An Equal Playing Field
John 1: 43-51
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew andPeter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
43 Al día siguiente, Jesús decidió salir hacia Galilea. Se encontró con Felipe, y lo llamó:—Sígueme.44 Felipe era del pueblo de Betsaida, lo mismo que Andrés y Pedro. 45 Felipe buscó a Natanael y le dijo:—Hemos encontrado a Jesús de Nazaret, el hijo de José, aquel de quien escribió Moisés en la ley, y de quien escribieron los profetas.46 —¡De Nazaret! —replicó Natanael—. ¿Acaso de allí puede salir algo bueno?—Ven a ver —le contestó Felipe.47 Cuando Jesús vio que Natanael se le acercaba, comentó:—Aquí tienen a un verdadero israelita, en quien no hay falsedad.48 —¿De dónde me conoces? —le preguntó Natanael.—Antes de que Felipe te llamara, cuando aún estabas bajo la higuera, ya te había visto.49 — Rabí, ¡tú eres el Hijo de Dios! ¡Tú eres el Rey de Israel! —declaró Natanael.50 — ¿Lo crees porque te dije que te vi cuando estabas debajo de la higuera? ¡Vas a ver aun cosas más grandes que éstas! Y añadió:51 —Ciertamente les aseguro que ustedes verán abrirse el cielo, y a los ángeles de Dios subir y bajar sobre el Hijo del hombre.
An Equal Playing Field
Let us pray: God of wisdom and love, make us aware of our assumptions about truth and love and give us the courage to suspend them. We trust that your wisdom is greater than we can imagine, and your love more profound than we can perceive. May your Word and Spirit, help us engage truth more deeply and to love more freely. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today’s sermon follows that trajectory of many. It starts with a problem in need of resolution—we’ll call it the bad news. But like many of the multitudes of sermons preached, the tone will shift in the direction of resolution—we’ll call that the good news. I have always been a bad news first guy, so let’s begin with that. The world that we live in, never provides an equal playing field: not in relationships, not in employment, not in opportunity of any sort—and not even in athletic competitions—by now the conversation about an equal playing field leading to the upcoming Super Bowl has left us, well, deflated. Now there are a several ways to handle the myth of an equal playing field—but it depends upon how the myth affects you. If you are blessed to be on the privileged end of inequality, the most common response is to take advantage of advantages and say nothing. The alternative of course is to say or do something. And if you find yourself on the short end of the stick when it comes to the “equal playing field,” one can acquiesce, or we can say or do something about our stead. In the following true account, the narrator is clearly privileged compared to the others you will hear about, and it leaves him uncomfortable.
“It was several weeks after 9-11 when I drove to United Community Bank. Before entering in bank parking lot I noticed that I was almost out of gas. I made a fast left and drove into a convenience store which sold gas.
I got out of my truck and began filling my tank. When full, I replaced the gas cap and walked into the store to pay what I owed. As I walked in the door I saw a young Arabic teenager staring at me with a look of fear on his face that even upset me.
"Is everything all right?" I asked him.
"Everything is fine, sir."
I walked to the counter, pulled out my wallet and paid for the gas. No one said a word. I heard something behind me and turned around. Standing in the back doorway was another Arabic man about fifty years of age. He had the same look of fear on his face.
"Is he with you?" I asked the young man, pointing toward the older gentleman.
"Yes, sir. He is my father," he replied.
"Are you sure everything is all right?" I asked him again. The boy hesitated and replied:
"Not good here since the 9-11. No business at all. No one likes us anymore."
He pointed toward a large glass window which was broken and had been taped with duct tape. I watched as he reached under the counter and held up a large, red brick which he told me had been used to break the window.
Over the next few weeks I drove the few extra miles to purchase my gas at their store, as well as bread and milk. Each time I came I noticed there was less and less food items on the shelves.
"What is going on here?" I asked the father one day.
"No good business. No one will sell us product."
"Are you telling me the vendors will not sell you food?"
"No more gas for us after today the gas company say," replied the young boy.
I don't know what came over me at that moment, but I was so embarrassed.
It was the first time in my life that felt ashamed of [where I was from]. "Where are you from?"
"I was born here. I am an American," said the young boy, as he came from behind the counter, took me by the arm and led me over to several papers taped to the wall. I looked as he pointed at a birth certificate and a hand written sign that read:
"We are Americans and we love America. This is our home."
Without saying a word, I walked over to the large broken window and place both my hands on the glass. I stood there looking out at the [place] I had always know as a kind, honest, friendly, caring and forgiving... Almost in tears and too embarrassed to turn around, I said,
"I'm so sorry and I apologize."
I walked out of the store and returned to my home... Several days later when I drove to the bank, I looked at the Amoco Station as I drove out of the bank parking lot. There was a "CLOSED" sign taped to the large broken window. These two [folks] were even courteous enough to tell their customers that they were now "CLOSED," even though they had been run out of town, (From The Life and Times of Roger Dean Kiser)
We are blessed that most if not all of us here will not experience the unequal playing field to that degree in the future. Though I have heard from some present in this sanctuary describe scenarios in years past n which they were squarely on the disadvantaged end of the playing field and how others took advantage.
Philip, felt so blessed by Jesus that he could not keep the good news to himself. He was bursting at the seams. Jesus’ good news spreads much like the light we pass on Christmas Eve—one person to the next. So Philip finds his friend Nathanael—and he relays his joy that he had encountered the long-awaited Messiah and that God’s Chosen One is Jesus from Nazareth. And then it happens. The synapses fire fast in Nathanael’s brain responds perhaps with the same speed as a google search. In that brief time his mind reacts as human minds tend to. He judges. He assumes. He presumes. And he replies with the question that embodies the question we ask anytime we judge another for anything at any time: Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Nazareth, the town of Jesus’ youth. So maybe it did not have the most astonishing reputation. It was tiny. 900 x 200 meters totaling less than 60 acres. Probably did not have a population more than 480 during Jesus’ time. In the words of one commentator, “Nazareth was a quite undistinguished place. Nathanael himself came from Cana, another Galilean town, and in country places, jealousies between town and town, and rivalry between village and village is notorious. Nathanael’s reaction is to declare that Nazareth was not the kind of place that anything good was likely to come out of,” (Pg. 92).
That is the bad news. People in the world, even Jesus, are so often are treated and judged by inherited social characteristics: race, ethnicity, nationality, associations, family background, place of origin, and the list goes on. But when it comes to our faith in Jesus Christ, there is good news. When we take seriously this issue, when we acknowledge it, when we ask the questions that New York Times best-selling author Wallis poses in his book The Uncommon Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided. In it he queries, “How do we care for one another, and not just for ourselves, our tribe, our party, or those in our little bubble? How do we work together, even with people we don’t agree with? How do we treat others, especially the poorest and most vulnerable,” (xii)? And especially, I would add, those who come disadvantaged to the playing field?
Last week we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. King. It may be difficult to come up with another American who spoke out, with rhetorical brilliance I might add, calling attention to glaring discrepancies in the uneven playing field. He took assumed a highly active role in seeking equalization to the playing field. He marched, wrote, met with dignitaries, preached and spoke. And at the heart of his actions and words? Scripture. He relied on, was strengthened by, and shared the Good news of the gospel and the good news of today’s sermon. In God’s kingdom, the playing field is equal. Everyone has differences and God’s creation is gloriously diverse, but in terms of inherent value, everyone is the same.
In his speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered the night before he was assassinated, King referred to the fundamental text of the New Testament that Jesus commands his followers to make the most important. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Your neighbor gets the same quantity of love as you do yourself. You will recall in Luke that Jesus tells this to a lawyer who wants to know what is most important to be a follower of Jesus. Then Jesus gives the consummate example of what it means to love his neighbor with the account of the Good Samaritan.
King preached, “I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding and meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing...That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as ‘Bloody pass.’” You will recall that before the Samaritan stops and helps the man, a priest and Levite passed him by. King preaches, “And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop and help this man, what will happen to me? But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Queridos hermanos y hermanas, on God’s green earth, the field will never be completely equal. However, in God’s kingdom, it already is. We have been tasked with the role of doing our part to establish God’s kingdom by leveling the play8ing field a bit. The dirt we use to level the field is love--“agape,” love that is concerned with the well-being of others as it is with the self. And how will that call manifest itself in our lives when we are seeking faithfully to live it? In our families, in or actions, in the communities we worship and live in, in the way we approach our work, in our values and ideals, in how we face the ethos of our workplaces, in our sense of justice, in our politics, and in our sacrifice.
If we are a Christmas Eve candle and God has lit a fire in us, we can pass it on. God’s light is not bound by place. Remember, Jesus’ light and fires was ignited and stoked in that back-woods town of Nazareth where nothing good happens. As we live out love that is not subject to human boundaries, we point to God’s goodness. When Nathanael met Jesus, his doubts left him. When Philip heard the Nazareth question, he did not argue, he just said, “Come and See!” That is our call, to say “come and see,” mainly with our actions and sometimes with words. We are simply workers committed to building up the Beloved Community, not simply within these walls, but anywhere and everywhere. A more equal playing field results when those playing put others above self. It is not easy, I struggle, we all struggle. But it’s our call.
I close with words from Wallis’ book: “Our effectiveness in contributing to the common good will be judged not by who has the superior understanding of doctrine or the most religious adherents but by who has an authentic life, who is meeting the needs of others, who shows what neighbor-love means, who leads by example and not by dominance, who has prophetic independence from the money and power of partisan agendas, and who retains the moral authority and capacity to hold society accountable to the ethic of the common good,” (Pg. 19).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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You will find sermons preached by Rev. Robert Woodruff and guests preachers.