David Barton’s Sermon from
Sunday 16-Feb-14 Matthew 5:21-37
Well, there is is! Uncomfortable stuff! Just look at it. If you are angry with someone you are hauled up in front of the judge. If you say “you fool” – into the flames of hell you go! I am glad the bishop did not ask questions about that sort of thing when I put myself forward for ordination, or I would not be here! And then…….. if you want a more acceptable version of the same thing, take a look at Luke 6. Altogether more digestible.
But……..When Jesus gets tough like this, its Jesus in wake up mode – the verbal equivalent of giving us a good shaking. This whole passage is about the unintended consequences of failing to be watchful about the way we think and act – the wounding chance remark, the roving eye, the hand greedily reaching out for more of whatever it is. And there may be particular reasons why Matthew remembered Jesus’ words in this form and not the somewhat gentler version we find in Luke. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Antioch. The church there was largely Jewish – this Gospel is very Jewish in feel and outlook. And we know that the church in Antioch found it very difficult to admit Gentiles to its fellowship. It was all supposed to have been amicably settled at the Council of Jerusalem. But the letter to the Galatians records an open row in Antioch between Peter and Paul over the issue. To his horror Paul found Jewish and Gentile Christians were segregated, eating at separate tables. So he confronted Peter “to his face” about it. And very probably this was a dispute that rumbled on right to the end of the first century. In that kind of context, it is not really surprising to find Jesus’ words framed as sharply as they are here.
And by coincidence this Gospel turns up today in the set readings, and fits very aptly into a situation we now find ourselves in. Last week the General Synod agreed a fast track for new legislation to allow women to be ordained as Bishops. Dioceses will again be consulted during the summer, and, if that goes well, the synod aims to pass the legislation in the Autumn. No guarantees of course, but women bishops could be nominated by the end of the year.
But, before you cheer, just remember that there are some strong feelings here, for and against. The opponents who threw out the legislation last year have not gone away. The question to ask is how, when there are people around who have such differing views, and hold them strongly, how can we live together and not wound one another? The reason we have got this far is because of a new agreement put forward by the Bishops. There is to be an ombudsman to deal with disputes, but central to it all is the commitment that as a church “we will be concerned with one another’s flourishing, though we hold contrary views.” Will we do that I wonder?
But what really startled me was that, in his address to the Synod, Archbishop Justin went even further and brought up the question of human sexuality. Coming up, because it is absolutely unavoidable now, is the question of the blessing of gay marriages. There again there are deeply held views. Many people here, and around the world fear that any change will be a betrayal of our traditions and a denial of the authority of scripture. But, as the archbishop said, for others such a position begins to look like a form of racism. And these are not just questions for synod. What about us as a congregation? Would we as a church welcome a gay partnership among us? Or a same sex partnership among the clergy? Would you be glad or angry if your clergy were to bless such a partnership?
Currently none of that is open to us, and the bishops have rightly reminded us of it. But the Archbishop’s address to Synod is a very significant one. It’s worth reading and you can find it on line on his website. And to me one sentence stood out:. “There is going to have to be a massive cultural change if we are going to accept that people with whom I differ deeply are also deeply loved by Christ, and therefore must be deeply loved by me.”
So back to today’s Gospel. If you are on your way to the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift there and go and be reconciled, and then return to offer your gift. In other words, Worship is empty if we do so in the face of unresolved disputes.
A few years ago a group I belonged to was trying to find a way forward in a disputed situation. During a discussion, I inadvertently said something that offended someone. Nothing was said at the time, and I did not notice anything. But, in a later meeting, all of a sudden one person rounded on me and, with others around, gave me the verbal equivalent of a real going over. I felt quite diminished by it. It seemed inexplicable, and I went around feeling rather hurt. Then, a few days later, the person came and apologised. It was a recognition of what he had done, and what I must have felt. And I felt better of course. But then I learned why it had happened and how my insensitive remark earlier had hurt him. So of course I apologised, and I had to acknowledge that it was really my own fault in the first place. I had been absolutely in the territory of this passage – thoughtlessly throwing out an insult. And the other person had taken the trouble to remember they had offended me, and had come to sort it out. Good for him. And does this passage remind you of something else? Jesus’ other way of putting it was to point out that we notice motes in other people’s eyes, and fail to notice the planks in our own; so blind to our own faults, so quick to criticise others. I was quite sure I was in the right, and sure that he was wrong. But meeting together and talking about it, and each apologising to the other, woke both of us up, not just to a way of respecting our differences, but to some deeper truths beyond them. We moved on and we now think of one another as friends in a way we had not done before – even though we would look at some matters in very different ways.
Real forgiveness, real reconciliation, is like that. It comes when someone apologises to us, or we to them, and that is lovingly accepted. It comes about when two people dare to face one another across disagreements and talk with a readiness to respect and understand. And if a group of people have the courage to live like that, there is a kind of overspill – we become the sort of community that is able to pass on forgiveness and love in an ever widening circle.
Interestingly, just at this moment, as a congregation we are in the process of thinking about the possibility of admitting children to communion before confirmation. Its not a matter on the level of women bishops or gay relationships. But already we are seeing two sets of people, those in favour and those opposed. We need to talk. Perhaps this is a learning place for the larger, tougher issues to come.
As a church we can only live by the grace and life of God.. When there are disputes we are not going to find that grace anywhere other than in the very centre of our disagreements with each other. We will find it there, and we will be changed by it and find a way forward. But if we avoid doing that, this gospel suggests that we put ourselves in danger of dying.