1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)      Psalm 139:1-5, 12-171        Corinthians 6:12-20          John 1:43-51

It’s striking how often the themes in the Bible are also current events.  Can anything good come from Nazareth?  For that matter, can anything good come from Haiti or Sudan?  The recent disparaging remarks about other countries, that have been all over the news this week, reminds us again that we in the United States are in danger of seeing the world only through the blessed and privileged eyes of the rich.   

Please forgive the intrusion of a very small bit of politics into your regularly scheduled Sunday sermon.  I try hard not to do that to you.  I have found that once people categorize my political beliefs, it affects how they hear me proclaim the Gospel.  I am either spouting my tree-hugging liberal nonsense or my blackhearted Republican selfishness, depending on the perspective of the hearer and what they think I believe.  I will affirm here and now that I know godly people who are progressive, conservative, libertarian, and every other political bent that you can name.  We all struggle with what a just and healthy society looks like, and what followers of Jesus should be doing to build one.

Today isn’t really about all that.  Instead, Can anything good come from Nazareth?

 Nazareth, and Galilee as well, were the ancient equivalent of what we might call a banana republic today.  Remote, backward, ostensibly under somebody’s legal authority but probably  subject to the daily governance of a local kingpin of some description.  Would a Roman senator refer to Nazareth as a, well, a cesspool?  Maybe.  It certainly wouldn’t have been an assignment for a mover and shaker.  Even tending Jerusalem wasn’t a great post and it was far larger than Nazareth.  Pilate was fairly obscure before he became the governor of all Judea, and he wasn’t successful afterwards either – history says he eventually committed suicide by the order of Caligula.  Judea was a backwater.   Nazareth wasn’t even a wide spot in the road.

Hence Nathanael’s question: Can anything good come from Nazareth? Poor, pitiful, backward Nazareth??

I moved to Elko five years ago from the Diocese of Alabama.   In Alabama, we have a large patch of ground known as the Black Belt.  It is comprised of 18 of Alabama’s 67 counties, stretching east to west all the way across the lower third of the state. The term Black Belt originally referred to the topsoil, which is indeed very black in contrast to the iron-rich red clay from my own North Alabama and Tennessee stomping grounds, but it also refers today to the population.  From antebellum times through the Jim Crow era, rich white people owned most of that land and exercised most of the power. Black people there only got the ability to vote in the 1960s, and that by a Supreme Court order that was fought with a vengeance.  The martyr Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a white Episcopal seminarian who went to Greensboro in the ‘60s to help black protesters with the civil rights movement, and he caught a bullet for his trouble.  

The land itself was eventually ruined by cotton, a plant that feeds very heavily on the nutrients in the soil, then the boll weevil came along and wasted even the cotton that could still be grown.  The white people that formerly owned and controlled the Black Belt land took their money and left.  Many of the black people born and raised there had nowhere else to go, but no way to support their families if they stayed.  They still don’t.  

You can’t grow enough on that ravaged soil to make a living anymore.  There’s no industry there, and no educated workforce to hire if you could induce a business to set up.  The schools have no money because the communities have no money, so the kids don’t get a very good education - offering kids the right kind of school experience takes at least a little funding, as those of you who teach know all too well.  The library in Greensboro, Alabama, county seat of Hale County, appeared to have fewer than 200 books; it was a tiny place and the shelves had more bare space than volumes.   I suspect the Elko Bookmobile totes around more books for delivery than Greensboro owned altogether.  Remember, this is ALABAMA.  One of our states.   With enough money in just one denomination to make the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama one of the richest dioceses in the country, and there are a LOT of well-heeled denominations there.

A group of us deacons took a trip to Hale and Lowndes counties once to look at mission opportunities, at the behest of Bishop Henry Parsley who referred to the counties of the Black Belt as ‘Third World counties’.   He was not wrong.  It’s a sad, backward, poverty-stricken place full of good Christian people, that is for sure.   Those born there find it hard to leave but harder still to stay.   Can anything good come out of Hale County, Alabama? 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

We are past the season of celebrating the Incarnation of Jesus, but I want to return to that for a minute.   The church believes that in Jesus, God and man were a single entity.  Jesus was fully God AND fully human.  It’s a brain bender that the church has wrestled with since at least the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 and it’s still a mystery 1500 years later, but so the church affirms and so we believe.  We worship Jesus because we believe in the doctrine of the Incarnation. 

That carries some consequences.  There are things we believe about God and about humankind because we know that, in Jesus the two came together.  It was a surprising encounter with God in the most unexpected of places.  A baby born in a barn, to an unwed mother from a Third World cesspool like Nazareth.

Do you wonder if we’d recognize Him today, if He was born in Greensboro?

Ian Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, and CK Robertson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop, say it this way in Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers:

It is because of the doctrine of the Incarnation that in much of our Episcopal liturgy we worship Jesus.  We do so within the triune life of God. 

  • We see in this Person Who gave himself constantly for others, the presence of God Who constantly gives us life made possible by His sacrifice;
  • We see in this Person who never gave up on anyone, the presence of God Who never gives up on anyone;
  • We see in this Person a call for justice and radical inclusion, that mirrors the reality of God Who calls us to justice and radical inclusion.
  • And we see in the cross, the full embrace and participation of God in the tragic, painful, and suffering sides of life.

It’s not at all what we expected from a Messiah. 

The prophecies about the Messiah were true but they were interpreted in a way that made Him sound like Alexander the Great, Martin Luther King Jr, and Elvis Presley all in one convenient package.  The Messiah was going to be tall, handsome, heroic, and above average in every way.  Jesus just didn’t look like the Messiah that people were waiting for. 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  Or from one unassuming boy from Nazareth? 

It bears repeating that many, perhaps most, of our gifts and favors in this world are blessings from God.  I am not saying at all that you haven’t worked for the life you have. What I AM saying that most of us have been given opportunities that are not evenly distributed in the world, and the fact that some places are inherently poorer than others doesn’t make the people who start there less worthy, less human, or less capable.  It just means they start from a different place and have different expectations and sensibilities.  They, like you, are probably doing the best they can with what they have and know.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you were born on third base that does not mean you hit a triple.   Play the best and smartest game you can, but know that you started with an advantage or two that wasn’t given to every soul on the planet.   And then recall that God can and does make miracles out of raw material that you or I would never choose.  It seems like He delights in surprising us that way.  

I wish that we had the knowledge as a society to raise up entire communities that are struggling with poverty and one day God may grant us that knowledge, but for right now we can start with awareness that we have been given much, and not everyone is so blessed.  We have received grace upon grace.  We can remember that we follow a Risen Lord who came from a Third World cesspool, who was born into poverty and got only the most basic education. 

Despite 20 centuries of European art, Jesus was not blond or blue eyed, not tall or handsome, and not elegant.  He was a Jewish laborer, a revolutionary who was convicted of crimes against the state, who wound up executed as a public example.  Our Lord was a dark skinned, ill-educated man who came from a shithole country. 

And He changed everything. 

We the church have had a long time to consider the question - Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  And we know the answer. 

God came out of Nazareth. 

AMEN++++++

© 2018 St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Connected Sound - Websites for the Barbershop Community