Sunday, 7 September 2014

Conflict in our midst & Christ among us

Sermon preached at Creaton URC on 7th September 2014. Text: Matthew 18:15-22

I hate you!
If he tells that story again, I shall hit him, I swear it.
If she says one more thing about my flowers, I’ll tell her what I think of her.

Conflict. It’s a part of any human community. John doesn’t like what Rosemary said, and he’s in a huff about it. John’s friend Bill gets drawn in, and Bill’s wife Jane, except that Rosemary’s sister Judith is already in an argument with Jane. And ten years later, the arguments remain, the hurts stay. The community is diminished, but nobody can quite address it.

And in churches, conflict can simmer and remain around for many years, because people stay in the same churches for many years, even sometimes generations. I was part of a church once where thirty years earlier there’d been a big argument over the use of the building, a group of people had left to worship in another part of town, and progressively the people who had left got old and died off, with just a small number of them remaining. But the rift hadn’t healed. And it was still a hurt that people didn’t want to talk about. That was in a town far from here, but I know of similar stories of churches in this area, where splits haven’t healed after years, or where people carry on together in the same church community but are unreconciled to each other.

If conflict isn’t addressed, it can get worse and worse. I’m reminded of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree”. The first verse is quite well known. It runs:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

However, the poem gets darker and darker. The unquenched anger becomes something real and tangible. Eventually the poet kills his foe.

So what do we do about this kind of conflict? That’s the subject of the reading from Matthew today. It’s not a cheery topic, not one many of us would like to think about, but really important. I need to say something directly before I continue. As someone who’s not been to this church before, let alone preached in it, I want to emphasise that what I have to say today is not loaded, it’s not based on particular conflicts between people here. I’m sure there are some, but I don’t know about them. So rest assured that any anecdotes aren’t aimed at specific people here – though that does mean I might unintentionally hit on a raw nerve or two.

And Jesus presents us with a solution of sorts, though it’s an odd kind of solution. The process Jesus outlines can sound incredibly harsh, like a recipe for a disciplinary committee of the sort practised by our Reformed forebears in places like Geneva and Edinburgh in the days when these were far from cosy places if you stepped out of line with the community. In fact it’s such a difficult passage, and so oddly out of joint with Jesus’ style (not to mention its use of the term ‘church’ when no such thing existed) that the great Scottish biblical scholar William Barclay argued that it couldn’t possibly be the authentic words of Jesus. And there’s the frankly quite odd statement that if the offender should be treated like the pagans or tax collectors, who elsewhere in the gospels Jesus is very welcoming towards. So is there really anything to be taken from this? Well (deep breath), I do believe it’s a passage that sits alongside Jesus’ other teaching, if you look at where he’s saying it.

First of all, the immediately preceding passage is Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s joy in finding it. And then the passage is followed with two verses which aren’t linked with this passage in the lectionary, but I thought were so helpful that we needed to hear them today: Jesus’ statement to Peter that we should forgive something not just seven times but seventy-seven times, or in some versions seventy times seven times. That’s a lot of forgiveness. And it chimes in with a saying of Jesus in the Sermon on Mount, that:
“if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24, NRSV)

So to me the passage needs to be seen in the context of forgiveness, and of St Paul’s statement in our reading from Romans, saying “to love is to obey the whole Law”.

If someone does wrong to you, you don’t kick back, you don’t nurse a grudge. First thing, you go and talk to them. You need to say straight out “you’ve hurt me, you’ve done me wrong”. That’s a shockingly difficult thing in itself to do. Very often I don’t have the courage to do it myself if someone has done me wrong. But it’s a necessary first step. And it acknowledges the other person’s humanity, that they too are a child of God whatever wrong they’ve done you. So there’s a lot of forgiveness needed in being willing to do that. And it may be sufficient by itself.

But it may not be enough, and in that case we’re presented with a couple of further steps: to bring along a couple of others to talk it through with the wrong-doer, and then to take it to the whole community. That last step is incredibly difficult – to tell everyone what has happened. And this isn’t about gossiping, it’s about openly stating the issue. Imagine raising a long-standing personal dispute as an item at the next church meeting. It’s would be tough, unpleasant. But if it was done in the right way, in a spirit of openness and loving forgiveness, and if the other person could hear it in that spirit, and if the church could support you both through the process – that could be the sort of thing that really heals wounds that fester over decades within a community.

And if it still doesn’t work, Jesus advises, we are best to openly acknowledge that the community is broken, to be public about it. It has to be done in love and care. Religious communities have treated transgressors really badly in the past, calling them excommunicated or expelled. But if we can openly acknowledge that the person who has done wrong is looking in a different direction from the rest of the community, perhaps with fault on all sides, then that’s perhaps another way towards eventual healing. And it’s a way to avoid blaming the victim, which I’ve not mentioned but can be a real risk in some cases – where wrong is done to someone, but the community closes ranks to support the wrongdoer and it’s the victim who is driven out of the community. That’s happened far too often to women who have been raped, it’s happened far too often to children who have been abused by people they trusted. What Jesus is talking about is a way to love everyone and forgive everything, but to trust the victim of wrong rather than blaming them.

Now I’m going to pass over the bits about permitting and prohibiting in heaven and on earth, which
are a whole different sermon, because I want to talk about this wonderful statement, that “where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them”.  There’s such a lot of richness in that statement. Does he mean us? This group of people gathered today in Jesus’ name? Yes he does. And he means every church everywhere worshipping today, wherever in the world in whatever ways. He promises us that he is there with us, holding our community together. And that brings me to discernment.

What the sequence of steps that Jesus describes reminds me of, is the process of discernment. I was a Quaker for fifteen years, and Quakers have long talked about an individual having a ‘concern’ – a matter that presses deeply on their heart. Often that’s the way that real change begins, from one individual’s concern. Among Quakers, it’s how the campaign against slavery began, how many peace-making efforts began, and how their current witness for same-sex marriage equality began. If such a concern is really strong, you might believe that it’s God telling you to do something. But how do you know it’s from God? You pray about it individually, deeply, at length. Then you bring together a small group to pray together and to discern the leadings of the Holy Spirit on the topic. If that group believes that this is something coming from God, you take it to the whole church to seek their discernment. You might even go to another level within the denomination to seek further discernment – in the URC that would be synods and the general assembly. And what Jesus is saying here is a similar thing, but about handling conflict.

If we want to restore community, if we want to restore wholeness to our broken relationships, we have to seek the will of God together, in wider and wider groups. We have to listen prayerfully to the still small voice of the Spirit, and we have to be prepared to forgive each other and to rejoice in the return of the lost one to our community.

We live in a world where the word community has become grossly over-used. We hear talk of online communities, of communities based around identity, communities based around lifestyle, even communities based around what kind of gadgets you buy (the iPhone community or the Android community). Yet we’re also in a world where community feels quite a long way from many people’s lives. And we’re in a world where conflict and separation are everywhere. Tensions may have reduced slightly in Ukraine, but they could start up again any time. Syria is a constant sea of conflict and division, likewise Israel and Palestine. So many of these sores are to do with ancient hatreds that never healed, because nobody put in the work to make them heal. What Jesus offers us here is a way of doing that, which if we practice it in our own local hurts and conflicts just might offer a beacon of hope to a world that is suffering so much from conflict.

One example of this working out in practice is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which practiced forgiveness on a daily basis as it sought to bring out into the open the many terrible acts committed during the apartheid years. Desmond Tutu, who chaired the commission, says that “forgiving is not forgetting; it's actually remembering and not using your right to hit back”. I heard his daughter Mpho Tutu, herself an Episcopal priest in South Africa, speak last month at Greenbelt. She spoke very powerfully about forgiveness. There is no one, she said, who cannot be forgiven – nobody is beyond forgiveness. Moreover, it is possible to forgive someone even if they show no remorse, and indeed by not forgiving someone you allow the one who injured you to dictate who you are. This fits so well with the compassionate as well as the uncompromising nature of Jesus’ teaching.

Sticking with the wisdom found through injustice in southern Africa as we come to an end, there’s a song from Zimbabwe, brought to this country by the Iona Community, which is based on today’s passage. It runs:
If you believe and I believe
And we together pray
the Holy Spirit shall come down
and set God’s people free.
And set God’s people free, and set God’s people free,
The Holy Spirit shall come down and set God’s people free.

If we gather authentically in the name of Jesus, if we are able to forgive one another, if we can rebuild relationships that are bruised and battered – then the Holy Spirit will move among us, and God’s people will be set free. Amen.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Thoughts on Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus

I’ve talked and thought and heard a lot lately about Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, but never actually seen the real picture. As I’m in London for a meeting, I thought I’d make a trip to the National Gallery where it hangs, and take a look. Here are my thoughts while I was in front of it. (I've deliberately not looked at any art history websites to see how they compare to others' views.)

It’s a very physical picture. The light and the shadows behind Jesus are often remarked upon, and they’re stunning, but equally obvious is the food on the table – chicken and fruit and water, portrayed in great detail, as well as bread and wine. This is not a ritual re-enactment of the Last Supper with cubes of white sliced bread or tasteless little wafers. This is real food, a real meal.

Then there’s the people. They are not picture postcard people. They are not symbols or abstractions. They’re real, grounded people.

There’s Jesus. He’s strikingly pretty, a young girlish face. Composed yet tender, flowing locks. Yet he’s not the tender-Jesus-meek-and-mild of Victoriana. There’s power in him, and a really strong sense of sadness.
The two disciples are much older than him, a whole generation older. The gospel names one as Cleopas, and while modern biblical scholarship suggests that the other might be Cleopas’ wife, both figures are male in this picture, both with ample beards (Jesus is clean-shaven).

One has arms stretched wide, a gesture which the National Gallery interpretation sign suggests is astonishment, but is also an echo of Christ’s arms outstretched on the cross. He’s wearing a scallop shell, later the symbol of pilgrims. He could be about to pronounce a blessing himself, or to emulate Christ’s sacrifice (as so many of the disciples did). Flippantly, his gesture also reminds of the fisherman showing how big was his fish that got away – though of course Jesus’ disciples knew a thing or two about fish.

The other disciple has his back to us, and is rising from his chair. Not so much to say about him. He looks more dishevelled than his friend – his clothes are slightly torn, he has a sense of disorder about him. The troubles of the past few days must weigh heavy on him.

And then there’s a third man, standing behind Jesus. He’s younger, wears a cap, with just a small beard. He’s listening just as intently as the other two, though gives the impression of not being so much part of the meal, if only because he’s not sitting at the table. Perhaps he is the innkeeper, a sudden extra witness to the teaching and the blessing and the revelation?

I don’t know which of the three figures are actually intended to be the two disciples mentioned in the gospel story, and why Caravaggio portrayed three figures. But the gospel story is never complete. There were always things going on not discussed in the story. Why should there not be a third figure?

Caravaggio shows us an ordinary scene, with ordinary food being eaten by ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. Emmaus was a revelation, but it was a revelation within the everyday, that happened to people who had other lives and other stories. Life continues, and the amazing things happen in its midst.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Jonah and the Whale song - an extended version

The song "Jonah and the Whale" is much beloved at Sunday Schools. It's jolly but (like lots of Sunday School versions of the Jonah story) ends when Jonah came out of the fish, and misses out most of the interesting parts of the book of Jonah. In particular, there's no mention of the tree that Jonah shades under and is subsequently eaten by a worm, a strange little parable wrapped inside the whole strange parable that is the book of Jonah.

Here's the original song (written by Hugh Mitchell in 1957 - it's often uncredited but is listed by the Churches Copyright Licensing Authority). The tune can be found in various places online and in an organ version by Canon Quentin Bellamy:
Come listen to my tale
Of Jonah and the whale
Way down in the middle of the ocean.
Now how did he get there
Whatever did he wear
Way down in the middle of the ocean
A-preaching he should be
At Nineveh, you see -
To disobeys a very foolish notion.
But God forgave his sin
Salvation entered in
Way down in the middle of the ocean.
And here's our second verse (written by myself and my daughter):
God sent Jonah a tree
He said hip-hip-hooree
He sheltered neath its broad and shady branches.
But God sent down a worm
It wriggled and it squirmed
Deep down in the middle of the desert.
The worm ate up the tree
Near Nineveh you see
And Jonah got all hot and tired and bothered.
But God said to Jonah,
Dont you be a moaner,
Deep down in the middle of the desert. 
Original - copyright Hugh Mitchell, 1957; second verse copyright Magnus Ramage & Alice Calcraft, 2014. (Images: Jonah Journal by Rabbi David Paskin)