Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
January 17, 2021
“Can any good come out of Nazareth?” Hearing Nathaniel’s ugly question brings a flash of red to my cheeks. This story is supposed to be inspiring about Jesus calling his first disciples, declaring the wonders they will see, like Jacob’s ladder where angels ascend and descend, connecting heaven and earth. I’ll get there, but I can’t step over Nathaniel’s small-minded question.
I’m sensitive to expressions of prejudice right now. Some of this is personal. Can any good come from Nazareth isn’t far from; can any good come from Boone, Iowa, my hometown. When I came to seminary in Boston, my classmates were bemused there was such a place. Did Daniel Boone actually live there? (No, his son Nathaniel founded the town.). I think I flew over Iowa once. Do they grow potatoes there? I thought this teasing was strange since some came from a city pronounced “Wuhstah” (Worcester). It’s not a big deal, maybe a little rood and provincial, but I could fit through hard work and a little smoothing of my vowels. It’s not like I had to change my skin color or anything so permanent.
But it tweaks my eardrum when I hear ugly dismissals of whole groups of people. What good can come from Nazareth? It’s not a question, really. It’s a statement of superiority. I’m from someplace better. I come from a good place, so I must be good. I’m the norm. I am of a higher caste.
“Caste” is the title of Isabell Wilkerson’s stunning book published last year. She makes a compelling case that the United States is a caste society that functions with similar social stratifications as India and Nazi Germany. She argues that our conversations about racism don’t go deep enough. Racism is more than a few people being prejudiced, or fearful, or hateful of others, and through education and compassion, we can reconcile and make racism disappear. This story makes it easy to think that we are not racist; it’s someone else.
Even the term “system racism” doesn’t go deep enough for Wilkerson. Indeed, there is racism embedded in all systems from law enforcement, housing, education, and, as we see during the pandemic, health care. But having better policies isn’t enough either. Wilkerson says we live in a caste society, where all institutions, cultural norms, and social attitudes and interactions reinforce caste boundaries. These are so pervasive most of us don’t even notice.
I’m spending this time talking about race and caste not just because it is Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, but also because we have seen the full force of the destructive power of white supremacy this week. The issues may be complex; the roots are not. The insurrection was planned and carried out with white power groups. We shouldn’t be surprised. Larry Bartells of Vanderbilt studied voters to determine what factors correlate most closely with anti-democratic sentiment and the willingness to engage in political violence. The study considered numerous factors like economic and social conservatism, political cynicism, a person’s financial status, and where they live. What do people have in common who agree with this statement; “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”? The most consistent predictor across all the variables was racial antagonism. https://www.pnas.org/content/117/37/22752
Let’s think again about Nathaniel’s story in John’s Gospel. I was annoyed with Nathaniel’s comment this week. But, now I see this as a story of moving from prejudice to discipleship. Despite his negative prejudice, Nathaniel becomes the fourth disciple and devotes his life to following Jesus of Nazareth. How did this happen, and how can that help us with our enormous mess? Let’s start with Philip. Jesus first calls Phillip, and he is an eager beaver. I imagine him bounding up to his friend Nathaniel bursting with enthusiasm. “We have found Him whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Boone, Iowa…from Detroit, from the South Side of Chicago, from Nazareth. Isn’t that great! “What good can come from Nazareth?” At this moment, Philip could have called him out. “Nathan, stop being a jerk. Check your privilege. You are prejudiced. If you don’t knock it off, I’m going to un-friend you on “Phariseebook.” I have to respect Philip because I am in a call-out frame of mind. A man who regularly prattles on my Facebook page posted, “You can thank the left, liberal, radical, progressive Democratic loons and the lamestream, Fake News media for this.” He started in with his “stop the steal rhetoric, and finally I said, “Here is my simple rule. If I go to a protest and the Neo-Nazi’s show up, and they are on my side, I need to examine myself.” It felt good saying that, but I don’t think it did any good.
I think Philip did it better. He simply said, “Come and see.” He didn’t argue, judge, or blame. Maybe Philip knew that people seldom change their minds through arguing. They have to experience something to be transformed. So, Philip just said what Jesus said to him. Come and see. It’s brilliant. I learned from Kathryn at Bible study on Monday that this was also a teaching of the Buddha. Come and see. You can only find out the truth by exploring it for yourself.
Nathaniel, to his credit, came to Jesus. I love the story of Jesus, welcoming him, “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Nathaniel is astonished that Jesus knows anything about him. “Jesus, how have we met?” Jesus saw him under the fig tree. Fig trees were where rabbis meditated or taught their disciples, taking advantage of the shade in the middle of the day. So, Jesus may have been saying he saw that Nathaniel was a person genuinely seeking God. Nathaniel is so astonished that he immediately calls Jesus the Son of God. Imagine a man from Nazareth! Jesus says, “Nathaniel, you ain’t’ seen nothing yet! Stick with me, and you will see Jacob’s ladder and all the angels coming and going.”
What matters here is not so much of the miracle of Jesus’ foreknowledge, but he saw Nathaniel for who he was. Jesus saw him for his best self, his image of God-self, not his limited prejudiced self. What a wonder, what a gift that is. That has transformative power. Once Nathanial is seen, he can see who Jesus is. I think that is how it is for all of us. When we feel God sees us and knows us, and loves us still, then we are more open to the wonder of it all.
Last week at Vespers, we were sharing beforehand, and three members of the group were having surgery or had a relative undergoing significant worries. After sharing our anxious concerns, we listened to a reading from the Still Speaking Writers. The author said her New Year’s resolution was to worry less and wonder more. In our reflection time, Patti said, “What a wonder that a surgeon can repair my shoulder and fix my torn rotator cuff, and I can get my life back.” Joanne told us how amazing it was that her mother’s brain aneurism could be repaired by surgery entering her wrist and going up her arm. And she would be home the next day after brain surgery. Cindy said, “It is a wonder to me that our democracy is still working. It is such a hard time, and we hear such terrible things, but God must be doing something because we are still here.” It felt like a transformation to think of wonder instead of worry. Our Vespers had invited us to come and see and experience the world in a better way.
And then this week arrived. More significant worries beset us the more we learned about the insurrection on January 6. Earlier in the week, Helene said in our sharing time, “I wonder if some good can come from the attack because now we are more aware.” She had heard the FBI warning that attacks could occur in all 50 states. Perhaps because of the first one, our nation would be more prepared and able to stop a bigger disaster.
That night I saw this Tweet from Dr. William Barber, the bold civil rights leader.
“After the evil of the Dred Scott decision in 1857, Frederick Douglass said, “Maybe this is a necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the downfall and complete overthrow of the whole slave system.” History proved Douglass right. Slavery ended less than a decade later.”
“It may be true also for the downfall of Trumpism, the “Southern strategy,” & the extremism that has taken over Republicanism. January 6 may be the thing ppl meant for evil that God turns to good & this may be the pain before the birthing of a new democracy.”
Imagine God speaking to our Vespers group with a similar voice as William Barber. That is how it is when the Still Speaking God moves. We are invited away from saying what good can come of this terrible situation to saying, come and see what God is doing. Friends, this is a time of unveiling. Our nation is unveiled as it is, and some of it is ugly, hateful, and violent. But just as Jesus saw deeper into Nathaniel, God knows who we can be. We can’t merely say this is not who we are. We need the courage to come and see so that we can repent and change. Instead of excusing violence and racism, the Risen Christ invites us to see a Beloved Community that can be if we work to overcome hatred with love and justice. Like Nathaniel, we too can be transformed, and where there is worry and anxiety and injustice, we will see a wonder. Heaven and earth will be connected again with Jacob’s ladder; the angels will ascend and descend. And we will climb, rung by rung.