Sunday, January 15, 2012

"What Good Can Come" (John 1: 43-51)

Every once in awhile I get the opportunity to talk with someone who doesn’t know much about the Christian faith.  Well, except for what they hear in the media, which, in my opinion, is most often a distorted image of Christianity.
For example, their impression of Christianity is that it is a religion that is constantly putting people down, telling them that they are no good, that they’re a sinful abomination doomed to hell unless they straighten up.  That’s how Christians – and especially Christian pastors – behave.
Now, they don’t come right out and say it in so many words, but I can tell what they’re thinking.  They’re thinking that I’m a Christian pastor, and yet they have a hard time imagining me being as condemning as their media-fueled image of Christians.  If they did imagine me that way, I don’t think they would have said anything at all.
What they do say, if they are especially curious (and many people are curious), is: “What’s your church like?”  Or, if a certain image of Christians is so dominant in their minds, they’ll mention how much they can’t stand Christians, or how much they hate the church, the implication being that I’m not like all those Christians and the church I attend is not like all those other churches, that perhaps I and my church are in a different category altogether, because after all, how could I be in the same category as all those hypocritical, condemning, judgmental – and you’ve gotta say it with a sneer – Christians?
How did we ever get to this point?
I don’t know, but maybe Nathanael had something to do with it.  When told that the messiah had come from Nazareth, he said – with a sneer – “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” 
The question was rhetorical.  No one expected anything good to come from that dinky, backwoods village full of people who were poor, lazy, and stupid.  It was a real hillbilly hell.
When looking for something good, Nathanael looked to the people who were like him – or the people he aspired to be.  People from Jerusalem.  People whose pictures appeared on the cover of People magazine.  But not someone from Nazareth.
Well, what I know of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition is that it has a long, long history of focusing on those who were thought to be no good, those who were different, those who were from someplace else.  And throughout the entire Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, there is a movement that is ever-expanding, a movement from provincial to global, a movement that is like an ever-expanding circle that seeks to welcome and draw in more and more of God’s people, until no one is left behind; until no one is told that they are not good enough.
That’s what I tell people.
Early on, when the nation of Israel was first established by God through Moses and Joshua, it was important for Israel to establish its identity.  I mentioned last week how establishing one’s identity is an important developmental task, but that it isn’t one’s final or ultimate task. 
And so Israel was told early on to shun foreign practices and to only marry other Israelites.
However, already there were signs that the path God leads us on is a path of embracing ever larger circles of people.
Hospitality to foreigners, sojourners and aliens was one of the highest virtues of ancient Israel, and was even important before Israel’s establishment.  Abraham and Sarah were honored by God for the hospitality they showed to some travelers from another country, while the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God because of their lack of hospitality, and their rude and abusive treatment of those who were not like them, those who were from somewhere else, those who were considered no good.
Many other stories in the Old Testament show how God’s favor came to those who were thought to be no good, folks who weren’t from around here.
Perhaps you remember the story of Naaman, who was not an Israelite but an Aramean.  Nevertheless, God used the prophet Elisha to bring healing to this foreigner.  All Naaman needed to do was come to the Jordan River, wash himself in the water, and be healed.
Ironically, Naaman threw a fit.  “The Jordan River?  That muddy ditch?  The rivers of my own country are much more magnificent.  Nothing good can come from the Jordan.”  But he gave in, went to the Jordan, and was healed.
Perhaps you remember the story of Ruth.  She was not from Israel, but came to Israel as a result of the previously forbidden practice of intermarriage.  Despite the previously law against intermarriage, scripture does not condemn Ruth or anyone in her family.  The circle is getting wider.
Ruth’s faith and her loyalty were remarkable, and in fact scripture lifts her up as a model of faith.  The 8th book of the Bible bears her name, and her great-grandson was David, the greatest king in all of Israel’s history.
This progression towards inclusivity continues in the New Testament.  Yes, Jesus came from Nazareth, a town from which few thought anything good could come.  But to the people of Nazareth, Jesus said, “My work is bigger than this.  I must go to the other parts of Israel, too.” 
Well, those other parts of Israel were the parts that told Nazareth that it was no good.  The people of Nazareth didn’t want Jesus going there.  “Jesus, don’t you know what they’re like?  They’re mean and rude and judgmental.  Just stay here with us; be our Savior, our own personal Savior, just for us.”
Jesus said no.  He said he had to go to all the children of Israel, wherever they may be.
The people of Nazareth didn’t like that answer.  They tried to take Jesus by force and toss him off a cliff.  I guess they figured that if they couldn’t have Jesus all to themselves, to create in their own image, then no one could.  I guess if they couldn’t make Jesus fit into their tiny, provincial image of who they thought he should be, then it would be better to get rid of him.  After all, we don’t want to let the real Jesus interfere with the tiny, provincial image of Jesus that we’ve created.
Perhaps you remember the time when Jesus met a Syrophoenician woman.  To say that she was a Syrophoenician is to say that she was a Greek, a Gentile, a Canaanite, a pagan.  In other words, she was not one of the children of Israel.
She came seeking healing for her daughter, but Jesus said that he was sent to and for the children of Israel.  She insisted, but Jesus still refused, referring to her the way all children of Israel referred to foreigners and outsiders, by calling her a dog.
Eventually it becomes clear that her faith is a faith that will not give up; and that, I think, is the point, the same point that is made in several other stories that we have about Jesus:  that the children of Israel are not the only ones who possess a genuine faith in God.  In the end, Jesus commends her faith, and grants her request.
And perhaps you remember that the book of Acts begins in Jerusalem, expands to the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria, and then eventually expands to the ends of the earth.  On the way from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth there are many stories, including one about an Ethiopian eunuch.
Nothing good was expected from an Ethiopian eunuch.  For one thing, he was an Ethiopian.  He was from a different country – a different continent, even – where people worshiped differently, talked differently, and even looked different.
And for another thing, he was a eunuch.  Whether it was by choice, or – more likely – forced upon him, he was sexually different.  For all intents and purposes, he was gender-less.  And for that, he was not permitted in the temple in Jerusalem.  To find out why, read Deuteronomy 23.
But we are on a journey from exclusion to inclusion, a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.  Isaiah 56 specifically overturns Deuteronomy, insisting that God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all people; no longer will the eunuch or the foreigner be told that they are no good.
What good can come from an Aramean? A Syrophoenician? A Gentile? A foreigner? A eunuch?
What good can come from Nazareth?
We live in a world that tells us not to expect anything good from all sorts of people.  Christians.  Republicans.  Democrats. Muslims. Hispanics. African-Americans.
The Christian response is that good can come from anywhere; good can come from anyone. For we are all children of God. And we are all on a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
Once upon a time I was the pastor of a congregation in which there was an elderly woman named Iris.  Iris was a Japanese-American, and spent part of her childhood at a place called Manzanar, an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.
When the war was over and she was allowed to return home, she found discrimination and prejudice everywhere she went.  People were constantly telling her that she was no good.
Except for the people of this little Disciples congregation that welcomed her with open arms.  That congregation recognized that it was on a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, a journey from exclusivity to inclusivity; and the people of that congregation saw that there was a lot of good in Iris, just as there is in every person.  It made me proud to be their pastor.
Unfortunately, over time things changed.  Iris died, and it wasn’t long after that that the congregation forgot which way it was going on that journey.  Instead of going from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, it started going back to Jerusalem.  It stopped moving toward inclusivity, and started moving back toward exclusivity.  And there was nothing I could do about it.
That congregation is no longer a Disciples congregation.  They have made it clear that those who are sexually different are no longer welcome.  And even though this congregation has welcomed the leadership of women pastors in its past – even African-American women pastors – today women are discouraged from any leadership within the church, including serving as an elder or deacon.
Thank God we have a day to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  He reminded us that we are on a journey from exclusivity to inclusivity.  He reminded us that good can come from any person, of any race or place of origin.
The reason we honor Martin Luther King is because he stopped asking, “can anything good come from white Americans?” He knew that there is good in all races, in all people.  He taught us how to see the good, to love both the oppressed and the oppressor, to love even the perceived adversary and the enemy, because even in them there is something good, and from them – even them – something good can come.  It may be a long time in coming, and it may need a lot of love to help make it come, but it is possible.

Can anything good come from Nazareth?
Can anything good come from people of different races, nationalities, sexualities, and religions?
Can anything good come from you?

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