A few weeks ago I wrote about my experiences trying to minister to the strangers in my neighborhood using my new snowblower. Most of those people didn’t know me, beyond a passing face walking a dog around the block. Last Sunday’s gospel reading (John 4:21-30) reminds me of the struggles of ministering to people who are familiar with you, or at least think that they are. The people of Nazareth doubtlessly saw Jesus growing up in his father’s shop like every other village boy. How could this person be the messiah? What good could come from someone, something so common?
Sometimes the reputations of churches work against us as well. My previous parish was in a small town in western Ohio, a “rust belt” community largely composed of working-class Roman Catholics. Decades ago the Episcopal Church in that city was the “country club” church, its stained glass windows lettered with the names of wealthy donors whose names also graced city parks, sports arenas, streets, and businesses. But those days were long gone and the congregation itself more closely resembled the average person in the town, but from the outside the reputation remained, and the social barriers held.
Beyond that, the greater Church has what can only be charitably called a “checkered past” when it comes to its own history, especially with how it treated certain ethnicities, faiths, genders, and sexual orientations. That is in addition its frequent resistance to scholarship (theological and scientific) that challenged established ideas and doctrines.
So despite a more open, more diverse Episcopal Church, we have to be sensitive and honest about how people see us, and why. We cannot change our past, but we can take responsibility for it. We can faithfully and prayerfully present ourselves to our community with the intent to love them, acknowledging our history (good and bad) and looking to the future.