Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 14, 2018
Reading: John 1:43-51
Early in November I went to Houston for a training session for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, which will take place there this summer. As part our training we did a practice run-through of our Synod Day worship and activities, and the pastor of a local congregation gave the sermon. I remember one of the personal stories he shared.
It had been a little chilly in Houston in October, well, at least chilly for Texas, and at least before the sun came up, which is when Pastor Jackson liked to go running. So one of those chilly mornings he pulled on a sweatshirt and pulled the hood up to keep his head warm, and went for his usual morning run. As he jogged around the quiet streets of his suburban neighborhood, a police car pulled up beside him, and the officer stopped Pastor Jackson to ask him a few questions. “When the police officer first saw me,” Pastor Jackson said to us, “He saw a black man in a hoodie running around a nice neighborhood in the dark, and that’s why he stopped me. I explained who I was, that I lived in one of these houses, that I was pastor at Living Word, that my accent was from my home country of Liberia.”
I think the point of this part of the sermon was how important it is to get to know one another, to share our stories and to listen to others’ so that we can live in a stronger, more caring community. “He saw me and thought of one story,” Pastor Jackson said, “but when we said good-bye, he knew my real story.”
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when our nation remembers the work of Dr. King and the others who fought for the rights of African-Americans and other people of color in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember how, eighty-eight years after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, after eighty-eight years of Jim Crow laws kept people of color segregated, prevented them from voting, relegated them to schools with poor funding, and backed a host of other abuses, finally civil rights were again legally enforced and protected through things like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the desegregation of schools and other public facilities, and the more general protection of the Civil Rights Act.
But even more important than looking back on those important dates and pieces of legislation, we ought to remember the most difficult challenge faced by Dr. King and others who fight for the protection of civil rights and for recognizing the worth of all humans: the harmful stories that get passed along in our culture (sometimes unintentionaly), the harmful stories that automatically come to our mind as we observe and understand our world.
Dr. King and his contemporaries had to deal with these stories in order to affect any legal changes. They had to work to contradict the stories that undergirded the laws and common practices that harmed people of color. Some of these stories were outrightly racist, stories like: People who are black are dangerous; people who are black are less intelligent; people who are black are from an entirely different race and ancestry than people who are white. Other harmful cultural stories were simply apathetic: People who are black are exaggerating; they have all the same rights I do; they just need to work harder; why are they causing all this trouble?
Though much has changed in the United States since 1965, harmful and incorrect stories continue to be passed on in our culture. It’s one of those human-nature things that’s been going on since ancient times.
Jesus had to deal with his own share of cultural stories as he did the work of God’s mission. In church we talk a lot about the various stories some of the Jewish people told in the first century about the coming messiah. The messiah will be a mighty warrior; the messiah will take back the throne of Israel; the messiah will judge us all according the law of God (and make the same judgements I would make). It was hard for Jesus to be seen as the messiah when his work was humble, he stood against the religious leaders, his judgments were either gentle or unexpected, and he won his great victory through public execution on the cross. His story was not the story people expected.
Today’s gospel reading reminds us that Jesus had to deal with the misguided stories people told about him on a personal level, too. There were people who knew only one or two things about Jesus, and immediately judged him to be lesser, they completely sidelined him. All Nathanael had heard about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, and already he’d put Jesus into the cultural story of what people from Nazareth were like. Maybe he was repeating a common hometown joke when he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus had to almost supernaturally shock him out of that story in order to get Nathanael to see Jesus for who he really was. People form Jesus’s hometown dismissed him because they did know him, and couldn’t shake the story they knew: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Mary’s son?” they ask, offended when he starts to teach in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6).
Throughout the gospels we also see that Jesus engaged in the work of contradicting common stories and telling new ones for the sake of other people, namely, those people who are most vulnerable in society. In fact he does this so often that it must have been a major part of his ministry. Some examples: Samaritans were hated figures in Jewish culture, yet Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37). When men pointed out to Jesus that the woman in their company was a sinner, Jesus evened the judgement playing field by pointing out that those men were sinners too — aren’t we all? (Luke 7:36-50; John 8:1-11). When his own disciples said that little children weren’t worthy of Jesus’s time, he encouraged all the adults to be more like children (Mark 10:13-15). While it was seemingly natural to admire the religious and political leaders, with their beautiful clothes and obvious righteousness, Jesus told a different story, calling those leaders hypocrites, pointing out all they did to hurt the poor, and instead lifting up the example of the people who were lowly but faithful as the better examples of righteous living (Luke 20:45-21:4). And of course there are the famous Beatitudes, where Jesus turned our idea of who is blessed upside-down: “Blessed are the poor… blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep…” (Luke 6:20-26)
Jesus constantly contradicted the cultural stories that did harm and told new stories to help people see the world differently. Jesus called his disciples to be part of his new stories. He wanted them to hear the new stories and also to live those stories. To hear the story that all are sinners, but that God extends grace to all, and then to live it by befriending those society cast out as “too sinful.” To hear that God blesses people who are poor, hungry, suffering, misunderstood, hated, and then to be a blessing to them.
Today Jesus continues to call disciples, to call us, to be part of this work of spotting the harmful stories and telling new stories. We do this when we tell and retell the stories of Jesus, so that his stories are always louder in our minds than the harmful stories of our culture. We do this when we listen to the stories of other people and reflect on them. We do this when we tell our own stories. We do this when we don’t let the harmful stories go unchallenged.
And Jesus calls us to live his stories. To live so that through our actions others may see the truth of God’s story in action: what it looks like in everyday life when every person is valued as a child of God and grace abounds.