Daily Archives: January 15, 2018

A S**thole Town Like Nazareth

My father was a Baptist minister who was a voracious and eclectic reader. Often his reading took him to places that, at least in his day, conservative Protestant preachers should not go, places that ended up influencing his sermons in ways that would occasionally get him in trouble. One of these places was the work of Carl Jung, where Dad encountered a concept that became more and more important to his understanding of what God is and how God works in the world.

synchronicity

In its most basic form, “Synchronicity” can be described as “meaningful coincidences,” those times when events have no causal relationship, but seem to be meaningfully related. Everyone has experienced synchronicity. I’m thinking about my dachshund at home while I’m away, then someone comes around the corner walking a dachshund that looks just like her. A character in a novel you are reading notices three crows on a telephone wire; when you go outside an hour or so later, there are three crows on the wire across the street. To persons who pay attention to such things, synchronous events often feel like much more than coincidence—they feel more like the universe is either confirming or is trying to tell us something.

Such connections, as Jung tells us, are made primarily in the mind of the observer. If I choose to see two unrelated but similar events as connected in some meaningful way, then they are meaningfully connected. Persons of faith do this sort of thing all the time, choosing to interpret apparently random connections and unexpected occurrences as reflective of divine activity behind the scenes. Jeanne and I sometimes call synchronous events “Big Bird moments” (Big Bird is our chosen name for the Holy Spirit). These are moments when unexpectedly the divine appears to peek through, reminding us that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Yes, I am fully aware that all such occurrences can just as easily be explained or dismissed without involving what’s greater than us. But sometimes the coincidence seems so strong that it’s difficult not just to step back and say “Wow,
Big Bird’s in the house.” Such a coincidence happened over the past few days.

Everyone who pays attention to the news at all knows that during an Oval Office conversation about immigration last Thursday afternoon, the President in frustration referred to Haiti and African countries as “shithole” countries, wanting to know why we would want to have more immigrants from such places rather than seeking to attract more people from non-shithole countries like Norway. Everyone, including me, has heard and read enough outrage and analysis of his comments over the past few days—what struck me as a moment of synchronicity is when I noted later in the day what was on tap the following Sunday in the lectionary gospel reading.

In the first chapter of John, the author provides some vignettes of how Jesus attracted his first followers during the early days of his ministry. One of his new followers, Philip, immediately goes to tell his friend Nathaniel about the charismatic Jesus:

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets write, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

I was by no means the first to notice this connection; it was all over social media within hours after Trump’s vulgarities were reported. My friend Mitch, rector of the Episcopal church I attend, noted at the beginning of his Sunday homily that the three-year cycle of liturgical readings were set in place more than two decades ago, yet if one were to select the most appropriate gospel text in response to the racist, elitist, and xenophobic comments on full display this past week, this passage from John 1 would have been the one. “It’s the Holy Spirit at work,” Mitch said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

In current vernacular, Nathaniel is doubting that anything good, let alone the promised Messiah, could possibly come from a “shithole” town like Nazareth. Nazareth, in the first century, was a minuscule town of only 200 to 400 people, where people lived in small stone houses; archaeologists tell us that garbage was dumped in its alleyways. Nazareth was a nowhere town in the middle of a comparatively nowhere part of the eastern Roman empire. Nathaniel’s prejudice and preconceptions tell him that Nazareth was the lowest of the low, just as the President’s comments reveal a similar prejudice concerning countries largely populated by people with dark skin as well as with different priorities and concerns than those he shares with his base.

Bottom line, the gospel stories tell us over and over again that Jesus was born in “shithole” circumstances surrounded by animals and, once he returned with his family from Egypt where they had fled for their lives as refugees, made his home in a “shithole” town that never produced anything worthwhile. God, in other words, came from a “shithole” place. And during his time on earth, he pointedly asked us to welcome him wherever and whenever he appeared as a stranger, or as one of our “least” brothers and sisters. Just about the only thing that the God of love presented in the gospels hates is when we ignore those persons who are easily dismissed as unimportant or even dangerous with a vulgar word, phrase, or worse.

Philip’s answer to Nathaniel’s dismissive prejudice is the most effective response possible: “Come and see.” Set your preconceptions and what you think you “know” aside for a moment and just take a look at what’s actually going on. And within a handful of verses, Nathaniel is all in. Real life evidence and experience has a tendency to do just that—dissolve even our deepest prejudices with the acid of the truth. To those contemporary persons elected to fashion humane policies concerning immigration reform, it’s worth remembering that somewhere in each of our family trees is someone, usually dozens of people, who came from exactly the sort of “shithole” places that the President and Nathaniel want nothing to do with. Our collective national history and our greatest accomplishments are due in large part to the efforts of those no one else wanted. It is also worth remembering that Jesus himself was one of “the least of these” from a “shithole” town. And look how that turned out.