At the educational event called Epiphany Explorations several years ago and I attended a presentation called, “Reading other peoples’ mail.” That was a fine way of reminding us that ¾ of what we call the New Testament is actually letters to specific congregations or individuals, helping them to live their faith in their own context. As I looked again at the scriptures for today, I realized that there was another letter to help someone live in their present context. It didn’t make it into the New Testament, which isn’t a big surprise when you consider that it was only written three years ago. It begins … A letter to Georgia on the Occasion of her Baptism, January 18th2015
Now the world has changed a bit in the past three years, but still much of what I wrote in 2015 holds true. So I invite you to listen in to the letter, and see where the Holy Spirit calls you to pay attention.
Firstly dear child – don’t worry, I don’t expect you to pay rapt attention to my every word today; after all you are only one month and ten days old. This is a letter you can read to yourself, once you discover the wonderful world of reading. This is a letter that I pray will give you comfort and a sense of community, even when you feel alone, or disenchanted with the world.
Georgia, you were born in the late days of the year 2014, in what has become fashionably called the `Common Era.’ But I make no apology to tell you that the date, is based approximately the number of years from when another little child was born; a male child in what was then known as Palestine, an area on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This child, it is said, was born in a little town called Bethlehem, in the district of Judah, and grew up in the town of Nazareth. You were born in the town of Salmon Arm, and are growing up in the little town of Sicamous this day. And yet, somehow, your life and his are strangely and profoundly connected.
Last Sunday, we celebrated his baptism, today we celebrate yours. Last Sunday we heard how, as a young man, after a time of preparation we can only guess at, he began to gather others around him, to invite them to a life deeper and richer and riskier than they’d ever lived before. “Where are you living teacher?” they asked. “Come and see,” he responded. First Andrew, then his brother Peter, then their friend Philip. They came and saw – and they saw something in this man that stirred their hearts with hope and longing. Philip ran to find his friend Nathanael. `Nate’, says he, `we’ve found him. ‘ The one the prophets talked about, the teacher that speaks of a new kingdom here and now, and guess what, Nate, he’s from Nazareth.
It would be hard to escape the cynicism in Nathanael’s voice as he responds to Philip’s enthusiasm. “Ya right – can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
At that time in history, the area where Jesus and others lived was under the control of the Roman Empire. With their control of media, markets, and the military, empires have a strong tendency to breed cynicism. Everywhere Nathanael looks he sees visible reminders of the empire’s pre-eminence and, in particular, the emperor as the supposed saviour of the world. The emperor’s image is cast on everything. The military has demonstrated its control with unrestrained brutality. The markets are at the service of the powerful and the elite, often with a devastating impact on the local economy, ecology, and people. The poor are pushed ever further to the margins.
Nathanael’s cynicism is the view of those who have given way to the hardness of reality, seeing no possibility for meaningful change. Certainly no change can be expected from a sleepy little town like Nazareth, which, like all other small villages, has suffered under the dominance of Rome and its appointed rulers, (Seasons curriculum)
Nate’s friend Philip doesn’t berate him, but encourages an openness – ‘Come and see’ he offers.
Jesus too is undeterred; the insult rolls off him. On the contrary, he seems to welcome Nathanael’s cynicism as a measure of honest truth-telling, and needing only to be informed by a new way of seeing. In his book God’s Politics, Jim Wallis states, “Perhaps the only people who view the world realistically are the cynics and the saints…and the only difference between the cynics and the saints is the presence, power and possibility of hope” (p. 347).
What helps Nate to see Jesus differently, is that Jesus sees him first. `How do you know me?’ he demands of Jesus. `I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you’, Jesus responds, and strangely it makes all the difference.
Why would such a small thing matter Georgia? It seems inconsequential; a parlor trick at best. And yet, Nathanael’s soul shifts a little. Only he and Jesus know for sure what was seen, but it had something to do with the essence of who Nate was; the deepest longings of his heart, that place where hope cries out from below the cynicism. The teacher Parker Palmer says, “The soul doesn’t want to be saved, the soul simply wants to be seen and heard.”
Jesus is what Celtic theologians refer to as that thin place, where heaven and earth are united and the presence of God is revealed. In this meeting, does Nathanael’s heart hear the words of the psalm, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me, you know when I sit and when I stand… Where can I go from your Spirit? If I ascend to the heavens, if I make my bed in hell…you are with me… You knit me together in my mother’s womb…” Nathanael has this precious moment where he knows that he is known, and more amazingly he is loved, fully, unconditionally, eternally.
This love is yours too Georgia. I know – you are just over a month old – what’s not to love!? And yet, as you grow through the years, there will be days, there will be times, when you find yourself saying and doing things against your own principles, against your better judgement and against what even your loving parents wish you would choose. But know this, beloved child, nothing can take their love away from you, and nothing can take God’s love away from you. Nothing you think, say or do can get in the way of a love that is deep, healing, holy and forever.
We are here today to bear witness to that love, and to offer our support and our commitment to walk the road of life with you, and your big brothers, and all whose hungry hearts seek to journey with meaning and hope.
We are the ones who have heard the invitation, `Come and see’ what Jesus is about. It takes courage, for what we see may disturb us, and our tidy ideas of right and wrong, it may break our hearts, but it may also break our hearts open… that compassion may spill out on a world in such need of courage, justice and community. Georgia Elsie Marie Smith, (and all those reading this letter) we welcome you to come and see; we welcome you to the faith journey.
I introduced the prayers of the people with this quote from Fr. James Martin who was responding to the statement made by Donald Trump regarding the people of Haiti and African nations. It connects well with the gospel and Nathaniel’s cynicism about anything good coming from Nazareth. The first line is a quote from Trump.
“Why are we having all these people from sh#*hole countries come here?”
1.) They are our brothers and sisters in need.
2.) They are often fleeing war, violence or famine.
3.) There are children among them.
4.) The Old Testament asks us to care for the “alien.”
5.) Jesus asks us to welcome the “stranger.”
6.) Jesus asks us to love one another.
7.) We will be judged on how we care for the stranger.
8.) They come bringing hope.
9.) It’s the right thing to do.
10.) That’s who we are.
One more reason: Jesus himself was from a “sh#*hole” place. Nazareth was a minuscule town of 200 to 400 people, where people lived in small stone houses, and, say archaeologists, garbage (that is, s#*t) was dumped in the alleyways. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” says Nathanael when he hears where the Messiah is from.
God, in other words, came from a “sh#*hole” place. And he pointedly asked us to welcome him whenever he appeared as a “stranger,” or as one of our “least” brothers and sisters. That’s why we have all these people come. Because Jesus came.