Straight outta Nazareth
by the Rev. James Phillips
In advance of the 2016 Metro D.C. Synod Assembly, “For the Healing of the Nations,” this stimulating sermon preached by Pr. Phillips to leaders gathered at the Bishop’s Convocation in October 2015 is being shared. The text on which the sermon is based is John 1:43 – 46. Our guest blogger is pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in D.C. and a member of the synod’s Racial Equity Team.
I borrowed this title from a popular movie this summer in my community. My adult sons said, “Dad, you need to see it.” I said, “No thanks. I lived in South Central L.A. in that part of the 80’s.”
Our text this morning informs us that as Jesus was leaving Galilee, he invited Philip to be one of his followers. The narrator of the story wants us to pay attention to the fact that Philip and the other followers, like Andrew and Peter, were from Bethsaida. Philip went to get his friend Nathaniel to come with. Philip said, “We found the one Moses bragged about, Jesus of Nazareth.” Nathaniel responded, “Come on Man, nothing good can come from Nazareth.”
Nothing good from Nazareth
“Nothing good can come from Nazareth!” Nathaniel must have heard that line while growing up. This negative sentiment about Nazarenes was a lesson learned at school, in class and on the playground. Jokes about people of Nazareth were probably told at family gatherings. Negative innuendo surely underlined most political discussions. Why even at synagogue the people of God said good things about Nazarenes at worship but felt something else about them when they arrived home. I’m telling you – all the bad stereotypes were memorized by people outside of Nazareth.
You see, we are not just discussing geographical bias here. I want you to understand that this was more than belittling the neighborhood that Jesus was from. There was evidently a prejudice about people who came from that side of the tracks. Nathaniel was castigating the identity, the culture, the accent, the traditions and the values of all people that came from Nazareth.
Take another look. In this passage Nazareth is not about location on a map but a ranking in society. Nathaniel might have been the first but certainly was not the last to have a sour view of Jesus of Nazareth. As Jesus took his ministry to all of Palestine, other folks began to critique the Nazarene named Jesus. At one point even Jesus’ own family – his mama, brothers and sisters – came (you know) to take him home. Apparently he was talking junk and acting crazy, clearly revealing to everyone that he was from Nazareth.
Jesus the Nazarene
The Pharisees and Sadducees tried on several occasions to catch Jesus doing Nazareth stuff like healing on the Sabbath, not washing his hands before a meal, hanging out with tax collectors, in the company women with bad reputations and other assorted sinners – remember nothing good can come outta Nazareth.
In some churches today, folks try to domesticate Jesus as this safe good guy whom everybody loved when he walked on earth. This is of course revisionist history. Jesus was bullied by the religious elite because Jesus threatened the status quo. I tell you Jesus was hated. Back then people knew nothing good comes outta Nazareth.
Jesus was exhausting the patience of the powers that be. Obviously Jesus the revolutionary from Nazareth had to be put down. So they arrested him.
But before we go to trial and crucifixion, honesty begs that you and I admit that Jesus was popular with some people. Many people who met Jesus liked him. It was conditional. You see, when Jesus healed somebody they embraced him. When Jesus fed somebody they accepted him. When Jesus gave somebody hope he was “al –ight” even though he was from Nazareth.
Millennials and those younger find some aspects of Black culture very cool. White kids will copy the vocabulary, the clothes, the music – you know this white girl Ziggy Azalea has a large following as a hip hop recording sensation because she has copied the rhythmical style of Black rap artists. Black athletes with superior skills receive much adulation. Some African Americans are prominent and accepted by a White majority – it’s almost like they are not from Nazareth.
Well, after Jesus was profiled and arrested Scripture records that he experienced severe police beatings while in custody. The Bible describes it this way: Jesus was scourged.* We pull those details out each Easter, right? Lots of pain and lots of blood. Remember Jesus had no legal representation, and he almost died at the station house. I repeat: They hated Jesus. Those in power were suspicious from the start about Jesus because he was from Nazareth. The high priests cried out at Jesus’ trial – go and check – no prophet is to come from that region of the country.** Hint, hint: Outta Nazareth.
Jesus’ real crime was just doing his thing, speaking the truth to power and helping unrepresented folks get free. But Jesus was profiled nonetheless because everybody knew that nothing good comes outta Nazareth.
What sin has wrought
As Jesus hung on that cross he died for all of us. I’m gonna let you in on a little secret (I really shouldn’t say this to a mostly White audience).
We, African Americans, we are not a perfect people. We have issues, but so does everybody else. Hispanic folk are messed up, Native Americans are messed up, Asian folk are messed up, and WHITE PEOPLE ARE MESSED UP.
But what is still happening to us in America, we don’t deserve it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t deserve it just because we are from Nazareth. Remember when Jesus of Nazareth hung on the cross – he said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” I’m not sure that those of white privilege know “what they do.” I don’t believe that you all truly understand what’s going on in this nation with African Americans and what’s causing it.
Martin Luther reminds us that we must recognize the culprit. In A Meditation on Christ’s Passion he wrote: “You must get this thought through your head and not doubt that you are the one who is torturing Christ thus, for your sins have surely wrought this…” He continues: “Therefore, when you see the nails piercing Christ’s hands, you can be certain that it is your work. When you behold his crown of thorns, you may rest assured that these are your evil thoughts.”***
Repentance not regret
So where do we go from here? Repentance is required.
I need you to understand that repentance is not the same as regret. Regretting something means I forgot, I meant to, I tried, but “Oh well, that’s life.” I regret that I turned left instead of right. I regret I ate that second slice of chocolate cake.
Let me put it in context – when you get to heaven and stand before God’s throne, are you gonna tell God that you regret the systematic racism in America? Are you gonna tell God that you regret the disproportionate number of incarcerations of African American males in this nation? Are you gonna tell God that you regret the premature and unnecessary deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Myra Thompson, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson and Ethel Lance. They were from Nazareth; they were all from Nazareth.
Regret is offensive because regret does not heal, regret does not save, and regret does not empower change. Only repentance will work – that act of the individual will, a conscious, forced effort to confront the very real episode of negative behavior, actions or attitude. Only repentance will work – that complete brokenness, that humiliating nakedness and total surrender before a holy God – will begin to end this vicious cycle of racism.
When we repent, the Bible says that God will cast our sins into a sea of forgetfulness, as far as the east is from the west. Let the healing begin.
See about this Jesus
We, African American Christians, love us some Jesus. Jesus is easy for us to relate to regardless of the geographic location and separation of time from his earthly ministry. We recognize Jesus’ importance because we see the similarities of mistreatment throughout his life on this planet. Jesus was from Nazareth, so he must be one of us.
Oh I almost forgot to finish telling you about Nathaniel. Philip invited him to come and see about this Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that Nathaniel came around, he changed his mind, by spending time with Jesus and the other disciples. Nathaniel experienced that someone from Nazareth can save your life. The stereotypes about folks from Nazareth were deleted from his Facebook. Nathaniel canceled his Twitter account. No more hashtag #nogoodouttaNazareth.
I believe and have experienced that the crucified and resurrected one from Nazareth didn’t just change Nathaniel’s attitude but redeemed all of his relationships, no matter where people were from.
You say to me, “It’s not that easy as you are portraying it. Racism in this country is complicated. It’s ingrained. It’s been around for 400 years.” Yes, all that is true. But let me ask you this: Is Jesus still on the cross? The man from Nazareth is alive. And that same resurrection power is in you, it’s in us, it’s in the people of our congregations. Nothing is impossible for our God. The only thing God can’t do is fail. I have hope because of Christ Jesus that a change is coming.
I challenge you to take this gospel and embrace it as a contemporary story about all the folks in America that hail from Nazareth. You all can write new stories of hope and overcoming racism if you will continue to talk, to engage, to confront, to pray for people in your family, in your community, in your congregation and in this nation. Challenge those who harbor racist feelings and attitudes. Come and see – that Jesus was straight outta Nazareth. Amen!
*See Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, John 19:1
**See John 1:46
***Find this text from 1519 among Luther’s essential writings in many places, including www.lutheranmissiology.org/Luther%20Meditate%20Passion%20of%20Christ.pdf .