"Between the Beasts and Angels"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 2/18/2018
Mark 1:9-15
“Between the Beasts and Angels”
February 18, 2018
            Temptation is one of the simplest and one of the most complicated aspects of life.  We all know what it is and can see it plain as day and at the same time we don’t always recognize it when it’s right in front of us.  Temptation is serious, because one wrong choice that looks small (and maybe is small) often has consequences larger than itself and before you know it, you’re stuck in a situation that is beyond you and even your efforts to get out of it just seem to make things worse.  Try out this poem by C.S. Lewis, and see if you don’t know what he’s talking about:
“Nearly they stood who fall.
Themselves, when they look back
see always in the track
One torturing spot where all
By a possible quick swerve
Of will yet unenslaved–
By the infinitesimal twitching of a nerve–
Might have been saved.
Nearly they fell who stand.
These with cold after-fear
Look back and note how near
They grazed the Siren’s land
Wondering to think that fate
By threads so spidery-fine
The choice of ways so small, the event so great
Should thus entwine.
Therefore I sometimes fear
Lest oldest fears prove true
Lest, when no bugle blew
My mort, when skies looked clear
I may have stepped one hair’s
Breadth past the hair-breadth bourn
Which, being once crossed forever unawares
Forbids return.”
            When the gospels of Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus being tempted, they do it in a way that illuminates the ways in which evil disguises itself as good and the importance of staying close to God’s teaching for our own welfare and safety.  But the gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ temptation in a way that, while less precise and less extensive, seems to me to go to the heart of what it can be like to be in the midst of it for the rest of us and what it was also like for him.
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [Mark 1:13]
When temptation comes to someone, it’s like being in a wilderness, alone.  It’s like being surrounded by all the dangers that are out there, some of which give themselves away and some of which lurk quietly for the chance to pounce.
            There was a guy named Colin who I knew in Middle School.  He was two years older, so we weren’t buddy-buddy, but we lived in the same neighborhood.  Around that time he got into some trouble and was in a serious fight with a kid from another school.  He was in the hospital for awhile, and after that just sort of faded out and I never really paid attention; I had my own friends, like you do at that age.  Somewhere around ten years ago, somebody passed along a brief obituary with Colin’s name at the top.  At the end it said memorial contributions could be made to the Caron Foundation, so I figured that he had died of substance abuse of some sort.
            Last week I attended a presentation that the bishop arranged at Hempfield UMC, west of Lancaster.  The speaker spoke about opioid addiction, and why it is so hard to get out of it.  He explained that the opioids do some unusual things to the human nervous system.  They can block pain, which is what they are prescribed to do.  They increase a sense of pleasure, which is part of what gets people hooked.  In so doing, however, they destroy the receptors for naturally-occurring dopamines, which are the substances that allow us to feel good in non-harmful ways, like when you feel a sense of accomplishment or when somebody gives you a hug or you feel good after exercising.  These receptors can grow back, but it takes months.  So if somebody gets off the abused drug that they were using to kill pain or make themselves feel good, there will be a long period afterward where they will feel nothing.  They will be emotionally blank or worse.  Meanwhile, the part of their brain that is still craving the drug that destroyed the receptors will keep calling to them and creating physical desire for another hit.
            In the lobby after this, I was talking with someone who is friends with Colin’s mother, and she brought him up.  “You know that’s what killed Colin,” she said.  “He had been clean for a good, long time and was doing okay at work and so his mother and stepfather thought they could go away for a couple of days, and when they got back…” and then she described a scene that I’ll spare you.  The wild beasts: sometimes you hear them out there, howling like a hungry coyote; sometimes they are like a copperhead waiting under a log.  Jesus was out there in that wilderness, and is there now.  He’s the Good Shepherd who leaves a flock of ninety-nine sheep who are all accounted for just to find the one that is missing and may not even know the dangers it faces.
            That brings me to the other part of Mark’s description of what goes on.   Jesus
“was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
The word “angel” simply means “messenger”.  Angels are messengers of God.  They might be supernatural or they might be natural.  Like temptation, the message might be loud or it might be subtle.  If you want loud messengers, take the Ten Commandments.  They are pretty straight-forward.  The quieter messengers are there, too, those little voices and gut reactions that something is just a little out of line, and it’s good to listen to them, too.  I disagree with Mike Pence in a lot of ways, but I will give him credit for one thing that he’s taken some heat for.  He says he will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife nor attend functions without her if alcohol is being served.[1]  If he knows his weaknesses, he pays attention to them, and that makes sense. 
            There’s a danger of legalism, too, of course.  Nobody said it would be easy.  In fact, Jesus himself said that
“the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” [Matthew 7:14]
It’s easy, again, to point fingers or to identify one or two activities that are sinful and to say that as long as you stay away from those, you do no wrong.  I had a textbook for an ethics course one time whose title was Money, Sex, and Power.  What if it had been called Making a Living, Relationships, and Getting Things Done?  That would be a little less catchy, but not off-target.  Life is tricky and complex.  No wonder Jesus taught us to pray,
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
They are out there, both temptation and evil.  Let’s not sugarcoat it, or pretend that we don’t face temptation, when even Jesus did.  We fool ourselves if we think the beasts don’t leave us with plenty of bites and scratches along the way.  But let’s not forget that Jesus is out there, too, and he knows the way when we don’t.
            East of the Jordan, in the wild lands where Jesus may have spent those forty days, is an area that was once called Gilead.  It was known as the source of a medicinal plant, Pistacia lentiscus, that contributed to an antiseptic, anti-irritant ointment called “Balm of Gilead”.  Out in the wilderness, where Jesus has been, the wilderness where we also find ourselves sometimes, there is also healing for the deepest troubles, the things that lead to addiction or despair or to seeking power over others, the things that warp the way we see ourselves or the way we see God, the things that we allow to come between us and his love.
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend,
And if you look for knowledge, he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.”



[1] http://www.latimes.com/local/abcarian/la-me-abcarian-pence-marriage-20170405-story.html

"The Glory of God"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 2/11/2018
II Corinthians 4:3-6
“The Glory of God”
February 11, 2018
           “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.”
           “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
            “Glory to God in the highest!”
What exactly is glory?  In its fullness, it’s an attribute of God unlike other attributes in an important way.  Most of the time, we want or need those things that pertain to the divine.  God is merciful, and we need mercy.  God is patient, and we ask him to bear with us.  God is love, and we all need that.  But God’s glory is different.  It can be dangerous to experience.
           Paul talks about knowing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” [II Corinthians 4:6]”, and he speaks of that in a positive way, but as I recall, when Jesus appeared to him directly on his way to Damascus, the sight blinded him. “For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” [Acts 9:9]  It sounds to me like that one, short encountered had left him stunned and shocked, and that came to an end only when God sent someone to heal him.
           On the mountaintop where Peter and James and John were given a glimpse, just a glimpse, of Jesus’ glory, it was enough that “they were terrified” [Mark 9:6].  In traditional depictions of the transfiguration, Jesus is shown in a blinding light, with these disciples huddled on the ground, with their faces to the earth.
“Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”
Glory overwhelms one who experiences it.  In the science fiction novel, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes a torture chamber known as the Total Perspective Vortex.  “The prospective victim … is placed within a small chamber wherein is displayed a model of the entire universe – together with a microscopic dot displaying the legend ‘you are here’.  The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim’s mind; it was stated that the TPV was the only known method of crushing a man’s soul.”  That actually isn’t too far off from Psalm 8:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?” [Psalm 8:3-4]
That’s just looking at God’s creation, not God’s own self, beside which the universe itself is nothing.  Even so, God shows us his glory, not to crush our souls, as it easily could, but to save them.  That is where Jesus comes into the picture.
            I know this comparison is flawed, so bear with me on it.  Nothing we say or think can adequately describe the Infinite, which is sort of the point here, anyway.  Think, if you will, of a television or computer that is showing a view of the sun.  It already has had to be filtered to avoid burning out the lens, but it jumps out at you with such brilliance and intensity that the only way to look at it is to turn down the brightness on the screen.  The entire picture is there in all its detail, but it has become toned down just to the point that it doesn’t burn out the screen and that a human eye can look at it.  In a similar way, God’s full glory is right there in Jesus all the time, but in such a way that we are not destroyed by that which is too great for us.  Again, even when we cannot stare at the sun, we and the whole world, human or not, still need its light and warmth simply to survive. 
           Shown to us in the person of Jesus, God’s glory builds up our souls the way that sunshine makes the plants grow.  To get to know God in his fullness is what we are made for.  In the words of an early Christian writer, Irenaeus of Lyons,
“The glory of God is a living man, and human life consists in beholding God.”[1]
Or, as a group of English and Scottish Puritans wrote in 1647,
“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[2]
We come alive in God’s glory, by his grace, even when we might find ourselves so totally overwhelmed that we could burst.  I want to go back to a psalm that I quoted earlier, Psalm 8.  After it describes how small a person can feel in the face of all that God has made and the sweep of the universe around us, asking,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
            mortals that you care for them?”
it continues,
“Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
            and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands,
            you have put all things under their feet.” [Psalm 8:5-6]
God rescues us from our smallness and powerlessness, simply by counting us in.  By coming to us in Jesus, God entrusts his glory to as mixed-up a species as us.  Can I explain that?  No.  But I can point to the effect of what he has done.
           The glory living in Jesus is also shown in us.  At the transfiguration, the disciples heard God’s voice say,
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” [Mark 9:7]
And when people do listen to him and follow his ways, God’s glory shines through, and it remains dangerous to the ways of the world.  There are those who have no interest in God’s ways.
“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” [II Corinthians 4:4] 
Yet Jesus is the one who, time and time again, brings that kind of blindness to an end.    
“For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [II Corinthians 4:6]
When people who hate are met with love and really do get it, when they recognize that it is God acting through the person in front of them, the glory of that moment knocks them back like it bowled over the disciples. 
           That was the power of the Civil Rights Movement, with its insistence on nonviolence.  Like Jesus, it insisted that the enemy is not the person, but the sin within them.  Get that person to see Jesus, to see God’s glory, and life will be transformed.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well.  Every person without exception is
“an upstanding human being whose vision has been impaired by the cataracts of sin and whose soul has been weakened by the virus of pride, but there is sufficient vision for him [or her] to lift his eyes unto the hills, and there remains enough of God’s image for him to turn a weak and sin-battered life toward the Great Physician, the curer of the ravages of sin.”[3]
To offer pardon and not be limited by old hurts and resentment, to forgive as Jesus forgave, that brings life and is part of God’s glory.  Replacing hatred with friendship, as Jesus did, is part of God’s glory.  It is part of God’s glory for people to sing together, as the Bible tells us that Jesus and his disciples did; or, like them, to share a meal.  It is God’s glory when people just go for a walk together, when they pray together, or whenever they go about their daily work with a desire to please God in whatever they do.

[1] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, IV.20.vii.
[2] from the opening of the Westminster Small Catechism.
[3] from “The Answer to a Perplexing Question” in Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 123.
"Dealing with Squatters"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 1/28/2018


Mark 1:21-28

“Dealing with Squatters”

January 28, 2018


            The gospel of Mark shows Jesus confronting the underlying evils that get into human life.  Let’s call them “unclean spirits” [Mark 1:2].  And before we start pretending that we modern people are so much more enlightened than our ancestors, consider how of late we understand the world at large.  We may not often speak of demons and devils at work, but when we see the chaos we face we have no trouble blaming malignant forces working behind the scenes, whether that means the conservatives or the liberals or the Russians or the Chinese or the hate groups or the Koch brothers or Monsanto or CNN or Fox News or the 1% or whoever. 

Also notice that those dug-in manipulators of human life are just fine with business as usual.  They are quite comfortable doing what they do.  It’s only when Jesus shows up that the trouble begins, and the demons know it and throw a tantrum.

“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” [Mark 1:21-25]

When evil is confronted and told to go away, there will be convulsions and shouting, and maybe what we are living through is the exit of a whole lot of long-term resident demons from the body politic.  That would be a good thing.

            But Jesus also tells a parable about such confrontations, and it’s a good idea to keep it in mind.

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”  [Matthew 12:43-45]

Remember that evil does not belong in the human soul, or anywhere in God’s world.  It works like a squatter who finds an empty place and settles in, slowly destroying all that is around it.  Yet squatters can be turned out, even when they have taken over.

            We are facing an opioid-addiction crisis right now.  It’s serious.  More people are dying per year in Pennsylvania by overdose than died of AIDS-related illness any year during that epidemic.  Thirty years ago, we faced a surge of addiction when crack became available and there are a lot of similarities.  Let me share a story about that, and about how Jesus works to bring wholeness, not just in the past, but in our own day.

            At the time that crack cocaine appeared on the streets, I was with the Frankford Group Ministry, which was four United Methodist churches who worked together closely in that section of Philadelphia.  Two blocks down from Central United Methodist Church there was a row of houses that was owned by an absentee landlord who lived in Florida and did not particularly care what happened up here as long as the rent was collected regularly.  The neighbors did care.  The church cared.  We had kids who came to our after-school program who lived in two of those houses.  Let me add that the school also cared, and so did the business-owners who backed up to these places.  They had become crack houses.  People were going in, smoking a pipe or two, then spreading out into the neighborhood, desperate to find money for their next hit.  Prostitution was up, and disease with it.  Robbery and burglary were up.  And, just like today, babies were being born, addicted to illegal drugs from the womb.  Have you ever held a child like that?  The withdrawal symptoms linger on for years, and the side-effects for a lifetime.

            The neighbors came to the church to ask for help.  The church contacted the city’s Bureau of Licensing and Inspection, and they went through those buildings with a fine-tooth comb.  Six months later, when there had been no proof of remediation on the many violations they cited, we loaded up this old junker of a 21-seat church bus and drove down to Center City with signs and matching T-shirts to attend what would otherwise have been a routine license approval hearing.  The judge who was presented with the list of code violations looked up at the group and said, “This isn’t about the missing smoke alarms, is it?” then proceeded to issue the maximum fine for every item on the list.  Three months later, the fines were still unpaid, but a deal had been worked out whereby the properties were donated to Habitat for Humanity, squatters were evicted, and owners-to-be worked sided-by-side with volunteers to rehabilitate the houses and make them into homes.

            Even so, let me say this: that was a partial victory only.  There is also the question of the people who had squatted there.  Are they not also like empty houses where something terrible was happening?  They moved somewhere else, but their problems went with them.

It is not enough simply to address their drug use or anyone else’s and say, “Stop!” although you have to begin there.  You have to ask what it was that led them to make the foolish decision to start down that path and then address that; hence Jesus’ warning that if you don’t keep watch, the demons’ return is worse than the original situation.  Until someone is given hope of a way out of poverty, both economic poverty and poverty of the spirit, they will stay stuck.  Until someone grasps the depth of their dignity as a child of God, they will lack the self-respect to say, “No,” to someone who would draw them into self-destructive ways.  Until people hear that message clearly and unambiguously, we’ll just go from one addiction crisis to another.  “Just say no,” doesn’t prevent anything.  “You are better than that, and here’s why,” is what makes a difference.

Nor is it just about drug addiction.  There are all sorts of situations where you might look at someone and say, “What has gotten into you?”  Maybe you’re looking into the mirror when you say that.  I could suggest a list of unwelcome visitors that we nevertheless invite: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust.  The seven deadly sins open the door to a world of chaos, and they’re always lurking there just beneath the surface like a virus in the system that stay dormant until some moment of weakness lets it latch onto a vital organ and endanger someone’s life.

But there are also questions we ask at baptism which, if you ask yourself at those moments, will be of great help:

“Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves?”

and, with that,

“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior [meaning, among other things, that you are not able or expected to save yourself] and put your whole trust in his grace [again, meaning that he is both capable and willing to do the job]?”

As somebody pointed out long ago and far away,

“He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey.” [Mark 1:28]

"Why Them?"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 1/21/2018



Mark 1:16-20
“Why Them?”
January 21, 2018


            Almost anything I could say about this passage contains a good bit of speculation.

            Mark lays out the bare bones of the events in less words than would show up in a newspaper article, and it’s all facts. 

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’  And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  Immediately, he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

There’s no back-and-forth.  There’s no questioning about what this ‘fish for people’ stuff means.  There’s no discussion between the brothers or among the second set of brothers and their father.  Jesus shows up, says, “Come on!” and they go. 

           We get no information about why Jesus chose these four.  We have no idea what he saw in them.  We don’t know if he had been working his way along the shoreline and had called others to follow him who told him, politely or roughly, to get lost; they had better things to do.  (Maybe that’s why he added that tag line about fishing for people.  Get these guys interested and when they’ve taken the bait, reel them in.)  Maybe he already knew them or they already knew him. 

            We get no information on what motivated them.  Were they fed up with their lives and wanted a change?  Maybe Simon had grown sick of smelling like fish all the time.  Maybe James and John were tired of working for their father and only needed some small excuse to set out on their own any way they could.  Maybe Andrew saw this as his chance to travel.  If you let your imagination take over, you can come up with dozens of possible reasons that they would be more than ready to drop their nets and follow.  The gospels don’t seem all that interested in those questions.

           What really is of concern and of interest are the facts.  Jesus saw them.  Jesus called them.  They followed.  As far as that goes, that may be the most that anybody ever understands about how these things work. 

           Some people have elaborate and clear biographies of their faith.  In her book Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of a man named Stephen, who was one of the readers at an Easter Vigil one year.  As she tells the story,

“Stephen, our aging-movie-star-looking Fortune 500 company guy, wanted to do the Valley of the Dry Bones reading from the book of Ezekiel.

We Stephen walked up with a single sheet of paper, the light bouncing off his perfect head of salt-and-pepper hair, he said to us that he felt emotionally dead and that for this condition, nothing makes a difference:

No website;

No relationship;

No Mac computer or iPhone;

No exercise, no diet, no supplement;

No job, office, or title on my business card;

No amount of Diet Coke, good scotch, or bad beer;

No self-help book, therapist, or self-improvement class;

No car, house, or any other status symbol I can think to buy;

No movie or video game, and no matter how truly awesome Doctor Who is.

They have all done nothing more than temporarily anaesthetize the longing in my soul to be complete, to be whole, to be connected, to be okay, to love and be loved as I am now with too much weight, too much debt, too much depression, too much gray, too much geek, and not enough of everything else.

And I despair that my trip on this rock flying around the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour is just some sort of sick cosmic joke.

But then I remember.  I remember the Valley.  The Valley of the Dry Bones.

God is talking to the prophet Ezekiel and guides him into something resembling a massive open grave.

It’s a valley covered, from one end to the next, with nothing but humanity at its core – dry bones.  In this valley there is absolutely no hope of life.

God tells Ezekiel to cry out, cry out to those dry bones, cry out to God’s children.  Tell them to rise, tell them to rise, tell them to listen to God and rise.  They listen.

And God lifts them up, puts them back together, and breathes into them.  And they breathe anew.  And God fills them with the Spirit.  And where there once was death, hopelessness, and despair, there is new life.

In hearing that, there is light.  There is hope.  And that is sufficient.[1]

Praise God for the work the Holy Spirit does in this man’s life, and in the lives of so many people.  Praise God for everyone who can say, “This was my problem, and this is how Jesus helped me.”  Praise God for everybody who knows (or can at least make some sort of reasonable guess about) what was going on inside them when they heard the voice of Jesus say, “Follow me.”  Praise God for the openings into human life that Jesus steps through to redeem them from deep trouble and to make the good cross over into the holy.

           But praise God also for the unknown and unexplained and barely understood ways that happens.  Praise God also for the routine and unspectacular, sometimes painfully slow ways that faith comes to be born.

           In the same chapter as she shares Stephen’s story, she tells about someone else who was present when he read his statement of faith.  (And I am going to clean up some of the language she uses, so be warned if you decide to read this book for yourself, which I highly recommend.)

“Religiously speaking, Andie had mostly been either nothing or Unitarian when she joined seven other people in starting House for All [Sinners and Saints Lutheran Church] with me in the fall of 2007. ... About six months after joining, she texted me, ‘Hey Rev, I may need some pastoral care.’

We met the next day for coffee, and when I asked her what was up she said, ‘I think I’m having a crisis of faith.’

To which I thought, What … does that look like for a Unitarian?

‘Yeah,’ she continued, ‘I think I believe in Jesus.’  Oh.  That’s what it looks like.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I replied.  ‘But sometimes Jesus just hunts you[…] down and there’s nothing you can do about it.’” [2]

            Why her?  I don’t know.  Why Simon and Andrew?  Why James and John?  Why you?  I don’t know.  Did Jesus call them because of the disciples he knew they could become?  Did they become the people we hear about because he called them?  I might say it was a little bit of both, but – then again – what do I know?

            I know that Jesus sees people and loves them.  I know that he speaks to their hearts.  I know that they hear, that they respond, that they follow, and that on the deepest of levels they are never the same again.  They stay themselves, but become more like the selves that God wants them to be.  We call that “redemption” and “salvation”, and it comes about through answering the loud or quiet call.

            And for Jesus’ constant invitation to all people, I praise God.


[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints (New York: Convergent Books, 2015) 147-149.

[2] Ibid., 145-146.

"Something Good from Where?"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 1/14/2018


John 1:43-51
“Something Good from Where?”
January 14, 2018
           If you want to know something about someone, often you start with where they come from. When I was in seminary in North Carolina, there were only a handful of us from the northeast. So when I heard that the incoming class included a Marine chaplain-in-training who was from Pennsylvania, I went over to say hello. I asked her where she was from, and she said she was from a small town that nobody had ever heard of. I said, “What would that be, someplace like Womelsdorf?” and her eyes got really wide. I have no idea why I chose that place, except that I’ve always thought the name sounds funny. I had never even been there, but I can hear myself saying something like, “Can anything good come from Womelsdorf?”
           It was actually kind of an embarrassing moment. I had sort of insulted her hometown. I didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it could have come across. The experience does, however, leave me with some sympathy for Nathanael, at that point still a disciple-to-be, who hears about Jesus of Nazareth, and makes the offhand, snarky comment,
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  [John 1:46]
For a long time, Nazareth was held to be a backwater up in the Judean hills. It was far from the Mediterranean coast, which was the most cosmopolitan area, and far from Jerusalem, which would have been the center of both faith and politics. That gave rise to a tradition of hearing Nathanael’s comment as an expression of the attitude “that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel‘s religious center.”[1]    
           Enter the archaeologists.  As a recent National Geographical article puts it,
“Gallilee — long thought to have been a rural back water and an isolated Jewish enclave —was in fact becoming more urbanized and romanized during Jesus’ day than scholars once imagined, and partly by the fact that Jesus’ boyhood home was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. Although the city isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, an ambitious building campaign fueled by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, would have attracted skilled workers from all the surrounding villages. Many scholars think it’s reasonable to imagine Jesus, a young craftsman living nearby, working at Sepphoris — and, like a college freshman, testing the boundaries of his religious upbringing.”[2]
Then the excavations in town continued and they have discovered the largest-known concentration of Jewish ritual baths — and a complete absence (at least so far) of pig bones,[3] suggesting that despite the Roman presence the area was actually a sort of Bible Belt.
           So Phillip’s comment could mean
  1. Can anything good come out of that hick town? Or
  2. Can anything good come from that bunch of construction workers? or
  3. Can anything good come from a bunch of Bible nerds?
Take your pick: whom do you trust least?  Updated a little, would it be somebody from Utah, a Teamsters steward, or a Southern Baptist?  We aren’t quite sure where Nathanael would have pigeonholed Jesus on this continuum, but somehow I do think Jesus has the same problem now that he did then.  People think that he’s going to fall easily into some kind of category and he refuses to do that.
            Part of the problem is that so many folks are so loud in proclaiming that he is on their side, or that they know exactly what he would say and do in the twenty-first century.  I would put myself in that group, too.  I am sure, very sure, that he would be standing up for the poor and for migrants and for the decent treatment of women.  But are my notions of how to do that the same as his would be?  I hope so.  I hope so, and I am certain enough to make phone calls and write some letters and even pay the occasional visit to a legislative office about it.  But what if I encounter someone with different notions of how to do things, someone who is not just some cynical staffer who has memorized the talking points or an angry partisan who has drunk the Kool-Aid?  Mind you, those people are out there.  So, too, looking the other way, are folks who plaster bumperstickers on their cars or their guitar cases like they are hex signs that will ward off all evil from the land.  (How am I doing on these stereotypes?)
            Jesus refused to let Nathanael do that to him.  That’s what his (to us) weird response meant.
“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’  Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” [John 1:47-48]
There’s a whole, beautiful passage of Micah where the prophet promises a day when God will act so that people can turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks [4:3].
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid.” [Micah 4:3b-4a]
Jesus tells Nathanael he has seen him in a place like that.  Whatever it was that divided them – and there must have been something – he told him flat out that he could still see him in the kingdom of God, because Jesus saw that his heart was right:
“Here is truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.”  [John 1:47]
It was to that kind of open heart that Nathanael responded, even to the point of confessing,
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the king of Israel!” [John 1:49]
            Now, neither you nor I can see people’s hearts like Jesus did, and does.  That’s why it’s all the more important that we give people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.  So often, what brings out something good in someone is the expectation that it’s in there somewhere.  Nathanael went along with Jesus, and no doubt was there when he saw him do for others what he had done for him.  There was Zacchaeus, the tax collector who spontaneously offered to return all that he had ever extorted.  There was the woman taken in adultery, whose life he saved and then told her, “Go, and sin no more.”  There was a man so far out of his mind that the people of his town had to chain him up so that he wouldn’t hurt himself, and when Jesus left him he was sitting there calmly and making sense.  He could see past Peter’s fears that led Peter to deny him.  He could see through James’ and John’s bragging and boasting about who was the greatest.  Don’t you think he does the same for us (whoever “us” is) and for “those people” (whoever they are)?
            George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, said, “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

[1] Kristin Romey, “The Search for the Real Jesus”, National Geographic vol. 232, no. 6 (December 2017), 64.
[2] Ibid., 47.
[3] Ibid., 60.
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