Sermon - 7th September 2014
Scripture - Matthew 18:15-20
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The event which starts at 4.30pm each Sunday in this church quite deliberately has two main parts to it. For roughly the first hour, we seek to come close to God; and for about an hour after that, we seek to come close to each other as a community of Christian disciples.
Please don’t take this the wrong way: but we are a very peculiar church. Not only do we teach a liberating and celebrative understanding of God’s love for all of God’s diverse creation, we also manage to hold together as a community of followers who come from many different locations, backgrounds and personal circumstances.
You would think it might be a challenge for us to find common ground so that we can worship together - but we do. It is even more of a challenge for us to find ways in which we can be a community which shares things together, learns together, matures together, laughs together, cries together, and supports each other because Jesus tells us to love one another - but we do.
And one of the most precious times in which we build our relationships with each other is during that period when we rise from worship on a Sunday afternoon and spend time together - sharing, listening, learning, laughing, crying, and supporting each other.
Time and again in the gospels, Jesus draws his followers into communities; and his teachings very often stress how interconnected we all are. The underlying thread of justice and equality in many of his stories shows that if I take too much of the communal resources, you will have too little; they show that how I live my life, and where I place my priorities, has an effect on the people around me and influences how they are able to live their lives.
Yes, we can build up resources of wealth, power and influence to shield us from the effects of our choices, but our connectedness with our fellow human beings still means that our choices have impacts on the lives of others. And when Jesus shares a vision of God’s kingdom, he often shines a light on relationships and responsibilities.
In our church community we have to be innovative around how we maintain our relationships. I am not likely to run into you in any of the local shops, where we can have a chat and catch up on each others’ news, because I don’t live round here - and neither do most of you. A whole range of factors mean those of us here today won’t meet up from one day to the next, in domestic or social settings, unless we actively plan to do so.
So, we find other ways to stay connected, to show concern for each other, to share news, to seek help, to celebrate success. Many of us use social media and online messaging services to nurture those connections and to bridge the distances between where we live, and to compensate for the varied demands on our resources of time and energy.
Some of you start your day quite early by sharing your stories, often accompanied by pictures, which your friends can acknowledge and perhaps comment upon. One friend, in particular, works some very late shifts and I can usually see him posting messages in the early hours of the morning, and making links to topics which catch his attention, as he unwinds before going to bed when dawn begins to break. Both these people live miles away from me, and I would never know 90% of what interests them, or concerns them, or amuses them, or why we each belong to this church community if I relied on chance social encounters at the supermarket or in the Post Office.
But there is still something special about the face-to-face time that we spend with each other, reading each other’s body language, observing each other’s expressions, listening to each other’s tone of voice, and generally engaging with each other as friends, when we meet together, and sit together, and chat together, over refreshments on a Sunday afternoon.
If one of our core principles is that we meet God in each other, then surely being together, connecting with each other, and building up the foundations of our life as a Christian community, are also part of our spiritual life. Perhaps the boundary that we tend to place between our worship time and our community time is a false barrier, especially when we acknowledge that, at all times, we are called to love one another.
But from time to time people disagree with each other; and our reading today leads into those occasions when disagreements arise within the community. On one level, the text gives us a formula by which to deal with the disagreement. It sets out a process which seeks a resolution of the conflict in a staged and escalating way. But there is a less obvious wisdom in this process as it recognises that disagreements rarely affect only the two people who are engaged directly in the dispute.
Disputes escalate; people become aware of the conflicting views and tend to sympathise more with one side of the argument than the other; alliances form; loyalties are tested; and, oh so easily, the communities to which the protagonists belong begin to polarise into teams of supporters. And often, the people who suffer most are the community members who remain impartial around the dispute but who have to watch the conflict doing damage to the friendships, affections and relationships which once held the community together.
Today’s reading has some ‘tough love’ messages about that scenario which are quite uncompromising and require a degree of maturity which we may find challenging. The first message is around dealing promptly, honestly and directly with any dispute, disagreement or personal grievance which arises between ourselves and another person.
This approach comes out of our recognition that we are called to deal with other people with honesty and openness; that we are called to love another; and that our lives are interconnected in remarkable ways so that others are always affected in some way by our own actions and choices.
The second message of ‘tough love’ is that those who bring a dispute into the heart of a community, and those who fan the flames of the dispute from the sidelines instead of working to resolve it, carry the responsibility for the damage caused to that community. And sometimes, the only way that a community can save itself is to remove the sources of the damage being caused to it.
This approach comes out of our recognition that we are called to establish and nurture our relationships with each other as a community which understands its interconnectedness. Week by week I see expressions of the ways in which we love one another, support one another, affirm one another and commiserate with one another.
We work hard to maintain the identity of our community as a gathering of worshippers who have something liberating and affirming to say about Jesus who came to bring us life in all its fullness. And we find innovative ways to strengthen our sense of community despite the scattered nature of our locations, our differing backgrounds, our range of ages, our diverse cultures, and our various faith histories.
That is the church which God calls us to be: that is the community which Jesus calls us to establish, to nurture, and to protect. So when we rise from worship this afternoon, perhaps we will sense more keenly that our community time together is just another expression of why we are here, who we are called to be, and how we are meant to belong to each other.