Bishop Goff's Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Bishop Susan Goff delivered the following sermon at St. Paul's, Richmond on Sunday, January 17. 

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

It was an extraordinary time of political, social and religious turmoil in the land where Jesus lived.  Faithful people looked for truth; they looked for a leader to bring them out of disruption and into God’s realm of perfect freedom. 

Philip believed that Jesus was that leader.  He said so to Nathaniel, as we heard in the Gospel reading.  “We have found him about whom Moses wrote, Jesus of Nazareth.”

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nathaniel responded. 

Anything good?  In one quip, he dismissed the town where Jesus grew up - and he dismissed Jesus himself.  Nazareth didn’t have a bad reputation in those days, so his words were probably about simple small town rivalry.  Still, Nathaniel’s first response to Jesus was to dismiss him. 

Dismissals like that abound in our current age.  Dismissive questions are hurled with animosity, anger and distrust.  Cavalier attitudes are thrown as accusations this very week. 

Can anything good come out of Washington?

Can anything good come out of Richmond?

Can anything good come out of the Democratic Party?

Or the Republican Party?

Out of Joe Biden?  Or Donald Trump?  Or Mike Pence?  Or Kamala Harris?

Can anything good come out of Black Lives Matter Protesters? 

Out of Capitol Police officers? 

Out of insurrectionists? 

Anything good at all?

Phillip’s answer to Nathaniel’s dismissive question was brilliant. He didn’t try to explain or talk Nathaniel into believing. He simply said, “Come and see.”  Come and see for yourself the way Jesus lives.  Come see how his friends engage with him.  Come and see with your own eyes, and make up your own mind.  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  Come and see.

Can anything good come out of this painful time in our history?  We say to the world, “come and see” in the way we live our lives right now as followers of Jesus.  Jesus calls us to proclaim the Gospel in our lives so that other people can come and see Jesus alive in us, imperfect as we are.  He does it in many ways, including three that I name this morning. 

First, we live the Gospel in these times by speaking the truth.  And by speaking it in love - always in love - not to tear down but to build up. 

How do we do that?  We have to stop speaking, believing or perpetuating lies that serve a personal or political agenda.  All of us, no matter where we find ourselves on the fault lines of our time - we’ve got to stop lying.

Speaking the truth also requires us to be counter-cultural.  In this postmodern age, authority is suspect. People talk about “my truth” when they what they really mean is “my opinion.” Mis-information is spread on media platforms with breakneck speed. Jesus shows us a way in this muddle.  When he lived on earth, he said, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32).

But what is truth?  After Jesus was arrested, he was brought before Pontius Pilate, the Governor of the Roman Province of Judea.  As Pilate interrogated him, Jesus said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Then Pilate asked the very question we ask - What is truth?”  (John 18:37-38). Pilate didn’t wait for a spoken response, but immediately went out and said to the crowd, “I find no case against him.”  (John 18:38). He took action, if only for a moment, for the sake of truth he fleetingly grasped. 

It is a challenge for us to discern truth.  It is not always clear. And when we do perceive it, it can be as hard for us to hold onto it as it was for Pilate.  But there are some guidelines.  If it is too comfortable, it is probably not the truth, because truth convicts us far more often than it confirms us.  Truth confronts us far more often than it consoles us.  Truth disturbs us far more often than it delights us.  Truth coverts us. It changes us.  It doesn’t let us be. 

Because of that, living the Gospel through speaking the truth calls us to a second action in this time of division.  We have to listen.  Deeply listen.  Not to the voices that affirm what we already think, but to history and science and research. We need to be curious, to keep asking questions and to listen to those who know more than we do. 

Harder still, we have to listen to those who disagree with us, and those with whom we disagree.  Especially the people we find it hardest to understand on other sides of the issues that divide us.  Every human being is beloved of God, after all.  Everyone, everyone, everyone, without exception. God said so.  We’re not always good at recognizing our common humanity in each other.  Some people seem to us like they are from a different species.  Sometimes it requires an act of pure will to look at another and say, “that person is a child of God.” 

We take part in healing the great rift in our nation by listening to others.  Really listening without judging.  We can’t argue people into reconciliation.  We can’t argue people into healing or into justice.  But we can listen ourselves and each other into those good gifts that God so desires for us.  We can listen ourselves and each other into finding our common humanity and, from that common ground, increase kindness and goodness and just plain human decency. 

To do all that, we are called to a third action.  To discern the truth, and to really listen, we’ve got to pray.  And pray again.  And pray some more.  Speaking the truth and listening deeply can change minds, but it is God who changes hearts.  So pray for a change of heart for yourself, for others, for our nation.  Be quiet for a while every day.  Make room for God to get under your skin and into your gut to do what God wants to do.  Let God still your spinning, churning, turning thoughts - and your spinning, churning, turning gut - so that God can act in you and through you.

Because prayer is not wishful thinking.  It is not an escape from the difficult circumstances of our lives.  Prayer is action, concrete action for the sake of the world.  That’s why we pray today, tomorrow and all week long in the face of threats of violence in our nation’s Capital and in state capitols.  We pray. 

Speak the truth in love, always in love.

Listen, deeply listen.

Pray always.  Pray without ceasing. 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? 

Can anything good come out of this time of painful rift in the fabric of our nation?  

Let your entire life be an answer of “Come and see,” through the power of God who loves you fiercely.