The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 14, 2018
America is the great experiment in modernity. See, the whole presumption of modern life is that we can choose. We have the freedom of choice. We have the freedom to choose what kind of TV we want to buy. We have the freedom to believe that Whataburger makes the best fast food hamburger in Texas, though I do believe In-n-Out is better. We have the freedom to prefer the Longhorns or the Aggies, though I have no idea why you would choose the Aggies.
But as theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, we also believe to have the freedom to choose our own story. I’ll use myself as an example. Somebody asks me where I’m from, and I choose my story. I can choose the story in which I’m a native of Los Angeles, born and raised in southern California. That is true. Or, I can be a Texan. I went to the University of Texas, I’ve lived here most of my life. For goodness’ sake, I even have a set of longhorns hanging in my office. I choose my own story. I can also choose my heritage. My last name is Abbott, and when I want, I’m English. But my mother’s family, the DiPietro family, were Italian Catholics who came straight through Ellis Island and settled in New York. In this land of freedom, we choose our own stories.
This freedom, as beautiful and as wonderful as it is, also has a shadow side. We believe that we have the freedom to tell other people what their story must be. And rarely do we choose stories for other people that are better than our own story. When we feel threatened, when we are hurt, we tell negative stories about the other. Our country is full of peoples who were given stories that were not accurate, stories that were meant to be demeaning.
A certain story from my own family is by no means the worst story ever told about someone, but it helps to paint a picture. I remember my grandfather telling me how he hated, he hated that all the kids at school assumed his family was part of the mob because his last name was Italian. Nothing could be further from the truth – my great-grandfather was a dressmaker. And I’m sure that this feeling, this anger at being given a story that is not true, has been felt by many communities throughout history. Judging by last name, by skin color, by accent, by birthplace, we choose other people’s stories for them, and usually they are bad stories. Including the story chosen for Jesus.
Jesus calls Philip to be a disciple of his. Jesus says, “Follow me.” Then, as Jesus found Philip, Philip goes and finds Nathanael. Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Now Nathanael, a proud Israelite – proud of his heritage, his story, his people – turns up his nose at Philip. Nathanael sneers, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
You know, in all the other ancient writings leading up to the time of Jesus, no one ever mentions Nazareth. That’s not because Nazareth didn’t exist. It did. It’s just that nobody cared about it. For the people of the time, Nazareth was a nowhere.
So Nathanael has made up his mind. Nazareth, a little backwater provincial town. Nazareth, way out in the boonies. Nazareth, they aren’t real Israelites. Nazareth. This Jesus guy is a nobody from nowhere. There is no way he’s the one God has sent. Can any thing good come from Nazareth? Nathanael has chosen his own story with pride. Nathanael has chosen Jesus’ story with contempt.
A contempt that we have all known and seen. A contempt that still lives with us. It was a contempt that Martin Luther King, Jr. knew all too well, this contempt is, in part, what we remember this weekend. This contempt, its names are Legion – racism, xenophobia, chauvinism. In our pride, in our contempt, we look at the other and we sneer, “can any thing good come out of Nazareth?”
The delightful answer is, yes, of course. In fact, the best thing comes out of Nazareth. This little town, this little nowhere, this bumpkin village is precisely the place where Jesus is from. His story, the story of the gospel, the story of God’s irresistible grace comes from Nazareth. The story of a God who loves us so much that nothing, not even death will stand in the way, comes from Nazareth. Can any thing good come out of Nazareth? You better believe it.
So how on earth do we can we get to a place where we listen to each other, instead of telling each other who they should be? How does Nathanael get over his contempt to see the grace that is right there before him? How does God open our hearts to see the beauty and the truth in each other?
The answer is extraordinarily simple. It’s a phrase that runs throughout the beginning of the Gospel of John. “Come and see.” Nathanael’s contemptuous sneer is met with Philip’s gentle invitation, “come and see.”
Philip doesn’t spout off Jesus’ resumé. Philip doesn’t give Nathanael the story of Jesus’ birth, his credentials, his story. Philip’s gentle invitation, the invitation to come and see Jesus, is the only thing that will soften Nathanael’s hardened heart. “Come and see,” Philip says. Come and see this extraordinary man, this Jesus of Nazareth, who knows everything about you. Come and see this Jesus of Nazareth whose very life is the embodiment of love. Come and see the man from nowhere who is everything.
Nathanael, you may think that you know Jesus’ story because you know where he came from. You may think you know his background, his people, his education level, his sensibilities. But really, Nathanael, you know nothing. And in fact, it’s the other way around. This nobody from nowhere knows everything about you. And this nobody from nowhere, this Jesus of Nazareth, he is the one who will give your life meaning. At the end of the day, it’s Nathanael who is given a new story. Nathanael comes to know, to believe, to live with Jesus. Nathanael is given this great gift, this gift of talking with Jesus about the glories that are to come. Nathanael has come and he has seen. And now Nathanael’s story is Jesus’ story.
Part of the challenge of today is that we are too isolated – in our little communities, with our finely curated news feeds. The gospel challenge for today is to “come and see.” Rather than trying to formulate their story, sneering if anything good can come from Nazareth, the gospel challenge is to open our hearts to hear a new story. We do have freedom – the freedom to not dictate a story for anybody else.
And God, God also had the freedom to choose. It would have been no thing for God to choose that Jesus came from some place nice, some place decent. Perhaps from Jerusalem. This surely would have helped Jesus’ credentials. In that scenario, he would have been trusted and revered. His resumé would have been immaculate. He could have gone to the best schools, come from a respected family, he could have been a wealthy man, he could have the right name and the right birthplace and the right pedigree. This would have impressed Nathanael.
But God does not care about impressing. No, God only wants to change our hearts. To change our hearts of contempt, of pride – and to change them into hearts of grace and humility.
We have the freedom to choose. To choose our cars and our hamburgers. We have the freedom to choose our story. We are a sort of chameleon people, crafting our own stories in a way to impress others. Either by our humble beginnings or by our vaunted positions.
But always remember, remember that the stories we tell ourselves are rarely the whole story. God’s story for you is so much more than what you can choose on your own. And the story we tell about others is rarely accurate, and usually demeaning. And as it turns out, a nobody from some backwards bumpkin village is the Son of God, the King of Israel.
Come and see. Put away your contempt, your pride, your polished credentials. They have no place here. Come and see Jesus, and you will be given a new story.