We Can Choose

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | January 17, 2021

The story that we read in the Gospel of John today is part of a larger story. Jesus calls his first disciples – the people who would form his core group of followers. The first words Jesus speaks in the story as John tells it are, “What are you looking for?” Each follower, in their own way, finds something in Jesus. 

When Philip found his friend Nathaniel and told him about Jesus of Nazareth, and Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip said, “Come and see.” The same words that Jesus said to those who would follow him. 

Usually when I write a sermon, it’s a fairly simple process. I read through the bible passage for the day and ask a few simple questions. Such as, “What is the truth being told here?” and “What’s the story here?” and “How do you tell that story to the folks who will hear it?” and “What’s the truth for us?” 

I don’t see my role as telling you what to think. I want to tell the story in a way that inspires to think about it and what it means to you. I don’t like to connect all the dots. Leave some open so that your own picture emerges. 

So my question of late has been, “How do I tell this story in today’s context, with everything that’s going on around us?” 

I keep going back to that question that Nathaniel asked about Jesus, can anything good come out of Nazareth? Then it came to me, with the help of my wife who is a biblical scholar in her own right. She said, “Why don’t you ask, can anything good come out of America, and riff on that?” 

When I watched the rioters storm into the Capitol building in Washington, DC my gut reaction was similar to watching the events of 9/11. A sense of anger and grief. That sense of how dare they. That sense of feeling violated in a way. 

We are all Americans. Things will happen that make us feel more American. Times of national unity and pride – The national anthem at the Super Bowl or some heroic gesture. Times of national crisis – the storming of the Capitol.

One way to feel especially American is to live in a different country for a spell. Lindsay and I did that for fifteen years. During all that time, on any given day someone might comment on my accent. Are you from America? What brought you over here? Where’s home? How do find Glasgow? 

You get used to it. You’re a foreigner, but an American. 

In the church I served there were different stained-glass windows from different artists and different time periods. One window was simply referred to as the “military window.” It showed the picture of Jesus in a sort of Christ the King mode. And there was a soldier on one knee in front of Jesus, with his sword laid to rest. The story seemed to be that the power of Christ is greater than the sword. 

The soldier was dressed as a Scotsman from a British military regiment of long ago. It was pointed out to me that the regiment was part of the British army that attacked Washington DC during war of 1812 and burned parts of the city, including the President’s mansion. 

The only time that happened in our nation’s history. Until now. Even in church, every Sunday leading worship, I knew what it felt like to be an American. 

What does it feel like for you? 

I asked that same question the Sunday following 9/11. How are you feeling? I also asked, how do we as people of faith respond, now that this has happened? That question is still valid. Where we decide to go from here has bearing on where we end up, as individuals, families, communities and as a nation. Because we’re all part of it. 

When I lived in Glasgow, sometimes the young boys would ask me, “Hey Dr. Mann, whose your team?” 

There were three teams from which to choose. What they call football we call soccer. The teams were Rangers, Celtic and Partick Thistle. 

I would always answer, “Partick Thistle.” 

Partick Thistle was a team that struggled a lot. They were often on the losing side of the pitch. They were the classic underdogs. When the boys would ask why I supported a bunch of losers, I would say, “Because if I say Partick Thistle, no one is going to try to punch me in the face.” 

They could see the sense of that.

When I was looking to buy a car in Glasgow, folks advised me to avoid certain shades of blue or green, those shades would get vandalized. Blue was Rangers and Green was Celtic. And don’t even think about orange. 

I learned that football wasn’t just about football. The distance between Glasgow Scotland and Belfast Northern Ireland was 110 miles. Rangers were Loyalists and Celtic were Irish Republicans. When the two teams would play each other, followers – they were not fans in the sense that we think of sporting fans – they were followers, adherents to a belief system – when the two teams would play each other, the followers would be separated by lines of police. They would use different entrances to the stadium. 

These two teams, both based in Glasgow, represented sides in a struggle, sides in a war that is not that long past and the grudges of which still fester. 

Added to the mix was the Orange Order. The Grand Lodge. The ultra-Protestants. 

And the independence issue – Nationalist and Loyalists. 

All of these folks, from all these different sides of political, social and sectarian spectrum were in my church. That question about which team you support involved more than football. So the challenge became, how can we all be together on team Jesus? 

One thing I learned early on about how church works, is that telling people which side of an issue they need to be on, for their own good, is an exercise in futility. Nobody likes to be told. What works is when we discover the truth and when it’s God’s truth, it sets us free. 

We started talking about it in our Session meetings. There was a lot of discussion in the church around that time about whether gay folks should have a seat at the table. The Church of Scotland was fairly traditional in that sense, but British society was changing. We could not avoid talking about these issues. What divides us and what unites us. 

So after much discussion, what we decided to do was to welcome everyone into the life of our congregation. But there are a lot of churches that have a welcome sign out front, “All Are Welcome,” and so forth, but there is nothing welcoming about them.

We decided to be very specific about our welcome. To name names, so to speak. Some folks were troubled by that. Why do we have be so particular, won’t people know we’re welcoming? Well, they might, but by naming the particulars of our welcome, folks who had been excluded because of how they were labeled, would now see their label as a means of being included. 

This is what we arrived at: “We affirm the dignity of all people. We welcome into the life of our community of faith people of every age, gender, race, country of origin, ethnic heritage, sexual orientation, mental or physical abilities or condition, education, marital or economic status, cultural, or religious background. All people are welcomed and affirmed at the Lord’s Table and at Ours.” 

When we come to church, we bring who we are with us. As a church, we all have a place at the table. Welcomed and affirmed. There is something about that word, “affirmed.” It’s a powerful concept when put into practice. 

One thing I have learned about what it means to be an American is, we have so many choices. I’m not talking about tv channels or products on the grocery shelf. I’m talking about life choices. When I lived in Scotland there was so much that was provided, which on the surface can seem like a good thing. Education, health care, housing. 

But when you take away people’s ability to choose, you take away their incentive. “Let the council do it” was a common theme. And for kids going through school, if you didn’t make the grade early on, your life was set on a trajectory for which there was no second chances. 

When we moved over there my youngest son was just turning 20. He had decided to quit college, maybe he would go back; maybe not. His girlfriend had dropped out of high school. I encouraged them as best I could, but as a parent you can only do so much. They had choices to make. 

But they had the freedom to choose. My daughter-in-law went back to school and got her G.E.D. and then went on nursing school and college. Today she is an RN nursing supervisor at a facility in southern Minnesota. My son went back to college and worked his way through and is now a science teacher at a high school in Rochester. 

They can do that in America. 

Sure, our country is not without its problems and challenges. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this the land of opportunity for every American. We’re always trying to live up to our ideals, but this is also the land where turning the ideal into the real is possible.

People in Britain would sometimes ask if I planned to become a British citizen. I had residency, and so it would be simple step to fill out the forms and become a dual citizen. I always answered politely that I am content to leave things as they are. 

Because when I was five years old and went to Kindergarten, one of the first things we learned in school was the Pledge of Allegiance. Every day we would stand, put our hand on our hearts and recite those words. “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Those words meant a lot to me then. I made a promise that I intended to keep.  

Liberty and justice for all are noble ideals in our world today. They are fragile in these times we’re in now. It’s worth asking, “What good can come out of America?” It’s worth asking because it is possible to live in harmony. When we move from the standpoint of wondering, “What good can come out of you,” to seeking, “What is the good in you,” then we are moving in the right direction. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s