Monday, January 18, 2021

Diversity & Understanding


John 1:43-51

Epiphany 2 B

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

We don’t know where Nathanael is from or why he has this prejudice against a small, insignificant village of about 200 people.  At the time, most Jews from the southern part of Israel have contempt for anyone from the northeastern region of Galilee, Nazareth being a part of it.  Galileans are thought by them to be rude, illiterate, and devoid of culture.  Galileans speak with a thick accent that often leads to embarrassing misunderstandings.  For example, in the native tongue, if a Galilean says to a guest, “I am going to give you some milk to drink,” it could be misheard as “May a lion eat you!”  In Nathanael’s day Galilee is a hotbed for rebellion.  In 4 BC a group of Galileans robbed a Roman armory, leading to the execution of over 2,000 Jews.  When Jesus was a boy another Galilean organized a tax revolt, leading to more executions.  Given all of this, it is not surprising Nathanael would question how the one foretold in Scripture could hale from such a backwater, no-nothing village.  What is surprising is how Phillip is able to see past this.

Each of us is conditioned to look out for our own well-being.  We are prewired for self-preservation and self-interest.  We expand our concern to wider and wider circles – family first, then clan, then tribe, then class, then race, then nationality, and finally the global family.  Each of these circles has barriers we must breach if you are going to exist in peaceful and respectful good will and concord with one another.  The farther out we extend ourselves the less we have in common with others.  Put another way, as the circles move outward diversity increases.  And we seem to be hardwired to be more comfortable with commonality than diversity.

I don’t have to tell you we live in a very diverse country and our differences have been on full display for some time now, culminating with the events of January 6.  We are a deeply divided nation.  We all still can agree the sun rises in the east, but probably on little more than this.  How do we see past our differences in order to see each other?

Phillip certainly is a model for us to follow.  Surely he has certain prejudices and biases about people from Nazareth, but somehow he is able to lay aside these things in order to see Jesus the person.  And in seeing Jesus the person he is able to discern him to be “the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.”  He has breached the barriers of a significant circle and invites Nathanael to do the same.  When Nathanael responds contemptuously, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, Phillip gently responds “Come and see.”  And when Nathanael meets Jesus he meets not a caricature of what he believes a person from Nazareth to be, he meets Jesus the person.  This allows him also to breach the barriers of bigotry and ignorance and he comes away believing Jesus is a rabbi who has something to teach him and that he is the Son of God!

Again I ask, how do we see past our differences in order to see each other? 

Last Sunday we renewed our Baptismal Covenant and I asked you these questions:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Your response to each question was “I will, with God’s help.”  I can tell you when I see insurrectionists storm the United States Capital I am going to need a lot of help from God to seek and serve Christ in them and to respect their dignity, but my aim is to try.  And, while I know none of those people personally, I am committed to live out our Baptismal vows with those closer to my home and more present in my life.

Bishop Haynes is inviting our diocese to engage in a project called “From Many One: Conversations Across Difference.”  Created by the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs, the campaign is designed to help people “engage in the spiritual practice of listening and honest conversation across the many differences that separate us.”  It does this by inviting participants to share their response to four questions:

What do you love? 

What have you lost? 

Where does it hurt? 

What do you dream?

I wonder if we might want to use this as a Lenten program this year, perhaps having three people each week share their thoughts at a Wednesday evening Lenten zoom.  I wonder if it might help us to breach some of the circles of difference and division we all feel so keenly. 

Whenever we pray the prayer attributed to St. Francis, we say, “grant that I may seek… not so much to be understood as to understand.”  We are in a moment of time when each one of us needs to work hard to let down the barriers of self-defense of our position and perspective in order to create bridges that will help us understand those who differ most from us.  St. Francis is saying not that you need to agree, but it is essential you understand. 

The few times I have counseled couples experiencing marital strife, I shepherd them through a basic, time-honored process.  One spouse - say the wife - states her perspective.  The husband listens, but does not respond or defend.  When the wife is finished the husband is tasked with restating what he has heard.  Again, no defense.  The wife is given the opportunity to clarify or reemphasize what the husband has missed.  This goes back and forth until the wife feels her husband has heard her.  Only then does the process flip and the husband is afforded the same opportunity to express his perspective, with the same back and forth until he feels he has been “heard.”  In my experience, the clarity and compassion emanating from the feeling of understanding and being understood can be transformative.  And this is the kind of gentle and open conversation we need to create throughout our neighborhoods as well as our nation.   

One of my favorite collects in the prayer book is a Thanksgiving for the Diversity of Cultures and Races:

O God, who created all people in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world.  Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children.

Let us commit to invest ourselves in getting to know one another, to seeing each other as beloved children of God.  Even if there are significant political, societal, and/or racial differences between us - circles which can be barriers - our faith, and God’s Spirit, calls us and gives us the means to breach these differences in order to become one people living under the banner of the Prince of Peace.

Can anything good come out of ‘Nazareth’?  Yes!

Good comes from everywhere.  The question is are you able to see it.