Nazareth? What a dump!

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael’s question hits home. Nazareth is nothing much. A small village of maybe 2-300 people in Jesus’ day. Philip and Nathanael weren’t from Nazareth. They were from across the border in Bethsaida, a territory controlled by a different ruler, a brother of Herod. There was probably some of that typical neighbors hassling neighbors thing that happens, the good-natured ribbing people give one another when they come from neighboring towns or counties. But there’s also a little too much bite to the comment for it to be completely innocent joshing. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is a question with thorns. For those from Nazareth and other towns like it, it is a dismissal and an insult. And in this instance, when Philip comes and tells Nathanael, “We have found him,” Nathanael’s question not only dismisses Nazareth as a useless backwater, but it implies that the God he worships would have nothing to do with such a place, with people from such a place. He has not only eliminated their importance to himself, he has assumed that they are also unimportant to God.

I grew up in an area of Alexandria, Virginia known as Del Rey. Although it has gentrified and changed over the last 30 years, so that it is almost unrecognizable – so that now the Senate softball team feels comfortable practicing there, or at least did until a year ago – when I lived there, it was the kind of neighborhood that people would have asked, “Can anything good come out of Del Rey?” Primarily a working class neighborhood, most of my neighbors were African-American. Over the years, the demographics shifted to include Latinos as well, along with a few Asian families. Most of the new arrivals were fleeing devastating wars in other parts of the world, wars that were often instigated and paid for by the politicians on Capitol Hill, just 5 miles away. My neighborhood was diverse, and tight-knit. The neighbors who remain still ask after me, and hug me when I walk by. But our status in the city was clear to us. The city waited until after all the rest of the roads had been plowed to clear our streets of snow. If they came at all. Our schools were the last in the city to receive A/C. Police response time was slow – if there was crime, well, that just came with living in “that neighborhood.” Then there were the assumptions – about who lived there, and what happened there. When I was in high school, no one would give me a ride home after dark. Some of them wouldn’t even go to Del Rey in the daylight. Because it was a neighborhood full of people with dark skin, it was assumed that nothing good could come out of there, and nothing good could happen there. The people there were not important, not to the rest of the city. They could be safely forgotten, safely derided, safely ignored.

Philip doesn’t try to convince Nathanael. There’s no point. When you’re dealing with someone who dismisses an entire town out of hand, there’s no point in trying to talk reason. There’s no point in even engaging the question. “Come and see,” he says. And when Nathanael does, he is amazed. Because what he discovers is that, not only can something good come from such a place. God can.

And this is, in large part, the point. Not just of this passage, but of the Book of John. The world is a rough place. John says so in his introduction. “He was in the world, yet the world did not know him.” He says it again in chapter 3. “people loved darkness rather than light.” This is the human story. Really, almost all of us in this world could say that we come from somewhere like Del Rey, somewhere that has been dismissed and declaimed as unworthy. Unworthy of human regard, and certainly unworthy of God. Small towns in the middle of nowhere, rough neighborhoods in the city, suburbs full of cookie cutter houses. And even if we’re from somewhere special, we have been through rough patches that render us unworthy of regard, we have endured difficulties and seen ourselves diminished by our circumstances. Can anything good come from Franklin County? Can anything good come from addiction? Can anything good come from divorce, grief, depression, despair? Can anything good come from this broken, violent, destructive world? This difficult, lonely, painful life?

“Come and see.”

And Philip takes him to meet Jesus. The Word of God, made flesh. The Son of God who has come into this world, not to bless and gild the halls of the wealthy, the powerful, the well-regarded. God did not choose to be born in Herod’s court, or to be raised near the seats of power and the center of religious authority. Philip did not invite Nathanael to meet Jesus of Rome or Jesus of Jerusalem. Instead, God became Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of a place of nothing good. This is where God’s love for this world has been made manifest, in the places that this world does not love.

When Jesus meets Nathanael, he doesn’t reprimand him, or deride him. He welcomes him. Here’s a guy who says what he’s thinking, even when it’s mean-spirited. Well, Jesus doesn’t reject him. He doesn’t repay insult with insult. He simply sees him. Sees him for a beloved, marvelously made, child of God, known by God in the womb, knit together by the hand of the Creator. Who knows what has happened to him since to make him spiteful, to make him mean-spirited, to make him say such terrible things about his fellow human beings? Well, Jesus knows, and Jesus sees him, and Jesus welcomes him. Just as he is.

Nathanael, of course, is astounded. Who has ever simply welcomed him before? Who has ignored his spite and his bile and just loved him before? “Where did you see me?” he asks, probably worried because he knows he was saying terrible things only a few minutes ago, and afraid that this kind man will have heard him. And Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree.”

Half a mile from my dad’s house in Del Rey sits Christ Church, the church where George Washington had his family pew. What a difference a half mile can make. No one ever asks, can anything good come from Christ Church? No one ever asks, can anything good come from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home 8 miles away. Anyway, George Washington, founder of this nation, had a favorite Bible verse, a verse that guided his work throughout his life. It was Micah 4:4 – “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” It is a promise delivered to the nation of Israel in their greatest distress. They are in exile, a people oppressed. Those in power look at Israel and say, “Can anything good come out of Israel?” And God answers that with a promise; a promise to draw them back to God, to provide safety and security, to hold each one of them as precious, as deserving, to see each one of them for who they truly are; not for where they come from, but for the person God has made them to be. George Washington dreamed that this nation would welcome people from all over the world, from places that were disregarded and dehumanized by people who thought they knew more, who thought that they were better because of where they came from. George Washington hoped that this country that he worked to found would be a place where everyone would be welcomed and would sit under their own vine and fig tree. Where they would not be afraid. A place where each person would be welcomed for who they were, welcomed because they were a beloved, marvelously made child of God.

When Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree, he was telling Nathanael that this verse of Micah had been fulfilled, that God had seen him, and known him, and loved him. Sitting under that fig tree, Nathanael was seen by Jesus for the beloved, marvelously made child of God that he was.

Come and see, says Philip. Come and see, says Jesus. Come and see. This is the invitation. Come and see what it is like to sit under your own vine and fig tree. To be welcomed as you are, and known fully by God, and loved, simply because you are God’s. Where you come from, what you have been through, your broken places and your secret shame, none of those things define you. You are not less than human, you are not less worthy, you are not less important because of anything that has come before. Instead, you are invited. You are invited to come and see. And then you are invited to invite others. Having been seen yourself, you are given new eyes to see the world around you. You are given the opportunity to see others as God sees them, worthy of their own vine and fig tree, worthy of receiving the Son of God, worthy of following Jesus as well. Because they, too, are marvelously made. The word the psalmist uses, “marvelously made,” that word appears throughout the Hebrew Bible, describing the greatest wonders God has done: Creation; the Exodus; the return from Exile. These are God’s most marvelous works. And you are one of them. A work of God on a par with the Creation itself. This is what God calls you. This is what Jesus sees in you. This is what you are invited to live out of.

George Washington’s vision was imperfect. Like everyone, he was a product of a particular time and place, and though he was influenced by Micah’s vision of a world of plenty, in which God provided equally for all, the nation he helped to found has fallen short of that vision. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate this week, helped to move that vision forward in his way. He opened our eyes to the injustices around us, and helped us find new ways of seeing one another. He invited us into the dream as well, moving us closer to Micah’s vision. Invited us to come and see with him what could come of seeing others as God sees them. But like George Washington, he was human, and also imperfect.

None of us comes to this work perfect. All of us will find it difficult to see the humanity, the beauty, the marvel of God in other people. For some of us, we are so damaged, so broken, that we may never see it. For others of us, we may only see it in certain people, those we agree with, those we understand. A few of us will be lucky enough to see it more than miss it. But none of us will ever be able to fully see as God sees, to fully appreciate the wonder of one another. Which is why God came to this world, why God became human in a backwater place like Nazareth. To remind us that even those places we would ignore, those people we would reject out of hand, even they are touched by God; even they are marvelously made, by God’s hand.

And that’s why God comes to us each week at this table, to remind us that we are not defined by where we come from. We are defined by this – the God who has made us, who has named and claimed us, who has come to us and invited us, in the Word and Bread and the Wine, to come and see greater works than even this.

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