“Can Anything Good Come Out of…?”

(sermon 1/14/18)

comeandsee

John 1:43-51

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.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

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In this part of John’s gospel, we’re picking up in midstream the story of Jesus beginning to call his first disciples. The day before, Andrew, who had been a disciple of John the Baptist, had become a follower, along with his brother Simon. Now on this particular day, Jesus was out and about, and somewhere along the way he met Philip, and they struck up a conversation, and Jesus ultimately invited him to come follow him. Philip was intrigued and excited about Jesus and what he was saying – so much so that he tracked down his friend Nathanael and told him that he was convinced that he’d found the messiah, the specially anointed one sent by God, and foretold by Moses and the prophets, and it was none other than this Jesus, from Nazareth.

But apparently, Nathanael had the same opinion of Nazareth as the president has of Haiti, and you can almost hear the sneer, and see the can of his lip as he snorts, “Nazareth? Can anything good come out of that place?” That crummy little crossroads filled with nobodies; that miserable, poverty-stricken place that’s only managed to survive, and just barely at that, because it’s just an hour and a half’s walk from the jobs and work in the large, wealthy city of Sepphoris? I’m supposed to believe *anyone* any good, let alone the messiah, could come from a hole like that?

In the end, though, when Jesus and Nathanael meet, Nathanael learns how wrong, how mistaken, he was.

This story offers us two ideas to consider – two parts of God’s good news for us, to hold up together and think about how they might be related. The first part is that lesson that Nathanael had to learn, and, as we’ve been reminded of by the past few days’ news stories, that many people still have to learn: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Out of Haiti? Out of West Louisville? This is the lesson that a person’s place of birth, or any other factor outside their control, doen’t determine their significance, their intelligence, their character, their status as an important and beloved child of God. This great gospel truth was validated by the fact that God chose to dwell among us as a nobody with a Nazareth mailing address, ZIP Code 9021nowhere.

The second thing is this whole idea of being called to follow Christ, and to live as one of his disciples – Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, Nathanael, us.

It’s a bit ironic, actually, that the president’s outrageous thoughts and comments about the people of Haiti, Latin America, and Africa, which we’ve all heard ad nauseum at this point, were uttered just on the eve of this Sunday, when the Lectionary texts included Nathanael’s similar misguided dismissiveness and insult. You can bet that preachers all over the country are having a field day with that coincidence this morning. But it’s even more ironic, in that it also coincides with the day that we celebrate the life, the prophetic vision, and the lasting legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was clearly someone who had been called to speak gospel truth, even when it was discomforting and dangerous truth, about equality – and that that equality demands justice – in the courts, in schools, in the workplace, in places of business, regardless of whatever bigoted or discriminatory religious beliefs someone may have, and no matter how sincerely they hold them.

Dr. King spoke the gospel truth that God calls us to lift up and help the poor, not to abuse them by making their situation worse just to give a tax break to the wealthiest of the wealthy. He spoke gospel truth to the insanity of war, and sending people off to die for the sake of not losing face, or to protect business interests, or to rack up profits for arms manufacturers.

He sensed, on a deeply personal level, the significance of God’s call to him to speak boldly, and to act boldly, about these issues. Even at times when he didn’t want to see it through, when he’d have much rather just gone off and lived a quiet, comfortable, safe life out of the limelight with his family, he heard that call, “Come, follow me.” And we’re a better society, and a better church, and better followers of Jesus ourselves, because he did.

But while we’re better Christians because of the witness and prophetic voice of Dr. King, there’s still a lot to learn, a lot to do. Racism, and bigotry, and ignorance, and injustice, and homophobia, and poverty, and economic disparity, and homelessness, and hunger, all still exist, and we, the church, still need to boldly call them all out as being inconsistent with the God that we worship and the gospel we proclaim.

We’ve all been called to do that, in some way. Today, we’re recognizing people who will be ordained or installed to do it in a particular way – to be servant leaders of this congregation, helping to shape the way that we answer Christ’s call to follow him, in both our work and worship. To those of you being ordained or installed, I remind you that this isn’t like being elected the Treasurer of the Rotary Club – your ordination and installation reflects this congregation recognizing particular gifts that you have for leadership, and sensing that God is calling you to this particular type of service and ministry. Each of you will be an important part of how this congregation moves forward, and keeps focused on its mission to advance this gospel truth of God’s desire for love, and compassion, and equality, and justice for all of God’s people. I invite you to take this commitment seriously. When you kneel and receive the laying on of hands, you will be continuing a tradition that goes back to the very earliest days of the church. When you feel those hands on you, imagine the love and support and the prayers for God’s guidance for you, that they represent.

I remember before my own ordination as an elder, I worried that maybe I wasn’t worthy of that. Maybe there’s something about you that makes you have that same uncertainty about this call. Something that causes you to wonder if you’re a big enough spiritual somebody to be ordained. maybe there’s something about you that people have sneered at in the past and said, “Can anything good come out of that? Can anyone like that be good?” If that’s the case, rest assured that you can tell those nay-sayers – even if the nay-sayer is you, yourself – “Yes, that’s true – but God knew that about me, long before I was born, and still, Jesus held out his hand to me, and smiled, and said, “Come, Follow me!” Today, in a new and special way, you will.

Thanks be to God.

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You Think You Know (sermon 1/18/15)

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(This sermon is a tribute to the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prophetic proclamation of the equality and justice of the Kingdom of God. In a secondary way, it’s also a tribute to Dr. Phil Hazelton, a mentor of mine who once delivered a different sermon by the same name, and who somewhat loosely, and until now, anonymously, makes an appearance near the end of the sermon.)

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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.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” – John 1:43-51

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 It had been a rough day of selling his fish in the marketplace. Nathaniel worked long, hard hours catching the fish, then hauling them to his stall in the market in Bethsaida, then having to smell all that unchilled fish all day long while he tried to schmooze and smooth-talk the customers to buy his fish that day instead of someone else’s. It could get frustrating. People just didn’t realize, or care, how much it actually cost him to get these fish to market. What he had to pay his workers, and the maintenance and upkeep on the boat and his nets, and the slip fees at the lake, and the health department inspections and the monthly rent for the stall in the market itself, and then all the taxes and fees on top of that, and the fact that he had so much competition in this little town where almost everybody was a fisherman; he was barely making a living. And even at the rock-bottom prices he was able to charge, people would still try to haggle him down further. There was one customer in particular who showed up every few days, a very shrewd and hard-bargaining man who’d moved to Bethsaida from further inland in Galilee, from Nazareth near the big city of Sepphoris. Nathaniel swore that if he’d set the price of the biggest, freshest tilapia he had at just two cents, this guy would try to get him to drop the price to a penny.

All the haggling, all the bruised shins Nathaniel had gotten through years of conducting his business, and from life in general, had made him jaded and suspicious of people. He was sitting there on that hot, late afternoon in the shade of a fig tree trying to enjoy his dinner of lamb, or chicken, or anything but fish, when his friend Philip came running up and started going off about something he was excited about. Ah, Philip. So naïve. Always the dreamer, always ready to believe whatever anyone said. Last week, it was some health food craze; the week before that it was the Ginsu steak knives. Now today, it was… what? The messiah? Really? Again? This was the third would-be messiah Philip had gotten worked up over in just the past year. And when Philip said this latest one was from Nazareth, Nathaniel could only think about his annoying customer and almost snorted as he spit out his scornful answer to Philip about people from Nazareth. Really, Philip, they’re all alike.

But Philip was persistent, and mostly just to get him to shut up, Nathaniel followed him to meet this man. As they got near, Jesus called out to him, “Ah, here’s truly a good and honorable man, a man in whom there is no deceit!” And immediately, Nathaniel’s BS meter spikes. It just sounded like the same kind of smarmy, insincere flattery he doled out to the people in the market all day long, and this particular day, Nathaniel wasn’t having any of it. “How do you know that? You’ve never met me before this very minute. You don’t even know my name!” And then Jesus smiled and very calmly answered, “Actually, I know all about you, Nathaniel, whose very name means gift from God; and in my mind’s eye I even saw you sitting under that fig tree having your diner.”

Jesus’ words hit Nathaniel like a lightning bolt. He realized that his preconceived notions about this man were wrong. He thought he knew; he just didn’t know.

We all do the same thing, of course. You, me, each of us, almost every day, in one way or another. With next to no real evidence, we’ll make snap judgments about a person based on the flimsiest of reasons. Skin color, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, net worth, education level. My list won’t look exactly like yours, or yours, but still, we’ll pre-judge others based on meaningless things – often on things that are simply inherent aspects of their creation; no more the person’s doing, and holding no more moral content, than the color of their eyes.

You confide in your long-time friend that you just don’t like people who get piercings or tattoos; that you just don’t get it, and that you think anyone who goes in for those things is ignorant, low-class, trashy; and she gets a funny look on her face and doesn’t say much after that, but when she says goodbye and turns to walk away, fir the first time ever you notice through the thin white fabric of her top a beautifully colored butterfly tattooed between her shoulder blades. You think you know; you just don’t know.

You’re the president of the high school athletic boosters club, and one day you’re having a nice conversation with one of the kids – a big, strapping guy, first-string quarterback, captain of the wrestling team, maybe the best all-around athlete the school’s ever produced. An academic all-American to; a really great guy, and a real “man’s man,” you figure. And in the course of the camaraderie and joking around, you let your guard down, and you put on a swishy, effeminate voice and tell a “fag joke,” and then you go on to say to him that you think the gays are all a bunch of immoral, ungodly perverts, and they ought to all be thrown out of the locker room. And he laughs because he thinks he’s supposed to laugh, but what he’s really wondering in his mind is if he finds the courage to come out, will his intensely homophobic parents throw him out of the house? You think you know; you just don’t know.

Conservative guy who likes to go hunting? Must be one of those gun nuts; little education, hateful, racist, bigoted, probably from the south, too, if I had to guess. High school student? Must be shallow, self-centered; dumbed-down academically and spiritually; probably wastes the whole day texting, tweeting, and video gaming. You think you know.

This is the three-day weekend that we honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – I’d argue the most significant prophetic voice speaking God’s truth to the world and our culture over the past century. A man who ended up giving his life to spread God’s truth that you can never know what’s in another person’s heart by judging the externals. God’s truth, God’s good news – the gospel – that in God’s eyes those distinctions are meaningless. Because of the reconciliation that God has shown us, all of us, and made possible for us, all of us, through Christ, there is no longer east or west, north or south. There’s neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female. The gospel, God’s good news, is that we’re all created and loved as the very image of God. I can’t just point to myself and say that I’m created in God’s image. You, alone, aren’t created in God’s image. But you and you and you, and me, all of us, together, in all of our diversity and difference, are created to show the fullness of the very image and nature of God. So if we dismiss or discriminate against *any* of God’s creatures on the basis of those meaningless distinctions, those externals and incidentals, just as Nathaniel did with Jesus, then we not only harm the person we’re pre-judging, and we’re not only harming our own souls in the process, but we’re also harming and frustrating God’s intention of revealing more about God’s own self by having created us with all that diversity to begin with.

You’re church shopping. You’re looking for something different from the stuffy, boring church you grew up in; something current, something relevant, something that speaks to our time and place. But this Sunday you blew it, because there in the pulpit is the most old-fashioned minister you could imagine. He looks like a Hollywood caricature of a boring, ineffective minister. Just a few wisps of hair left on his head, hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses sitting in front of steely eyes that have that extra-sharp intense look that some near-sighted people have. Not in jeans and rolled up shirtsleeves like Rob Bell or Landon Whitsitt or some other hip young preacher, but a drab, black robe; he was even wearing those goofy little white “preaching tabs” like Henry Fowler or one of the Puritans used to wear. Probably the most un-hip, un-relevant, whitebread, hypocritical, part-of-the-problem-not-the-solution minister you could ever imagine. This Sunday is going to be a disaster; this sermon is going to be a waste of time, you think.

What you don’t know is that the very un-hip looking minister was actually a star athlete in his day. Went to college on a football scholarship, then decided to go on to seminary. And one day when he was in seminary, he turned on his little black=and=white portable TV to watch the evening news. And as he watched, he saw a large number of unarmed, non-violent African-American protesters in some godawful place called Selma, Alabama, trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He didn’t know who Edmund Pettus was or why anyone would want to name a bridge after him, but he did know that the violence, the beatings, the sheer brutality that the police unleashed on the protesters that day was gut-wrenching, disgusting, a crime against God and country and humanity. Outraged, and inspired to make a statement and to further the real, radical, inclusive nature of the gospel, he decided that day to head south, where he was a Freedom Rider, and worked in several states in the civil rights movement. He became, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, one of those “men of God and good will” who felt called by God to work for equality and justice, and for an end to prejudice and bigotry, for all of God’s people. Afterward, he’d go back to seminary, and out into the church, where he continued to proclaim that gospel of God’s love, and justice for all of God’s people, for many years. That was the man who stared out at the congregation that morning through the hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses.

You think you know; you just don’t know.

Thanks be to God.