So, here we are in the fourth week of Epiphany and it seems a long time ago that the control freaks amongst us added the Magi to our nativity scenes – that is, assuming we hadn’t already put them away by Jan 6th. It’s hard to see initially in what way today’s Gospel is linked to the Epiphany theme of the revealing of Christ to the nations ie: the Gentiles – non Jews, the other – as represented by those Wise Men.
We meet Jesus here quite early on in his ministry before his own theological thinking has expanded to include the Gentiles. We’ve still to meet the Roman Centurion and the Syrophoenecian woman who do so much to challenge Jesus’ sense of his own ministry as being exclusively to the Jews.
What I'd like us to consider as we think of the Epiphany is a sense in which the greatest gift the world has ever received, Jesus, was the gift of a marginalised community - Nazareth.
I work in a rather odd place that I’ve become rather fond of over time. I don’t know when exactly this happened, but the sign that you used to see as soon as you left the motorway and which celebrated Cleckheaton as a centre of “Leisure, recreation and industry”, has gone.
There is no new sign. Cleckheaton, it seems, has nothing to celebrate or boast about these days. It is famous for nothing apparently, and has no illustrious sons or daughters. It’s the sort of place people don’t go to. They pass through it on the way to somewhere marginally more interesting like …. Dewsbury.
When I first started working there one of my pupils asked me where I was from, which I misunderstood and assumed she was asking where I lived, so I replied, “I’m from Leeds.” There was a pause while she digested this. “Do they all talk like you in Leeds?” she said.
“Well, surely you’ve been to Leeds?” I ventured.
“I once went to Dewsbury on a Saturday with my mother. It were busy. I don’t think I should like Leeds.”
I think the word that stuck in my mind then was “parochial” - the same word that jumped into my mind when I read today’s gospel story.
I think Nazareth may be the New Testament’s equivalent of Cleckheaton. People passed through it on the way to somewhere marginally more interesting such as Capernaum.
I think it’s probably about the way peoples’ minds work but, having made that connection, I was interested to know a bit more about Nazareth and it certainly seems very likely that had it not been for Jesus, it’s not a place many of us would’ve heard of.
In John’s gospel we hear the story of Nathaniel’s first meeting with Jesus. Philip had met Jesus and in turn went to bring Nathaniel to meet him.
“Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel wonders.
Nazareth is barely mentioned in first century documents outside of Scripture. The little we do know is largely speculative and wholly unremarkable. Scholarship suggests that Nazareth was a small community probably located not far from a major East-West trade route that ran from Egypt to Asia: picture it as one of the obscure communities you see exit signs for off the motorway. Nazareth was situated in the rural part of Galilee, a region of fishing and farming that was also known in Scripture for its distinctive regional accent and for having a large population of immigrants, foreigners and resident aliens. Indeed, not unlike Cleckheaton – apart from the fishing, obviously.
And, of course, many of these foreigners were Gentiles: not the religion of the locals. I know we need to be careful with such comparisons, but does it sound to any of you like anywhere else we might know?
Maybe Nathaniel said what he did, not only because of Nazareth’s seeming insignificance, but maybe Nazareth also had something of a reputation. After all, Jesus didn’t always have the easiest time in Nazareth. Mark says that Jesus could do few healings in Nazareth, because of the residents’ unbelief and lack of faith. Matthew suggests the people of Nazareth won’t listen to Jesus because they still just think of him as the carpenter’s son, Joseph’s boy. Or, as in Luke this morning, we consider Jesus’ first sermon in front of his home people. Jesus returns to the synagogue in Nazareth to preach, and he stands up to read and chooses the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, the let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And then he tells them, “Today, now, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing: here, in Nazareth.” It’s amazing how much can change in the course of one sermon. Jesus knows his people so well that he knows what message they most need to hear, and he loves them so much he is willing to preach it. He’s said he was anointed to release captives and open the eyes of the blind, so that is what he will do.
Jesus is aware that the people of Nazareth are clamouring for him do the same kind of healings and miraculous cures there as he has done elsewhere. And they probably think that since Jesus is from Nazareth, and that they are his own people, that they’ll receive preferential treatment: after all, they’re from Israel, and believe they are more important than those Gentiles living across the border.
“Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, cure thyself,” Jesus says. But what Jesus is referring to is the fact that the people of Nazareth believe Jesus the physician should heal his own people first: them. But Jesus opens the eyes of their blind provincialism and tries to set them free from their captivity to prejudice by reminding them that God’s love extends beyond them, that it was an immigrant widow to whom God sent Elijah, and not a widow in Israel, and that out of all of the lepers in Israel, Elisha only cleansed the foreigner Naaman.
At which point the congregation threatens to throw Jesus off a cliff.
Those of us who’ve grown up in a Nazareth, live in one now, or work in one know that it has its challenges. We’ve seen some of the violence that simmers beneath the surface, the willingness the draw hard lines between insider and outsider, them and us, the family identities that can crush true expression of self, the casual prejudice masquerading as a joke. Jesus has had to rescue some of us from that. And it’s not the last time a congregation in a rural community would try to run a preacher out of town who dared to preach the truth of God’s word.
Anyone who keeps their eyes and ears open to the daily news will know that Nazareth has gone through troubling times and continues to do so into the present day. It is a great model for marginalised communities everywhere and the communities it represents can all catalogue times of great change and suffering.
This is a marginalised community – technically an area of social deprivation – just one of many in this city. I remember listening recently to a group of girls in my registration group at school talking about some task they‘d been given in their GCSE Child Development course. They’d clearly been discussing the concept of “failure to thrive” as a diagnosis when a baby or small child fails to grow or mature in the proper way. That may seem an odd comment to throw into the middle of a discussion on the Epiphany theme and marginalised communities but I don’t think it’s too big a jump to apply the same thinking to the spiritual growth of marginalised communities like the one in which this church sits.
Many marginalised communities and churches have failed to thrive because they have been the ones who have borne the changes of the recent decline of our manufacturing industries, and as that industry has disappeared, communities have suffered a double blow with the current economic crisis. It is the poor and the marginalised who suffer as a result for our insatiable appetite for cheap and highly processed food. Marginalised Communities have born much of the brunt of globalization’s impact, as jobs have been lost, and the textile industry has all but disappeared in West Yorkshire. Marginalised communities have often been at the front-lines of the difficult issue of how to welcome the sojourner or foreigner in our midst. Marginalised communities have struggled with plagues of poverty and hunger; and many in these places have tried to address their spiritual emptiness with methamphetamine instead of Methodism. Community leaders, including church leaders, have often lacked courage or proved ill-equipped in facing these challenges in a visionary way. And there seems to be growing evidence that a disproportionate number of the military casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been borne by the people of marginalised areas.
God loves and cares for these communities, and calls upon Christ’s church to respond to these challenges in creative and faithful ways, so that they can thrive in the abundant life that Christ offers, and be what they were created to be.
And yet for all of the current struggles, and for all of the real challenges facing our churches in areas which believe they’ve been forgotten today, the Epiphany message we can take from today’s Gospel is that marginalised communities can be thriving communities because of what they have to offer but may have forgotten to value - gifts of genuine human community, a rich storehouse of practical skills and wisdom: a beautiful image of what Christ’s church can be because isn’t the Gospel message the Epiphany that we still celebrate today? And isn’t that Gospel spread to “the other” through the quiet and often unrecognised work of today’s disciples? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, the let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
I think this takes us back to one of other Gospel themes: not being an effective prophet in your own backyard. I asked the Vicar what initiatives this church is already involved in and some of them would be roundly condemned by some of our evangelical friends: doing the Gospel counts for less in their eyes than speaking the Gospel. In that worldview someone’s material circumstances are less significant than whether or not they’ve heard about the saving grace of Jesus. Those of us here on the liberal wing are only too aware that a holistic approach is needed and that very often actions speak louder than words. I have a friend who works in this area, not a million miles from here in fact. His work brings him into contact with a wide range of local residents and he often talks about spiritual matters. Note that what I didn’t say was that he often talks about Christian things. Many of his customers are Muslim and over a period of time his general lead-in via a conversation about spiritual matters, or current issues in the local community, has led on to a wider ranging discussion that encompasses both Muslim and Christian perspectives. He talks of conversations being picked up from where they left off the last time on each new meeting. I think he has, as a disciple, earned the right to speak of Jesus – a conversation topic, that would probably not have been welcomed as an opening gambit.
If we look at how Jesus approached people we see a pattern: he always seems to deal with people where they are. His dealings with people are responsive.
When I was at Vicar School we spent a lot of time discussing the Missio Dei – God’s mission. There are loads of models of this throughout the history of the church but what always struck me was the fact that most of them seem to be following a human agenda. The model that really struck me – and at a stroke dealt with residual guilt from a previous incarnation as a gauche Evangelical – was the idea of finding where God is already at work and joining in. That was a revelation to me. But isn’t that what you are doing here? Within a marginalised community and often on behalf of other marginalised communities? Inclusive Churches, Changing Attitude, work with asylum seekers and refugees, the South American Community project, Ecumenism. Plus all the simple acts of neighbourliness and human contact.
Living, working, worshipping in a marginalised society? Working with the modern equivalent of the Gentiles – the other in our society? Want to be an effective prophet in this backyard? Want to “preach good news to the poor… proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”? See where God is already at work around here and join in.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Hyde Park?