More advice - this time on Community!
This Sunday (Proper 18, as it is called...) I had the privilege of leading the online service. Don't forget, if you would like to join us anytime, then leave a comment below, or go to the Church Website, and request the password for the Zoom service. This time of Covid-19 has been strange and difficult in many ways, for many people, but we are still a living, worshipping community, and in the readings we are given advice as to how a community should behave.
Here's a photo of our church community in more "open" days
I had to smile last week when Mike confessed to sometimes finding it difficult to know why the Wise Ones who put the Lectionary together chose to put the readings together that they did – what is the theme? How do they fit together? What on earth do I say about these readings…?
I have to confess that today’s readings proved just as challenging for me as last weeks were for him…In fact, I found them so apparently diverse and hard to pin down that, instead of starting to prepare well in advance as I usually do, I followed the advice given by many great procrastinators: never do today what you can put off until tomorrow. Well, Saturday came, and I could no longer put off writing the sermon!
But by then connections had started to make themselves known, and links were being forged. And I started to see that for me these readings are about community, and what it is that makes a community tick, and how we should behave as part of our Church community…
The reading from Exodus talks of the origins of the Passover ritual, the ritual that has bound the Jewish people together for centuries. It is a passage that is read aloud, as a central part of the ceremony, as the community looks back to its roots and how it came into being. And remembrance is an important part of community – it is reminder of why this community began, the reason for its very existence.
But it is also important that while traditions and history exist as the roots of a community, there is not a continual looking back, or raking over past successes (or failures!): a community is not healthy if it is stagnant, it always needs to be looking forward to where it is going. This is echoed in the words: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you It reminds me of that saying Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Yes, you have a past, which may be full of success, or which may be full of failure, or more likely, be a mix of the two, but today, and the future, is what counts. We can start afresh. If we are honest about what has gone wrong and what has worked, then we can move forward.
And it is only through being open and honest that we can move forward. We need to be willing to put down our baggage and be ready to make a fresh start. In the instructions for that first Passover, the Israelites were instructed to be ready to go : This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. There’s to be no hanging back, and hanging on to old grievances. Let it go, let’s start again.
And, when we think back to this time we shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord , we shall remember what God has done for us. This too is the theme of the Psalm – Let Israel rejoice in God’s love and mercy, let us praise him for his faithfulness, let’s recall his kindness! Let’s ask him to kill our enemies and wreak vengeance on the nations – woah! Hang on a minute…This isn’t the God we worship, a God of love and openness…I don’t really know how to interpret this, but I guess we need to remember that while the Psalms are in the Bible as sacred texts, they were still written by people: normal, sinful, greedy people. People who feel that their enemies should get their “just desserts”, that those who disagree with us should “learn their lesson” and “get what they deserve”. And this does seem to be a theme that resonates through the Old Testament, as the Israelites see those who are opposed to them as deserving of God’s punishment, without ever seeing that sometimes they are the ones at fault, who are opposed to God. But every time, holding to the truth of the Covenant made with God, when the Israelites return to God’s way, he meets them, and says Right. Your sins might be red as blood, but we are starting again. Your heart shall be white once more. Be open and honest, admit your wrongs and we shall begin again.
This is, I think, the theme of the rather difficult and uncomfortable reading from Matthew’s Gospel. It is the second of the only two times that Jesus is recorded as talking about “the Church”, and it is thought by some scholars that this is an insert by the writer of the Gospel, rather than Jesus’s exact words, perhaps because there were disagreements brewing in the early church. Whatever is the case, the advice is good…Deal with problems. Be honest. Be open. Don’t let old grievances fester and grow infected and ugly and damaging.
It’s like dealing with a splinter. The splinter itself may actually be quite small and insignificant, but if it is not removed, if it is left in the skin, there is the danger that it will cause infection, and become much, much worse. The removal of the splinter at first may be a little painful, but it is nowhere near as bad as it could become if left. If you’re the person removing the splinter from the finger of your child, your friend, your spouse, you do it carefully and with love: you don’t want to cause pain, but it’s necessary, and you will do it with as much care to alleviate the pain as possible.
In any community if there are grievances, or power struggles, or disagreements there is danger: danger of splits and factions, and through this the community is weakened. It reminds me of part of the Monty Python film “The Life of Brian” – a film which itself caused disagreements within the church as people argued about whether it was blasphemous or not. I am of the opinion that it’s not about Brian being the Messiah, and it’s just a very funny film. In the scene I’m thinking of, the hero, Brian, wants to join the fight against the Romans. So he goes to a group and asks Are you the Judean People's Front? No, he’s told, We're the People's Front of Judea. In fact, says the group, The only people we hate more than the Romans are the Judean People's Front. And, interjects another, we hate the Judean Popular People's Front….and says someone else, the Popular People's Front of Judea. And so it goes on… The point being that each group wants the same goal, but split because of small, insignificant reasons. And the common cause is lost in the pettiness.
Jesus – or Matthew – tells us to deal with grievances with love and forgiveness. Look at where this little incident is placed: between the Parable of the Lost Sheep – go and search for the one that is lost – and the parable which ends with Peter being told to forgive those who have grieved him seventy times seven. Love. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Like removing the splinter it may be painful to be open about a grievance, but it’s better to face a small problem, than let it fester.
So, go to the person with whom there is the problem, but go in love, in openness, and be ready to listen to them and their side of the story. And then, shake hands on the matter, and let it drop. But if you can’t reach an agreement, then take it to two or three trusted members of the church – not people who will take your side, but those who are skilled in conflict resolution; if this is still a problem then it should be brought before the Church – but always in love, always openly, always with an honesty and readiness to confess that you might also have been in the wrong. As one commentator says, True wisdom comes in the gathered community, and discernment comes with the presence of Christ where two or more are together. It is then that the community can discern what is destructive or creative; the latter discernment leading into their prayer and other actions.
And if this is still not working, we are told to let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. If you are wondering just what is meant by this, remember how Jesus behaved towards such people: with openness, with honesty, with love. So we are not being told to reject people from our congregations if we don’t agree with them; we are told follow the example of Jesus, and to be open and loving towards them. God does not ask us to reject those in our congregations who are different to us, but rather to be truthful about our own prejudices and opinions, and to discuss in an atmosphere of love and honesty, how we are feeling.
The reading from Romans is another reminder of how we should live, both as individuals and as a community: Here it is again, but this time, in the language of the translation from The Message Bible: Don’t run up debts, except for the huge debt of love you owe each other. When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don’t sleep with another person’s spouse, don’t take someone’s life, don’t take what isn’t yours, don’t always be wanting what you don’t have, and any other “don’t” you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.
You can’t go wrong when you love others.
Jesus calls us to be a forgiven and forgiving people, so saturated with grace and love that we can risk being honest with each other. As we approach the start of a new chapter for Christ Church, we can take lessons from these readings:
We can learn to look back at what has been good, and not so good about the past of our church. We can rejoice in the successes, we can learn from the failures. But we must not hold onto those successes and failures, because if we do, they will weigh us down, like extra baggage would have weighed down the escaping Israelites and held them back. We must look forward, and be ready to follow God.
We can learn to remember that God is on the side of everyone who does his will, even if we don’t recognise them as being like us. Instead of praying that God would smite them down, as the Psalmist seems happy to do, we need to see the good in everyone, and be ready to admit that we might well be in the wrong.
We can learn to go to those who we feel have hurt us: and speak to them, and listen to them, and react with love and honesty. I have recently been reminded of the saying “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. Be kind. Always” Yes, honestly approach those who have hurt you, but be aware that they need to be listened to as well.
If I go back to Mike’s comment last week, he said he struggles with understanding how the scriptures selected for a particular day were intended to pull together for some kind of lesson. But – and I don’t mean this as any criticism of Mike – he forgot that we are given another tool in the Lectionary that sometimes can be of help in unravelling the mystery of the readings. And this is the collect for the day – the “special prayer”. That’s why I always include it in the pre service Power Point, giving people the opportunity to read it and reflect on it a little, should they wish to.
Today’s collect sums up, I think, the advice on how we should live in our community:
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts – we look back at what we have done as a community, but we also are ready to follow you where you will lead us. We trust you Lord, to show us the right way to go.
for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, - we know that we should not always think that we are right, be that individually, or as a Church; we should listen to the stories of others, and always show them the love that you have shown us.
so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; - we know that the only way we can behave and live in our Church community is to demonstrate that you are Lord of our lives.
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.