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{a sermon on John 1:43-51 preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Gallipolis, Ohio}

Once when I was around 12 years old and was visiting with my grandparents, we were chatting, and I used the word “ain’t.” My grandmother interrupted midsentence to scold me. She told me in no uncertain terms that maybe—maybe—she, my grandpa, and other friends and family could speak like that. But if I were ever going to “make something” of myself, I was going to have to start learning the “right” way of talking, the “right” way of carrying myself, and the “right” accent to have in polite and public speech. What it took me probably a decade or more to realize was that she’d been taught somewhere down the line that something about her identity and being raised the poor daughter of an Appalachian coal miner was shameful. That she was worth less than other people and didn’t deserve the same opportunities. In her desire to see her grandchildren have it “better” than she did, the only logical response was to insist that they leave behind—or at least learn to hide—those things that were noticeably tying us to this region. I took those words to heart and began a process of training myself out of my accent. Not that any member of my family has failed or is less than me, but to an alarming degree, I’ve been more successful than my grandparents or my great-grandparents at navigating a multicultural and educated society. I am absolutely sure that some of that is directly related to the stigma and prejudice that the wider American society holds against folks who are recognizably from the rural Appalachian regions of our nation.
This last week the news has been filled with reports and statements… and then counter-reports and opposing statements about the President of our United States making (or not making) extremely disparaging comments about some specific countries and the people who might try to immigrate here from those nations. I am not here to, nor do I think it is at all appropriate for a preacher to ever stand in a pulpit and take a side that alienates whole swaths of a parish family or wider community. For a minister to make a public statement in support of or against a particular candidate flies in the face of what the Church is called to be, which is a place where divisions cease. But I firmly believe a Christian’s responsibility and a preacher’s job is to proclaim the Truth centered and grounded in love and grace.
So, I will not be staking any claim on whether or not I believe any of these reports are true. But it sure is a great example of our fallen and broken human tendency to make a distinction between what’s acceptable and what’s not. Or to even decide who gets to be fully human and who is somehow less-than-human. This is a tendency that belongs to all of us. One that we fight against. A pattern that we fall into so easily. A sinful, disgusting, immoral pattern… a human tendency.
Philip tells Nathanael, “Come meet the prophesied one! It’s Jesus of Nazareth!” And Nathanael’s very human response is to rely on the prevailing stereotype of those yokels from that backwater s***hole: “What GOOD can come out of Nazareth?!” But then Philip responds with the three most important words in this passage: “Come and see.” First, come and see the one who’s going to show you that he actually is everything Philip says he is. But even more importantly, Philip is inviting Nathanael to come make an actual connection with a flesh and blood person. Because that makes all the difference. When we take the risk to set aside or prejudice, our pre-conceived notions and blanket statements about whole giant groups of people who don’t think, act, or look like us; when we look them in the eye; when we break bread with them; when we talk to them… All the sudden they are human, they are worthwhile, they have the same spark of the Incarnation burning in their eyes, too!
What’s more, Philip’s invitation to Nathanael to “come and see” is an invitation to witness. It’s an invitation to let his eyes be opened and see that God chose to be from Nazareth. God chose the backwater s***hole. God makes a preferential choice to be poor, to be afflicted, and to be rejected.
What good came out of Nazareth? As illogical as it might seem and as much as it flies in the face of what we might want or expect, all Good proceeds out of that backwoods, backward, good-for-nothing hick town of Nazareth. Because when God comes into the world in Jesus, there are no godforsaken places. There are no more worthless people. There are no more s***holes.
Tomorrow our nation celebrates and remembers the life and ministry of someone the Episcopal Church recognizes as a Saint… the Blessed Martin Luther King, Jr. His ancestors were forcibly removed from their s***holes and participated in the first wave and the truest form of “chain migration” when they were brought to this country as slaves. Yet that man—human and flawed just like any of us—understood that Christ came not just for those in the majority who thought that God was on their side and who forged graven images of God in their own likeness. He understood that Jesus, despite what we might think or how we might act, has destroyed all distinction and has demolished all the walls we might imagine we’re building between us and those who don’t think, act, or look like us. And that God in Jesus makes a preferential choice to be with those whom the world rejects, demeans, and devalues. Because God chose a s***hole.
My prayer for us today and tomorrow as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement, is that we take a moment—especially as we approach this altar this morning—to ask for God’s forgiveness for those times in all our lives where we’ve drawn a circle around ourselves and those things and people who are like us and decided that anything outside that circle is less than, worthless, or rejected; that we pray for the wisdom and courage to proclaim unceasingly that God has destroyed all those distinctions; and that God help us to recognize that every time we draw that circle, God shows up on the other side of it.
What good can come out of Appalachia? Haiti? Africa? God has sent God’s own Son, and he hails from all those places.
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