A boat sitting on top of a body of water

Straight Out of Nazareth

ESPERANZA LUTHERAN CHURCH https://myesperanza.org

Epiphany 2B2024
John 1:43-51

Herb Chilstrom, the first presiding bishop of the ELCA, joined my home congregation when I was in high school. Since my father was one of the pastors of my home congregation in our small Minnesota town, Pelican Rapids, I remember the day I met the bishop, the day Herb visited our home. Ten years later, I met Herb again after chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago where I was in seminary. I happened to be preaching my senior chapel that day, and Herb along with H George Anderson and Mark Hanson, the three who had served as presiding bishops of the ELCA, happened to be in attendance to participate in a lecture series—beginning right after that chapel service. No pressure. Because I was preaching as the coordinator of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender advocacy student group, I preached that day about God’s call to love all people, regardless of sexual orientation but also regardless of political leaning, even if we disagreed about human sexuality. At the conclusion of chapel, the three presiding bishops greeted me, thanked me for my sermon, and Herb asked if I was the daughter of Glen Stadler. When I said yes, he marveled: “You are a product of Pelican Rapids?” Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus travels near the border of Galilee and Samaria, a border fraught with tension for Samaria was an enemy nation. Ten men with leprosy call out “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” Jesus tells them, simply, to go show themselves to the priests who would have certified their ritual cleanliness, and on their way, they are healed. Only one man returns to Jesus, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet, thanking him, righty acknowledging Jesus’ role in his healing. The gospel writer Luke adds, in seeming wonder: “And he was a Samaritan.” Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

For ten of the twelve years I served at Grace Lutheran, we hosted GLOW, Grace Lutheran On Wednesdays, a meal and Bible study program, each Wednesday evening. Of the 60 to 80 people who attended each week, nearly everyone was experiencing homelessness. After dinner, I would call people over to the comfortable chairs for Bible study or civil dialogue or some other program, and then, the most amazing things would happen. During an art project one night, a woman I had known for years but had never heard speak, asked me to pass her the glitter. When I invited participants to show me with their bodies what loneliness looked like, a particularly stubborn fellow very much a part of the Grace community wordlessly walked to the front of the space, sat down on the floor, and curled up in a ball. Each week when we began our study time with prayer, people did sometimes pray for themselves, but usually, the prayer petitions were for others—people impacted by natural disaster, violence, medical concerns—and prayers of thanksgiving for all those who had made the meal and served it. While engaged in a series on nonviolent communication, people immediately caught on and without prompting used “I” statements to identify their feelings and needs. Even people’s contributions to run of the mill Bible studies on Genesis and Revelation and Philippians left me enriched and awed—every week. There has been no spiritually richer space I have experienced in this life than GLOW, and nearly every person in those ten years left GLOW on Wednesday evenings to walk back to their camp site, to sleep on cardboard on top of concrete, with leftovers shoved in their pockets and a last stop in the restroom before 12 hours without. In the regular community meetings I sat in during those years, meetings held to address homelessness but never inviting a homeless person to them, in those meetings, people would ask in a variety of different ways: Could a homeless person have anything to contribute—to these meetings or society at large? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Jesus is from Nazareth, a village of Galilee, a backwater of Israel, a humble place. Galilee is the last place the people of Jesus’ day would expect a person worthy of honor and following to come from. So, when Philip tells Nathaneal about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaneal asks the obvious question: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? He implies: No. Nothing good can come from Nazareth. Why do you tell me a story of a man from Nazareth? Notice that Philip does not answer Nathaneal’s question. Philip replies neither “no” nor “yes.” Instead, Philip says, “Come and see.” Come and see for yourself.

We are so very similar to Nathaneal, even two thousand years later. We too evaluate people based on reputation and status, based on place of origin and family of origin. Some of us struggle to remember that we cannot judge someone—anyone—based on their race or class, how they look or where they work. Some of us struggle to remember we cannot assess even a pastoral candidate based on where they came from, what school they went to, or what they look like. Like all other humans, we can get tangled up in asking: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Whatever Nazareth is for us, whatever derogatory meaning that holds for us, the actual answer to that question is YES. Yes, something good can come out of Nazareth. But Philip simply says, “Come and see.” Come and see because God will surprise you.

Our story from the gospel of John ends with Nathaneal declaring Jesus to be Son of God and King of Israel. Something good came out of Nazareth then, and whatever Nazareth means for us today, something good comes out of Nazareth now—for we cannot, actually, limit the power of God by our categories and assumptions. God will surprise us, shake us, open us up. God will do things in ways and among people we never imagined possible. Friends, these are not just fancy words. This is not flowery language to bring a sermon to a fitting end. When the messiah came into the world as Jesus, Jesus was not the messiah the people expected. He was better, and he came from Nazareth.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Dear friends in Christ, come and see. Thanks be to God! Amen.