Our mission: To understand and live out Jesus' vision for a just and loving world.
SYNAGOGUE

January 17, 2021 Worship Service

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” ~Isaac Asimov

PRELUDE I Wonder As I Wander
arr. by Mark Hayes
©1991 GlorySound

GREETING:     Rev. Penny Phillips

Welcome, and thank you for joining us for this on-line worship service on this week. Your presence is a blessing to us, and we are grateful have you as a part of this morning’s community.

Here at the First Congregational Church of San Jose, and with our partners from the United Disciples Fellowship, we try and put into practice the guiding principles and values of a Progressive Christian community and that includes being a fully Open and Affirming community of faith. We believe that everyone is a beloved child of God. So, whoever you are, wherever you are, may this service come as a gift to you as we light our worship candle.

(LIGHT A CANDLE)

Wherever we are this morning, let us now light our own candle as a symbol of the presence of God’s sacred light. Let the light wash over us…and fill our hearts.

And now, let us begin our worship as we tune our ears to hear these ancient words from the psalmist…

PSALM: Psalm 139 Liz Carey

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

PRAYER

Creating Spirit of all life, we breathe in the life-giving air of your very presence with us. It animates us to the very depths of our being; and as we celebrate this renewing power, we give thanks for the miracles of grace that enable us to be connected here in praise of your Love. Great Creator, still creating, through your grace and mercy, you continue

to create and shape us into your likeness; because as we have become fully aware that we cannot give shape to creation itself. Forgive us for our hubris in trying to do that, and help us to accept the rich blessedness of becoming more like you!

HYMN #332  Live Into Hope
Text © 1980 Jane Parker Huber

INTRO

Nearly 20 years ago now, I had a very interesting chance to spend a few weeks in Israel as part of an organized clergy expedition. A seminary had arranged a grant to take a busload of us over to the Holy Land in an effort to see what difference it might make to our sense of faith if we actually walked on Holy ground and saw biblical things firsthand. I think I it might have been only the second time in my entire life when I was invited to do something to increase the diversity of a group. In this particular case the busload of Presbyterians took one Baptist and one United Church of Christ pastor with them for reasons best known to themselves, but I’m grateful to have been included.

I won’t digress much further, but I did want to remark that on this trip we wound up going to Nazareth. Modern Nazareth is still a small town, very rustic in atmosphere as I recall, and chock-a-block full of Christian churches built over the remains of every archeologically imaginative site they could find. Joseph’s carpentry shop, the very spot where the Annunciation took place, probably Jesus’ daycare center and the family’s favorite restaurant as well. It’s the nature of the beast in a religious tourist economy and it is often nearly impossible to sort out fact from fiction.

For instance, a group of us were, at one point, standing around in the town square, the market, the suk as it is called, when we were approached by a man who wondered if we would like to see something truly special, the synagogue most likely to have been the one in which Jesus taught. “Sure,” we said, “why not? Sounds like fun.” Off we went, winding our way through narrow streets in ancient neighborhoods. Just when we were beginning to consider the idea that this might not have been the smartest idea, following this stranger off into the Nazareth back streets, we arrived at a very unassuming doorway in a very unassuming wall and ducked inside. We found ourselves in what appeared to be the courtyard of an elementary school. Young children in school uniforms were scattered all over the place playing in small groups (we had obviously showed up during recess) and our guide had a quiet conversation with a couple of the adults who were watching over the kids. The kids all stopped doing whatever they had been doing and simply stared at us. I realized that this might actually have been a place off the usual tourist route, since everyone seemed so stunned and curious at our appearance. We were invited to venture across the courtyard and through another small door in another stone wall, down a few steps, and into what was obviously and authentically a very, very, old synagogue. It was a small stone space with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a broad stone platform at the front. It looked ancient, it felt ancient, it was not overrun with tourists, or tourist paraphernalia, and for the first time on the trip I felt as though I might actually have been standing in a place where Jesus could have been.

Part of me knows full well that it is highly unlikely that this synagogue was there at the beginning of the first century. But still, whenever I think about Nazareth it is the only detailed image I have in my mind’s eye.

Our scripture reading from John this morning asks a very narrow-minded question about the nature and importance of Nazareth and we will reflect on this question after we hear the exchange from the John chapter one, read to us by Rev. Penny Phillips…

SCRIPTURE: John 1:43-51               Rev. Penny Phillips

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.”

SERMON

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks. And that is a great question. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

There has been a long-running debate in Christian circles about whether Nazareth even really existed at the beginning of the first century, and for a significant number of people the idea that Nazareth wasn’t there also means that Jesus wasn’t real either. For a long time there wasn’t much in the way of archeological evidence to support the idea of a Nazareth community, so I can see why people thought of it as fictional. Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, or by Josephus, or in the Talmud.

But discoveries made during the late 20th century, of everything from pottery shards to coins to tools to the ruins of dwellings, many from even before the first century, suggest that there was indeed a community in Nazareth during Jesus lifetime. It was incontestably there. It also didn’t amount to much overall.

It was a small, unwalled town in southern Galilee situated in the hills about four miles southeast of Sepphoris, Herod Antipas’ early capital. Nazareth’s archaeological record indicates that it was an agricultural village as well as a quarry, that the inhabitants exploited the soft limestone in the area to build basements, cisterns, grain storage facilities, and olive and wine presses, and such. Nazareth had no palaces, bathhouses, or paved streets, indicating that the people lived in humble circumstances. It was a village that might have held around 50 people in around four extended family groups by the time Jesus came along. It was clearly not a place of any great significance.

So, when Nathaniel scoffs at Phillip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he might very well be demonstrating a deep and unacknowledged prejudice against the folk who hover at the margins of his experience. The folks he has stereotyped as being of no consequence. Nathaniel has made certain assumptions about the kind of people he imagines might come out of Nazareth and those assumptions lead him to summarily dismiss their value.

It’s a good thing we never do that anymore, isn’t it?

Now, it’s interesting that Nathanael doesn’t doubt that God will fulfill the promises in the Hebrew Bible. He isn’t surprised by the idea that Philip could have found the one about “whom Moses in the law and the prophets spoke.” His shock and disbelief are that this could come out of Nazareth. Nathanael has as much faith as the next guy, but Nazareth? No way. Not there. Not from a Podunk town like Nazareth. Those people will never amount to anything.

In part, we all make assumptions about people and situations because what else are we going to do? We cannot get to know every person we meet. We cannot find the deep meaning behind every situation we will encounter. More often than not we rely almost exclusively on the few things we think we know and the even fewer things that we actually know, to make extended judgements about other people and places. It’s one of the real shocks and benefits to travel. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll find that the world is a very different place than you imagined. But somehow even that kind of experience never stops us from putting people in convenient categories and making generally unhelpful assumptions about them. We wind up thinking we can know how someone else feels or thinks or reacts or behaves based on those assumptions and those assumptions, as we have seen so recently, can not only be easily exploited but can lead us to madness.

The assumptions we make too often destroy relationships, love, and our common life as well. We think we know more than really do. But assumptions always act as limitations. They always narrow our vision. They close off possibilities for recognizing change and growth, or set the bar unattainably high. If I assume you are a terrible person, I may never notice or trust you when you have changed the course of your life. Our assumptions simply deny the possibility of reconciliation, healing, and new life.

We all have our Nathaniel moments, and most of the time we believe we are thinking rationally about other people, particular circumstances, or even pieces of our lives. Mostly, though, our assumptions are about us; they are projections of us. Our fears, our prejudices, our guilt, our losses, our wounds. We take our own past experiences, real or imagined, and project them onto another person or situation. Our assumptions protect us. If we operate from our assumptions, then we do not have to risk a deeper knowing and being known. And often, we are really looking at reflections of ourselves, of parts of our lives; at some secret we have carried for years, at the illness we have to face each day, or the addiction we cannot face at all, at the hurts we have caused other, the loneliness and lostness, the grief, the disappointment, the pain – and we push them, or the blame for them, on others – even nameless, faceless others.

At the most fundamental level the Nathaniel in us is about our understanding of God. We find it so hard to believe that God could be present, active, or revealed in the people or situations we have judged unworthy. It’s so hard to see life in the midst of death, hope in places of despair, and the good and beautiful in what looks like the bad and ugly. It’s just easier to assume.

It seems so un-Godlike to show up in Nazareth, in an insignificant or problematic place or person, let alone in circumstances of which we don’t approve. After all, the person or place of God’s coming has to be deserving, special, acceptable, holy, better behaved, likable, or more politically aligned with what we think is right. The Nathanael in us has a particular set of conditions or prerequisites that must be met before God will appear and act. That says more about us than it does about God. For us, as for Nathaniel, Nazareth is a blind spot. For God, however, Nazareth is the place of self-revelation.

It’s not to say there isn’t work to be done, that there aren’t consequences that need to unfold or realities that need to be acknowledged, but an enormous part of the responsibility for the terrible things that happen in our lives and in our communities falls on the shoulders of the assumptions that we have made about other people. How many Nazareth’s have we ignored or written off? How many people have we dismissed or overlooked? Can we even imagine that God might be revealed there?

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks. And God’s eternal and life-changing answer is, “Yes, of course. Come and see.”

PRAYER MUSIC: Adoration
by Florence B. Price
©1951 The Lorenz Corporation
© 2009 by GIA Publications, Inc.

PRAYER
Let us gather our hearts in prayers to God,

Patient and Wise God, you have called us together to be your church. To serve your love in this world by being fully present and compassionate with others. We rejoice in the many ways we are able to be of help. We offer our prayers for each other, for those near and dear to us, for the situations of difficulty and strife in community and world. You hear our voices cry out and with your eternal compassion you respond in loving care to each of us.

But we fear far too often the unknown tasks that lie ahead of us. The impossible admissions of cultural blindness, anger, gullibility, judgmental pronouncements about others. The hard job of renewal, reconciliation, and forgiveness. We always want to be assured of the happy outcome of any efforts we might make. So it’s just easier to make assumptions about others. Help us to trust your guidance and presence, gracious God.

In taking our prayers to your heart, compassionate One, you help lift the burdens of our worried spirits. So we ask that you also hear our prayers today in behalf of those about whom we are concerned.

Here at home for those we know and love who are suffering with illness, injury, addiction, loss, or any of the fearsome challenges with which your people are faced. Bring blessing. Bring healing. Bring patience. Bring hope.

And for our historically optimistic nation, now going through such a terribly painful moment, such a contraction of our trust in you and in each other, such a moment of suspicion, projection, weakness and graceless, violent, anger. Restore us gracious One. Open our hearts to one another. Help judgement to flow from compassion and the right consequences to be meted out in Love, accepted with maturity and honest self-reflection. Help us to transform the present moment into an occasion for rebuilding the world around us in ways that uplift lives and bolster communities.

Spirit of Jesus, Light of the World, hear our prayers, and make us reflections of your Light, that the places of darkness in our world would be pierced by your Light, and that all communities might be drawn to you and be overwhelmed with joy. Put us ever on a pathway of your great peace. Amen.

BENEDICTION
This week’s question is, of course, about your Nazareths. What or who are they? Where have your assumptions misled you?
And now, go into the world, listening for God’s call in your lives.
Go into the world, ready to set aside your assumptions and follow the path of Jesus where it leads.
Go into the world, filled instead with the power of God’s enlightening love. Amen.

POSTLUDE: I Have Decided to Follow Jesus
Mark Hayes & Douglas Wagner, arr.
©2015 Lorenz Publishing Co

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