Photo with thanks to Peter Fitzgerald
Rev. Baden Stanley

Rev. Baden Stanley

Each week we hope to post a blog on a Monday or Tuesday. These blogs will hopefully stimulate thought, discussion and even debate around key topic that are affecting our society at this time of great change and challenge.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

1 Samuel 3: 1-10

John 1: 43-51

When I looked at today’s readings, the first thing to jump out at me was in verse 46 of the reading from John. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”. From today’s standpoint, it sounded like it needed a response suffused with the language of inclusion and diversity.

Nazareth was but a small village during the days of Jesus, perhaps boasting a population of only a few hundred, yet only around 7km from the administrative centre of Sepphoris. The ruins are in the modern-day Israeli town of Zippori, on a trail I was supposed to walk last year before Covid put everything on hold. The whole area had seen revolt and brutal Roman crackdowns on several occasions, hence perhaps the downbeat assessment.

But the Lectionary gives us readings for today that line up more closely than is often the case. And perhaps they have something else to say to us about inclusion and diversity.

The story we heard from the First Book of Samuel about the elderly prophet Eli and the young child Samuel is a popular account of God’s call to an individual.

We hear that Samuel was lying down in the temple, near the ark of God. That would have been like sleeping beside the altar here in Christ Church. Three times Samuel heard a voice calling his name, ‘Samuel, Samuel’ and three times he ran to Eli, ‘Here I am.’

But he didn’t recognise the voice of God. Eli told Samuel to stay where he was when the voice next called and to respond, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

I wonder how many people today are being called by God and do not recognise him. At the start of the reading, we hear that ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.’ Is that true today? Do we expect to hear God’s voice, or receive visions from God today? Is it more likely now that Covid has given many of us enforced time for reflection?

There’s a wider context to this story. If you read on, you find that Samuel is being called to play the role of God’s prophet, and his first job will be to announce the judgement God has for Eli and his corrupt family. Essentially, God will say to Samuel, ‘I am going to do something about evil in the church.’ There is a very strong message here to all Christians and especially to those of us in leadership in the church.

Do our words and deeds match up? Where is our integrity? Do we challenge people about their words and behaviour when we should? Do we value everyone, regardless of age, gender, wealth, poverty, ethnic background, sexual orientation? Do we love each person equally?

When we are willing and eager to serve, like Samuel, ready to hear and obey God’s call, we may not find God’s message very comfortable!

In today’s reading from John, we have two overlapping call stories. First we read that Jesus found Philip and said, “Follow me.” Then we see that Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found him who Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.” So Jesus was looking for Philip, Philip was looking for Nathanael, and Philip and the others were looking for the Messiah.

When we find God it is because God has been looking for us all along. But Nathanael’s response to Philip reminds us that the divine/human encounter is a very personal one – we cannot meet God by proxy, or by inheritance; it is always an individual and unique moment.

Nathanael scoffs at Philip’s discovery. You can almost hear him saying “This man is from the wrong part of the country, the wrong social class, he has the wrong accent, he’s uneducated. Why should I listen to him?”

Many people today question Christianity in much the same way, “Can anything good come out of the church?” “It’s antiquated, behind the times, speaks the wrong language, it’s pre-scientific and irrational, it’s judgmental and full of hate, etc. etc.”

I’m sure Philip was tempted to argue with Nathaniel, but instead he invited him to “come and see,” for himself. Somehow Philip realized that you do not argue someone into a new religious understanding. All you can do is help someone encounter Jesus. The rest is up to the action of God in Christ.

Our calling is to be like Philip and invite others to “come and see” what God is doing in our lives and in our congregation, to “come and see” what a difference knowing Christ has made in our lives, individually and as a community, “come and see” how Christ could make a difference in their lives too.

Which takes us right back to .. Do our words and deeds match up? Where is our integrity as individuals, as a community, as a church?

Working part-time, and at home some days in “normal” times, I used to get a terrible slagging from my adult children about listening to Joe Duffy’s Liveline. But if you have heard it this last week it has been by times harrowing, uplifting, and enraging.

I think the most troubling thing about the Mother and Baby Homes scandal is that, for me at least, this is not ancient history, but touches on the time when our children were born.

I hope you have seen the statement from the two Church of Ireland Archbishops, including this …

“We acknowledge with shame that members of the Church of Ireland were complicit, as with the rest of society at that time, in a culture of hypocrisy and judgement which stigmatised women and children and endangered their health and well–being. We are sorry and apologise for the role that our Church played in shaping a society in which unmarried women and their children were treated in this way. They deserved much better.”

Some of the survivors have objected to the reference to society in the report – I think they see it as letting powerful interests off the hook. But these mothers and babies were treated this way because society as a whole was prepared to tolerate it. It was a culture where power was abused and where the opinion of the neighbours mattered more than the welfare of people created in the image of God.

So when people see this coverage and say “Can anything good come out of the church?”, we need to consider our response. Not defensively and with due humility. And if our response is one of integrity and compassion, of inclusion and diversity, perhaps then we can say “Come and See”.  Amen

David Reynolds

Based on a Sermon for Epiphany 2, 17th January 2021

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