Sunday, January 18, 2009

Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
18 January 2009
2 Epiphany, B
John 1.43-51
In the name of the God who created us, loves us, and calls us to love ourselves, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Creator and Redeemer.
Last Friday I was somewhere between asked and told to preach this morning. When I asked to read the text, I thought, “what a bizarre little text. It’s certainly not one I would pick for myself if I had a choice.” But as my afternoon and evening progressed, I reflected and mediated on the text and heard the voice of God speaking to me about this Gospel text. Before I get to that, though, I should talk about the text itself.
The Gospel reading for today is a part of a larger narrative in John’s Gospel of Jesus’s calling the disciples. The Nathanael mentioned here does not appear in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Old scholars think that perhaps Nathanael is Bartholomew, although others think that this may be a reference to Matthew, given that both names mean, “gift of God.”
Jesus is leaving one place and going to Galilee. He finds Philip, though we don’t know how exactly he found him, and gives him a command of two words whose importance and weight cannot be known to him at the time: Follow me. Philip, I assume not wanting to go alone, mysteriously finds Nathanael and brings him good news: “ We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrong, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael asks if anything good can come from Nazareth but agrees to go with Philip.
As Nathanael is approaching Jesus proclaims, either to those around him or merely out loud about Nathanael that he is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. Nathanael is taken aback. He has never met this rabbi before, and yet Jesus is making a claim about him. So he asks, “How do you know me?” Jesus tells him that he was sitting under a fig tree – a place revered by teachers of the law for studying – when Philip approached him. At this point Nathanael declares that Jesus is the Son of God and is astounded. In essence Jesus replies that this is a small feat: heaven is about to be opened, and the angels of God will be going up and down surrounding Jesus. Put another way, heaven is about to start communicating with earth, and that it does as Jesus beings his ministry on earth in the very next section.
When I first read this passage I was immediately drawn to when Nathanael – one versed in the law, a true Israelite with no deceit – asks a condescending, in my mind, question, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Upon first reading that and thinking about it, I thought about how many times I’ve asked myself essentially the same question. Those of you who knew me my freshman year, when I was still telling God that I was not called into ordained ministry in any church, I hope will recall my emotions: Can anything good come from Troy University? I wanted to be a federal appellate court judge – and wasn’t starting my educational pedigree off at the right place.
Much good actually has come from Troy University, but a lot of that has come from my finding my identity in Christ, and who I was fearfully and wonderfully made to be. As I continued my evening last week, determined not to do any homework because it was Friday night, I found myself playing Scrabble with friends with MTV on in the background. I don’t watch much television, really, and what little I watch is limited to a few shows weekly or on DVD.
And on MTV I saw people from Nazareth – those who about whom it has been asked, “Can anything good come of this person?” We were watching True Life, which I’d never seen before, and the second episode that came on was entitled “I Have a Secret Life Online.” It was about three young women, aged somewhere between 18 and 22, who have social anxiety issues. One is greatly intimidated by the idea of talking to brand new men in public, one is agoraphobic and doesn’t like to be around anyone at all more than she can help it, and one is a talented musician whose self-confidence falters when she leaves the online world of Second Life. Are any of you familiar with Second Life? Second Life is an application that allows people to create an avatar for themselves and basically have a second life online. Some people look like themselves, but others make themselves look like foxmen. There are options to chat with new people just via text or with audio and text. There’s a hopping Anglican church that offers morning prayer on Sundays.
With the exception of our musician from MTV, these young women’s online lives have become unhealthy and their friends have become concerned. What they had in common was that online they could be in control of the situations. One is able to hide her weight, of which she is ashamed, and the other is content to turn her computer off if she gets uncomfortable. As I watched these young women I couldn’t help but have compassion, and suffer with them. The reasons one of them left the bowling alley in tears – after perhaps the one bowl that the miracle of video editing showed us ended in a gutter-ball – is the same reason I don’t play video games…and why I had to bite back tears in high school while bowling with the youth group.
Furthermore, I couldn’t help but see a reflection of our society, in its broken and fallen state and a sampling of what we all have a desperate need for: someone to love us and support us and suffer with us. These young women – from having a devoted fanbase of Second Life users at her concerts to being paid for physically exposing their bodies so that young men compliment them and make them feel good – wanted people to take care of them and simply care for them. I couldn’t help but think, “Where is the Church? These girls need Jesus. They are loved as they are.”
I heard plenty of times growing up that someone or some group “needed Jesus,” and it was usually in a condescending tone said by someone so convinced of his or her rightness that she or he could only see what they perceived as a fault in the other person, and couldn’t see their shared humanity. The “bad” person’s “finding Jesus” would presumably fix the fault and make them worth of real attention. I offer that statement, though, not as one of condescension, but rather as one of love.
Like Nathanael I asked during the first episode, “What good can come of a rich girl who somehow has a house on the Jersey Shore, stays intoxicated most of the summer there, and is rather promiscuous – at age 21 – on MTV for the whole world to see?” During the second episode I heard similar questions about those who escape to online lives, be they healthy or unhealthy escapes. Beloved of the Church, how often have we heard and stayed silent or more importantly have we asked things like, “What good can come from a woman in the pulpit? What good can come from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered community? What good can come from a young clergyperson with no ‘life experience’? What good can come from an attorney? What good can come from those with different mental or physical ability? What good can come from those with mental illness? What good can come from those who've been convicted of a crime? What good can come from those of a different skin color or national origin? What good can come from those who are, whether we like it or not, our sisters and brothers in Christ of a different denomination?”
As I mulled over the text while watching these young women – none of them older than me – live in their own personal hell, I recalled my own issues with self-confidence and self-worth: being linked to standardized test scores and the institution where I would be receiving my undergraduate education; linked to my grade point average, my being hired or not for a position, my being elected to a student government office, or my being accepted by a fraternity. Luckily for me, though, I had the Church with arms open wide telling me, “You are created in the image of the Most High God,” and as the NIV translates verse 14 of our psalm for today, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made.” The Church and her members were there for me saying, “You have been baptized into Christ who suffered, died, was buried, and rose from the dead – who is from Nazareth.” And She continues to say to me, “This is what good can come from Nazareth.”
The season after the Epiphany – into which we entered last week at the Baptism of Christ – has traditionally been a season of intentional evangelism, which is not something our church is known for nationally or internationally. Actually, a lack of evangelism is something our critics are quite vocal about. I think that we should challenge ourselves this Epiphany Season – from now until the First Sunday in Lent on March 1 – to be evangelistic.
I don’t envision evangelism’s taking on a form of the 1950s, post-war period of the Protestant church that is confrontational, door-to-door, or in your face. I envision evangelism this season to be finding those about whom has asked, “What good can ever come from...?”, and I don’t mean merely looking for society’s most downtrodden or the poorest of the poor. My envisioning of this Epiphany Evangelism is finding the people of all sorts and kinds that need love. Turning to MTV gives an example that the fields are ripe…but will the laborers be few?
When I invite people that I’ve come to know through various associations in classes or organizations to accompany me to the Wesley or Eucharist or Village Coffee Bible Study, it is because I have found a community of people who love me, care about what happens to me, and support me, and I want to share this community of loving with them. And as I watched MTV last Friday night, I thought, who is sharing God’s love with these people?
Last week we reaffirmed our baptisms and were presented with the question, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” I will with God’s help. Amen.

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