“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Or McKeesport?

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany
The Rev. Brandon Mozingo, deacon-in-charge, St. Stephen’s

Readings:

  • 1 Samuel 3:1-20
  • Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
  • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
  • John 1:43-51

If you’ve read or watched or listened to the news in the past few days, you have no doubt heard about President Trump calling El Salvador, Haiti, and the continent of Africa “dirtholes.” Well… the word wasn’t “dirtholes.” It was a different kind of “hole.” But, it’s not a word I feel comfortable saying from the pulpit. I won’t say it from the pulpit because the word is base and vulgar, and it only serves to separate and disconnect people.

But, here’s what I also won’t do from the pulpit. I won’t preach a political sermon which would also only serve to separate and disconnect this community. And I won’t preach a sermon which is little more than an attacking polemic against a single person’s actions.

The reason I brought up this event from the past week is that it is something we all commonly know about. And, more importantly, it’s something that—if we are honest—we can all relate to, because we all have, at one time or another, been dismissive of other people, said hateful things, or sought to distance ourselves from people we deemed undesirable.

Let me be clear, I am not in any way condoning such speech, nor do I wish to normalize it. Quite the contrary. It is vile and inexcusable. But, all of us have been, in our own ways and in our own time, vile and inexcusable. That is to say, we have all sinned.

So, in light of all of this, I want to talk to you today about the nature of sin, how it affects things, and what we can do about it.

We like to think of sin and righteousness in simplistic terms. If we do good things then we are rewarded. If we do bad things then we are punished. But, that’s not really the case. And it’s dangerous to think that way, because it can cause us to think that those who seem successful are righteous, and those who are struggling or suffering are sinful or bad. In reality, it is often the opposite.

Frequently, it is the people who have the sin of greed who become wealthy. Those with the sin of anger become powerful. Those with pride get lots of attention. Those who are slothful are catered to. Those who are lustful and gluttonous often lead lives of great pleasure.

Yet a child who was born into poverty, what was his sin? And a mother whose child was killed in the violence in her community, what did she do wrong? And a man who cannot find work because of the surrounding economy, how should he be blamed? Which laws, or guidelines, or rules of life did they break?

As Paul says in today’s Epistle, ‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything.

Paul writes against the concept of religion as some sort of collection of rules or laws to follow. And, by extension, sin is not the breaking of rules or laws. That would be an external thing: I commit an act, I am caught, I am punished for that act. That’s legalism, not spirituality.

Both Paul and Jesus speak against such conceptions of law and sin. Sin is not the breaking of a law. Rather, sin is defined as separation from God. And, as whatever we do to each other we do to God, sin is also separation from each other. ‘Sin’ is a state of being. ‘Sins’ are those things which bring about the state of sin.

How often in your life have you done something wrong, and because you got away with it, you felt a sense of relief and thought everything would be ok? Perhaps you kept doing that very thing for as long as you kept getting away with it. This arises from a sense of legalism. If you’re not punished, then nothing must be wrong.

So, when you do something, or even think something, that is sinful, even if you don’t get caught–especially if you don’t get caught and are forced to stop–those actions or those thoughts erode, they corrupt, they infest. And, then, they become the new normal for you.

It’s been shown that however we think, we make mental pathways that our brain uses. And just like any other path, continuing to follow along the same way becomes easier and easier. If we think or do sinful things, things which distance us from God and those around us, they become easier and easier over time, until we are so corrupted by our sin that it becomes who we are. We remake our brains until sinning is their default function.

But, we don’t just separate ourselves from God’s plan. We don’t just corrupt ourselves. Our sin corrupts everything around us. When we cause separation from those around us, by definition, we are not the only ones separated. We cause rifts in all the relationships directly around us.

Sin begets sin, and soon those rifts spread into the entire world. Therefore, even as we remake our minds in our sinfulness, we remake the world around us until, like our own minds, sinning becomes the default function. Because of the replicating nature of sin, your personal sin will cause far more suffering in others than it ever causes in you. Your sin separates people from you. It pushes them away from you, and it pushes them further away from God’s design for the world.

This interconnectedness is shown in Paul’s writing today. He writes, Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?

As we are all members of the Body of Christ, whatever sinfulness we subject ourselves to, we subject the entire Body of Christ to. Paul speaks of connecting the body with lust, but the same goes for greed, or pride, or wrath, or any other sin. If my mouth eats nothing but fatty foods, my mouth doesn’t actually suffer directly. In fact, it rather enjoys itself as it experiences all the wonderful flavors. But, the rest of my body suffers: my liver, my arteries, my heart, all my joints and muscles as they strain under the increased weight.

This is the nature of sin. It’s not about breaking some rule or about being directly punished. It’s about the damage we are doing to the entire Body of Christ.

Let’s take a moment to look at one of those countries mentioned this past week. Let us see how the sins of greed, pride, wrath, and gluttony have reshaped the Body of Christ in the world. Let’s look at Haiti.

When Spain initially colonized the area, they forced the native people to work in the mines and plantations, enslaving them in order to make Spain wealthy, while European diseases killed vast numbers of the natives. When France took over Haiti, the native population was so depleted that it could not meet the European demand for luxuries and wealth, so they brought tens of thousands of slaves there. One third of all slaves died within the first year from disease and horrible treatment. By the end of the 18th Century, there were 700,000 slaves in Haiti, all working to increase the wealth of Europe, not to mention the Europeans growing rich from the slave trade itself.

All of these slaves, of course, were taken from the Western parts of Africa, where the European colonies were devastating the indigenous people and their culture. Indeed, all of Africa, from the slave trade in the West, to the European wars and colonies carving up the North, to the trade and colonization draining the East, to the enforced oppression and suppression in the South, to the occupation, colonization, torture, mutilation, and genocide of the Central regions.

All of Africa has been ripped apart by Europe and the United States for hundreds of years, leading to the poverty, destabilization, and death we see today. But, it is we who caused this. Not the indigenous people. Our sin, not theirs. But, given our time restrictions this morning, lets focus on Haiti.

In 1825, Haiti was finally able to buy its freedom from France, but at the cost of 150 million francs. This sum was so large—and their economy and culture so destablized by Europe—that they were unable to pay this amount in full until 1947. So, for 120 years, Europe continued to drain this country, never allowing it to gain its footing. To pay back some of this money, Haiti borrowed from the United States. In 1914, the United States sent our Marines to raid and plunder the banks of Haiti, forceably seizing $500,000 (over $12 million in today’s money) from this impoverished country and giving it to the already wealthy banks in New York.

A year later, the United States invaded Haiti, and began a twenty year occupation which used violence, killing, arson, and torture to suppress the indigenous population. It is estimated that Americans killed 15,000 Haitians during this period in order to ensure that our interests were met, and we continued to grow wealthy from their labor. Though we no longer directly occupy Haiti, we have manipulated their elections and government even into this new century.

And, of course, Haiti is continually slammed by Hurricanes, killing thousands each time one hits. In 2010, an earthquake killed 300 thousand people, and caused 1.6 million to be homeless. With the recurring rationale of providing stability, the United Nations established a base there, which subsequently spilled Cholera-infected waste into the country’s river system, causing another 10,000 deaths. The United Nations has apologized, but not admited any actual fault, and therefore is not considered financially liable.

It was in response to the earthquake which killed 300,000 people that Pat Robertson, a very famous and vocal Christian leader, told the world that the Haitian people were being punished by God due to their ancestors making a pact with the Devil. This is the legalism I mentioned earlier. If you sin, you are punished. If you are suffering, you must have done something wrong.

And it is after centuries of U.S. and European systematic enslavement, oppression, killing, and gutting of Haiti that the United States president called it a “dirthole,” thinking our borders should be closed to them because of how distressed and beleagured their country is. We see the same misunderstanding of sin here. If the people are suffering, they must have done something wrong. It must be a flaw in the people. Right?

No. It is the sin of some members of the Body, doing great harm to other members of the Body, and the entire Body suffering because of it.

In all cases of sin, when we shift blame away from ourselves, when we are unwilling to admit fault, then the sin is permitted to continue spreading like a consuming fire. We have to be able to recognize the beam in our eye before we can hope to seek the mote in someone else’s. Sin becomes global and systemic, but penitence and remediation must begin within the self.

Let us turn our attention to the Gospel now, and to the very similar situation going on there.

The region known as Galilee during Jesus’ time was, more or less, the Northern Kingdom of Israel after it separated from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Bible says that this separation was due to the sin of King Solomon. Among his sins was greed, and the Northern Kingdom ultimately rebelled because of the high taxation which drained the North in order to make the South rich. Pride and wrath caused the South to continually war against the North in an attempt to once more control it. But these wars were nothing compared to the utter destruction it experienced as the greed and pride of the great empires of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and Rome continually brought warfare and poverty and famine there. Over centuries it was ransacked and pillaged and burned for the greater wealth, glory, and power of other nations.

By the time Jesus grew up there, it was—some would say—a “dirthole.” It was the backwater part of a backwater part of the known world. People looked at it, and spoke of it, with derision. The people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, and the people of Rome—both of whose historical sins were responsible for its lowly state—mocked it, and considered its people worthless. Its people were known as dirty, as trash, as uneducated and uncultured, deeply flawed. I mean, of course they were! Look how poor they are! Look how much they struggle! Compare that to our wealth and prosperity! There is no reason to expect anyone good to come from there.

But, despite the widespread, systemic infestation of external and historical sin in Galilee, despite how it had been devastated and separated and disparaged and dismissed… what happened there? Who came out of there?

Nathanael asks in today’s Gospel, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Jesus answers him. “Yes” in the most profound, absolute way possible.

But how is that possible? In a so-called “dirthole” like Galilee, how could anything good come from there?

What is it about Jesus that allows this to happen?

It’s because Jesus is without sin. And when I say he is without sin, I do not mean he wasn’t affected by the sinfulness of his corrupted surroundings. He dealt with that every day, and was very much a product of it.

And I do not mean that he is sinless because he followed every law, every rule without fail. He is without sin because he is the Incarnation, he is both God and human. If sin is our separation from God, then the very essence of Jesus is the absolute absence of sin. Within him we are united with God.

This is vital, because to overcome sin within ourselves we must remove our separation from God.

Likewise, to overcome the systemic sin of the world, the sin which makes places look like dirtholes to us, the sin which makes us want to dismiss people as worthless and places as dirtholes, we must remove our separation from each other.

And it is Jesus who tells us in no uncertain terms that it is our duty to find him, to find Christ, in every single person we meet. Even the lowliest. Especially the lowliest. This is the only way we can ever stop sin.

When I say we have to find Jesus in the lowliest places, we even have to find him in ourselves. Ourselves whom we know are just eat up with sin. We are called to find Jesus within ourselves, and manifest him out into the world. We are called to be like Jesus.

And if we want to be like Jesus, we have to be prepared to say, “This is where it stops. This is where the sin stops. I will not separate myself from others. I will not blame them for their suffering. I will not consider myself better than them. I will not make the excuse that I did not cause the problem. I will not be lulled into complacency because I cannot solve all the problems by myself. I will not add to the sin by keeping myself separate or silent.

Now, no one in this room will ever obtain the affluence or the influence of Pat Robertson. None of us will ever be the President of the United States. None of us will ever have the power of the Emperor of Rome or Assyria, or the King of Jerusalem.

But, there are plenty of people who call McKeesport a “dirthole.” There are plenty of people who believe that nothing good can come out of McKeesport. But, when we encounter people here, when we are approached by the lowliest people—our fellow members of the Body—we better be ready to receive them, to see Christ in them. And in our personal lives, that family member you struggle with, that spouse you argue with, that coworker you cannot stand, that person you gossip about… Those relationships have become your own personal Galilee. You cannot imagine anything good come from them. You assume the worst. But, that is when you absolutely must find Jesus in them. You must find a way to connect.

That is the only way we heal our relationships, it is the only way we heal ourselves, the only way to heal our community, it is the only way we heal the Body of Christ.