Editor’s note: Sam Greenlee preached this sermon on January 14, 2018 at City Life Church in Midtown Sacramento, CA.
by Sam Greenlee
The image in the meme above comes from The Lion King and shows Simba talking with his father, Mufasa. Mufasa is instructing Simba and says, “Look, everything the light touches is Sacramento.” Simba notes that the light doesn’t touch everything he can see and asks, “But what about that shadowy place?” Mufasa answers, “That’s Oak Park. You must never go there, Simba.”
This meme made the rounds a couple of years ago, and people edited it over and over again to update the “joke” for their context. There was one in which San Francisco was the light and Oakland was the dark. There is one in which Stockton is the shadowy place. There was one for Modesto and one for Fresno and one for Bakersfield. And of course, there is this one that makes a mockery of Oak Park, the neighborhood I call home.
The joke, of course, is that there are places that people view as broken beyond repair, as hopeless, as insignificant, as God-forsaken, and — please pardon me as I quote the president — as shitholes.
Over the course of our lives, assumptions and biases tend to form in each of us, telling us to write off certain places — and certain people — as worthless, insignificant, or the sort of places from which nothing good can come. Some of us might even have internalized those stories about ourselves and the places we come from, to the point of feeling we are insignificant and beyond the reach of God’s loving concern.
People end up being written off for so many reasons: because they come from a certain neighborhood or city, a rural area, the suburbs, or the inner city. People are written off for being from certain parts of the world, for their skin color, for their gender, for having spent time in prison, for working with their hands for a living, for having trouble finding work, for a disability.
I noticed this same thing happening in John 1:43–46. Nathanael could not believe it when his friend Philip said he had met the one whom their ancient prophets had foretold, and that the messiah was a man from Nazareth. Why did Nathanael have such a strong bias against Nazareth? It’s worth diving into the context a bit.
At the time of Jesus, the kingdom of Israel had not been in power for centuries, conquered by one empire after another: first by Assyria, then Babylon, Greece, and finally Rome. The region of Judea was just one little slice of the Roman Empire, and the Jewish people lived under Roman occupation. Within that area, there were a few larger cities such as Jerusalem, but even they had little political significance within the Roman Empire. There were smaller towns, and then there were little villages like Nazareth, made up of around 400 people.
If you were to imagine the sort of place from which the person chosen by God to bring salvation would come, you probably wouldn’t have chosen Nazareth. When God entered the world as one of us, as a real live human being, we might have guessed God would have been a child born into a family of wealth and power and prominence in a city with a long and important history. But, like Nathanael, we would have been wrong.
When God entered the world as a human being, when the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, God chose to be born in a stable — the equivalent of a garage — to Mary, an unwed teenage peasant girl, and for the first announcement of his birth to be given to agricultural workers who had to sleep outdoors at night to guard livestock. He chose to be raised by Mary and a stepfather named Joseph, a carpenter — in other words, a poor day laborer. He grew up in a tiny politically-insignificant village in a region conquered and occupied by a foreign empire and learned the family trade, helping put food on the table through the sweat on his brow and an aching back.
And this unmistakably tells us that we are wrong to assume that anything — any place and any person — is beneath God’s concern. It demonstrates to us that the standards we grab onto to judge significance and value are not standards we received from God, but are departures from the God who literally loves and values and cares for each person and each place.
On an even deeper level, I find it important to pay attention to the excuses I give to Jesus for coming from such a lowly place, which might indicate I still think of the place and its people as less-than. We might be tempted to think that Jesus was significant and important despite the place he came from. We might think that he simply transcended the insignificance, the unimportance, the smallness of Nazareth. We might think, “Good for him, making something of himself even though he came from the sticks.” Or we might just say, “Yeah, Jesus is God. Of course it doesn’t matter where he was born.”
But the gospel won’t let us do that. One of the most central and important beliefs in the Christian faith is that Jesus is both entirely and truly God and entirely and truly human. Jesus isn’t God seeming human and isn’t just a human being living like God. Jesus is fully God and fully human.
Being fully human means that Jesus experienced the fullness of human life, all of the types of things that you and I go through: from the pleasures of sitting by a fire with friends to the pain of stubbing his toe. And in his humanity, he went through childhood and grew up being influenced by the place where he lived and the people he knew. He grew up learning about the world through the eyes of a poor peasant boy in a hardscrabble town. He was shaped differently there than he would have been had be been born into a family and community of great wealth and power.
He was shaped by his parents, and we get powerful glimpses of how his mother — who would have once been scorned as a pregnant unmarried teenage girl — impacted his life. When Jesus taught his disciples about the parable of the sheep and the goats, he was talking about the same things Mary sang about when she celebrated that God would bring down those who use power to abuse their neighbors and would raise up the lowly and feed the hungry. Sure, those same themes are found throughout the Hebrew scripture Jesus would have heard at synagogue, but he also got them from his mama.
And so Jesus was not the messiah, the incredible teacher, the man who would turn the world upside down despite his background. No, God chose to become flesh in that place and among those people because that place and those people would help shape Jesus in his humanity into who he was supposed to be to live out the full glory of God in the world.
The same is true for us. When, through Jesus, we increasingly become who we are meant to be — people fully alive as representatives of God’s goodness within the world around us — it is not by becoming some sort of generic, mass-produced clone. No, it looks like God working all of the particulars of who we are and where we come from together for a unique goodness that could only occur through collaboration with us as specific people connected to our specific social and ecological environments.
In many ways, our lives are like the life of a little plot of land not far from here, just across Highway 99 in Oak Park. When friends and neighbors of mine, Chris and Ruth, moved into a house there a few years ago, the home came with a vacant lot next door. The vacant lot and their backyard had been badly mistreated by previous residents, effectively serving as a dumping ground for building materials: gravel, bricks, concrete chunks, rebar, paving stone, and so forth. It was damaged and dangerous. Those who had lived there before dismissed the land as unimportant and insignificant and so they abused it. Who among us cannot relate to that land? Who hasn’t been mistreated and hurt by others (and even by ourselves) because we were mistakenly seen as insignificant?
When Chris and Ruth moved in, though, they saw potential in the place and loved it. And I don’t just mean that they felt affection for it. They actually embodied love for the place by working to rehabilitate it. Whereas others had seen the land as a void to be filled with trash, these friends could see it for its particular character underneath all the damage done to it, and they could see the potential for it to be healed and restored.
And so, they got to work, not by treating the land’s particular character and history as meaningless and imposing an ill-suited vision of a manicured lawn, but by paying attention to its particular climate, soil, and sun exposure, and by working with the goodness of the few trees already growing in the midst of the damage done.
On top of all that, they actually took the debris that had once done damage and put it to work for the good of the land. Using debris such as gravel, chunks of concrete, and bricks, they built an herb spiral, walls for raised garden beds, and a permeable walkway.
While it is still a work in progress, that plot shows the evidence of love. It is a beautiful and cool, shady place to rest in our hot Sacramento summers. It produces food such as fruit and nuts, it provides habitat and shelter for local wildlife, and its healthy, rich soil helps capture rainfall and send it into our aquifer instead of disappearing as runoff down the street.
And this, friends, is what God’s concern for us looks like. No matter what your life has been, no matter where you are from, no matter how dysfunctional your family was growing up, no matter what you have gone through, you are deeply loved by God. Through the attentive love of God, the particulars of your life story can be the very things that make you into the person the world needs you to be. In Christ, your history is not erased and treated like a blank slate. It is instead the very thing that prepares you to uniquely manifest the glory of God’s goodness in the world.
Even though God did not want your life to be marked by pain, trauma, abuse, and grief, the love of God is so creative and so good that even those scars and that damage can be healed and incorporated into new goodness for you and the world around you.
As you and I come to recognize this more and more, we also find our minds transformed so that we are able to recognize that no other person or place can be dismissed as beneath our concern or the care of God. This is good news.
Bio: Sam Greenlee lives in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, CA, with his wife and daughter. This puts him in Maidu territory and within the watershed of the Sacramento River. He enjoys working with his neighbors to see their community flourish and is slowly working toward planting a new congregation.