Trinity 12 - the dark side of Christ's community of love

A sermon preached by Fr Robert Thompson in the United Benefice, 7 September 2014

I start today with a story from the 13th century Islamic Mystic (Sufi) Nasrudin:

A stranger stops Nasrudin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what Baghdad is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nasrudin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a wonderful place! Neighbours were kind to one another, we looked out for the children, people shared and were generous and happy!" "Ah! said Nasrudin. "You will love Baghdad. Don't worry at all, and welcome!"

Later on, another stranger stops Nasrudin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what Baghdad is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nasrudin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a terrible place! Thieving and fornication and children noisy and running wild. People are selfish and distrustful." "Ah!" said Nasrudin. "You will dislike Baghdad. You'd better move on to another city!”

Nasrudin’s little anecdote alerts us to the ways in which we as human beings, and even as Christians, may be tempted to think that
the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,
that there is an easy solution to the problems that we face,
that we can easily pick ourselves up and just move on to that elusive, but somehow-existing, somewhere-else place which is the paradise in which all the dark side of human life is left behind and in which peace and harmony reign.

The tale also alerts us to the hubris, the spiritual vanity, in any assessment of our own problems:
that they are not simply the cause of others,
that they are not only the product of circumstances to which we don't ourselves contribute
and that our attitude to life in general is not fundamental to how we experience our own sense of human wellbeing and also the social and communal lives in which we are involved.

If only life was like a fairy tale!!

Often we hold our Christian faith and commitment as if life were like a fairytale. Faith, Church and God in this sense become the  living realities on to which we project our own fantasies for a problem and pain free life. When this fairytale version of Christian faith is challenged by pain and distress, as Margaret in her sermon last week gave us a powerful example, a common response is simply to extract ourselves from the life of Christian discipleship and to go travelling to another spiritual city, (although probably not Baghdad these days!) Like Peter, in the gospel which we heard last week, we are tempted to reject suffering as part of the vocation of Christian discipleship and simply to move on.

Jesus’ response however to Peter and to us, and as Margaret eloquently argued last week, is to say that we should not expect life to be a bed of roses, but rather that Jesus calls us to take up our cross, and to embrace the way of pain and suffering that leads to Calvary and to follow him. The Christian response to pain and suffering is not to posit its easy eradication, rather it is the response of God in Jesus Christ who becomes a human person like us, to share in our troubled human existence, to embrace the way of self-sacrificial love, a way of life that inevitably leads to the Cross, and yet breaks through in to the fullness of life in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The resurrection is not a magic wand waved over the distressing aspects of life, rather it is the sign that life, love, hope, faith, human vitality are not eclipsed by the evils of this world. God’s last word, God’s response to human pain and suffering, God’s response to human sin and destruction is simply the love of and in the person of Jesus Christ. Christian faith is simply this: that love is stronger than death.

Last week the readings, and Margaret’s response to them, helped us to think and feel our way through the problems of sickness, disease and natural disaster. Today’s readings however address the arena of conflicts that we humans make for ourselves. Today’s focus is on the problems that we human beings so often create together in our personal lives, the political life of our communities, nation and  of our world, and also the problems, disagreements and quarrels, which from time to time, can very sadly be constitutive of the life of both the wider Church as a whole, and of our own local  Christian community.

Today’s readings then ask us to assess how we as a church community face the dark side our human existence, the shadow side of our Christian discipleship, in how we address conflict among and between us. Difference and disagreement seem inevitable in any group of people. But when we experience them in the Church there is a real clash between our life and the example of Christ and his vision of God’s reign. We ourselves detect here our own hypocrisy and so can be tempted to give up and go to other spiritual cities, not because we are lazy or indifferent, but because we judge ourselves too harshly!

Even in a functional Church community like ours there are many visible disagreements that we tiptoe around and simply ignore - the proverbial elephants that inhabit many of our rooms. Then there are also the shallowly buried disagreements and differences that pop up in shared looks, careful avoidance, unspoken words and simmering feelings. Our resentments, pain, personal hurts and individual desires, when they have no real means of being addressed, worked through and resolved, can so easily become collectively constitutive of our common life. Today’s readings ask us to assess how it is that we address the demons that are present among us so that healing and wholeness can be the characteristics of our own community. They ask us to put in place proper structures in which such emotions are addressed as a community so that the bonds of love and affection to which Jesus calls his followers can properly flourish.

There are however theological, moral and practical minefields in working from ancient texts such as those we read today to our  own situations. None of us would claim to be like Ezekiel, who seems to know exactly what the word of God  is for his own community. If only God would speak to all preachers and priests in such a way! Rather we are more like the Psalmist whose prayer embodies the idea that the words of God, the ways of God, what God would have us do, are not quite so apparent. Our Epistle with it’s focus on love and on the unity of the Church is poetically moving and holds before us the theological heart of the gospel, but the real difficultly for all of us is how such a faith looks in practice: What structure does love take in the way that a Church makes its decisions? What forms does love take in how we regulate our common life? What does love look like in the way that we discuss, argue for and implement change in our parish as much as in the Church at large?

The gospel too, on a brisk and superficial reading, also presents us with real problems when it comes to how we work from it to our own common Church life. There are certainly three problems that I have with it:
Jesus’ advice seems to assume that there are the sinning and the  sinned against. Whilst that may be right in particular discreet situations it is much more difficult to make such a sweeping, black and white judgement when it comes to real people, their whole lives, their overall conduct, their personalties.
Jesus’ advice also seems to demand that on particular issues when all else fails that the person who thinks they are wholly right makes the offence of another public to the entire Church community. It’s a way of regulating church life that is mostly consigned to distant history in the Church of England and it’s a culture that does not sit well with our modern liberal sensibilities, but it does still exist in some Church cultures.
Jesus’ advice also seems to end with a clause that calls for the expulsion of one party from the Church community in a phrase that also seems to embody racial stereotyping and prejudice: “if the offender refuses to listen even to the Church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

So what then might we take from today's readings to inform conflict resolution in our lives and the governance of our own common life?

The first theme I think is responsibility. Like the anecdote from Nasrudin, the thrust of the Ezekiel text is about taking responsibility for our own actions. God tells Ezekiel that if he knows about injustice, about the failings of his own community silence is simply not a morally appropriate option. Silence, God tells Ezekiel, will simply end in the whole community's destruction. It's a text that invites us to repentance for those times in which we have been too slow to articulate our own sense of grievance against others. Such tardiness often leads to festering  emotions and moral putrefaction. It's a text that also demands that we take responsibility for our own failings and misdoings since Ezekiel is being sent to ask for the people’s repentance. Christian responsibility is then individual and communal and it is always a responsibility before God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The second theme from Romans is transparency and openness. After the poetic oration on love as the summation of the law, Paul then uses metaphors of sleep and wake, light and darkness. He directs the community to be vigilant, to be awake, to live in light, to reject evil, to put an end to debauchery and drunkenness, to expunge quarrel and strife. The metaphors remind us of Jesus' own teaching on vigilance: oh that we will be the wise and not the foolish virgins! But in relation to community life, and the life of the Church, the metaphors remind us that good governance is dependent on openness, transparency, healthy and properly  informed discussion, debate and decision making that takes place in public and with due and careful scrutiny. Any other form of governance is an activity of the secretive night which simply ends in self and community destruction.

The third theme from our gospel is the call of Christ to the continual, extremely painful, and inordinately difficult work of reconciliation. Jesus, it seems to me, speaks the difficult line I have already highlighted, to his hearers tongue in cheek. Treat the offender as you would a Gentile or a tax-collector he says. The Church which is Christ's body is called to treat the offender in precisely the same way that Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors in his own life. His ministry was one which was not characterised by a racially or religiously pure version of Jewish identity or of the extent of God's love. Rather his arms were always open to the outsider, to the other, to the different. Today's gospel calls us to that work of embrace even to those whom we label and stereotype all too easily.

This call to responsibility, transparency and openness, and the continual work of reconciliation is not of course easy in practice. Love’s structure is often difficult to determine, it's foundations elusive. The struggle is embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Christ which at every Eucharist is made present for us and in which we participate. In the story of Christ’s life and  passion it often seems that the characters are caught up in forces of evil and destruction that are beyond their control, and on which their wills can bring little to bear. Peter from last week’s gospel is a prime example here. In Bach's version of St Matthew’s Passion after Peter has denied Jesus there is a mournful alto solo accompanied by violin. The singer laments:

Have mercy, my God, for my tears' sake;
Look here, my heart and eyes
weep bitterly before you.
Have mercy! my God, for my tears' sake.

Although I have strayed from You,
yet I have returned again;
for your Son has reconciled us
through his agony and mortal pain.
I do not deny my guilt
but my grace and favour
is far greater than the sin
which I ever confess in myself.

May God have mercy on all our failings.
May God look on us only and simply as found in the face of his Son , by the grace of our Baptism, the One who shows us what it is to be fully human, truly alive.
May we commit ourselves to the work of reconciliation as God in Christ reconciles us to the source of Being and the fount of Love.
Holland Park Benefice