Listen To The Stories Of Which You Are A Part (Amos 9:7)

Who is your church’s historian?

I don’t mean the person who accidentally wrote a thesis on the Council of Nicea on their holidays. I mean the person who remembers the first minister, who knows why the stained glass window has a dodo on it, who can tell you the stories behind all those dedication plaques, who knows why everyone got so upset when you unilaterally threw that old lectern in a skip.

Now, this probably isn’t a formal role – after all, we’re normally too busy trying to find cleaners and worship leaders and guitarists – but I’m willing to be that person’s there. They’ll be the one who starts telling tales of the church in a corner of the coffee morning, a little old lady who doesn’t hold a formal role in the fellowship, but who knows all the stories. And sadly, when she passes on, the stories will pass with her.

(Of course, there’s an opportunity for an intergenerational relationship building project here, if you’re interested…)

There’s an importance to this, as knowing the history and the story of a place helps to anchor our current identities, while also rooting the story of our congregations in that of their local area. Too often we travel to a commuter church and we don’t appreciate how that church relates to the houses and shops and factories we drive past on our way, nor do we know exactly how the church got there in the first place. It’s not always clear how a church even got its name.

There’s also humility in all this. We’re often told to think about our story, our journey, to the exclusion of how we fit into the stories of others. you know, we’re not always yhe hero. Sometimes we’re the supporting cast. Sometimes we’re an extra. Sometimes, just sometimes, we’re the villain.

There’s a moment in the Book of Amos when God turns to the Israelites and points out that he’s also been at work in Ethiopia and Crete and Syria and no-one seemed to appreciate that as they weren’t listening to the stories of those around them, weren’t paying attention to how God was moving in the world rather than among a specific church council meeting. And that’s a humbling lesson we could do well to learn.

So listen to that little old lady who knows all the stories. Write them down, put them on your website, pass them on to the next generation. God may be saying something through them.

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Can Anything Good Come From Nazareth? (John 1:43-51)

People seem to have an issue with my accent.
See, I grew up in Dudley, but I was born in Derby, and so everyone feels the need to comment on my accent as if I’ve just descended from the icy moon of Europa than 40 miles down the A38. And I’m hardly the victim if some horrendous hate crime here, but when people start dissing my accent in Dudley then, well, it gets a bit frustrating.

There are echoes of this is Nathanael’s response to the suggestion that he should go and meet Jesus of Nazareth: “Nazareth?! Can Anything Good Come From Nazareth?!” He’s soon shut up by an encounter with Jesus himself, but the point still stands – this boy from Cana has issues with folk from a neighbouring town. Maybe that tells us something about Nazareth itself – was it a town of hicks and hayseeds? Was it the sort of place from which characters in a Springsteen song would plot their escape? Did people mock the Nazarene accent? Did people mock Jesus’s accent?

There’s a harsher angle on this though. Nathanael’s attitude reflects our modern attitudes: can anything good come from deprived neighbourhoods, deindustrialised cities and shanty towns, favelas and barrios? Or are they simply havens for poverty, crime, despair and hopelessness?

Our answer to this will affect how we respond to places like Nazareth, whether or not our churches seek to emigrate to them or simply colonise them with an attitude of superiority and supremacy. And in doing so we forget that this is the sort of place in which Jesus grew up, in which he spent 18 years on building sites and in workshops, in which he hung out with friends and neighbours and aunties and uncles.

And so Nathanael’s comment, and Jesus’s incarnation into the margins rather than into the heart of Jerusalem should lead us to ask where the good already is in the places we may have write off, where the Holy Spirit is already at work, where the Kingdom is already built.

Because when God walked the earth in human form, he didn’t ignore the impoverished places, he grew up there; he didn’t mock the one-horse towns, he lived in them; he didn’t invade or colonise, he inhabited. And that should be our attitude as well, because otherwise, in our snobbery and our privilege, we may miss all the good that emerges from the Nazareths of this world.

And leave my accent alone!

My Father Was a Wandering Aramean (Deuteronomy 26:5)

Many centuries ago, as the ancient nation of Israel coalesced around Covenant and Law, the people were commanded to dedicate the firstfruits of their harvest to God. And so, once a year, they would take these firstfruits to the priests, and recount the story of their people, beginning “My father was a Wandering Aramean…

It’s an evocative phrase, harking back to their ancestor Jacob. Jacob the trickster, Jacob  the hero. Jacob the conman, Jacob the man of God. And after he ripped off his brother, he made a life for himself in Aram, and then was forced to flee and flee again, a great famine driving him and his family into Egypt, then political oppression and slavery leading them into the wilderness before entering their Promised Land.

And so when Israel remembered their story, when they gave thanks for the lives they’d been given, they remembered where they came from, remembered that their’s was a story of escape and freedom and movement and migration.

And so, centuries later, would Jesus and Joseph have brought their offerings to the priest, would they have recounted their story: “My father was a Wandering Aramean…”

It’s a distant story, one of the great origin stories of Genesis. But it feels a long way away – what do these stories of Jacob escaping death and violence and famine mean for us?

Why should we think on the identification of a Wandering Aramean?

Arameans came from Aram.

Aram is now known as Aleppo, in Syria.

Don’t Shoot

We all like to think that, if Jesus were here today, we’d make him our friend.
Our priest.

Our President, our Prime Minister.

I’m scared that, if Jesus were here today, someone would’ve already painted a swastika on his front door.

That he’d’ve drowned in a sinking refugee boat off Egypt.

That he’d’ve been locked away without charge for upsetting the status quo.

I’m scared that, if Jesus were here today, someone would have shot him already.

I’m scared that, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, that’s exactly what’s happening right now.

Identity (Galatians 3:26-28)

There’s a beautiful moment in the Book of Galatians in which Paul affirms the unity of the people of God across all of society’s divides. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,” Paul writes, “Nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s a way of emphasising our unity as Christ’s family, but there’s a risk here. Because it would be easy to read this and ignore the fact that our identities are rooted in our ethnicity, our gender,  our social context. These things are important, and while it’s true that faith in Christ will result in a restructuring of our personal identity, it takes a very privileged position to be able to dismiss out of hand our race, our gender, our sexuality and our class. 

Each of us have multiple identities, and we can’t pretend those identities don’t matter, not when the leading cause of death for young black men is homicide, not when so many transgender people commit suicide, not while rape culture is still a thing, not while…

Our identities affect our lives. They affect how we interact with the world, they impact how people respond to us, positively or negatively. We can’t fall into the trap of believing that our identities don’t matter; we can’t blithely erase someone’s identity because in doing so we erase a part of them and their story with God.

So when we quote Galatians, I don’t think it’s about erasing identity, it’s about erasing division. We’re called to come together as one, as equals before Christ, and sometimes that means acknowledging our differences and embracing them, not seeing them as something that divides but as a way of achieving unity in diversity. We haven’t always been good at that. But we need to figure it out, because as Paul says, we are one.

We are one…so we need to dismantle the structures that see innocent black men getting shot by police.

We are one…so women should be able to walk across a car park at night without fear of getting raped.

We are one…so children shouldn’t be sexual assaulted as their churches cover everything up.

We are one…so poorer communities need some support and investment rather than being written off.

We are one…so attitudes towards sexuality shouldn’t lead to a spoke in suicides.

We are one, so we need to be able to see the needs and feel the pain and listen to the lament of our brothers and sisters, and then work together to heal those wounds and demolish structures of injustice, because if we don’t the humanity of us all is eroded.
We are one, so the things that divide us need to be nailed to the Cross with Christ do that we can be transformed into his diverse and inclusive family, joined together through grace. 

And then our identities will no longer divide, and we can then begin to celebrate each other instead.