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“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1: 46


      From now through Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season we will be traveling with Jesus as he begins his ministry and goes from town to town.


Choosing followers, teaching, preaching, healing, fulfilling his mission as the Messiah.  In today’s assigned scripture he picks his second two disciples: Philip and Nathanael.


      For you bible students among us this morning, yes, this is the only mention of Jesus calling a man named Nathanael to be a disciple in all of the four gospels.  However, Bartholomew which is a last name and is mentioned elsewhere as a disciple may actually be the last name of Nathanael which is a first name. Most likely they are one and the same person.


            As I read and reread today’s text in preparation for this morning what caught my attention is a response that Nathanael makes to his friend Philip who has just shared about finding the Messiah, the man from Nazareth.  It is not the kind of response we expect to hear from one of the soon to be chosen. One of the Twelve Disciples.  Philip is really excited: We’ve found him! We’ve found him!  Moses wrote about him, the prophets foretold his coming, it is Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth!!


            The reader is expecting to hear Nathanael respond with: Wow! Great! This is fantastic!  Can I meet him too!  But instead, “Mr. Resting My Tush” under the shady fig tree responds:  Nazareth!  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?!?   


      Woah! Wait a minute!  Nathanael has just made a shocking assumption! What does assumption have to do with the story of Jesus in Galilee at the beginning of his ministry choosing his disciples? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?


     Let’s take some time today and think about assumptions, our lives and our faith. First off, how do we define assumption?  I asked a couple of people this week that question and they replied to make an assumption means that you make a decision without all the facts, all the data you need to make a truly informed opinion or belief. An assumption is a sort of incomplete understanding or lack thereof of something or someone.


      Has anyone ever made an assumption about you?  I’m reminded of a story about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He and his friends were using an elevator in the fancy hotel where they were staying. When the doors opened, a white woman stepped in, glanced at Dr. King and ordered “Eighth Floor.” His friends said he just stepped up, pressed the correct button and smiled. Little did the woman know the man she thought was the elevator operator had just delivered an address to 250,000 supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.


     There is a lot of racism in assumption. We assume that a person of color should not be birdwatching in the park.  We assume a person of color stole our iphone.  We assume that a person of color may be a poor credit risk.  We assume a person of color is exactly like the one person of color who insulted our grandmother seventy years ago. The thing about assumptions is they are not based on facts or are based on a very incomplete set of facts or may even be based on erroneous “facts.”


            When I served as one of the associate pastors at the Haddonfield United Methodist Church at staff meetings we would discuss the current pastoral needs of our very large congregation and our retired minister who did visitation would brief us on the homebound.  There was one older woman who lived alone in town, she was a widow and didn’t really have any family to step up and help care for her.  When we drove by we could see that her house was becoming neglected. Paint peeling, yard overgrown.  This older minister, one Rev. Champ Goldy, shared that he had started to mow her lawn every other week because it was apparent to him that she didn’t even have enough to pay a neighborhood kid to take care of it. To help her out he kindly became her lawn boy.


      Less than a year later the woman died. In her will she bequeathed her entire estate to the church. Let me tell you that the Haddonfield Church has many very, very wealthy members, but her bequest in the millions was the largest the church had ever received. Who would have thought?  At the Council Meeting where the good news was read to us, someone made a motion: Let’s pay Rev. Goldy five dollars for each time he mowed her lawn. We all had a good laugh together. Assumptions. We assumed she didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Our assumption was oh so wrong.


      Sometimes assumptions affect us personally. As a woman pastor, congregations used to assume we were all alike.  When I was appointed to Manahawkin, one couple left before I even arrived because “We’ve already had a woman minister.” They made a decision based on incomplete evidence and research and getting to meet their new pastor.


     Assumptions have played a tremendous role in our country this week. Statements made that have little or erroneous or no facts to back them up have fueled a furor. False beliefs, false statements, and false behavior culminated in an atrocious attack on our lawmakers and the capital building itself. Assumptions like we have to be divided. Assumptions like there is no middle, healing ground. Assumptions like violence is the only way to make a point. Assumptions like our voting process was flawed.  Assumptions like our political parties can’t serve all American peoples with decency, respect and integrity.


            Nazareth!  Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Jesus, the Messiah, the one Moses and the prophets foretold, Jesus Son of Joseph from Nazareth, came to us to get rid of assumptions and replace them with truth. He said you will know this truth and it will set you free.  Assumptions chain us to stuff that is wrong. Stereotypes, racism, sexism, misogyny, agism, so on and so forth.


            Jesus came so that we might rise above assumptions and instead replace division and hatred with reconciliation and justice for all.  In our church membership vows, every one of us has vowed to “fight evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”  And that “we will accept the freedom and power God gives us” to do just that!


            This morning’s gospel lesson does not end with Nathanael’s assumption. He meets Christ and learns that Christ knows him well, has seen into his heart while he was resting under a fig tree.  You know, Jesus saw everything, the good, the bad and the ugly, but still choose Nathanael because he also saw what he could become, his potential to learn more, find out the facts, be on God’s side.


            I believe that is exactly what Jesus does with us. We are Christians because he has called us. We are to set aside our assumptions that turn us away from the paths of righteousness. And we are to live our daily lives seeking the facts and the truth and not making assumptions. I’m glad that gospel writer John did not neglect to include Nathanael’s outburst. It’s a good lesson for each of us to learn.  Let us pray.


Gracious God, Look into our hearts and see our potential and promise to continue to become more like You! Inspire us and free us from the prison of assumptions that cripple our faith and engender misunderstanding and hatred.  Amen.


“And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:18


       Every so often if you are a pastor, a person whose responsibility involves preaching a sermon every week, you find yourself one Sunday, every so often, in a dilemma. You have studied the assigned scripture for the day. You’ve picked the hymns and the special music, you’ve assigned a reader, you’ve given the info to the person doing the children’s message, you’ve sent power point slides and music links to the zoom servant, you’ve spoken with the musician, you’ve had the administrative assistant mail out the zoom link.  You have done all the preparatory things except for—deciding what am I going to preach on this morning.


       Some texts are so easy to preach on, some instantly cry out how they are to be handled, sometimes sermon themes change in response to current events, many scriptures remarkably apply themselves to some issue in the local church, and then… there are those very rare times when it feels like nothing is coming.


I’ve done a lot of preparation this week. I really have. Reading the scripture many times over the past couple of weeks, checking out the commentaries I have in my  kindle library and online, even looking at a couple of sermons online to see if I can get inspired.  I’ve even had a couple of false starts writing today’s sermon with no luck.


       Lest you are thinking oh boy, no sermon today, I will disappoint you! Because, upon additional thinking about this most familiar scripture. So familiar, we sang about it in Sunday school—remember? “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men.  I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.” I realized that perhaps what I am experiencing this week in meeting Jesus in this scripture is just what James and John were experiencing too! They might not have been ready but were willing to try.


       They received a call-cold!  Nothing could have prepared them for how their lives were going to be impacted early that morning on the shores of Galilee. No prepping, no getting their affairs in order, no consulting with others about this opportunity. When Jesus called them to “follow me,” “… immediately they left their nets and followed him.” [v. 18] So the clue may be that there is something about responding to God’s call on our lives that has more to do with God than with us.


            For many years I have served on the conference Board of Ordained Ministry and for four of those years as the chair of the board. And, through all those years one of the things we asked every person coming before us was “Tell us about your call to ministry.”  I think now how odd the answers would have been coming from James and John.  Who might have said something like: “I was working on my dad’s fishing boat on the shore when a man walked by and invited me to join him.  ‘OK’, I said, dropped what I was doing, said goodbye, and never looked back.”


        Actually, when I come to think about it, there were quite a few call stories like this where in the midst of someone’s daily life, they heard God calling them.


            I’ve always loved reading about the life of the great Albert Schweitzer who passed away in 1965. Theologian, organist, physician, missionary, Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He founded a hospital in French Equatorial Africa in 1913 for people who had no access at all to health care. When I was in grade school we got The Weekly Reader in our classroom.  Every  week a fresh edition of this children’s newspaper with news from around the world and our nation would be placed on our desks.  I looked forward to it just like I look forward to reading my online paper now every day!


        One week Dr. Albert Schweitzer was featured on the front page. A story about how he brought healing and comfort to so very many destitute men, women and children at his rural hospital. How people all over the globe sent bandages and medicines to be distributed there.  How he himself, a concert organist and scholar, gave up a prestigious career to go and live for the rest of his life among the sick and poor in Africa.

        When I read this story, even as a child, I was deeply moved by the story of this man and how it was that he devoted himself to others.  Children, you know, are still vulnerable to stuff that we adults no longer allow to influence us. I was inspired by that article. So that night at home I wrote a letter to Dr. Schweitzer, I mentioned reading about him, and I said if there is anything I can do to help, if you want me to come right now and help, I am ready.  Needless to say, I did not mention this letter to my parents.


            There were a couple of difficulties in getting it Dr. Schweiter. First, I had no address. So, I put his name on an envelope and wrote underneath the name of his hospital and the word “Africa.” OK, that would have to do. The second difficulty was getting postage for this overseas letter. I went into our post office and asked the postmistress Mrs. Althouse  “How much is a stamp?” as I slid the envelope through the window toward her.  She raised her eyebrows.  Did a little looking around her desk, and then told me an amount. And off the letter went. To be continued.


      Since becoming an adult, I have treasured one of Dr. Schweitzer’s quotations.  In fact, I used to carry it tucked in my bible and now I carry it with me in my Daytimer always and refer to it often. It refers to our morning’s scripture as well, Dr. Schweitzer wrote:  “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not.  He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time.”


       Christ still calls every one of us right where he finds us. While we are teaching a class, feeding a baby, studying for an exam, playing the piano, working at an office, relaxing with a book, receiving a vaccination, or what have you. He comes to us, exactly as he came to James and John and the others. He calls you and me.


He sets before us the things we must take up in our hands and lives and the things we must lay down…like the fishermen’s “nets,” the things that are occupying our time and thoughts.


            Every one of us has been called by Christ. When we choose to follow him, to live a life of faith, we begin to see, sometimes suddenly, but more often than not revealed over time, “the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time.” What are the tasks you’ve been called to fulfill?  Think for a moment. What is God asking you to do for the kingdom’s sake in this time and in this place? 


            This corona virus pandemic has become a lakeshore of new possibilities as Christ calls us to address these new challenges and all the ones to come as we reenter our churches and also continue our digital presence. What will the church’s future be like?  What tasks will we engage in for our Lord Jesus Christ?  There is so much up in the air that we have no definite answers for except… there is no going back!  And just like the fishermen James and John on the shores of Galilee, we will feel God’s Spirit within prompting us to say “Yes, Lord, I will follow.”  We won’t always know what’s ahead with God’s plan, but we step out in faith.  Trusting that God’s love and grace is sufficient for each day’s tasks.


       Oh yes, I promised you the rest of my letter to Dr. Schweitzer story, months went by with no reply to my letter.  In fact I had forgotten about it when one day as I was removing the mail from our box at the post office, I saw a strange looking envelope and stamp. Suddenly I realized it was from Africa.  I stood on the grass outside the post office, opened the envelope and read the note within.  I have never forgotten the good doctor’s words to me: “You have touched my heart.”


      Jesus calls us just as we are…young and not so young, able and other abled, wealthy and poor, good looking and not so much,  college educated and street smart.  “Come, he says, Just how you are! Together we will change the world.”


Let us pray:

Gracious God, Help us to not be afraid to answer your call, to follow you even if we don’t know the destination yet, even if we are not ready! Thank you for taking us just as we are and promising to perfect us in your love.  Amen

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