Unexpected blessings: What good can come from Nazareth?
As most of you probably know, I’m just back from having spent ten days on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
I’d like to say I ministered to their needs.
I don’t think I did.
I’m apt to say that I helped meet some needs.
I don’t think I have — not much, anyway.
I’d love to say I have a firm understanding of what full immersion into this culture has taught me.
But I’m not there yet.
The fact is is that I’m completely overwhelmed.
I’m overwhelmed to know now so much that hasn’t been taught to me in the history books;
That which has been whitewashed from our culture;
That which has been contorted.
On the surface, I see no blessing resulting from this place that I visited.
I only see a Third World country right in the heart of what we proudly call America.
A place in America where unemployment is about 90 percent.
A place in America where the average life expectancy is 50 years of age.
A place in America where children don’t hide the rope burns on their necks from their failed suicide attempts.
And a place where death, disease, alcoholism and drugs are spoken so matter-of-factly by adults and children alike.
Although my days were spent touring various facilities and schools and sacred sites, and meeting people — artists, elders, tribal officials and children — most profound for me were the constant hoards of people waiting on the street corners, waiting for something — anything — or maybe nothing at all.
I’d go out for walks — never alone, that wasn’t allowed because it was too dangerous — and I’d meet these people, day and night.
Some wanted money. Either something to sell, or just a hand-out.
And I’d sit down with them, buy them coffee and just listen to their stories.
They need to pay an electric bill.
They need to pick up their kids that the courts took away, but they have no ride.
They just buried another friend, relative, son, daughter…
They are trying to kick the bottle, but they can’t.
They never had anything.
They don’t plan on having anything.
And once in a while, I’ll spot something.
A gesture. A prayer. A tattoo.
One man I met, Richard Bluebird, was one of these people.
He said he was a tattoo artist.
He tattooed the name of his gang on one arm.
On the other arm, he inked the words “God Forgive Me.”
Truly, those tattoos held in tension the man who wore them.
That was his life.
Violence and Forgiveness. Then Violence and Forgiveness.
What blessing could there possibly be in any of this?
It was a question that plagued and eluded me each and every day there on the reservation.
What good could come of any of it?
In our reading today, we venture back 2,000 years to hear the same words spoken by Nathanael.
John’s Gospel tells this story of the apostles being called one by one by this man named Jesus.
Historically, I often think about what that scene looks like.
Here’s Jesus in Jerusalem — the Holy City.
There’s the temple, the pharisees and sadducees — the super-religious leaders.
The moral right.
There are also Roman centurions — guards — everywhere.
The enforcers of Roman rule.
They are a constant reminder that all of Judea belongs to Rome.
A reminder that the Jews have no freedom whatsoever.
There is poverty, persecution and inequity.
The Jews’ sacred places mean nothing to the Romans.
The Jews’ customs are spit upon.
The Jews are in a place where they need help.
And along comes this unexpected man from Nazareth.
The day before, the great Jewish prophet John the Baptist sees Jesus and tells everyone that here is the Messiah.
The one who will save all of Israel from the Romans.
People begin following him.
Andrew and his brother Simon Peter were among the first.
The next day, Jesus decides he’s going to walk to Galilee, and along the way he meets Phillip.
Phillip knows Andrew and Simon Peter, and so he joins them.
They live in the same town of Bethsiada.
And Phillip calls to his buddy, Nathanael, in Verse 45:
“We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”
And here’s where it gets good, doesn’t it?
Nathanael — which means God has given — asks Phillip, point blank: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
If there’s one thing we know about Jesus in the Gospels, it’s that he’s anything but expected.
His birth in Bethlehem.
His lineage to the virgin Mary.
John’s declaration that Jesus is the Son of God.
And that this person comes from probably the lowest place in all of Judea, Nazareth.
What good can come of Nazareth, Nathanael asks.
And I love that he asks this question.
Because Jesus is anything but expected.
And as Phillip is bringing Nathanael to see Jesus, Jesus sees them approaching.
He sees the doubting Nathanael, and Jesus says to him this simple compliment:
“Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” (Verse 47).
One look at Nathanael, and he knows his heart is pure.
But Nathanael is still doubtful — and he asks Jesus “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “Before Phillip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.”
That’s it? That’s all it takes? How is that possible?
Jesus just says those words, and it’s enough to turn Nathanael into an apostle.
Just. Like. That.
Again, imagine this scene for a moment:
It’s a little humorous the way Jesus calls Nathanael out on that in Verse 50:
“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?”
I imagine Jesus laughing at that moment.
That’s like me saying “Well, I saw you getting coffee at Cool Beans.”
Would that be enough to convince you?
Is it that simple to see and know the Messiah?
Well, we don’t know exactly what changed Nathanael’s mind, except that Jesus is, well, Jesus, and Nathanael and everyone else was waiting hopefully — maybe even expectantly — for a savior.
Even if he came from an unexpected place and from unexpected people.
Even a seemingly worthless place and people.
Jesus says, “You will see greater things than these! I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One.”
In other words: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
We’re in the second week after the Epiphany — when Jesus is revealed to all the world.
Clearly, some people are receiving Jesus in different ways.
The wisemen last week, the apostles this week.
And we’ll see others who won’t receive Jesus at all.
On the cross, we will see those who at first didn’t believe, but then finally have their own epiphanies.
In between, we’ll see countless more on both sides.
And maybe we’ll begin to have epiphanies of our own.
Maybe even multiple epiphanies.
What will they look like?
My guess — given the lessons from the Gospels and even into our own lives — they will be quite unexpected.
I hope for that, too.
South Dakota has landscapes that I have never even imagined.
I spent so much time in the Badlands, looking across the 379 square miles of buttes and pinnacles of soft, eroded clay.
I walked across endless grasslands, rolling hills and rocky outcrops.
For miles and miles and miles.
And the sacred Black Hills, always standing sentinel, hemming in the Lakota lands.
But as beautiful as these vistas were, the reality was ramshackle homes, abandoned cars, litter everywhere, dirty streets, graffiti covering everything and anything, stray dogs wandering everywhere, and people standing on street corners, near the convenience store, outside of local businesses, asking for handouts or to sell Indian crafts.
They are a desperate people in so many senses.
And they are in desperate need.
What good can come from the reservation?
In November, I mentioned that I would be going on this trip, and I also preached about how God reveals things to us, using as a metaphor the words of Gutzmon Borglum, the artist who created the presidential reliefs into Mount Rushmore.
Here’s what he said:
“When I carve a statue, it is very simple. I merely cut away the pieces that don’t belong there and the statue itself presently comes into view. It was there all the time.”
Do you remember?
On Friday, I finally got to visit the monument.
It was larger than life, and, just as I thought, it was a monumental feat.
Here’s what I didn’t understand:
That the Black Hills, which includes Mount Rushmore, is a holy and sacred land.
And that having four white presidents’ images — each, who have enforced egregious anti-Indian policies — carved into what amounts to a holy and sacred site — like a church — is more than hurtful to the Indians.
It’s a constant reminder of how they were driven from their lands into the worst corners of the country,
how they had their land taken from beneath their feet,
and how they were intentionally exterminated by American expansionist policy.
Forced in the middle of the night at gunpoint to make a 1,000-mile trek to encampments with no warning, no warm clothes, no supplies, no food.
Nearly half of them died on just this one Trail of Tears. There were many more.
Forced to give up their homes and possessions and instead given smallpox-infested blankets to cull the population.
Forced to become sterilized so that they couldn't reproduce — as late as the 1980s…
Forced to have their children — as young as 5 years old — taken from their mothers and brought to boarding schools sometimes several states away, only to return as an “Americanized” teenager, if they survived.
Never being able to see their parents again — or dying under brutal authority, as half of them did.
Or systematically killed by machine guns, like the massacre of Wounded Knee where as many as 300 defenseless Indians — women and children — tried to take cover in ditches and gullies, but were instead mowed down by bullets.
God have mercy, the photographs are too hard to look at.
But they are there.
Living proof on the faces of dead men, women and babies.
All of them God’s children.
In the books
Today, the history books don’t tell the stories quite that way, do they?
Instead they call it the Battle at Wounded Knee…
There was no battle. It was a massacre.
In a nutshell, those who survived were sent away.
Split from their families and culture and spirituality.
And given nothing except syphilis and smallpox, and alcoholism and Christian names.
Generations of parentless children who only knew what abuse felt like.
Raising children who abuse their children.
Abuse drugs and alcohol.
No land ownership, no ability for collateral, no business or home loans and no shot at a good education.
As one Lakota man told me, “We can’t pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps if we never had any boots to pull up.”
The good that comes
For ten days, I stood among them.
I ate with them.
I played with their children.
I ministered to their needs.
I laughed with them.
And I cried hard with them.
And they still don’t trust me.
I don’t know if they ever will.
So what can I do?
What good can come from Pine Ridge?
Well, one more story.
Standing there at the base of the four presidents artistically carved into the side of the Black Hills, I was listening to a Lakota man named Darrell Red Cloud.
He was our interruptive guide at the federally run visitors center.
The question came up: How do you reconcile what the white man has done to your people, your home, and your sacred lands?
Red Cloud said we couldn’t reconcile it, really:
The monument is there, and there it will stay.
Just like the history. We can’t change the past.
However, Darrell Red Cloud is living proof of the good that comes from Pine Ridge, which, by now, you can see is a metaphor for Nazareth.
So what is it? What good comes from Nazareth?
Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection brings us resurrection.
And what is resurrection but new life?
To rise from death.
To live again.
In eternal beauty and peace.
You see, Nazareth births resurrection.
It births hope, healing, love and understanding.
It was as unexpected place as any.
Unexpected as … Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
And yet when we listen — truly listen in love, with an open heart like Christ’s — we too can see hope, healing, love and understanding.
Thats what Nathanael saw when his heart was opened to Jesus.
At first, he couldn’t see past what Nazareth represented.
Nothing good can come from that.
Nathanael was seeing Nazareth for its physical attributes — its poverty, its hopelessness, its non-existent place in Jewish history and biblical prophecy…
He wasn’t seeing the spirit that grows from love.
The seed that was growing into a magnificent vine that would continue to grow and spread its fruit all over the world.
The hope for something unexpectedly bigger and more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen or known or could ever imagine.
That’s the hope that Jesus brought to us from Nazareth.
And it’s the hope we can see from Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
Or the Section 8 neighborhoods of Bellefonte.
Or war-torn Syria.
Or food-starved Africa.
Or dictator-controlled Haiti.
Because Jesus died and was resurrected for all of us, not just those who we might expect.
Because a seed grows from even beneath the rubble of burned out buildings and broken lives.
Not just for a life of adequacy.
And not just for a life of painful endurance.
But a life that is eternal, pure, whole, joyous and nothing short of inspiring.
If we just open our hearts to see where the Messiah is coming from.
That, my friends, is resurrection.
And that is the good that comes from Nazareth.
Let us pray:
Holy, Mighty and Loving Creator:
With your hands, you carved the earth that provides the substance beneath our feet, the shelter above our heads, and the nourishment for our bodies.
You have spread us all around this globe, but you also have given us the Word, the Truth and the Life in your Son Jesus Christ,
who calls us from the highest places and from the lowest places with no discrimination between the two.
To show us this, your Son came from the most unexpected of places to lift us to the highest eternity.
A life with you.
Help us, Lord, to remember our Nazareths, and to see the good that comes from them.
The hope, the joy, the love and the peace.
Let our hands be the ones that rescue those who are trapped beneath the rubble of a war-torn world.
Let our words be the ones that call out in love and in healing and in reconciliation.
And let our hearts be the ones that are open, who are forgiving and search for forgiveness.
Forgive us when we disregard these Nazareths.
And restore us to the Light in which you promised to us, and for which your Son died, so that we can ALL live in the Light and share the Light indiscriminately.
Let there be healing in this world, through your Son who’s Spirit works in us.
We love you God, and we pray this all in Jesus’s mighty and restorative name, Amen.