In her sermon last Sunday, Mother Becca reminded us that through baptism, all of us are made beloved children of God. In our very best moments, we are beloved children of God. In our mundane, daily routines, we are beloved children of God. In our very worst moments, we are still beloved children of God. That can be hard to remember when we are experiencing shame, guilt, and regret. It can be hard to look in the mirror and say, “I am a beloved child of God.” No matter how we might feel about ourselves, the truth remains, through our baptism in Christ, our worst moments are washed clean, our quotidian lives are made holy, and our greatest achievements bring honor and glory to God.
As hard as it might be at times to see ourselves as beloved children, often, it is even more challenging to look at our neighbors and say the same thing. It is so much easier to define the other by their worst behavior, or what we perceive to be their worst qualities, and then to label and dismiss them, as if any of us is as bad as our worst moments. As I see it, the hardest challenge of our baptismal calling is to live into the Covenant we have made with God and with each other to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Relationships are hard because sin is real. Human beings are constantly finding new ways to hurt one another. Seeking Christ in our neighbor is easy when they act how we think they should and uphold the social contract, but when they fall short, as we all do, it can be pretty darn hard to love them, let alone believe that God loves them too. Still, that is the job we signed up for in our baptism. It is the choice that we are called to make, again and again, to seek the belovedness in all of God’s children.
I thought about how hard this all is on Wednesday afternoon as, like many of you, I tuned in to watch the impeachment debate in the House of Representatives. To a person, every member of the House was willing to declare that what happened at the US Capitol last Wednesday was wrong, but there did seem to be a whole bunch of Nathanael’s coming to the microphone that day. “Can anything good come out of California or New York?” “Can anything good come out of Alabama or Kentucky?” “Can anything good come from the left or from the right?” The Democrats saw their colleagues as beloved. The Republicans saw their colleagues as beloved. Few were too keen to name belovedness on the other side of aisle. Thankfully, the members of the US House of Representatives are not where we need to look for examples of Christian virtue. Our focus should instead be on the one from whom our identity as Christians is drawn.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear an early example of Jesus choosing love over anger, fear, or hatred. John’s Gospel is by far the most cosmic. Jesus, while a living breathing human being in John’s Gospel, is often in tune with what is happening in places he can’t see. He knows the hearts of those around him. He performs great signs and miracles. And in today’s lesson, it seems he can see through time and space. After being invited to follow Jesus, Philip immediately ran away to find his friend, Nathanael. I see a lot of myself in Nathanael. He was a natural skeptic and a bit sarcastic. I like that about him, but I’m also keenly aware that not every responds positivity to sarcastic skepticism.
Anyway, a breathless Philip, red in the face from running and excited at the news he had to share, found Nathanael under a fig tree, and exclaimed “We have found him! The one about whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote! It’s Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth!” “Psssh!” Nathanael responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Sarcasm aside, this is something of a valid question. Philip invoked Moses and the Prophets, and any self-respecting Jew would know that the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Nazareth was a back-water village of maybe 500 people located some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, and 50 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee. Nathanael’s skepticism is understandable, even if his tone is not. Philip simply responds, “Come and see.”
As Philip and Nathanael approached Jesus, it seems as though Jesus already knew what Nathanael was thinking. Jesus knew that Nathanael was a man in whom there was no deceit. Jesus knew that his skepticism would mean he’d always say what was on his mind. Even though Jesus had good reason to doubt Nathanael’s faithfulness and to have his feeling hurt, Jesus didn’t respond with harsh words, anger, or frustration, but rather, he saw Nathanael as a beloved child of God. He invited Nathanael into a relationship, and invited him to experience the freedom that comes from God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. While I might imagine, after turning water into wine, Jesus looking at Nathanael through a wry smile and asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, the truth is that in the eyes of Jesus, Nathanael and, indeed, each of us, is a beloved child.
Discord, assumption making, and bigotry are nothing new in this world, but we all know from hard earned experience that nothing good comes hate. Nothing good comes from othering. Nothing good comes from ignoring the beam in our own eye while pointing out the speck in another. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation precisely because every person we meet is a beloved child of God. We don’t get to choose whom we love, we’re simply called to love our neighbor as ourselves. This does not mean we’re all going to sit together and sing Kumbaya. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t mean becoming a doormat, letting folks do whatever they want, or even that we have to stay in relationship with everyone. What it does mean is that we cannot assume that there is no good in one another. No one is beyond restoration. No one is outside the bounds of God’s love. When Jesus finally meets Nathanael, Jesus doesn’t assume him to be evil, but instead welcomes him into community, and to begin to work toward reconciliation. We are invited to do the same.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Bethsaida? Can anything good come out of California or New York? Can anything good come out of Alabama or Kentucky? Can anything good come from the left or from the right? It isn’t all good, none of us are, but in Christ, the answer is an emphatic YES, all are beloved, all are made in God’s image, and all have good within them. Amen.