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‘Can anything good…?’

Here’s the sermon presented today by Rev Sandy Boyce as a guest preacher leading worship at the German Lutheran Trinity Church, the newest member of the Victorian Council of Churches. It uses the text in the EKD lectionary for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost.

Reading: John 1:35-51

God – Father, Son and Spirit, 
empower us to live in light of the gospel,
declaring its truth with our words,
and embodying this truth through our actions.
Give us love for you and love for one another. Amen.

While researching my family history, I recently discovered that a relative – Emma Louisa Wallstab – was baptised in this church, on 23 November 1855, and Dora Bock and Johann Peter Wallstab were married in this church on 8 April 1856. The discovery leapt off the page, and I was delighted to find the connection. My particular family connection is through the Kau family, my maternal grandmother’s family name. She had a brother, Louis Paul Kau. He enlisted in in the First World War with the Australian army. He knew the German name Kau would potentially block him from serving in the Australian Army, so he changed his surname to his mother’s maiden name of Wright and his first name to Lewis. Sadly, he was killed in action in Gallipoli in May 1915 and his body was never recovered. 

I began researching family history after the challenge from a Tongan at a meeting in Sydney I attended many years ago. As an after lunch activity he asked people to say their parents’ names, and grandparents, and further back if they knew them. In the Pacific, the names of family members are well-known. You don’t have to have to do the research. And similarly, in Aboriginal culture, the first question to ask when meeting someone new is ‘what’s your name, and where are you from?’ Both answers will reveal a great deal about family, community, heritage and who belongs where. 

Sadly, in response to the exercise about naming family members, I knew very little beyond my parents names and a grandmother. So I embarked on a journey to find out more – people and places.  It’s been fascinating. And I’m glad to be here this morning having made connections with forebears through a baptism and a wedding in 1944.

This morning I want to explore a little about one verse in the Gospel reading. Let me read the context, and note the importance of place names. 

43 qThe next day Jesus decided rto go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now sPhilip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found tNathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom uMoses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus vof Nazarethwthe son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, x“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? 

The Jewish people expected the long awaited Messiah would come from Bethlehem, not a small town like Nazareth. Nazareth was never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. And certainly it was not a place one would expect the Messiah to come from. There had never been a prophet from the village. (And maybe that’s the point – God’s up to something in the world that’s not conditional on wealth, status, prestige…)

Nazareth was at the time a poor peasant village of several hundred people, mainly tradesmen and livestock farmers herding sheep, goats, cattle, chickens, mules, donkeys and camels. It was built on the side of a hill in a valley that opened only to the south. It wasn’t very accessible and since the town wasn’t located on a well travelled road, people didn’t go through Nazareth unless they specifically set out to go there. So stories about the people could circulate, and the stories were not complimentary. Who could know the truth when so few people outside of the village actually knew them, had friendships with them? Perhaps the general lack of knowledge about Nazareth was because it was isolated and inaccessible, and easy to ‘other’ a whole community of people. Perhaps the people had a reputation – they were after all “simple peasant people”. Perhaps the violence attempted against Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, trying to throw Jesus off a cliff, was part of the culture of Nazareth. We are left to guess the origins of the denigration of people from Nazareth. .

We know Nazareth was the home town of Mary, Jesus’ mother. (Bethlehem was the town where Joseph had family, hence why he and Mary had to travel there for the census, and subsequently the birth of Jesus). 

In time, Nazareth became closely associated with Jesus, and his followers. Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus the Nazarene. And the followers of Jesus were called Nazarenes. The apostle Paul was charged with being a member of the sect of the Nazarenes in the Book of Acts. To this day, Nasrani is used in the Quran for Christians aka those who follow Jesus of Nazareth, and St Thomas Christians, an ancient community in India are sometimes known by the name Nasrani even today. 

In the Gospel account today, Nathaniel probably didn’t expect an answer to his question, ‘Can anything good out of Nazareth?’ His question could have been, “Can the Messiah come out of Nazareth”? But rather he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can anything noble or excellent or worthy come from Nazareth? There was a proverb that no prophet would come from Galilee, let alone Nazareth. Can the Messiah come from a little place held in apparent contempt and scorn by neighbouring towns? The question seems to point to a prejudice against the people. Just to be a Nazarene was enough cause for contempt. Nathanael would have known the reputation of Nazareth, and been startled by the possibility of a carpenter’s son, in a village that was not particularly noteworthy, being the Messiah of whom the Jewish sacred writers had spoken about. In ancient days, who you are was very much connected with where you came from. Place was important for identity. 

I am reminded of Jesus’ mother Mary and her song of praise – God looking with mercy on her lowliness; God scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; God about to bring down the mighty from their thrones and exalt those of humble estate. (Luke 1). Adds a layer of meaning from the mouth of a young girl in Nazareth

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

The suggestion that the Messiah would come out of Nazareth would have been surprising, mind-boggling, to any Jewish person at the time. People then, as now, label people by their place of origin, by their name, by their culture, by their ethnicity. Hence why my great uncle had to change his name to an Anglo name to enlist in the first world war. And in South Australia, where he was born, 69 towns with German names (or German sounding place names) were renamed during the First World War due to anti-German sentiment. Many German families at the time changed their names to stop harassment from the government and wider community. German schools and churches were closed. German music was banned. German food was renamed. 

It illustrates the close connection between who you are, and where you’re from. 

A century later, we still have the problem of prejudice and judgement about people and where they are from. You will know the many examples in our global community. You will no doubt be familiar with the phrase ‘go back to where you came from’, used against more recent arrivals to Australia. 

And yet, this attitude of suspicion and prejudice happens even with the First Nations people here in Australia. 

Today is the last day of NAIDOC Week which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The week is celebrated by Indigenous communities and also by non-indigenous Australians. The celebrations will end, but the prejudice lives on. 

All is not rosy in how Aboriginal people are treated in this country. There is still tremendous disadvantage for Aboriginal people. Aboriginal football players are derided for the colour of their skin. They are labelled, stigmatized, ridiculed. It is unquestionably a desperately sad situation, especially given the rich fabric of Aboriginal culture, and the tremendous knowledge and wisdom that their communities have demonstrated for 65,000+ years. Why is this wisdom and knowledge not a source of pride and wonder for us in Australia? Instead, decisions are made about Aboriginal people, and Aboriginal people are too often left out of decision making that directly impacts them.

The Uluru statement from the heart seeks a constitutional voice to parliament in order to address one of the most acute challenges for Indigenous Australia: getting the government to listen to them. It is about recognition. The Referendum this year is simply seeking the opportunity for Aboriginal people to have a say in matters that directly affect them and for the establishment of a First Nations voice to be enshrined in the Constitution. It’s a very reasonable request and I urge you to find out more so you can vote in an informed way. 

The Uluru statement is a hand of friendship extended to the Australian people by Aboriginal leaders, an invitation to Australians of all religions, cultures and political persuasions to hear the logic for change, to seek reforms to empower First Nations people to take a rightful place in their own country. 

Prominent Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, delivered a speech last year, where he said these words, which I find heartbreaking: 

We are a much unloved people. We are perhaps the ethnic group Australians feel least connected to. We are not popular and we are not personally known to many Australians.  Few have met us and a small minority count us as friends.  And despite never having met any of us and knowing very little about us other than what is in the media and the common folklore about us, Australians hold and express strong views about us, the great proportion of which is negative and unfriendly.  It has ever been thus.  Worse in the past but still true today.

(Can you hear the echoes of “Can anything good come from…?”)

He goes on to say, If success in the forthcoming referendum is predicated on our popularity as a people, then it is doubtful we will succeed.  It does not and will not take much to mobilise antipathy against Aboriginal people and to conjure the worst imaginings about us and the recognition we seek. For those who wish to oppose our recognition it will be like shooting fish in a barrel. A heartless thing to do – but easy. Unlike same-sex marriage there is not the requisite empathy of love to break through the prejudice, contempt and yes, violence, of the past. Australians simply do not have Aboriginal people within their circles of family and friendship with whom they can share fellow feeling. 

A yes vote in the voice referendum will guarantee that Australian First Nations peoples will always have a say in laws and policies made about them. It will empower them to work together towards better policies and practical outcomes for Indigenous communities.

Aboriginal woman Josie Douglas reflects, If the voice referendum succeeds, our sons, daughters and grandchildren will stand proud, part of a united nation where we are involved in shaping our shared destiny. A nation where laws and policies about us are no longer made without us, where we can have a say in the decisions that affect us and put forward solutions for the challenges we face. This is what the Voice to Parliament is about.

I hear the echoes of our Bible reading, can anything good come from Nazareth. For too long, attitudes from colonial Australia persisted, asking: can anything good come from Aboriginal communities? I say, absolutely. We are better together as a people who can find unity in the rich diversity of culture in this country, from First Nations peoples and those who have arrived more recently, treasuring traditions and open to learning from and with each other, and to truly listen to the wisdom of our Aboriginal Elders. This is the kind of country we all want to live in, where all have a voice, all have a say, and all are valued.

May it be so. Amen.