We need to talk about Nazareth
16 April 2019 IN: Bishop
Bishop David's sermon at the Chrism Mass on 15 April 2019.
We need to talk about Nazareth. Today's gospel passage (is Luke 4: 16-21) has been carefully cropped. It tells us barely half the story. We get all the exciting stuff about Jesus declaring himself to be the fulfilment of prophecy, and then miss out the condemnatory reaction this gets from the gathered crowd. Our reading ended at verse 21. By verse 29 the citizens of the community he grew up in are trying to throw him off a nearby cliff and kill him.
We need to talk about Nazareth, because we preach a gospel of new life in Christ. A life empowered by the Holy Spirit, one where we are forgiven our past indiscretions. And yet we bear grudges, we hold on to past hurts, we fail to notice that the gifted young preacher is no longer defined and bounded by the carpenter's apprentice he was in his teens. One of the most exciting dimensions of priestly ministry is to accompany someone on that journey into becoming more like the person who in God's eyes they have always been. I still recall vividly, men and women I met at an early stage of their discipleship, when they were hesitant and diffident of their skills, but who within a few years were leaders in mission and ministry, doing things neither they nor I would ever have dreamt they would accomplish. Yet if we are not careful those earlier, more limited impressions persist, overruling all later evidence. That young Jesus was never any good, so he can't be much good now.
Part of my responsibility as Bishop of Manchester comes with the many opportunities I have to recommend someone to go on a training course, or join a committee, or be a member of an appointment panel or working party, or represent me at some wider church occasion. Some of these opportunities can be life changing for those who get them. Whilst I need to have a view about the qualities and weaknesses of those to whom I might offer such opportunity, the Nazareth story reminds me that I should be slow to form a settled view. I must always be alert to the fact that people grow and change. And that some past failing, outside of the most grievous, whilst it remains part of what I know about an individual, should not lead me to write off their abilities and potential forever. The same must be true in all of our local contexts.
We need to talk about Nazareth because a good many of us have arrived in our parishes or chaplaincies at or after the point of ordination. Paid or unpaid, we are the trained professionals. We arrive with only a very limited backstory. Moreover, that is most often the story we choose to tell. It's a concoction of our talents and experiences, gifts and accomplishments, crafted less for the day to day exercise of office than to convince an interview panel. We are not the locals whose limitations and foibles are well known. No wonder huge hopes and expectations can be loaded upon us. And, it has to be said, vice versa. We come knowing little beyond the glossy pages of a parish profile or institutional prospectus. I don't doubt that these are honestly written, as honestly as we wrote our own CVs. But they are nevertheless partial, partial in both senses of that word. We come, as strangers, to strangers.
We need to talk about Nazareth because of the stark contrast to the reception the early ministry of Jesus receives across much of the rest of Israel. It isn't long before he is seen as one who might be proclaimed king, kick out the Roman occupation, displace the corrupt local hierarchy, and lead God's chosen people into a new golden age. Some still persist in that expectation when he rides on a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I do want priests to be ambitious about what their lay fellow Christians can achieve. I do want lay members of our churches to be ambitious about what their clergy can lead them in accomplishing. Where it goes wrong is when we expect the other partner to be the one who is doing all the heavy lifting. This is the parish where all I need to do as incumbent is get approval through the PCC and then someone else will make it all happen. Or this is the vicar who will single-handedly make us thrive and flourish, without any change in practice or attitude, any increase in commitment or giving, on our own part.
We need to talk about Nazareth, because in one respect they are not that different than anywhere else in Israel. They just get there a lot more quickly. In other towns and villages, and even the city of Jerusalem, the unknown young preacher got a far warmer initial reception. They followed him up mountains, searched him out in deserted places. They gathered in their thousands to hang on his every word, marvelling at the wisdom with which he spoke about the things of God and the contents of human hearts. But it didn't last the distance. When he wouldn't dance to their tune, when he refused to utter the words they wanted to hear, they turned against him just as firmly as his home town critics. If as a priest, you have managed to seriously upset your new parish within three months of arriving, the odds are you're not doing the job quite right. If you've been there three years and still not caused any significant upset, you may well not be doing the job at all. An incarnational ministry is not one that simply accepts, conforms to and colludes with the culture in which it finds itself. It's a ministry that consciously moulds the culture, challenges the injustices endemic in it and calls us to the Jesus who stands with those on the margins. In short it's exactly the sort of ministry that Jesus spoke about in the Nazareth synagogue.
I need to talk about Nazareth because this year, the benefice I am spending Holy Week in, is the one where I grew up. To the extent that I found time to have a misspent youth, here is the place I misspent it. Here is the village with the primary school where I was made to sit at the one old desk not replaced when the new ones were delivered. Because I'd been the person who first carved his initials into one of the brand new tables. And here is the Youth Club I was part of, where we got into such a fight on a visit to a disco at another village a few miles away, that our coach limped home with most of its windows broken. It's nearly forty years since I actually lived in in the benefice, but there are still people there who remember me. And there are lots more who remember my mother, and my brother, people who still know my cousins, my nephews and my niece. This is Luke's Gospel, not John's, so the problem is not that a outsider like Andrew cannot accept something good coming from Nazareth. The primary problem is that Nazareth itself can't imagine anyone from among its inhabitants amounting to anything good.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest challenge we have facing us as a diocese at this moment is the number of Nazareth parishes we have. Places that have little hope in themselves. Things used to be better, they're not very good now, and we anticipate them deteriorating further over the years to come. The best we can hope for is to carry on doing what we've always done, to be church for the same old world. Maybe, we fondly imagine, if we do it well enough, things might tick over until some outside saviour comes; that wonderfully gifted new priest with endless energy and either no personal ties or an equally committed household; or that churchwarden who is full of the gospel and just happens to have taken early retirement with no major family responsibilities. Or if there is to be no intervention from providence, at least we can carry things on until we retire, or go to join that heavenly congregation; the one gathering of Christian worshippers that won't immediately want to put us on the welcoming and coffee rota
We need to talk about Nazareth because living in Nazareth, whilst gripped by a greater, broader vision for the church, can be a lonely place. We need to support and encourage one another. Let our clergy chapter meetings always be places of refreshment and renewal, and never receptacles for competition or complaint. May each of us, lay or ordained, have something we do in our ministry that takes us beyond the boundaries of the substantive role we occupy. Half a day a week of such engagement makes most of us more efficient and effective in the day job. It doesn't waste time, it saves time, not least because it gives us a perspective from which to see a little more clearly when we are losing focus on what is really important for each of us to do.
We need to talk about Nazareth, because we are Nazareth, and the Nazareths in our midst are worth changing. New hope and new life are possible. We can be a worshipping Christian presence in every community, growing in depth, numbers and reach, nurturing disciples to maturity and ministry, not only serving our places but being catalysts for transformation in them. We are Church for a Different Nazareth, Church for a Different World.