The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me."
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip 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."
Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
Philip said to him, "Come and see."
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And 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."
- John 1:43-51, NRSV
“Somebody told a lie one day.”
These are the words that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in a bunch of his addresses in the Summer of 1967.
Someone told a lie.
“They couched it in language,” he said.
“They made everything Black ugly and evil.
Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black.
It’s always something degrading and low and sinister.
Look at the word White,
it’s always something pure, high and clean.
Well I want to get the language right tonight,” said Dr. King said to applause.
“I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out:
‘Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it.
I’m Black and I’m beautiful!”
What a thing to say when the world had been teaching
(it seemed like forever)
just the opposite:
that Black is not beautiful,
that it is, rather, something to fear,
that Black skin is something of which one ought to be ashamed.
Never the less:
“Black is beautiful!”
I am beautiful! bellowed Dr. King to a world that mostly disagreed.
To a world that told him that he should be ashamed.
I am beautiful. He continued to preach.
Black is beautiful.
Until one day some people finally started to believe it.
Black is beautiful.
Radical words in his day.
Perhaps, sadly, still radical in ours.
Nathaniel was no stranger to shame.
He belonged to the “crowds,” the class of people in the Roman empire who made up 90% of the population,
yet as a group only held 10% of the wealth.
It is the “crowds” in the bible who gather around Jesus,
the ones who come to him to get fed because they don’t have any food.
And who come to him to get healed.
Dirt poor, without steady work,
holding no value or dignity in the eyes of the world.
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Not because he believed he was any better than the Nazarenes,
but because he believed what the Romans had told him—no one from Bethsaida or Nazareth or Samaria or Capernaum could ever be expected to do anything worthwhile,
could ever be expected to do or be anything good.
That’s why they’re not the governors and the kings.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Nathanael asked this not because he believed he was any better, but because he came to believe it of himself—
he came to believe that he was just as worthless
as he believed were the Nazarenes.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
The implied answer, was “No.”
Judged, unsuccessful, poor,
Nathaniel sat beneath the fig tree.
Convinced he was anything but beautiful.
Knowing no good could ever come out of him.
Knowing, in the grand scheme of things,
that his life certainly did not matter
to much of anyone at all.
Perhaps the most controversial thing King preached in all of his years of ministry, the thing that ran beneath all of his campaigns for civil rights, for workers’ rights, for poor white people and poor people of all colors,
was this—King, flawed though he was, affirmed that the lives of Black people, the lives of poor and working class of all colors, the lives of people from “___ hole countries...”
Poor people do have dignity. Period. By virtue of having been created.
No matter what.
Black is beautiful.
Black lives do matter (despite what other folks might say). No matter how mad or uncomfortable it makes some of us to hear.
Poor people deserve every right and luxury and access to health
(and today we say healthcare)
as the rich.
What a revolutionary idea!
Not only did King believe this,
but he believed in his heart of hearts that God believed this too.
God believes that the lives of the oppressed matter.
And until society repents and reforms and behaves as if it also believes the same thing,
there’s a lot of work to be done.
And it is precisely people of faith who are called to do it.
Because people of faith, Christians particularly, should know, that it is those that God loves deeply that those in power tend to crucify.
This, after all, is what they did to God the Child whose birth we celebrated just a couple of weeks ago.
Black is beautiful. Poor people have dignity.
The lives of the oppressed matter so, so, so much—
they do to God
and they should to all of us,
especially those of us who claim to follow Christ,
whatever our color, whatever our creed.
This is the thread that ran throughout Dr. Kings sermons and teachings.
|Fig Tree [Source]|
In the first three chapters of the whole entire Bible,
just three trees are mentioned by name.
The first is the tree of life, beautiful, vibrant
flourishing at the center of all of creation.
The second is the tree of knowledge of good of evil, the place where the humans met the snake.
And the third is the fig tree,
the tree from which Adam and Eve are said to have made a covering for themselves because they felt ashamed of who they were.
The fig tree was the tree from which Adam and Eve made a covering for themselves because they felt ashamed of who they were.
When Jesus called Nathaniel from underneath that fig tree, Jesus was calling Nathaniel away from all that had been imposed on him to give him shame. To keep him down. To keep him believing he was nothing, no good, worth-less than the rest of humanity; to keep him isolated and alone.
When Jesus called Nathaniel from under that tree, Jesus was calling Nathaniel to reject the stories he had internalized and believed about himself and about the Nazarenes.
And to embrace his full potentiality as one sent by God.
A gift, God’s beloved,
[This is actually what Nathaniel means!: Given by God, God’s gift! This is the name he had been given, and the name Jesus calls him again.]
Jesus calls Nathaniel from under the tree
to live out and participate in the already here yet always still coming Reign of God.
|Call of Philip and Nathanael [Source]|
Nathaniel. Beautiful. A gift from God.
Who is Nathaniel?
Nathaniel is a migrant to the US, called racial slurs by the president, called “illegal,” by congressmen, called suspicious by virtue of his skin color by neighbors, by neighborhood watches, and by the police.
Nathaniel is the workers at 7-11’s in California and elsewhere, rounded up by I.C.E., targeted by policies meant to whiten US society by those who still hold that beauty is restricted to “whiteness” and everything else is “such a shame.”
Nathaniel is a sweat shop worker in China or Bangladesh demonized by us when we are feeling low, “You are stealing by job,” we say to him. You, paid a dollar a day, are somehow the enemy of those of us who wish to be free… (?!)
Nathaniel is those called white trash, portrayed as ignorant and drowning in drinks and drugs by hollywood and often by our politicians and professors, especially the liberal ones. Seen as a blight on our nation, rather than those, like the rest of us, who are deeply in need.
Nathaniel is the Black teen, down the street as we speak, chest pushed hard, down against the hood of a squad, working up the courage to shout back “My life matters,” when the actions of those in every direction seem to signify “It certainly does not.”
Nathaniel is each and every one of us. When we are bound by fear to hide under the cover of the fig tree, believing that those crowds are right, that we are “illegal,” that we are bad, that we do not deserve a voice, or dignity, or a job or even to eat!—that our lives certainly do not matter—because of who we are or where we are from.
Nathaniel is each and every one of us.
Under the fig tree.
And, Jesus calls.
Jesus calls us to join with Phillip and Nathaniel,
and Martha and Mary,
and Rosa Parks and Dr. King.
Jesus calls us to join our siblings in the struggle in every time and place, the cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints;
to step in line with the long march toward freedom and dignity,
knowing that when we march with the poor and the oppressed,
when we march as the poor and the oppressed,
when we march for each other when our bodies seem to not really be able to take much marching anymore,
that Jesus, God’s Love, is marching with us,
eyes on the prize,
each and every step of the way.
Jesus calls us from under our trees.
Are you listening?
May God teach us again to grow in the Spirit,
Love as Christ loves,
and to participate in God’s liberating work of Justice and Peace.