Can Anything Good Come Out of All This?

+In the Name of God who was, and is, and is to come.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:45-46

I grew up in a small village in Upstate New York called Ilion. It’s nestled in the Mohawk River Valley about 13 miles east of Utica. There are four little towns right in a row – Frankfort, Ilion, Mohawk, and Herkimer. When you drive from one village to the next, you’d never know you were leaving one and entering another except for signs about the parking regulations and the usual ones for the churches and service clubs. 

These towns are all little places – Ilion is the biggest with about 8,000 residents; Mohawk the smallest with fewer than 3,000 residents. When I was growing up, each village had its own mayor, its own water department, its own Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, and its own school system. It would have made much more sense if the villages and schools had shared services. But that couldn’t even be discussed back in the 1960’s because the rivalries among the towns – especially the rivalries among the school districts – made that impossible.

Students from the different school districts called each other names.  Herkimer kids were “pizza pushers.” Frankfort kids were “spaghetti benders.” And we Ilion kids were “cake eaters.”  The rivalries were intense.  When our school buses that carried the teams, and cheerleaders, and marching bands left after football games, they left in a hail of eggs.  If a group of guys from one village showed up at a high school dance in one of the other villages, you could be sure they weren’t there to dance. They were looking for trouble.  And God help the person who decided that it was okay to date someone from one of the other high schools.

So, when we come to this morning’s passage from St. John’s Gospel, where Philip tells Nathanael he’s discovered the Messiah – and that the Messiah is from Nazareth – and then Nathanael looks at Philip and says to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I can completely relate. It would be like telling somebody from Ilion that the Messiah was from Herkimer. Nathanael finds it impossible to believe that anything good can come out of Nazareth.  It’s one of the best examples of prejudice there is in the Bible. Prejudice – a word that means to judge in advance. 

Every one of us is prejudiced.  We judge people in advance based on where they’re from, where they went to school, what clothes they wear, who they voted for, their sexual orientation or preferred pronouns, or the color of their skin. We size people up, and we decide whether they are members of our own tribe or members of some other tribe.

Evolutionary biologists tell us that prejudice is hard-wired into the human brain as an adaptive response that protected our prehistoric ancestors from danger. That’s a scientific explanation, but it’s not an excuse for prejudices we may hold now. A simpler reason for prejudice is that it takes work not to judge people who are different from us in advance. It takes more time and effort to get to know people who are not like us. That’s not an accusation; it’s a simple statement of fact. 

Many of us in this congregation have worked hard to recognize and overcome our prejudices and the prejudices of others. A number of us have been victims of prejudice. Following the dramatic setbacks at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2006, All Saints’ led the way in advocating for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians in the Episcopal Church. We helped form the Chicago Consultation and gave it leadership.

The leadership of this parish has stated clearly that our goal is to become an anti-racist congregation. Those of us who are white have read, gone to classes, participated in trainings, and started to deal with the reality of our white privilege. In spite of these highly commendable efforts, All Saints’ still has a long way to go. The work to overcome our prejudices and our inherent biases never ends. We are in it for the long haul. I doubt that anyone listening this morning is surprised to hear me say this.

Like many of you, I watched last week when throngs of insurrectionists, amped up by the sitting president’s exhortations to the crowd at a “Save America” rally, stormed the United States Capitol building. The mob looted, destroyed property, and succeeded, for several hours, in interrupting the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory.

Since then, I’ve been reading everything I can about what happened, listening to as many reports as I can, studying commentaries and op-eds in the aftermath. I’ve also watched politicians who either enabled these events or supported the lies about the election’s being stolen now condemn what happened. Whether their conversions were sincere or convenient, only time will tell. The Bishop of Atlanta, Rob Wright, observed that “some who have enabled inflammatory rhetoric for professional gain, now uncharacteristically called for restraint and calm. But,” he went on, “you cannot be an arsonist for years and then say you are suddenly a firefighter.”

A number of politicians and commentators expressed shock that the attack on Congress had happened at all.  They had evidently forgotten how much the spoken word matters. When the joint session of Congress that certified the election results finally concluded around four o’clock in the morning of January 7, the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, prayed a prayer in which he recognized the power of words. He said, “These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue.”  When he said this, he was quoting directly from the eighteenth chapter of Book of Proverbs, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”

There were those Senators and members of the House who, in spite of the attack, failed to experience any kind of conversion or change of heart. Six of them were Senators – Senators Cruz, Hawley, Hyde-Smith, Marshall, Kennedy, and Tuberville. One hundred forty-seven members of the House of Representatives, too many for me to mention by name, objected to the election’s being certified. Their names are a matter of public record.

A consistent theme among those commenting on the attack on the Capitol has been the comparison between the police response to the rioters on January 6 and the police response to the largely peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators this past summer.

Many media outlets posted images side-by-side of the response to the crowds that formed following the murder of George Floyd and ones that gathered at the Capitol on January 6. I don’t know if All Saints’ technical department is able show these, but the difference between the photos speaks volumes about prejudice and white privilege. The prejudices of those who planned the response to the demonstrations in June and then again for the security of the Capitol on January 6 is crystal clear. They believed that Blacks and People of Color were going to be violent while the predominately white crowd would not be violent. Here is the Lincoln Memorial on June 2, 2020. (photo of heavily armed steps) And here is the US Capitol on January 6.  (photo of riots at the US Capitol)

The Black Lives Matter Global Network said it was “one more example of the hypocrisy in our country’s law enforcement response to protest. When Black people protest for our lives,” they said, “we are all too often met by National Guard troops or police equipped with assault rifles, shields, tear gas and battle helmets. Make no mistake,” the group went on, “if the protesters were Black, we would have been tear gassed, battered, and perhaps shot.”  The NY Times columnist David Brooks, who is white, wrote, “The rampage reminded us that if Black people had done this, the hallways would be red with their blood.” And one of the most frequently re-tweeted statements about the difference in the response put it succinctly, “We’re not asking you to shoot them like you shoot us. We’re asking you NOT to shoot us like you DON’T shoot them!”

I suspect that I am like many of you since the Capitol was attacked – I am worried and fearful. Anyone who thinks that what happened on January 6 was a one-time incident is a poor student of American history. To quote David Brooks again: “Human beings exist at moral dimensions both too lofty and more savage than the contemporary American mind normally considers. The mob that invaded that building Wednesday exposed the abyss. This week wasn’t just an atrocity, it was a glimpse into an atavistic nativism that always threatens to grip the American soul.” And Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said “We fully expect that this violence could actually get worse before it gets better.”

In the midst of my own worry and fear, I’ve been searching for hope. I admit that it has been hard to find.  However, there have been three glimpses of hope that have helped sustain me during these dark times.

The first has been the results of the two Georgia Senate elections. This is not a partisan statement. It’s a statement about the power of community organizing to create change in the midst of oppression. Given Georgia’s long history of bigotry, racial violence, and voter suppression among blacks, it should give us all hope that a 33-year-old son of Jewish immigrants, and a 51-year-old Black Baptist preacher were both elected to the Senate from that state. It should be noted that the Reverend Raphael Warnock has personal experience of what happens to blacks when they protest in the Capitol. He was arrested immediately when, in response to proposed cuts in the Affordable Care Act, he staged a prayer protest there in 2017.

The second glimpse of hope comes from a different image from the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol. It is an image of Representative Andy Kim of New Jersey, down on one knee stuffing trash into a plastic garbage bag.  Rep. Kim is the son of Korean immigrants, a graduate of the University of Chicago, and a Rhodes Scholar.  He walked amid the mess of water bottles, clothing, Trump flags, even a U.S. flag littering the floor inside the Capitol shortly after voting to certify Joe Biden’s victory — and felt the weight of the day wearing on him — when something motivated him to clean up the debris.  When asked why he did it he said, “When you see something you love that’s broken you want to fix it. . . . It really broke my heart and I just felt compelled to do something. … What else could I do?”  His words need to be emblazoned somewhere – bound as a sign on our hands and fixed as emblems on our foreheads – to inspire us all to service: When we see something we love that’s broken, we need to fix it. 

And the final glimpse of hope is in the image of the Beloved Community that our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has been relentlessly preaching about since he was installed. Following the assault on democracy, he offered a stark choice between further chaos and Beloved Community. He said, “In the moment of a national crisis, a moment of great danger, … a people must decide, ‘Who shall we be? . . .  I want to submit that the way of love that leads to beloved community is the only way of hope for humanity. Consider the alternative. The alternative is chaos, not community. The alternative is the abyss of anarchy, of chaos, of hatred, of bigotry, of violence, and that alternative is unthinkable. We have seen nightmarish visions of that alternative.”

Dear Friends, the mission of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is more important than ever. During this Epiphany season, God is calling us to rededicate ourselves to that mission, living it out fully in our own lives and in the common life we share here at All Saints.  May it be so.  Amen.