat people as if they are less-than or garbage.  Our baptism, our calling, and our understanding of God should prevent us from being so unkind, inhuman, or unjust.  Can you imagine if the Spirit that descended on Jesus that day in the Jordan, the voice that came from the heavens, had said something degrading, something racist, and something entirely contrary to the demonstrable love of our God?

No, I cannot.  And yet, as a young person, I remember believing at one time in my life that the entire state of Florida was toxic, the “last place in hell” one would want to visit.  If I remember correctly, I called the place, “Godforsaken.” A wise mentor having overheard my off-hand comment quickly, and, I might add, effectively corrected my perspective and asked me to please clarify what I truly meant.  Who was I to think that an entire state of God’s people were any less than I?  Was I not somewhat like Jonah who begged God not to be sent to the Ninevites because he thought they deserved God’s destruction?

In hind-sight, God must have really wanted me to get this lesson because I ended up spending a total of four years in the Sunshine state, forming friendships that were life-giving, life-enduring, and ultimately marrying a resident Floridian.  The motto: be ye careful of who and what you condemn.

What is contained in the descriptors that we choose to use for our fellow human beings when we believe that no one is listening?  Are they life-giving or toxic?  Which voices do we choose to amplify and to which do we lend our ears and minds?  How do we effectively deal with the powerful Nathanaels of the world who, because of their limited grasp of history, their narrow range of experience, and their need to be superior to someone else (often the black and brown folk of the world) make statements and policies that are contrary to the most basic of Christian beliefs: that ALL human beings have inherent worth and dignity as bestowed by our Creator?  We are made in the image of God.  Imago Dei.

When public voices degrade our fellow sisters and brothers, when private voices (including our own) are tempted to “write-off” family members or entire peoples as not as valuable as our own selves, or our own cultures, when our voices become too silent on the things that matter, when we do not remind each other that we are each, and every one, made in the Imago Dei, Image of God, then we as human beings become warped and twisted and we open ourselves to continued violence.

Award-winning novelist and writer, Edwidge Danticat, who immigrated to the United States from Haiti when she was twelve, reminds us of the danger of our words and using our voices to condemn entire groups of people.

She comments on our President’s most recent remarks:

“But what he’s saying, from this very high position of power, affects the future of nations, affects the lives of individuals, affects how people—how policy is created. And now you have all these white supremacists and racists who feel so empowered, because… the president of the United States… has put a target on the backs of these people who[m] he has described in this way, for them to be ridiculed, for them to be geared to have prejudices exercised against them and, in some cases, to have violence and… assaults possible on their bodies. Because —these words give permission to certain kinds of people. And we become then hypervisible in our vulnerability, because we have been singled out, not once—once in the policy with the TPS, once with the AIDS, and now with this, and as a group of people, as Haitians, and as people, he was saying, from Africa. And he’s singling out people for and making us targets for all kinds of possible attacks.”[2]

Just as Philip and Jesus were dissenting voices in the case of Nathanael; sometimes we need to amplify the dissenting voices and diverse stories of our sisters and brothers around the world and in our very own nation.  And sometimes we need to do this more than once.  In 2014, I shared with you the warning that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer and storyteller, gave against the dangers of a single story.

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.

Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals. . .”[3]

Adichie goes on to say, “… that is how to create a single story.  Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.”

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 use our voices or tell a different, more complete story.

We participate in rituals such as the one that we are doing today to physically and mentally remind ourselves not simply of our own belovedness, but that of others.  We are unique individuals, each one of us uniquely endowed with a purpose and gifts and talents for this world.  But we are, individually and collectively, no more special than any other in terms of our human worth and dignity, our value to our Creator, and our role in the world.  We are beloved—not because of our money, our vocation, where we live, or our ability to work or have children.  We are beloved not thru any merit of our own or because of our achievements.  We are beloved because we ARE.

When Nathanael asked his question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” his friend Philip replied, “Come and see.”  Later, Nathanael, who would follow the call of Jesus, would be described by Jesus as one in whom there was no deceit.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” (my stress)[4]

Friends, in this place, where we proclaim that God blessed our diversity and called it good, may we struggle against and challenge any single story of one people, one place, or one culture.

May we remember Nathanael and learn how to “Come and see.”

May we celebrate our baptism and the Imago Dei of others that we may know and embrace a story that transcends our own.

Amen.

 

 

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

[2] “Completely Racist”: Edwidge Danticat on Trump’s “Shithole Countries” Remark Targeting Africa, Haiti

JANUARY 12, 2018. https://www.democracynow.org/2018/1/12/completely_racist_edwidge_danticat_on_trumps

 

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

[4] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at TEDGlobal 2009. “The danger of a single story.”