Text: John 1:43-51
Worship, at its best, is a beautiful expression of our deepest longings to connect to God, to the Sacred and that which is Holy. In worship we lift our voices and our souls to offer our praise, our laments, our longings, our confessions, our visions, and our commitments to being God’s faithful in the world. We echo the sounds and songs and prayers and prophecies of our spiritual ancestors. In our days of light and hope we lift our praise with trumpet sound, with lute and harp, with tambourine and dance, and with stings and pipe. In our days of longing to be known by God we plead with the Holy One to search us and know us, to discern our thoughts and search out our paths. And in our darkest hours, we cry out the words of the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” When the days are dark and we think things can’t get worse but then they do, we echo the question of our spiritual mothers and fathers as they sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept asking, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The days of this past week have been dark and it has felt like I am living in a foreign land. Each new day seemed to bring more darkness: standing with our sister church, Greenwood Forest Baptist in Cary, as they grieved and mobilized for one of their beloved members who was lied to and trapped and deported by ICE on Wednesday; reading the reports of the words attributed to our president as he spoke of immigrants from Haiti and African countries in racist terms; listening to the panic as Hawaii residents responded when a false alert notified the state of an attack; watching as Kentucky made it harder for poor people to get health care. So today, along with the Psalmist, I am asking the question, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Sadly, the events of this past week have made it crystal clear and unmistakable that our elected leaders and our president and thus our nation have lost their way. And given the history of this church and the fact that this weekend we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it would be unconscionable to stand in this pulpit this morning and not address the remarks made this past week by the current president of the United States. For the president of the United States to speak of any nation or people in the vulgar and racist terms as did our president when speaking of Haiti and African countries signals that we have reached the lowest level of human compassion and morality that we have seen in this country in the last fifty years. Yes, I know that long before this president our nation has had a sinful history when it comes to racial inequality. Racism is in our DNA. Slavery and White Supremacy are the original sins of America. But to have a sitting president speak the words this president spoke in the presence of others in 2018 is beyond belief. Every preacher who stands in a pulpit this morning has a responsibility and a duty to condemn the words of Donald Trump when he spoke of Haiti and African countries in the most insulting and racist of terms. The President of the United States of America, whomever that person may be, is to be held to the highest of standards when it comes to decency and civility. Whether you support the President or not is irrelevant when it comes to standing against his words this past week. There is no defense for what he said of thousands of immigrants living in this country—human beings who are God’s beloved children, human beings who are our doctors and teachers and trash collectors and nurses and food service workers and caregivers. Short of denouncing his own words and asking for forgiveness and making an honest attempt at repair, I see no path forward for this president.
It is impossible to ignore the President’s words as we read the gospel lesson for today. It is the story of Philip finding Nathanael sitting under the fig tree and announcing to Nathanael that he had found the man—the one whom Moses and the law and the prophets wrote about—Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. Philip, possibly tired from his day of hauling and selling fish at the marketplace, and thus feeling a bit sarcastic replied to Philip’s enthusiasm to come and see this man, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Whenever I read Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I think of my hometown, Shelby. Shelby, home of David Thompson, Earl Scruggs, and Bridges Bar-B-Q. Shelby, the town that put livermush on the national food scene. Shelby, home of Thomas Dixon Jr. author of The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan who in 1916 wanted to erect a statue of his uncle Leroy McAfee on the courthouse square. The project was initially met with enthusiasm until it was announced that Dixon wanted McAfee to wear a Ku Klux Klan mask in the statue. Shelby, the town white supremacist Dylan Roof fled to after killing nine people who were studying the Bible at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Shelby, the place described at the time of the Civil War as “just a wide place in the road, mostly woods and all frame buildings,” with the exception of the brick courthouse. Can anything good come out of Shelby?
Whenever I read Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I also think of Charleston, Ferguson, and Selma. “People cannot talk about [racial injustice, gun violence, police brutality, civil rights] without mentioning one or all of them. Ironically, on many levels they were places below the radar. There was nothing that led society to believe that any watershed moment would emanate from the loins of these cities…Who dared to say, ‘Can anything good come out of Charleston, Ferguson, Selma?’” (Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder)
But something good did come. The blood shed at Selma propelled the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The death of Michael Brown forced the nation to turn its attention to the troubled relationship between law enforcement and Africans Americans. The murders inside an African American church forced us to disrobe racism and highlight gun control. The Confederate flag no longer flies over the Capitol of South Carolina.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asked. Pastor and theologian Morgan Guyton writes reflecting on Nathanael’s question:
Nathanael lived 2000 years ago, but he had plenty of reasons to be cynical when his friend Philip said that he had found the messiah that the Israelite prophets had written about. Jewish people in that day lived under the boot of the Roman Empire. They were allowed to practice their religion but they were treated like second-class citizens. They were taxed heavily. As tensions grew during this desperate time, there were all kinds of wannabe heroes going around claiming that they were the long-awaited messiah from scripture who would lead Jewish people to their liberation from Roman rule. These fake messiahs would organize protests that were quickly and brutally repressed by the Roman soldiers. [for] Rome wasn’t big on the whole “freedom of speech” thing.
But something good did come out of Nazareth. A rabbi and a spiritual teacher who dared to dine with the despicable, heal the untouchable, turn over tables, speak with passionate/righteous anger to the religious and political leaders. A Christ whose teachings 2000 years later are still being followed by people in every corner of the earth. Teachings like: darkness does not overcome the light; love is stronger than hate; blessed are the poor and the meek and those that mourn and those who hunger and those who are merciful. Teachings like: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; and when you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me; and love your neighbor as yourself. Something good came out of Nazareth, and he changed the course of human history with his message of a radical justice-love. And he took that message to its fatal end.
Today, we are reminded also of the good that came out of Georgia. A Baptist minister and activist and prophet who became the leader in the civil rights movement, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance, who delivered one of the most famous speeches in US history (“I Have a Dream” speech). A faithful man who believed that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend, that the color of one’s skin should not determine a person’s worth, that the time is always right to do what is right, that the ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands at times of challenge and controversy, and that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And this good that came out of Georgia, he took his message to its fatal end, too.
But ultimately, today we must ask, “Can anything good come out of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church?” A spiritual and communal home for so many who just didn’t and don’t seem to fit in other religious institutions. People like Sally Buckner and Phil Letsinger; Deborah Steely and Rick Morgan; Mary Ruth Crook and Curtis Fitzgerald; Mary Prather and Bob Bruhn; Bill and Mary Lib Finlator and Virginia McMillian and Edwin McNeil Poteat and John T. Pullen. Good people who fought injustice and promoted peace and who stood for justice in moments of challenge and controversy. Good people who spoke truth in love and saw goodness in others regardless of where they are from, or the color of their skin, or the legal papers they have or don’t have.
Our legacy of something good coming out of this place is a strong one but these days call for an even deeper self-awareness of where, like Nathanael, our cynicism keeps us from seeing our own racist thoughts and actions. It does us no good to deny that as white privileged people, racism and Islamophobia and the fear of anything different from us are a part of our story, too. We are products of a specific geography and culture and history that shape our fears and insecurities. The fact that we hold these tensions and fears and prejudices within us is not the problem. The problem is when we try to deny them. For in denying them, we don’t have to change them. And when we don’t work at changing our fears and prejudices they keep us from being the people God longs for us to be in this world. I can stand in this pulpit Sunday after Sunday and tell you that I am not racist but saying that will never heal the racism that is a part of my family history, and thus a part of me.
In response to Nathanael’s cynicism, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to Nathanael, “Come and see.” Three words that would change Nathanael’s life. And with that invitation, Nathanael got up from under his fig tree, met Jesus, and his life was changed forever.
“Can anything good come out of Pullen?” Yes, good has been coming out of this place for over 130 years. And good will continue to come out of this place if we stay out from under our fig tree of cynicism, and keep speaking truth to ourselves about our fears and prejudices and insecurities, and keep meeting Jesus in all the places where he hangs out…dining with the despicable, touching the untouchable, turning over tables, speaking truth to power, and showing the world what shalom/peace looks like. When we are able to do those things, it might just so happen that the heavens will open and we will see the angels of God ascending and descending upon this earth. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth! May good things keep coming out of this place.