Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines: Here’s What I Know

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2021

Imagine discovering that everything you think is true is…not. Klete Keller won a silver medal and two golds in Olympic swimming from 2000 to 2008. You might think that would open the doors of celebrity and acclaim, of wealth and privilege for Keller. But it didn’t. Instead, by 2018, Keller was divorced, jobless and homeless. He spent ten months living in his car. He sank into depression and despair.

Last week, Keller was one of the hundreds who invaded the nation’s capitol as part of an insurrectionist mob. Some members of that mob planned kidnapping and even execution as part of the day’s festivities. I have no idea what level of involvement Keller had in those despicable visions, but he was there.

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Imagine discovering everything you think is true is…not. Imagine discovering that white men are not the standard of success for humanity. Imagine discovering that white men are not entitled to every opportunity and excuse at the expense of women and people of color. Imagine discovering that white men are not the pure paragons of virtue portrayed in films and on television. Imagine discovering that white men are not the center of everything, owed everything, controlling everything. Imagine that things aren’t working out the way they’re supposed to.

Imagine discovering that everything you think is true is…not. Despair, depression, and destitution might be one set of responses. Rage, recrimination, and retribution might be another set of responses. We saw it all on display in the United States capitol on January 6, 2021. Klete Keller was one of many who at least came along for the ride.

One thread in the lectionary readings for January 17, 2021, is this experience of the failures of entitlement. Eli, the priest, does a good job of helping little Samuel discern the identity of his midnight caller. Eli gives Samuel the right words to answer the call. “Speak,” the young man dutifully repeats, “your servant is listening.”

If we stop at verse 10 of that reading, we have a happy ending to a charming story. Many readers will do just that. That may be just as well. The next paragraph has news, we learn, “that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.

The Lord will punish the house of Eli for the systematic theft and arrogant abuse committed by Eli’s sons in the course of their priestly offices. Eli is held responsible, we learn, “because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.” The punishment “shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Tingling ears and all, Samuel goes to Eli and – at Eli’s command – repeats all the judgment he has heard. It is the end of the House of Eli and the beginning of the career of Samuel the Great. Eli discovered that everything he thought was true was…not.

Eli and Sons were not entitled to skim the best stuff off the top of the pot. They weren’t called to be the Hebrew Godfather and his muscle. They weren’t put in positions of power so they could pad their own bank accounts while the small ones starved. That’s what they believed was true, but it’s…not.

I’ll bet Eli wished he’d just sent Samuel back to bed with a swat on the seat.

What Samuel hears is what we Lutherans would call “the word of the cross.” The word of the cross always tells the truth as it is. Samuel was called to be a theologian of the cross. In Thesis twenty-one of the Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther says this. “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” That’s the word of the cross that Samuel received.

“The word of the cross is not just a doctrine,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones in The Word of the Cross and The Word of Glory, “though it is grounded in doctrine. It is not a theory about what happened between God and Jesus on the cross, although that event shapes it radically. Above all,” he concludes, “the word of the cross is a way of seeing the world from the perspective of the brokenness caused by our quests for glory” (page 88).

Eli and Sons constructed a profitable ministry by taking meat from the mouths of the needy. No matter what they deluded themselves into believing, that was the truth. No matter how they spun the spin, no matter how they shaped the narrative, no matter how they cooked the books, they were thieves and liars. Everything they believed was true was…not.

This is the constant danger when the Word of the Cross collides with our pet perspectives and settled self-interest. We may plunge deeper into self-deception to maintain our power, privilege, and position. The only way to do that is to commit violence against others – whether it is spearing extra meat out of the tabernacle pot or erecting gallows on government property.

We can maintain that violence for a long time – for generations, for centuries, even. But the theology of glory – the worship of self-serving lies – always extracts a price. The system of White supremacy, for example, eats white people hollow, morally, and spiritually.

“The white southerner had to lie continuously to himself in order to justify his world,” writes Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. in Begin Again. “Lie that the black people around him were inferior. Lie about what he was doing under the cover of night. Lie that he was a Christian. For [the author James] Baldwin,” Glaude concludes, “the accumulation of lies suffocated the white southerner” (page 49).

“Lie that he was a Christian.” I feel that sentence as a knife to the heart because I know it was true in 1957. And it is even more true in 2021. Domination is no longer a means but rather the end in itself. We saw that lie consuming itself in homicidal rage on January 6, 2021. Fear masqueraded as faith under “Jesus saves” banners. Nothing will produce greater violence than the fear that everything we thought was true is…not.

“In a culture of fear, the short answer to ‘What is going on?’ is ‘We are at risk’ or ‘We are in danger,’ writes Scott Bader-Saye in Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. “Insofar as we accept that answer as our dominant description of the world, our lives will be shaped by…self-preservation…Our moral vision becomes tunnel vision. Fear becomes the ambient background to our lives,” Bader-Saye concludes, “rather than a proper response to a concrete and passing threat” (page 27).

What if everything we thought was true is…not? And what if that’s the good news? Now we come to Philip and Nathanael in the gospel reading. “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” Philip gasps, “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Confronted with a destabilizing bit of news, Nathanael goes on the rhetorical attack.  Fortunately for Nathanael and for us, Philip appeals to the small nugget of curiosity still resting in Nathanael’s guts. “Come and see!” This is the first step in answering the call to “come and follow.” Curiosity requires at least a small dose of courage.

What Nathanael gets is a whole new understanding of the cosmos and a promise that he ain’t seen nothing yet. What he gets is the call to be a disciple. “Christian discipleship, that is, following Jesus, will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger,” writes Bader Saye. “It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good” (page 22).

Avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good – can “anything good” come out of Nazareth? Apparently so – the Word made flesh and living among us, full of grace and truth, revealing the loving heart of the Divine Parent to a world trapped in depression and despair, rage and violence. Loving the neighbor and welcoming the stranger are not safe paths as we challenge personal and systemic white supremacy. But they are good.

We walk in this good way because the Holy Spirit fills us with the freeing power of Christ for lives of meaning and purpose. We are made for loving service, and living that way makes us most fully alive in Christ.

“Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” Luther writes in The Freedom of the Christian, “just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary to my neighbor,” Luther concludes, “because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ” (page 524).

Can anything good come from Nazareth? Come and see! Come and see Who that “good” is as the Christ overflows my heart and empowers my hands for loving service.

That much I know is true.

Text Study for John 1:43-51 (pt. 2): Fear of Finding Out

Why did Nathanael resist Philip’s good news? Perhaps he couldn’t get out of his own way long enough to take in something outside his frame of reference. If I know everything already, any suggestion of something new is a threatening falsehood. If we are to grow and flourish, we must suffer this self-centered certainty to be dismantled. “The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World, “that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed” (page 91).

Taylor thinks, for example, about why the ancient Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers lived in some semblance of community, even in their pursuit of personal holiness. “The deeper reason they needed one another,” she writes, “was to save them from the temptation of believing in their own self-sufficiency” (page 91). Perhaps the illusion of his own self-sufficiency is Nathanael’s problem as well.

Photo by Maksim Goncharenok on Pexels.com

The problem with self-absorbed self-sufficiency is that it makes us pathologically self-centered. Perhaps this is a good psychological description of the experience of sin: self-centered, self-absorbed, self-sufficiency. St. Augustine gave it a shorter description seventeen hundred years ago. We are incurvatus in se, Latin for “curved inward on oneself.” Luther agreed completely with this description of the human condition. But it’s a hard sell in selfie-land.

This inward turning refuses trust and embraces certainty. This certainty might masquerade as strength and even bravado. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is a question asked from behind such a mask. The disguise hides our fundamental fears and insecurities. In a world shaped by 09/11/2000, the Great Recession, resurgent white supremacy, and Covid-19 (just to hit the low spots), our fears are off the charts.

So, our desire for the safety and stability of certainty is nearly irresistible. “Fear tempts us to make safety and self-preservation our highest goals,” Scott Bader-Saye writes in Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, “and when we do so our moral focus becomes the protection of our lives and health. Security becomes,” Bader-Saye continues, “the new idol before whom all other gods must bow” (page 28). I’m not sure there is a better nutshell description of the first quarter of this century than Bader-Saye’s words. He is surely describing our current American reality, even though he wrote his words prior to 2008.

It should be no mystery why I find this riff on the gospel text necessary and compelling. The aggressive and hostile rejection of anything different and destabilizing is a hallmark of our current social setting and of life in large parts of the Christian church in America.

The recent and somewhat bizarre attack, for example, launched by Southern Baptist seminary presidents on the sociological disciplines of critical race theory and intersectionality shows how easy it is for fear to overdetermine our perceptions, our thoughts, our judgments, and our actions. Can anything good for Christians come out of the social sciences? Not, apparently, if you are a white Southern Baptist theologian.

“In a culture of fear, the short answer to ‘What is going on?’ is ‘We are at risk’ or ‘We are in danger,’ writes Bader-Saye. “Insofar as we accept that answer as our dominant description of the world, our lives will be shaped by…self preservation…Our moral vision becomes tunnel vision. Fear becomes the ambient background to our lives,” Bader-Saye concludes, “rather than a proper response to a concrete and passing threat” (page 27). In such a setting, responses to disorienting dispatches from life are reduced to derisive snorts on social media. Nathanael’s snotty question would have slid comfortably into the rhetoric of the Twitterverse.

We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” Philip gasps, “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Confronted with that destabilizing bit of news, Nathanael goes on the rhetorical attack.  Fortunately for Nathanael and for us, Philip appeals to the small nugget of curiosity still resting in Nathanael’s guts. “Come and see!” This is the first step in answering the call to “come and follow.” Curiosity requires at least a small dose of courage.

“Our brains are hardwired for curiosity,” writes Todd Kashdan in his book entitled (oddly enough) Curious? “along with its neural twin, worry” (page 44). He reminds us that we are wired for the worst. We all live with an onboard “negativity bias.” Studies have shown repeatedly that we are at least twice as sensitive to threats as we are to opportunities.

That makes perfect sense, of course. If we miss an opportunity for something, we might go hungry for a while. If we miss a threat, we might become some other creature’s dinner. So, other things being equal, we tend to regard new information with some degree of suspicion. Nathanael is our sibling in that suspicion.

What does it take to open us to new information and perspectives? Kashdan describes the “positivity effect.” This is what takes over when we feel safe. In that setting, he writes, “We show a slight bias to explore new things and seek out new experiences. We are pulled toward rewards and excitement. Without this offset,” Kashdan concludes, “we would never learn, stretch, grow, or evolve” (page 46).

What does it take for us to entertain a new thought? Harder still, what does it take for us to entertain a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing and understanding the world? Now we can entertain a bit of exegetical empathy for Nathanael.

After all, Philip is proposing a scriptural non sequitur. The one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote is the Messiah. The Messiah should come from Jerusalem – or at least somewhere in King David’s old neighborhood. The Messiah should have royal and priestly connections, and those trappings should be obvious. The Messiah should come equipped with horse, sword, shield, and retainers. What Philip suggests is sheer nonsense. To even entertain the possibility means that Nathanael must be open to a new view of his world.

Philip issues the invitation – “Come and see.” Nathanael apparently regards him as a trustworthy source of information, because Nathanael goes and looks. The invitation comes in the context of a trusted relationship. That’s worth noting as we think about our own opportunities for witnessing to the reality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (one of the underlying themes of the season of Epiphany). Philip makes no claims and requires no agreement. He’s not selling or persuading or invading. He takes the risk to extend a gracious invitation to someone he knows and loves. Then, it seems, he goes with him.

Perhaps we have a couple of models or types at work in this text. Nathanael is the legitimately skeptical truth-seeker who has, perhaps, been burned by more than one would-be Messiah in the last few years. He’s close enough to the religious establishment to see that large parts of that establishment are morally and spiritually bankrupt – in bed with the Roman oppressors and making big money off their complicity. If Nathanael were no longer interested, however, he might not have responded with the veiled aggression of his question.

Nathanael is still looking. But perhaps he’s tired of being disappointed.

Philip is a witness to the light, to use the words of John’s prologue. He facilitates a meeting between Nathanael and Jesus. I wonder if there is a better description of the witnessing job. Jesus sees Nathanael as he is – not just a snarky tweeter but rather an Israelite in whom there is no bullshit. That authentic interaction is at the heart of this text.

Nathanael is not interested in scoring debating points. He wants truth, which makes him the opposite of what Harry Frankfurt calls a bullshitter. “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are,” Frankfurt writes in On Bullshit, “that I regard as of the essence of bullshit” (pages 33-34). Nathanael models the sincere seeker who hopes that this time curiosity might be a wiser path than fear.

What Nathanael gets is a whole new understanding of the cosmos and a promise that he ain’t seen nothing yet. What he gets is the call to be a disciple. “Christian discipleship, that is, following Jesus, will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger,” writes Bader Saye. “It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good” (page 22). “Nathanael” can mean either “God has given,” or “Gift of God.” It would seem that both are true translations in this context.

Avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good – perhaps we find ourselves back in the previous post. Loving the neighbor and welcoming the stranger are not safe paths as we challenge personal and systemic white supremacy. But they are good.

References and Resources

https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/lest-we-forget-lynching-will-brown-omaha%E2%80%99s-1919-race-riot.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.

Kashdan, Todd. Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

Morris, Jerome. “Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth? Race, Class, and African American Schooling and Community in the Urban South and Midwest.” American Education Research Journal, Spring 2004.

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Wessel-McCoy, Colleen. https://kairoscenter.org/can-anything-good-come-nazareth-sermon-celebrating-martin-luther-king/

Anything Good? Text Study for John 1:43-51, part 1

Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” After all, Nazareth was just one more backwater hick town where good things rarely happened. The real action in that neck of the woods was certainly in Sepphoris, six miles to the west. Sepphoris was the new regional capital, shiny and sleek with Roman plumbing and streets. It was a city of theaters and thoroughfares, with culture and class – at least when compared with dumpy, frumpy old Nazareth. Who in their right mind would bother with someone from such a hole in the wall kind of place?

I lived twelve miles from town, so I rode the bus to school an hour each way when I was younger. The last on and first off kids were from a small hamlet about three miles west of town. The hamlet didn’t even deserve its own name. It was just West Somewhere. The village was unincorporated, a place for freight trains to stop and do their business at the grain elevator along the tracks. Property taxes were low because there were no paved streets, city water, snow removal, or police protection. It was a Nazareth kind of place.

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The kids from West Somewhere weren’t really different from anyone else. They certainly weren’t that much poorer than someone like me riding that bus. But they came from a place with a reputation for being dumpy and frumpy, slow and stupid. The kids from West Somewhere carried that baggage the first time they got on the bus. They knew it. The rest of us knew it. No one ever questioned that reality. The prejudice directed at the village was part of their inheritance, and it made life harder for them every day.

Nazareth was a West Somewhere kind of place. That’s why Nathanael asks his snarky, snide, rude, and rhetorical question. Can anything good come out of West Somewhere? Instead of arguing the point, Philip simply says, “Come and see.” Nathanael, to his credit, went and saw. That is perhaps enough to honor Nathanael a bit on this day.

He could have dismissed the invitation without a second thought. We may be tempted to do the same. As we preach on this Sunday of the annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we white people will continue in our complicity if we slide past the opportunity to point out and repent of our own past and ongoing prejudices that produce racist policies. Can anything good come out of the West Somewheres in our lives?

The West Somewhere of my experience sprang up in response to the conjunction of railroad tracks and the grain trade. There was a time when it was a going concern. Only later did the decline and the demeaning descriptions take hold. But many of our West Somewheres exist because of political policies and practices designed to keep Black and Brown people locked in such places in perpetuity. Nazareth was bypassed intentionally and left in the dust by the new Roman development. That sort of behavior is always how domination systems work.

“Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation,” writes Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law, “but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States. The policy was so systematic and forceful,” Rothstein continues, “that its effects endure to the present time” (page viii). Rothstein documents the creation and enforcement of these public policies across time and across the United States with painful clarity and depressing detail.

I live in Omaha, Nebraska, so I don’t have to look far for evidence of Rothstein’s argument. In our city the places are not West Somewhere but rather “North O” and South Omaha. The segregation of North Omaha can be traced to a pretty specific historical event – the lynching of Will Brown in 1919. Whites in Omaha rioted for several days as part of this public and extra-judicial murder. Brown was shot and hung and his body was burned in retribution for an alleged sexual assault on a white woman. The story is well-documented at the History Nebraska website – “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot.”

The mayor of Omaha barely escaped his own hanging and was never the same thereafter. Military forces were required to set up a perimeter designed, it was said, to protect the Black population. In fact, that perimeter became the boundary beyond which Black citizens of Omaha were not allowed to pass. Redlining and violence maintained the boundary for decades, and it has changed little to this day. Any possibility that the flourishing Black community might grow beyond these limits was cut off by early 1920.

Mainline Christian congregations within or near that boundary began moving to other areas of the city almost immediately. That process of moving accelerated after the Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954. Predominantly white congregations moved west with their congregants into areas closed to Black and Brown (and often Jewish) people. The combination of that exodus and the post-war baby boom resulted in a sort of “golden age” for those congregations in the 1960’s and 1970’s while North O burned figuratively and literally with the rage born of injustice.

Some of us live in towns that don’t share that explicit history where West Somewheres have been created by public policy, realty and banking practice, and routine violence. Instead, we may come from towns and cities where Black and Brown people were systematically excluded and/or removed in the period between the World Wars. Cities and towns in Nebraska were often official or unofficial “sundown towns,” where the Other was present only at grave personal and physical risk.

Why should this come out of the Sunday gospel reading? “The biblical town of Nazareth was the home of Mary and Joseph,” notes Jerome Morris, “Nazareth and the people who lived there were poor, neglected and despised. Yet out of this despair emerged Jesus, the Liberator.” Morris continues, “Nazareth metaphorically represents the scholarly and public portrayal of urban and predominantly African American schools and communities today.”

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? We know, of course, the answer to Nathanael’s question. Everything good is coming out of Nazareth. The challenge for Nathanael and for us is to recognize the gift from God coming into the world from that backwater hick town.

Then perhaps we can be better equipped to recognize and resist our own prejudices and policies that relegate Black and Brown people to “that part of town” so we privileged white people can maintain our hold on the rest of the property. Can anything good come out of Nazareth, or West Somewhere, or North Omaha? From there comes the Son of God, the King of Israel!

“What good can come from places of marginalization and oppression? A people who are willing to fight for the dignity with which God has endowed them,” writes Colleen Wessel-McCoy. “Leaders who see the liberation in the Bible and know God wants it to be real for them. Organizers who go out from places that are seen as nowhere and change not only those places but the whole nation. The end of segregation, the insurance of voting rights, non-discrimination in employment and housing — these were not coming from Washington, D.C. They only became a reality when people from the margins insisted that they be so.”

If we ignore the good that comes out of West Somewhere, we white people condemn ourselves to a sub-human existence. There is the obvious reality to which Rothstein points. “Racial polarization stemming from our separateness has corrupted our politics,” he writes, “permitting leaders who ignore the interests of white working-class voters to mobilize them with racial appeals” (page 195). But the cost of white supremacy for whites goes far deeper.

The system of White supremacy eats white people hollow, morally and spiritually. “The white southerner had to lie continuously to himself in order to justify his world,” writes Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. in Begin Again. “Lie that the black people around him were inferior. Lie about what he was doing under the cover of night. Lie that he was a Christian…the accumulation of lies,” Glaude concludes, “suffocated the white southerner” (page 49). And it suffocates those of us not so far south as well.

“Lie that he was a Christian.” I feel that sentence as a knife to the heart because I know it was true in 1919 and 1939 and 1959. And it is even more true in 2021. Domination is no longer a means but rather the end in itself. And the only White identity remaining is that of Master.

Apparently, not even the identity of Christian can stand up to this psychic cancer without effort. Glaude quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech from February of 1968. King said, “so long as the lie [of inherent Black inferiority] was believed the brutality and criminality of conduct toward the Negro was easy for the conscience to bear” (page 64).

Whether we white preachers will take the risk or not, this text on the day before MLK presents an opportunity to reflect on whether we can be released from our own deceit. Once again, we must determine if this deceit will be easy for our consciences to bear.

More on the gospel reading in the next post.

References and Resources

https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/lest-we-forget-lynching-will-brown-omaha%E2%80%99s-1919-race-riot.

Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.

Morris, Jerome. “Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth? Race, Class, and African American Schooling and Community in the Urban South and Midwest.” American Education Research Journal, Spring 2004.

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Wessel-McCoy, Colleen. https://kairoscenter.org/can-anything-good-come-nazareth-sermon-celebrating-martin-luther-king/