Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Trinity: ‘A Message of Peace’ preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey on Sunday, 10 September 2023 by the Reverend Rebecca McDonnell (Romans Ch 13: v 8 – end; Matthew Ch 18: v 15 – 20)
There are a few skills I learnt from 8 years working in charity shops that I feel might be useful in this new world working in the Church, being part of a Christian community, my ministry and calling very visible to everyone I meet. Years of wielding a clothes steamer will come in handy for detangling creased surplices; I used to make teas and coffees for 6 or so volunteers at a time and could remember the individual orders and tastes of more than 15 volunteers who I saw each week. When you’ve been busy sifting through donations all morning there’s nothing like having a hot beverage waiting for you. Certainly, and thankfully, my gift and joy in chatting to people all day will be handy, although I think my parents would say that’s a gift I’ve had since I was young! A large part of my job too, was conflict resolution; with disgruntled customers, but also with the people who I worked with every day. People who I loved, but like all of us, were very broken people, often with very complicated backgrounds, and this sometimes came out in ways that can be difficult to handle. Often, they want you to meet their rage with your own, but there’s nothing like meeting that storm with calmness, love, and forgiveness.
Today’s reading falls in a part of Mathew’s gospel where Jesus is giving the disciples rules for their life in the new Christian community, knowing that he wasn’t going to be there to keep them in line. In previous passages to today’s reading, he has taught them how they must be humble and teachable like children, how they must attend to matters of their own personal morality so it doesn’t cause them to stumble, how they must care for one another, and then in this passage how we must be persistent in resolving conflict. It then goes on to say how we must be prepared to forgive one another, not just seven times as Peter queries, but seventy- seven times. This is our rule book to this day in how to live in a Christian community, as we are here in Sherborne, and as part of the wider church.
We get a three-fold conflict resolution and reconciliation handbook, like policy guidelines in a new job. First, go and speak to them one-to-one and try and sort it out between you. Sounds easy enough, but what this means is don’t go around gossiping, telling everyone your brother’s business, go and speak to them first. And this level of honesty takes real bravery, and if it works, you have gained a brother, as you have treated them with respect. It’s about communication, and real listening, not just listening to answer, something I think we all sometimes struggle with. If this doesn’t work, come back with 2 or 3 people who may have wisdom or advice to help unpick the knots of a tricky situation. And failing that you can go to the church for help, and after which they will be like a ‘gentile or a tax collector.’ This doesn’t mean excluding them completely, for, don’t forget, Jesus included and loved gentiles and tax collectors, they were the outsiders welcomed into the Kingdom. Do what you can to reconcile yourself to your brothers and sisters, and don’t forget God is a God of mercy and forgiveness.
There’s a disclaimer to this reading as we hear it today in our present-day society. Sometimes, it is unsafe for us to reconcile with a person or a situation that is doing us harm, that’s damaging for our mental health or wellbeing; we can seek the love and support of those around us to walk away in such circumstances. Sadly, passages such as this have been weaponised by some to try and enforce reconciliation when it is not in the person’s best interest, or to cause pain by deciding the way someone is living their life is sinful. And they use it to exclude those who they decide is not worthy to be in their Church.
Jesus’ words are not about abuse of power, by any Christians but especially those in positions of leadership as we have sadly seen recently. This is about listening, treating each other with respect, it’s about accountability. And most importantly, it’s a BIG vision of God’s kingdom. When it is hard to reconcile, or face the conflict, and forgive, we must turn it over to God prayerfully and be guided by the Spirit. Jesus says the new Christian way isn’t to seek revenge, or gossip, or cause pain, but to face up to sin and reach out to each other in love and forgiveness, and together you can heal with your brother and sister.
You’re probably all wondering when I’m going to mention the picture you were given on the way in. On a recent visit to sand world in Weymouth, amongst the incredible pieces depicting various sci-fi franchises, was this piece that stopped us in our tracks. It’s by a Ukrainian artist called Slava Borecki and it’s called ‘A Message of Peace.’ I’ll leave you take the image home to reflect on, as I thought it would be a useful follow on from last week and Robert’s harrowing but moving story from the concentration camps of World War II.
What I wanted to reflect on today wasn’t so much the symbolism in the imagery used, which is incredibly powerful, but more the medium used. Sand. Sand, that then makes you think of the sand and dust often associated with a warzone, the dust of the earth, the dust from which we are all made, ‘remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.’ The sand and dust and earth in which Jesus walked, that would have clung to his feet, that he drew in with fingers, spat in. World conflict can be frightening, and unsettling, and we can struggle to know what part we are meant to play. Jesus didn’t come to be soldier, to take on the might of the Roman empire, but rather died at their hands. Today’s conflict resolution instruction is focussed on how to reconcile yourself with your Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus, as God in human form, meets us in the sand, in the dust of the Earth, and gave the disciples, the early Church, and us, simple instructions for how to live well with each other. And realistically, how good have Christian’s been at reconciling themselves to each other despite differences of doctrine and practise? How could we set a good example to others in our day-to-day walk of faith?
Jesus did his ministry differently, He turned convention on its head and gave us a new way of life, one filled with grace and love. In our Roman’s reading, the 10 commandments are summed up simply as ‘love your neighbour,’ and we could add to that the other golden rule, ‘love God.’ And we love God also by loving and respecting our brothers and sisters. ‘For the night has far gone and the day is at hand,’ which is something we say in our liturgy at compline. In that usage it has a literally meaning, but Paul is also saying the Jesus is the dawn, he brings the new light of God’s covenant. Now is the moment to awake out of sleep.
In a moment we will turn from the liturgy of the word to the liturgy of the sacrament and meet with Jesus in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine. Here, at the altar, Jesus meets us in our brokenness with His own brokenness, and we are reconciled with Him through His sacrifice. In sand sculpture, it feels like Jesus is coming down from the cross to reach out to us, to be with us in our suffering and hardship. Sin is sadly a fact of life, in many guises and on many levels, and our own sin is something we must continuously face up to, as well as other peoples. But we are not and should not be alone in that. Jesus says, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ Joyfully there is more than two or three here today, but no matter how we are gathered as the Church of God, Jesus meets us there and stands with us. We are encouraged to reconcile with each other, so together we can face with unified strength the sin and suffering of the world, and together in the sacrament we can be reconciled with Christ.