December 2019

Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth?

2nd Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019
– John 1:43-46, Isaiah 11:1-10

– 20th Anniversary Celebration of Janet McKenzie’s “Jesus of the People”
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

Jesus of the People – by Janet McKenzie

Heads up (bounce balls)! By bouncing these balls, I wish to prove an age-old law of gravity: what goes up must come down. But another point worth proving is an age-old law of divine intervention: what comes down can rise up, if it is raised by the Spirit of God.

This was the message of the prophet Isaiah. We have normally read the prophets words as: “A shoot shall rise from the stump of Jesse,” as if Isaiah were referring to a fallen monarchy hacked down into a useless stump; but he was not. He was aware that the northern federation of tribes known as Israel had been conquered by Assyria. But Isaiah was a citizen of the southern tribal federation of Judah, which had split from its northern counterpart after the death of Solomon. The Davidic dynasty continued in Judah where Isaiah served as the court prophet of four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. The Hebrew word “zag,” commonly translated to mean “stump,” may also mean “trunk” or “stalk.” The prophet, in my opinion, was not referring to an ancestral tree of Jesse that had been hacked down into a stump, but rather a living family tree from which the Messiah would emerge. Hezekiah was the Messiah from which Isaiah expected great things. But Hezekiah did not live up to the prophet’s expectations. So, these words of Isaiah gradually evolved beyond the life of the prophet to refer to another whom Christians would see in Jesus who, though born in the house of Jesse in Bethlehem, was raised in Nazareth of Galilee.

Can that which comes down rise again? Nazareth was a town of the northern kingdom that was conquered by Assyria. It was situated in a region of Galilee, and Galilee was considered the armpit of Palestine. It was commonly believed by first century Jews that no prophet or Messiah could come from Galilee. (John 7:52) And even Nathaniel, a Galilean, felt that nothing good could come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)

Does anyone here hail from a place presently or at one time regarded as the nation’s armpit? I don’t expect an enthusiastic response to this question, but I confess that Cleveland, Ohio, the town where I was born, once held this reputation. During the 1970s, Cleveland was the target of bad press due to unfortunate economic conditions and strangely comical incidents including the mayor’s hair catching fire during a ribbon-cutting ceremony where he used a blowtorch instead of scissors, or his wife refusing a dinner invitation from the First Lady because it conflicted with her bowling night or, most notably, the waste pollution in the Cuyahoga River causing it to catch fire. Plagued by a series of widely noted mishaps, this city on the southern shores of Lake Erie earned the reputation as “the mistake on the lake.”

The residents of this city endured this humiliation for nearly a decade, and when you suffer such shame for so long you start to feel shameful. Some residents even wore awful t-shirts that read “Cleveland – Leave It or…Ah Just Leave It.” The city was in need of a drastic dose of self-esteem, and with the help of good leadership and civic-minded pride that refused to give up, the city experienced a revival that attracted new businesses, jobs, developed neighborhoods and strengthened the arts, especially with the creation of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cleveland’s renaissance was so extensive that it was named an “All-American City” for four years in a row. No longer were residents cowering to the shame of being “the mistake on the lake,” but reclaiming their pride as residents of “the best location in the nation.” Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can that which comes down rise us again?

Historian Kenneth Stampp, in his book The Peculiar Institution, describes the systematic attempt of white enslavers to hack down and destroy any sense of self esteem within enslaved African Americans through a process of psychological indoctrination which, over time, would convince them they were nothing without the people and institutions that enslaved them.

Referring to this work, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final book Where Do We Go from Here, surmised that the consequence of slavery and white racism had infected many black Americans with a sense that we were innately inferior to white people.

As a dark-skinned African American child growing up in the sixties, I witnessed the fact that racism was so insidious, it had affected the way black people saw themselves sensing that the lighter their complexion was, the better and more beautiful they were. The darker one was, the greater a target that person became to the racist humor of both whites and their black accomplices. I became such a target at eight years-old when a black student raised his rendering of a bulging-eyed, white-lipped Sambo with my name beneath it for all the class to see. The entire room burst into howling laughter with little regard that they had hacked the self esteem of a black child into a stump.

Without permission, I quietly rose from my desk and walked as composed as I possibly could from the classroom, then ran from the school weeping in humiliation, not knowing how my legs managed to carry me the few blocks to my home, for when I saw my mother’s outstretched arms, I literally fell into them disabled in grief. It was only at her constant urging that I was able to return to school again and again until the time arrived when African Americans of all complexions realized what my mother already knew – that black is also beautiful.

Stokely Carmichael, during a 1964 Civil Rights march would proclaim this from a platform in Greenwood, Mississippi with his cry for Black Power. Several years later, James Brown would shout, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” And several years after that, Aretha Franklin would confirm:

Young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
This is a quest that’s just begun

When you feel really low
There’s a great truth you should know
When you’re young, gifted and black
Your soul’s intact

And while much of white America was trembling at the prospect of how this surging awareness of black beauty and power and self-esteem might undermine the social fabric of their existence, this revelation was for me like a divine anointing, as though the Spirit of God had rested on me and said, “You also are my beloved.”

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

God is the greatest practical joker of all times who loves reversing the order of things, making the last first, overturning tables and confounding our sense of reality and truth with the upsetting notion that as we care for those the world deems to be least and most marginalized, we care for God. (Matthew 25:40)

And on this second Sunday of Advent, when we both celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Janet McKenzie’s Jesus of the People* and the theme of Advent’s second Sunday which is God’s peace that passes all understanding, it seems indeed characteristic of God’s peculiar sense of humor that from the whitest region of one of the whitest states in the union would come an artistic rendering of God embodied in the black?

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can that which comes down rise again? Well, I here to tell you that if “the best location in the nation” can rise from “the mistake on the lake;” if black pride and power can rise from centuries of black enslavement and oppression; and if Jesus of the People can rise from the sensitivities of a white woman living in the whitest region of Vermont, then, yes, something good can come out of Nazareth, even the Christ, “for nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)

When all the world was convinced that the once bountiful Tree of Jesse had been hacked down into a stump and would never rise again, a shoot somehow strained its way from death to life, and proclaimed from Nazareth of Galilee, the most lowly regarded region of Israel’s armpit, that “the realm of God has come near, repent and believe.” (Mark 1:15)

Believe, for Advent is the occasion when God enters the most desolate and fatally wounded region of your soul and there chooses to be born. Amen.

*Janet McKenzie is a Vermont artist who, in 1999, painted the above featured image that won the National Catholic Reporter’s competition for a new image of Jesus. The painting was praised by those looking for an artistic rendering of Christ that reflected a multicultural and multiracial church, but was also condemned by many so used to Western concepts of Christ.