Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter D. Thompson, Deacon
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 18, 2015
Let us pray.
Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael’s question in the first chapter of John’s Gospel sets the stage for a great drama in which the underdog triumphs: Jesus, a humble craftsman from the middle of nowhere, a member of a people that is oppressed on the basis of religion and ethnicity, becomes one of the greatest figures of all human history and reveals himself to be the all-powerful God. It’s “blockbuster” stuff—a story that will sell well. Yet Nathanael’s question is more than a literary device; it also serves as an effective illustration of the sin of prejudice, the tendency to decide who others are and what they are capable of based on surface characteristics rather than actual knowledge of their character or abilities. Prejudice reduces complex, full human beings to qualities like skin color, location of origin and gender and makes broad, unfounded assumptions based on those qualities. And, while it may find particularly effective expression in the words of Nathanael, we know all too well that prejudice is not exclusive to first-century Galilee. It can be found almost anywhere.
The 2009 film Precious focuses on a 16-year-old black girl named Claireece Precious Jones. Growing up in Harlem in the late 80s, Precious faces her share of obstacles, from pregnancy with a second child and almost complete illiteracy to severe obesity and an eventual diagnosis of HIV. To make matters worse, those who should love and care for Precious actually cause her unimaginable hurt: her own father repeatedly rapes her, and her own mother calls her a “dummy,” telling her that nobody wants her, that nobody needs her, and that she should have been aborted. Precious’ predicament is extreme and heart-wrenching, and it understandably affects her sense of self. In a poignant scene, she examines herself in a mirror and sees in her reflection not her own body but the body of a skinny, conventionally pretty white girl. Precious’ story involves racism, sexism, poverty, and a host of other factors colluding to bring about a “perfect storm” that leads her to doubt her own worth and dignity. Yet somehow, through it all, Precious discovers her resolve and manages to see herself as “precious,” imagining a future in which she is powerful and prominent and taking steps towards that future by leaving her abusive household, learning to read and write, and achieving custody of her two children.
I suspect that few, if any, of us can completely comprehend what Precious went through, but I’m sure that many of us have felt a bit like Precious at one point or another. We have experienced what it’s like for people to take one look at us and ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We’ve felt judged or dismissed because of the color of our skin or the neighborhood we come from, because of the school we went to or the number of pounds we weigh on a scale, because of the gender with which we have identified or the person with whom we are in love. And the way others have looked at us has even caused us to doubt ourselves. Like Samuel, we have heard God call but assumed that it must be someone else, that God couldn’t possibly talk to someone as small and insignificant as us. Like Precious, we have stared into the mirror and have yearned to be someone different and better—someone more popular, more beautiful, more worthy. We have told ourselves that we are no good.
That’s why Paul’s declaration that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” is so important. Our society, fueled by the unprecedented reach of mass media, has trained us to hate our bodies and to hate ourselves. We embark on yet another diet or exercise plan in order to shed a few more pounds; we spend more money on clothing and beauty products than we would care to admit; we refrain from pursuing that job or that degree or that relationship because we assume that it won’t work out for “someone like us;” we attempt to hide who we really are and whom we love so that we might “fit in.” But Paul rebukes us for these impulses: he doesn’t tell us that our bodies will be worthy of God in the future after we have accomplished certain tasks; he says that God in the form of the Holy Spirit is present in our bodies right now. His overall approach might be too dangerously suspicious of sexuality, but his central point remains timely and clear: you are good, right now, just as you are—and you should act towards yourself as if you believed that. To remember that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit is to remember that, no matter what anyone else may say, we are holy.
But we’re not perfect. Many of us may have been Precious at one point or another, victims of horrible circumstances that obscured our innate goodness and made it difficult to love ourselves, yet if we’re honest, many of us have also been Nathanael. We, too, have asked whether anything good can come out of Nazareth: we’ve made judgments about the worth and potential of others because of how they look or where they sleep at night, because of the way they talk or the pronoun that they use to refer to themselves, because of the country from which they come or the amount of money in their bank account. We too have been skeptical of people being able to accomplish anything unless someone like them had done it before. Our own prejudices, however regrettable, are real, and they get embedded into the institutions and society of which we are a part and internalized by the people we unfairly judge.
The life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., which we celebrate this weekend, was dedicated to the eradication of prejudice and to fighting the oppression that so often sprang from it. King worked tirelessly to show that the people from Nazareth were just as good as everyone else and to ensure that they enjoyed the same privileges. King helped to end racial discrimination on the bus, at the lunch counter and in the voting booth, and extended his efforts to address economic inequality and the destruction of war. As the recent film Selma demonstrates, his projects could be quite complicated and taxing. Yet he nonetheless persistently pursued them, facing criticism, arrests, violence and even death.
King’s legacy takes on a special significance this year, following several months of particularly heightened tensions surrounding race-related issues. In Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, black men were killed by white police officers and the criminal justice system refused to punish the killers. These events and the protests that occurred in their aftermath have highlighted how racial prejudice and oppression persist in modern-day America and how they can be traced not just to isolated individuals but also to institutional structures and the society at-large. The situation is a complex one, and few people can fully understand it or know precisely what to do about it. I certainly am no authority. But I hope that you will allow me to offer merely one thought, informed by a consideration of today’s Scripture readings in light of tomorrow’s observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the events of the past year: shouldn’t we treat all bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit? Imagine how different our world could be if all of us were able to muster enough goodness within ourselves to see each person we encounter as something good—something infinitely precious.