Sermon preached by George CR in the Community Church Sunday 15 January 2012    (Names have been changed)  

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  John 1.43-51

What is familiar to us is, what is part of our everyday life, we always see at our own humble level. Nothing extraordinary comes from here. The extraordinary always comes from somewhere extraordinary, different. Where we live is incapable of being extraordinary. That happens elsewhere. The more towards the bottom of the pile we are, the further away are all the things in life that are special and extraordinary. So we assume not much very special can come out of the place where we live.

Opposite me in our choir seating is the first of our new Choir stalls. It was made in a prison. The two people who did most work on it were an older man and a younger man.

It turned out to be a very complex piece of furniture to build and it is full of hidden reinforcing structures. Tony, the younger man, proved to be very inventive in solving these structural problems. Before going to prison, all he had done in his life was fix television aerials.

Now he has helped create this beautifully-made piece of furniture and in doing it he has discovered abilities in himself he did not know he had. Can anything good come out of Nazareth ? Tony may now be thinking that perhaps something good can come out of his Nazareth .  He is eager for photos of the seat in situ in our church, so that he can put them in his portfolio.

It is good to be helping prisoners but these particular people are in prison for something that gets no sympathy from the public – it is a prison for sex offenders. We as a community will in fact be sitting on seats made by people who are strongly disliked by society.

It is always very difficult not to judge our neighbour. The desert fathers repeatedly warn us against judging our brother. Here is one story we heard this week: “A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest; Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him saying, I too am a sinner”. One of the characteristics of monastic life is that it lives in a radical way the Christian truth that we are all sinners together. Another Abba called Xanthia said, “a dog is better than I am, for he has love and does not judge”. One thing we know about ourselves is that we are all sinners. Sexual temptation is an open manhole in all of us and some of us fall down it. In our thoughts and in potential we are all sex offenders. This doesn’t take away from the fact that all are responsible for the sins they commit and need to pay the price the society asks but we are not to put ourselves above anyone, no matter what their sin.

We can also say of this prison that it has the power to transform. It is a good prison which works hard with its prisoners and a high proportion of them don’t re-offend. The furniture workshop is run for the prison by an expert woodworker called David. He’s committed to the work he is doing and wants to help bring out the best in the prisoners. David says that Tony will soon be moving on and he will have to be training others to work on our choirstalls. The work will take several months. We shall end up sitting on furniture made by a string of offenders and we can hope we may have helped a few of them. They will surely be part of our prayers for many years to come.

The beginning of St John’s gospel looks to be very far from all of this. This gospel of John has the character of an ancient mosaic: Christ moves in it like a heavenly figure against a background of shimmering gold. He is a glorious figure. As he appears, John raises his hand and says, “behold the Lamb of God.” We could be in a beautiful liturgy. In the gospel passage we have just heard Christ calls some of the disciples. It feels like an opera. The disciples seem to be tall, elongated figures from an El Greco painting and the divine gold shimmers behind them. They look at Christ and say “can anything good can come out of Cleckheaton?” (to give a Yorkshire approximation to Nazareth ). John’s gospel may be like a mosaic but it is avowedly earthy at the same time. It takes the ordinary and transfigures it.

In Cleckheaton, as in every Nazareth, gold is there. All we need is eyes to see. What opens our eyes is life in the Church, lived with commitment and centred on the liturgy. Christ saw. He beheld Nathaniel and said, behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile. May we grow to see all things with those eyes.

(Photographs of the choir stalls are below)

        George Guiver CR

Click on a photograph to see a larger image