The Good News from Nazareth

As a longtime admirer of and volunteer for the Salvation Army, I have had the distinct privilege of being taught and led by example…witnessing first-hand the demonstration of compassionate leadership and deep, personal, practical care by the Army staff (lay and ordained) — offered, without discrimination, to all who come to the Army in search of physical, emotional and spiritual healing.

In a broken world, where individual and collective needs are both real and profound, the Army is a beacon of hope to all. There is no taking of sides, no “profiling”, no including one at the exclusion of the other. The doors are wide open at all Army settings, and the welcome is extravagant in its warmth. The Salvation Army, unlike any other human service organization the world-over, has the capacity to offer the most comprehensive real answers to painful questions – real solutions to known or hidden problems.

Not long ago, I wrote a Lenten Devotional for a seminary – and my impetus for reflection came from a reading from the Book of John, in the Bible’s New Testament. I had been thinking about today’s tenor: the divisiveness of discourse, the narrow definition of “community”, the rancor bubbling below the surface, and the violence on full display – decidedly uncivil behavior that has too often enabled the compartmentalization of people based on cruel and crude generalizations… in essence, “us” vs. “them”, “right” vs. “wrong”, “same” vs. “different”. Too often we (read: I) fall into a very unfaithful witness of retreat.

With the Army – the passionate warriors out in the bright light of day and dark alleys of night – there is no retreat. Only this mandate: To advance to the person in need, wherever he or she is in life…meeting each person with a singular determination to walk side-by-side down what I will call The Road to Better – safer, warmer, fed, sober, housed, educated, clothed, employed…hopeful and fully loved.

The Salvation Army, day in/day out, year ‘round, meets all of us at our times of greatest need (and every time in between). It sees every human in every setting – from the symbolic Nazareth of old to the 14 counties of Massachusetts – as the embodiment of God’s beloved, and thus beautiful in presentation and potential.

“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?” Phillip said, “Come and see!” – John 1:45-46

Joseph1Small towns, rural counties – and the people who dwell in them – often get a bad rap. There’s an illiberal thinking that people who are born, live in, or come from such “backwaters” are lacking smart schooling intelligence, sophistication … academic and cultural worldliness and refinement.

In a 2000-year span, from the Nazareth of the Bible – Jesus’ hometown for 30 years (noted derisively in this verse from the Book of John) – to The Band’s 1968 iconic song, “The Weight,” where Nazareth (PA) presents itself as a hodgepodge of characters and unformed hospitality, there is a narrative of diminution that melds small town places and people into an unfair proverb: Nothing or no one good or important or worldly wise could possibly spring from such marginal territories.

For those of us born into or having worked our way to a place of relative “privilege,” we must be mindful of the tendency to cling to presumptions of greater self-importance. The Biblical narrative is a constant sneak attack on our carefully curated and protected sensibilities. It upends those very presumptions of pecking orders, and sends its prophets, angels, and even our Savior onto center stage – bringing ballast to stage left and right.

Much as Jesus came from what was considered a good-for-nothing small city, that his disciples were a dirty dozen group of unlikelies, and that he spoke out (often and emphatically) against the hypocrisy that was actually thinly veiled condescension, so too are we commanded to take note of those who live outside our comfort zones; we are commanded to consider what remarkable gifts they might have to share with and teach us – and the world. The divine does not discriminate; the sacred is available to all.

At this time of Lent when we reimagine and stumble towards our better selves, let us answer God’s extravagant invitation to come and see: Come and lay down any loads of world-wariness and weariness; open our hearts to the surprising messengers whom God has placed in our paths to disrupt our definition of “us” and “others.”

Margaret Boles Fitzgerald is a member of The Salvation Army State Board of Advisors, an Andover Newton trustee and chair of the Board of Directors for the Henry Luce Foundation.

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