What good can come out of Nazareth?
In today’s gospel, Nathanael skeptically asks this questions as his friend Philip tells him excitedly about Jesus, who might just be what the prophets foretold, a savior, the Messiah. Apparently, Nazareth didn’t have the best reputation back in the day, at least not among folks who, like Nathanael, come from the cultured and educated coastlands and look down on the supposedly backward highlanders of Nazareth – and Nathanael wasn’t shy about sharing his prejudices about that town.
What good can come out of…?
Let’s face it, we all have our prejudices, we all have our preconceived notions about certain places and certain groups of people. We come into this world, fearfully and wonderfully created by God, as today’s psalm says, fresh human beings, eager to explore, curious about this world, taking it all in. But then something happens as we grow up. We learn and experience, we learn to judge certain situations, which is good, because it keeps us from getting ourselves into danger or into trouble. But at the same time, we absorb anything that is told us about things and people, things we don’t experience ourselves, but if our parents, our grandparents, our teachers, the media tell us so, it must be true, right?
We become prejudiced, and often, we form our pre-judgment, our prejudices, subconsciously. They just become a part of us. Don’t go to the other side of the tracks! Don’t play with that kid! That family looks happy, but I’ve heard rumors…
We all have different prejudices, but let me give you an example from my childhood: I don’t think anyone ever told me, as I was growing up in Germany, that dark-skinned people are bad, but then we had a children’s game, ‘Wer hat Angst vor’m schwarzen Mann’, ‘Who’s afraid of the black man’, which had been passed down from generation to generation. The beloved St. Nicholas is often accompanied by a menacing sidekick, who punishes misbehaving children and who, in certain areas, happens to be black. And in a children’s classic book, ‘Der Struwwelpeter’, ‘Slovenly Peter’, which actually overall is a horrible collection of stories from the 19th century trying to get children to behave properly by painting gruesome scenarios of children misbehaving – basically, all children in that book get hurt or even die – and the original subtitle, get that, is ‘Funny stories and droll pictures’ – there is a story that, on the surface, looks like a story about tolerance: three white boys make fun of an African child, but as a punishment, St. Nicholas comes and dips them in a barrel of ink, so that they are even blacker than the child they mocked. Being black is a punishment, that’s what my child’s brain absorbed, subconsciously. Black people are inferior. Black people are different. Black people are scary.
Back then, I hadn’t even met a dark-skinned person, and yet I had a certain prejudice, which took a while and some actual encounters with Africans and African-Americans to overcome. And so, as a teenager, I objected vehemently when my grandmother, whom I loved dearly, said at some family event, ‘And don’t you ever bring a black man home to me!’ What in the world, grandma?
And I don’t have to tell you that, in this country, a whole part of its population was dehumanized and is being dehumanized up to this day, because there is this strange idea that, somehow, dark-skinned people are inferior to white folks, that, somehow they are not as intellectually developed as white people – and it makes me especially sad when the Bible is used to make such an argument. Genetic scientists have found that human life developed in Africa, and that we all have a common ancestress, the so-called mitochondrial Eve. We all are human, and our respective ancestors just adapted their appearance to the conditions of the places on this planet where they happened to end up. All human life is fearfully and wonderfully made by God, the creator, knit together lovingly in the mother’s womb.
Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we commemorate tomorrow, fought hard and paid with his freedom and ultimately with his life to teach the people of this country that a person should be judged by their character, and not by the color of their skin. That was his big dream. More than 50 years later, we have come a long way, but we are still not there.
What good can come out of…Syria? Haiti? Iran? Mexico? Libya? North Korea? On the flipside, there are many in this country and all over the world who currently ask, what good can come out of Washington?
Like in any place on this planet, there is good and bad; with every good intention, there is sin, as we like to say in church jargon, some selfish desire. And some places are more corrupted than others, and some places are more violent than others. But we can’t condemn an entire people for the sins of a few. We mustn’t dehumanize an entire group of people because there are some who have a life-denying ideology – and act according to it. And how can we simply look on as those who suffer in their respective countries seek to escape the consequences of natural disaster, violence and death?
As I already mentioned, bad can come out of any place. And good can come out of any place. We don’t do ourselves a favor by shutting everybody and everything out who may be coming from a suspicious place. If Nathanael had insisted on his prejudice that nothing good can come out of Nazareth, he would have missed out on the immediate presence of God in his life. He would have missed out on witnessing the kingdom of God as it breaks right into his life in the person of Jesus Christ, who broke down barriers, loves without limits, heals the broken, helps us see the presence of God in every fearfully and wonderfully created child of God, and, through his death and resurrection, opens the gate to a new life to all.
If we insisted on our prejudices, we would miss out on seeing and recognizing the presence of God in all those with whom we share the same ancestress, our brothers and sisters in Christ. We’d miss out on experiencing the kingdom of God as it breaks into our reality, right here, right now, as we are challenged to grow in love and grace and forgiveness together. We’d miss out on the fearful and wonderful presence of Christ as we are the beautiful and diverse body of Christ with different gifts and different functions.
And just a closing thought: What good can come out of…us? Bad can come out of every place, and good can come out of every place. That also includes human beings, and human hearts. Martin Luther had a description of that, we are sinners and saints at the same time. All of us. Nathanael, the arrogant skeptic, becomes a follower of Christ, and later, according to certain legends, becomes an apostle and spreads the teachings of Christ in word and loving deed as far as India. Samuel, the boy who hears God’s call in the night, becomes Israel’s premier spiritual, political and military leader, the last of Israel’s judges – God uses Samuel though he is far from perfect. With God’s help, Samuel accomplishes what he is called to accomplish.
Martin Luther King, Jr., had his flaws like every human being, and yet God powerfully used him to bring about justice by opening the minds and the hearts of people and by sharing a dream that many prophets before him already dreamed.
There have been many people throughout history who, in spite of their flaws and influenced by their faith and hope, have loved fiercely, helping, healing, forgiving, striving for justice and peace, trying to make this world a better place and giving a glimpse of what the kingdom of God is like.
And here we are: with our selfish desires and imperfections, yet fearfully and wonderfully made, beloved and embraced by God, encouraged and challenged to let the good come out of our hearts, to let God use our imperfect existence and to be God’s loving presence that breaks down barriers and reaches out to any brother and sister, with whom we are connected by our common African ancestress and by our Father in heaven, giving and fostering life. This is God’s vision for all of creation, dreamed by prophets of any time and age. Let us continue to dream this dream, let us dream it together – and, with God’s help, work so that this dream finally comes true.
Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German