Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth: John 1:43-51
I've spent this week trying to do some remembering. Not all of the stories are very clear, but I think I need to share them anyway. I don't remember the first time I ever heard someone use a racial slur. I think I don't remember because I heard them so often that they were hardly surprising. I'm pretty sure that I have a relative who had a black dog who's name was a racial slur. Now, 30 years later, and with the addition of three bi-racial members to our family, they call the dog something else when they tell stories about him. Now, they call him Black Dog. Now, I'm not totally sure about this. I was so little when this dog was alive. But, I don't think his name was really Black Dog. We lived in a community called Kodak. Mostly working class or poor, rural, southern, nearly all white. Maybe when I tell you that about the place I grew up, you understand why people would think it's ok to name a dog after a racial slur. Maybe you nod your head knowingly, and say, oh, of course. Can anything good really come out of Kodak?
I am young enough that Jim Crow laws were already part of history when I began school. But, I am just the right age to remember when the county we lived in realized that the schools were still deeply segregated, especially in the eastern part of the county and city. There was a strict divide between those of who lived in eastern Knox County, like my family, and those who lived on the East Side of the City of Knoxville. Some of the divide was due to cultural differences from living in the city versus living in the country. Most of the divide was about race. If you lived in the country, you were probably white. If you lived in East Knoxville, you were probably black.
If you were white and grew up in my community, this is what you learned about East Knoxville. There were lots of drugs there. Prostitutes roamed the main road that cut through the community. There were probably gangs there, too, though, to be fair, we were taught that there were gangs in the poor black parts of West Knoxville, too. We were also taught that the people who lived there would steal your things. If you drive by anyone on the street, especially a young black man, you better lock your doors. If you were white and from eastern Knox County, East Knoxville was nowhere where you wanted to be at night and you probably tried to avoid it in the day. I mean, can anything good really come out of East Knoxville?
In 1991, desegregation plans that developed as a result of a merger between the city and county school districts mandated that some students, predominantly black, began to be bussed out to middle and high school in my community. In computer class, I met a girl named Chalise. She lived in East Knoxville. I think we became friends because we liked to play the same kind of games when we were done with our assignments in computer class. She was faster on the keyboard than I was, so we decided she should do the typing so we could get to the games faster. When I went to her house, her mom warned us to be careful when we walked to the convenience store to get a soda. People didn't always like to see black kids and white kids walking together. My grandparents lived in a community called Tuckahoe. Once, she rode the school bus to their house with me. The next day, the school bus driver's son, who was about 8, called me a racial slur. He may have even sung a little song about it. He was definitely wearing a top hat. His father said nothing to stop him. Really, can anything good come out of Tuckahoe?
Once, in college, I found myself looking at a jail cell door. I had not been imprisoned in some wild, spring break escapade. I was in Birmingham, on a class trip. This door was no longer in a prison, but in a museum. There was a preacher who got arrested and spent some time behind this door. He wrote a letter in response to some critiques he received from white clergy colleagues. Here's a part of what he wrote: "Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture, but, as Reinhold Neibuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful oppression that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must always be demanded by the oppressed." He also said, "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."
I walked out of this museum and into the church across the street. I sat in the pews and was shown the corner of the church that was once blown away by the Klan's bomb. I read the name of the girls who were killed there: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. When the bomb went off, Jesus' face was blown out of their big stained glass windows. After the church was rebuilt, the people of Wales, England, donated a new window; Jesus in a pose that is equal parts crucifixion and resurrection. Unlike the first window, this image of Jesus has brown skin. Both still adorn the sanctuary. After the church, we walked across the street to Kelly Ingram Park, an assembly point for the demonstrations throughout the city. When they left this park, the protestors would be beaten with nightsticks, attacked with police dogs, and pounded by high pressure water hoses. Children as young as six years old would be arrested. Can anything good come out of Birmingham?
The summer after I finished college, I interned at a women's day center in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington D.C. Most of our clients were homeless. Many suffered from severe mental illnesses, including delusions, paranoia, depression, and addiction. In several conversations with the regular employees, especially those who trained new volunteers, they described one particular occurrence that happened all too often and they hadn't yet figured out how to address it. Far too often, if new white volunteers encounter black or Latino staff who they had not had the chance to meet yet, they would presume that they were clients. If they encounters white people whom they hadn't met yet, they would presume that they were employees. It happened all the time. I nodded my head in exasperated agreement. I said I wasn't surprised. Of course new volunteers would rely on old stereotypes that told them that People of Color were more likely to need help than be employees. We enlightened people would then go on to talk about strategies for disabusing people of expectations that brown people need saving and that white people are the ones who will do the saving.
Early one morning, I was one of the folks serving breakfast. It was busy. The line was very long. A woman came in the door, passed up the line, and came to the area where I was serving. She looked around and asked what was for breakfast. What I wanted to say was, "why did you skip line? There's enough for everybody but you have to wait your turn." I don't think I said that out loud. I'm pretty sure that I looked at her funny. I think told her what we were serving, and suggested she wait. Then, it was her turn to look at me funny. That's when I saw her name badge and key card. I realized she was an employee.
I had been so confident in my goodness. I had done the work. I had built relationships. I had checked my privilege and learned so much about racist systems. And, yet, in the midst of a busy morning, the racist system that had shaped every part of my life up to that point, the very system that I had tried to hard to rid myself of, revealed itself to still be wrapped up in my bones. When I saw a brown face, rather than seeing a colleague, I only saw someone who needed charity. And, I was the good white person who would help her, but only if she did what I said and followed proper procedure. I was so embarrassed at what I had done. I didn't apologize. I just looked down and continued serving. I never told anyone. Can anything good come from that serving line in Logan Circle?
Sometimes we encounter the source of our salvation in the most unexpected places. Just as Nathanael, upon hearing Philip's praise of Jesus, said, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?," it would be easy for me to ask if anything good can come from the isolated and insular community where I was raised... the community where my systemic racism first took hold... where I was first told to fear people of color even as we played games on the computer together and where calling a dog a racial slur was the funniest of jokes. I'm sure Dr. King was often asked the question, can anything good come from these demonstrations in Birmingham? Can anything good come from this march from Selma? Can anything good come from laying your body on the line and being will to die with each step you take? Tell me, can anything good come out of Nazareth?
If we're lucky, we have friends like Philip who say, "Come and see." If we're lucky, we have a community that reminds us that we are not bound to the terrible truths of "this is how things have always been" and pushes to see a new way that the world can be. If we're lucky, we will pay attention to those who are already on their way out of oppression and take their advice. When they invite us along, when they say, "Come and see," we will go, even if we are skeptical. In following Philip to meet Jesus, Nathanael is opened up to a whole new way of imagining the Messiah. I think we have some "Philips" in ours lives, too. We have people who can show us a world far beyond the oppression that exists right now. But, in order to get to that world, we have to go. We have to follow. We have to listen. We have to lead. We have to heal. And, we have to be willing to see the places where we still have work to do... where we still rely on hateful stereotypes and ways of thinking... where we still need to unwrap the tentacles of bigotry that have wound themselves into the deepest parts of ourselves.
It is only when we accept this invitation to "Come and see" that we can change. I hope that we are listening for it and willing to act on it when we hear it.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":
* During our service, we also watched this video, produced by the Salt Project. You can learn more about the Salt Project here: http://www.saltproject.org/.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.