Gospel: John 1:43-51
“Can anything good come from there?” Let’s correct Nathaniel’s wording first – can anyone good come from there – and remember we’re talking about people. Children of God. Beloved to their families and in theory, to us as their siblings in Christ. Are they still all of these things, no matter where they come from? Yes.
I’ve always heard, read, and thought that the implication behind Nathaniel’s cynical remark was that Nazareth was perceived to be a backwater place, middle of nowhere, the opposite of worldly. But this time a commentary by Professor Thomas Slater named something that actually sounds like the opposite. “Nazareth sat in the heart of Galilee, a region populated by Jews and Gentiles from several ethnicities. Positively, it could be said that it was a diverse region. The Jewish communities, at most, constituted about 60 percent of the Galilean populace. Judea was over 90 percent Jewish. Those in Judea paid the temple tax, kept the rituals more rigorously, and were less likely to intermarry. On the other hand, Galilean Jews were less likely to pay the temple tax, more lax in regard to ritualistic traditions, and more likely to intermarry.” Hmmm…sounds like the East Side.
What if Nathaniel was critical of Nazareth not because it was out of touch with the world, but because it was so diverse that the “real” Jews didn’t consider it pure? There is something so much more reliable about a homogeneous group. We know we will speak the same language – figuratively and literally. We can hold each other to standards that are, well…standard. We can ensure that our traditions and institutions will go on in perpetuity as we have known and loved them. Diversity can feel threatening in its unpredictability.
As Lutherans – in a 99% white denomination – do we really believe anything good can come out of diversity? Not just grafting people on who fall right into step and assimilate, but those whose different ways of doing things or even different beliefs or understandings will change ours? It is really hard work. And if everyone does not intend to become multi-cultural – it won’t work.
We have to be honest about why we are doing what we’re doing, you know?
Bigotry has no place in the beloved community, or in following Jesus. But it is the place in which Jesus meets many of us, like Nathaniel: still feeding off our prejudices. Acting like we know what “those people” are like even though we have no experience with or interest in knowing them. Or maybe we have just a little experience, and think that is enough to go on. You know what is deadly to God’s work in the world or in us? Pretending we’re okay, or good even.
Just before Christmas I heard Marlon James, a Jamaican-born writer and professor at Macalester College, talking on MPR about the 6 month anniversary of the “not guilty” verdict in the case against Geronimo Yanez, the police officer who killed Philando Castile, near the state fairgrounds in the summer of 2015. Professor James lamented that people insist on seeing themselves as “good people;” so we only want to see racism as a malicious problem. If I’m not a malicious – intentionally harmful – racist, then I’m not one at all. There are malicious racists, of course, and now they think it’s fine to be public about that. But if at base level racism is a systemic problem, then even those who think we are not can talk about or have pointed out to us how we are contributing to the problem at any given time, without becoming horribly defensive about it. Because we are part of the system, and we can’t see clearly to change anything unless someone turns the light on.
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” Jesus describes Nathaniel with what almost sounds like a compliment because at least his prejudices are out in the open. He’s not burying them deep, then unconsciously sabotaging the mission of the Messiah because he won’t deal with his own baggage. It spills out of him. And it’s horrible. And God in the Flesh engages him, tells him that he sees him, and Nathaniel is changed. Suddenly he’s declaring Jesus the Messiah. I hear Jesus’ response as saying, “Whoa, slow down. Let’s not be ‘all in’ because of a comment about a fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” But if Jesus had gotten any more specific about those greater things, Nathaniel might have cut and run. We all would.
Seeing “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” would certainly be impressive, but is truly astounding is how God can and will take a person like Nathaniel – or any one of us in our prejudices – and transform us until we are telling everyone who will listen that we are all brothers and sisters, loved unconditionally by our one heavenly Parent. It is a long and painful process to get there, and it ends at the foot of a cross. Disciples like Nathaniel mess up a lot: following Jesus, while trying to keep children away, and women who demand justice, escaping crowds of hungry folks and people from Samaria and other places they would refer to with slurs. The gradual transformation of these folks, through daily living with Jesus seems like his greatest miracle, maybe even more so than rising from the dead.
Telling the truth about ourselves is a starting point for God coming to us, and getting us to follow. Having our luke-warm responses called out, like Martin Luther King called out the white moderates in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He wrote, 55 years ago: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
King was right. And so was Jesus. Getting it out in the open is the first step, as long as we are committed to getting beyond just naming our prejudices, but fighting against them, so we can follow Jesus faithfully.