A sermon preached on Epiphany II, January 14, 2018 in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.
Hit the play button below to listen along as you read.
Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nazareth was a small agricultural village that wasn’t too far from the Great Silk Road, an ancient trading route where people from all over the world came and went. Nazareth was too far away from the major cities along the trade route to be of any real consequence and too far away from the centers of Jewish worship to have any real importance amongst the Jewish people. Jesus’ mother was from Nazareth and this is likely where he spent his formative years. With about 2000 people who lived in simple dwellings with courtyards and animals amidst the fields where they worked.
No one thought much of it, except to make fun of it. Why should they when it had no worldly importance? It was irredeemable in the eyes of power.
Scholars agree that Nathanael’s point in asking his question was to speak contempt. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nathanael voices the contempt that arises from fear and a need to diminish others as a defense. The sarcasm and derisiveness that speak from ignorance and cowardice, not love. The hatred that wails from the littlest part of ourselves when we’re afraid we aren’t going to get what we need from the world.
What is interesting is that John chooses to use Nathanael as a vehicle for revelation in this Gospel. His scorn turns to awe before our eyes when he realizes even he is known by God. Even in his obviously fearful state, where he offers no guile to hide his contempt, Nathanael is known, here, by God.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Philip says, “Come and see.”
Today, we’re are celebrating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The opening hymn that Terry chose, Lift Every Voice and Sing, is a song of redemption that speaks of coming through the darkness with dignity. Later today, our friends at Point of Praise will be offering a concert in Dr. King’s honor and then tomorrow, I’ve been honored to offer a prayer at the Interfaith Community Breakfast. And so as we speak about this person of deep faith, I want to start with the story of Haiti.
Haiti, located on the island of Hispaniola, is a country born out of the enormously tragic institution of slavery. Hispaniola was the first place in the Western hemisphere to become a part of the slave trade at the moment that Columbus’ Spanish ships landed there. It became a major port for the sale of human beings as it was invaded and inhabited by the Spanish colonists.
Later in the colonial period, the island was split between Spain and France. Then, centuries later, the French Revolution inspired the slaves and free people of color to throw off their oppressors and claim independence. They revolted in 1791 and, after more than 10 years of war with Napoleon’s army, established the nation of Haiti in 1804.
Haiti remains the only nation in the entire world to be founded as the result of a slave revolt. Why? Because the colonial powers-that-be learned their lesson of power.
They forced the country of Haiti to pay the richest countries in the world for their losses during the revolt, burying the fledgling nation in poverty and instability for 150 years. And then they developed systems of segregation and apartheid in their other territories so that as slavery was gradually outlawed, a slave revolt would never happen again.
Entire countries made irredeemable by the arms of power.
This is how American segregation developed.
Haitians emigrating to the American South, mostly to Louisiana, told stories of what happened and plantation owners conspired with law-makers to prevent an uprising in the States.
Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in this segregation, as we know, forced to use specially labeled bathrooms and water fountains, sent to separate schools, encountering innumerable barriers to voting, property ownership, and economic advancement. Although he was a deeply faithful, intelligent, well-read, and charismatic person, Dr. King suffered from dark depression in the knowledge that the system in which he lived felt insurmountable at times. It seemed irredeemable.
Many people in the American South who claimed to be Christians, used their religion to justify the racist laws, just as they had used it to justify slavery. Many others didn’t even bother applying their religious beliefs to their public lives at all, compartmentalizing their spiritual lives from their political, economic, social, and communal lives.
The prevailing sentiment at the time among those who held power was that black people were to be feared. Furthermore, the narrative of power claimed that keeping black people in their place was for their own good and it was ordained by God because the men of science at the time concluded that “[black people] were inferior and “riddled with imperfections from head to toe”… that they didn’t know true pain and suffering because of their primitive nervous systems… ” therefore, keeping them subjugated was for their own good. (Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington)
Irredeemable by the laws of power.
The voices of worldly power speaking through Nathanael’s contemptuous question:
Could anything good come out of these people of color?
Could anything good come out of Haiti?
Could anything good come out of El Salvador?
Out of Syria? Mexico? Nigeria?
Or any of the other places that claimed to be irredeemable? (click to read a story that’s an example of how to resist this narrative of power)
And Philip says, come and see.
It’s less than a month after our celebration of the Incarnation – the Festival of Christmas where we are called to the manger every year. To bring our pride, our power, our worldly riches… to a manger, of all places. Asked to offer ourselves to the knowledge and the hope that God comes to us in the most vulnerable of forms.
The so-called wisdom of the world kneels at the foot of the needy, defenseless one, acknowledging the depth of connection in our responsibility to one another and the silence in that realization of love is deafening.
And it always brings me back to a quieter part of myself.
I don’t know if you’re like me… despite my best efforts along my own spiritual journey, I’m always finding myself in need of beginning again. Always being brought up short, being reminded that I have much to learn despite what I prefer to think otherwise. Always in need of rebooting my own spiritual practice.
It’s like God taps me on the shoulder and I respond with, “oh yeah. I’m supposed to be practicing my spirituality.” I’m supposed to be practicing what I believe.
Epiphanies can sometimes be euphoria-like experiences. But usually, they are the moments when we realize that we are humans just doing the best that we can and we must always begin again our practice. The good news is that we always have the opportunity to begin again in the love of God.
Nothing we do or say or believe removes us from God’s love. It can’t.
God knows you and God knows me… so intimately. The whole of who we are.
God loves us simply because we breathe. This I believe.
And this I know because this is what sustains me in my own darkest spaces when the light feels so far away and I think the worst things about myself.
Because in the darkest moments of our lives, my friends, we don’t need to be told what to do or be chastised for not being better, or to be fixed or handled or imprisoned or challenged or ignored.
Because these moments are when Nathanael is bringing the voices of the world crashing into our own thoughts, demanding, “Can anything good come of me?”
In the darkest moments of our lives, we simply need to be known.
Just like Samuel was known in the Hebrew Scriptures from today.
Just like Nathanael was known in today’s gospel passage.
We just need someone to say, “Hey, you’re ok. Let me walk with you a little while so you can come and see for yourself.”
Come and see. This invitation is the Light of Christ.
And this is the deeper wisdom found in today’s scriptures.
Like Paul tells us, people don’t exist for the sake of our own amusement and use, for us to fix and condemn and mold and enslave. We exist for one another because we are meant to accompany each other regardless of worldly laws and power.
Accompanying the stranger in our midst because being a stranger is a dark path:
The refugee forced to leave their home.
The woman stranded on the streets of Baltimore in nothing but a hospital gown by the staff in the dark of night. (click to read the story)
The one who grieves. The one who is sick. The one who is lonely.
The one who is trying desperately to hang on to their dignity and not take another drink.
We are here to remind each other that, indeed, something good does come from the places the powers-that-be have named irredeemable in their sneering contempt.
We are here to remind each other that, even in the hell that worldly greed can sometimes rage upon the world, we are known and we are loved by God. And, as such, we cannot separate our spiritual lives from our political, economic, social, and communal lives. It just can’t be done.
On the contrary, the ability to take this out, past our doors and into the world, is what we are here to cultivate. Here. At this Table.
The Sacrament of Eucharist is, at its core, an act of reconciliation. It is through our thanks, through our gratitude for the breath of life that God offers us a remembrance of life beyond our own borders, And it’s there that we realize that one life, our life, is connected to another life is connected to another life is connected to another life.
This reconciliation that we practice teaches us that to reconcile with ourselves and the parts of our own lives that we believe to be irredeemable, is the core teaching.
Because only when we do that, when we reconcile with ourselves, do we have the ability to we realize that nothing and no one is beyond God’s love.
Those who have been displaced by worldly powers and laws.
Those who are in prison or in danger, hungry or in need.
Those who are struggling to regain their own dignity through no fault of their own.
Nothing is irredeemable.
The Rev. Dr. King himself said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
No one is irredeemable.
All are known by God. All have inherent dignity.
And so we practice. We practice here so we can take it into the world.
We practice at this Table and learn to say again, if only to ourselves, “Come and see.”
My friends, come and see.