Patterns and habits

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it refers to is Psalm 32.

A habit is something you can do without thinking; which is why most of us have so many of them.

Not my witty observation, I’m afraid; but nonetheless very true.  Modern life is complex, with all sorts of information coming at us, and us needing to make a high number of decisions quickly and at short notice; the more we can cut down on the mental overload by having habits and routines, the more most of us find that helpful and even, to a degree, liberating.  (Like, for example, the corporate executives who have multiple versions of the same outfit, so they never have to think about what to wear).

Forming habits – habits of behaviour, of speech, of thought – is part of how we human beings cope with life, and that is not, in itself, a bad thing.

But anyone who’s ever made a new year’s resolution knows how hard it is to change bad habits, or even to establish new good ones.  What carries us along very comfortably once it’s established, is not nearly so easy when we’re trying to make it part of the pattern of life.

This is just as true even of our sinful habits.

So what I want to talk about a bit this morning is the psalm, but not so much the text of the psalm as the way Christians in the west, in particular, have tended to use this psalm; and that is, as a circuit breaker for sinful habits.

You see, what happens all too often for us goes a bit like this; we recognise that we have a habit of doing something wrong.  Maybe we focus too much on money; or maybe we ignore our spouse in favour of our own entertainment; or maybe we are prone to nasty outbursts when we’re upset; or whatever, it doesn’t really matter what the sinful habit is.  But we recognise it, and we realise that it’s bad for us and our relationships, and we want to do better.  We might even ask God to forgive us and be assured that God does, in fact, forgive us all the things we struggle with.

So far, so good.  But wanting to do better, by itself, seldom makes much difference.  Even solemnly committing to do better only gets us so far.  Most of us find, within a humbling space of time, that we are, in fact, back in the grip of our bad habit.  Because the patterns of thought and behaviour, the neural connections in the brain that feed that habit, are so well-established that they happen without us even having to consciously decide that they should.

In order to change our habits, those patterns need to be disrupted in some way.  Something removed or something new brought in.  This is – in case you hadn’t realised – exactly what Lent is designed to do.  By fasting, by doing things differently in prayer and study, and so on, the aim is to scramble the pattern enough, to disrupt the sinful habits enough, to break them by Easter.

And one thing many Christians, over the millennia of the church, have done with that sort of purpose is pray today’s psalm.  Look how, over its twelve verses, it takes you on a bit of a sight-seeing tour of the sin cycle; the person does something wrong (we don’t know what, but in a way it doesn’t matter; because we can all fill in the blanks with our own pet sins, then!), they suffer the consequences; they seek and are given forgiveness, and they receive from God support, protection, instruction and wisdom; and ultimately come out into a place of renewal and joy.

And the support, protection, instruction and direction from God are really important; because they’re the bits that change things enough to break the habit.  (Even the suffering is helpful that way, because it disturbs our comfort enough to motivate change; but over and above that, the psalm describes God providing resources and resilience enough to allow the person to really change; to embrace new habits and let go of old ones).

So this psalm – along with some others, including the one we looked at in Bible study last week – would often be prayed by people needing exactly that kind of change.  Whether it was in the very early church, and this would be done publicly after being excommunicated; or whether it was in the medieval church and done privately as individual penance after confession; or whether it was in the reformation era and done as a kind of personal pious devotion, this psalm has been seen by Christians for centuries as both a guide to repentance, and as a useful resource in the process of changing hearts and minds.

So – where does that leave us?

Let’s start here.  All of us sin.  All of us fail in love for God and for those around us, habitually.

Those habits of sin are unlikely to change just because we recognise them for what they are (although that’s a necessary first step), or even because we know God forgives us for them (though that’s important, too).  Habits change over time, over a process of disrupting the thought and behaviour patterns of the habit and replacing them with new ones.

And while God’s grace and the Holy Spirit are at work in us, too, usually they don’t operate in a way that’s separate from everything else going on in our heads.

Praying this psalm might not be just the ticket for everyone in that kind of process of sinful habit-disruption; but the fact that using it that way has been so persistent in Christian history gives us some pointers for what to look for in our own process.

Where am I suffering?  How does that suffering relate in any way to my own choices?  (Note: not all suffering is the consequence of our own personal sin!)  Should I pay attention and let it help me recognise where I need to change?

Have I been honest with God about my own sin and my need to change?  Do I need to set aside some time for that kind of prayer?

Do I really believe that God forgives me?  Do I hesitate, believing I don’t deserve forgiveness?  What would help me to be assured that God’s loving care for me has not been withdrawn?

What do I need to put in place to disrupt this habit?  Some people work well with accountability partners; others physically change their surroundings, others change their daily or weekly routine; the mention of instruction and direction in the psalm suggest to me that it’s not just about stopping the old thing but about allowing positive input into something new, as well.  But this is a very individual thing, and I can’t tell all of you – from the pulpit – what support or resources you need!  (As an aside, this is why private confession can sometimes be helpful; because it does allow for that personally tailored guidance, counsel and encouragement). But it’s worth reflecting on; we know – because the psalm tells us – that God offers us support, protection and guidance in our time of need.  So what do we need, knowing that God is ready and willing and waiting to give it to us; what would we ask God for?  (And on that note, do let me encourage you to visit the prayer station set up in the oratory; because it’s there for exactly that kind of prayer request that God would help us grow).

And finally, where’s the joy?  I might be a work in progress, but there’s plenty to celebrate, in God’s goodness in getting me to this point, and in the goodness I can trust is still to come.  What do I have to celebrate?  How might I actually allow myself to enjoy that?

That last part isn’t an afterthought, by the way.  Allowing ourselves to give thanks and celebrate – rather than always being focussed on what is bad and wrong – also helps sustain us on the way.  It’s why we have fasts and feasts; the feasts encourage us during the tough times.

Looked at that way, it’s a very robust process, this business of penitence.  Let’s take it seriously, so that we can live up to being God’s people who, in the words of the psalm, are true of heart.

 

 

 

 

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Belonging.

This reflection was given at a service of evening prayer for refugees.

What does it mean to belong?

It strikes me that so many of the difficulties we have, in dividing ourselves up into groups – citizens, refugees, asylum seekers, residents and so on (as well as the question of relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia) – revolve around this question of belonging.

Did I “belong” as an Australian the day my parents got a visa to come here?  Or the day I was carried off the plane as a toddler?  Was it the day I became a citizen?  Will it be the day that my cultural assumptions and baggage have shifted so much that I no longer have “un-Australian” ideas rattling around in my head?  What if that never happens?

Does someone “belong” in the church the first time they walk through our doors?  The second time?  The day they’re baptised?  The day I manage to get them on a roster for something?  What if they come, and stay, and serve, but never quite feel that who they are is wholly embraced in this place?

So often our sense of belonging is tied up with our sense of identity.  We feel we belong when we feel that we are among people who are in some sense like ourselves; when we are in a place or situation which reflects our own sense of identity (often these things come from shared history).  We feel we belong when we can contribute to decision making and have some sort of input into what shapes our own situation.  We feel belonging even more deeply when there are shared values and a shared sense of purpose.

And back in the days when humanity was basically a collection of nomadic little tribes, a strong sense of loyalty to the people with whom you “belonged” – and of hostility to those outside that group – probably was necessary to survival.

But here we are in another age, with very different challenges.  And one of those challenges is about creating communities where people can belong even when they come from far away and don’t speak our language; when their history doesn’t touch ours at any point.  When sharing decision making means taking into account very different approaches to doing life together.  When we might need to listen for a long time to hear echoes of our own values woven into another culture’s stories, and to see a reflection of our hopes in the dreams of someone else.

Helping someone else to belong takes patience, humility, gentleness and kindness.  It takes openness and willingness to listen and change.  It takes a willingness to say that my preferences and habits, or those of my forebears, aren’t necessarily going to be the default in a space that we share.

This is as true for a nation as it is for a parish.  Allowing new people to belong means accepting that Australia will change.  Each person who comes enriches us all, and is a blessing to a country which is only strengthened by diversity.

We don’t need to look very far to see that not everybody takes this view.  That many people see outsiders and those who are different as a threat; who deny that those people can ever belong and make a valuable contribution.  Who see refugees, in particular, as a threat because they represent not only change but also loss of control.   For those people, “belonging” means, not sharing our space, our communities and our decision-making with those who are different, but that those who are different should become, somehow, just like us.

But that’s not truly belonging.  That’s fitting in, playing the cultural chameleon, which is not the same thing at all.

What if we helped people to belong, not because they’re like us, but because, in their difference, they are God’s gift to us?  What if we spoke and acted and treated newcomers as if what they bring is not a threat, but something precious, which we value, and want to learn about and preserve?

Wouldn’t that be a kind of belonging that goes deep to the heart of who we are as human beings?

What would it take for each of us to truly belong, in that place of deep acceptance and knowing the worth of each person in their uniqueness?

Quit kvetching, start proclaiming!

This is a sermon for the second Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it refers to is Philippians 3:17-4:2.

There are two kinds of experiences in this life; those that matter, and those that don’t.  Well, you might disagree; but that was the position of the Stoic philosophers, anyway; and it’s one that St. Paul has definitely picked up in the epistle we read from this morning.

We only had a small portion of the letter, though; so we need to look at the letter as a whole to understand what’s going on in this bit of it.  It seems that Epaphroditus had come from the church community at Philippi to visit Paul in prison, and shared with Paul the griefs and concerns of that community.  And in response Paul has been prompted to write a “letter of consolation,” (a sort of letter that was very common in his culture), designed to respond to those griefs and concerns.

But a “letter of consolation,” back then, wasn’t perhaps something we might find consoling today!  You see, in that culture, grief over one’s circumstances was believed to be a destructive attitude, one which would overcome your rationality, cause you to neglect your duties, and inhibit your development as an ethical person.  In this take on things, if you found yourself upset by your circumstances, your moral and civic responsibility was to find a way to move from grief to joy; and Paul attempts, over the course of the letter, to provide a variety of arguments aimed at helping the Philippians do just that.

I should pause and note that our understanding of psychological health today might cause us to take issue with some of the underlying assumptions here; but we’ll come back to that.  For the moment it’s enough to understand that it seems the church in Philippi was pretty unhappy, and this letter is aimed at bringing about a change of attitude.

So what’s going on here?  It seems the church in Philippi was encountering opposition from its Pagan neighbours.  And it was upset that its founder, Paul, was absent from them in prison.  And – in the wake of all of that – there was a fair degree of conflict and disunity going on in the church.  All in all, morale was down, disagreement was up, and things were not going so well.

So Paul responds to this discouraged church.  The arguments that he makes in today’s passage run more or less like this:

  • I’ve learned to be joyful in any circumstances, even now in prison; so look to me as a good example. (Today we’d have a meme: This is Paul.  Paul perseveres in joy even in the most dire circumstances.  Paul is smart.  Be like Paul).
  • The people you are tempted to think have it better than you, really don’t. You might envy your Pagan neighbours their social events and friendships, but where you have eternal life, they face destruction; where you have a loving relationship with your Creator, their lives revolve around empty and worthless things; and they take pride in things which ultimately damage them.  Being socially cut off from them isn’t the dreadful thing you imagine it to be, but is ultimately good for you.
  • What you’re experiencing now is not the end of the story. Something so much better than what you have now is coming.  So don’t give up, because God has the power and the will to do it.

That’s today’s portion.  Despite addressing the people in affectionate terms, as his beloved and so on, the thrust of Paul’s argument over the letter as a whole might be summed up as, “Snap out of it, get over yourselves, and get on with the job.”  This is not an argument necessarily aimed at helping people to feel better, but at helping them to do better!

You see, here’s the thing; if you see discouragement or grief over the situation of the church, and especially conflict within the church, as a distraction from doing what God actually wants you to do… then it is a problem that needs to be addressed.  Because there’s still a mission, and that’s where our energy and attention ought to be focussed.  Which is why, early in the letter, Paul tells the Philippian Christians to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel.”  Quit kvetching and start proclaiming!

So much for the Philippians.  What about us?

We have our own griefs and discouragements, don’t we?  Whether it’s seeing the church much emptier than we remember it (and with a sad lack of younger folk); whether it’s frustration with the wider Anglican church and its struggles to adapt to a changing society; whether it’s our absolute disgust with sexual abuse and a church culture which has mostly utterly failed to address it; many of us carry heavy hearts into church.

We no longer have an understanding of human psychology which tells us to snap out of our so-called negative emotions and get on with things.  We know that that kind of approach can actually be really unhealthy.

But we can still hold onto the idea that there are things that matter and things that don’t; or at least, that some things matter much more than others.

Maybe Paul’s letter can remind us that our sadness that the parish isn’t what it used to be, isn’t as important as taking on the work God has for us to do, right now.  We aren’t what we used to be, but what we are right now, still matters!  That our frustration with lumbering institutions isn’t as important as building a network of local relationships in which hope can be shared and lives can be changed.  That our corporate moral failures need to be faced squarely and set right, not run away from; because the people damaged by those failures are more important than our desire to distance ourselves from the whole sorry mess.

Perhaps we need to feel whatever discouragements we feel, but those feelings shouldn’t be allowed to drive us into apathy and hopelessness; or descend into petty conflicts and divisions, either.  Here, perhaps, Paul had it right; we do need to live lives in a manner worthy of the gospel, sometimes despite how we feel.

It’s a hard message.  It’s not really very consoling (or at least, I don’t think so!).  But it’s Lent, after all; the season for hard messages.  What might we achieve over the coming weeks and months, if we take this one to heart?

God as cosmic midwife.

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it references is Ps 91:1-2, 9-16.

As thought-provoking as the gospel reading is today, we’re going to look at Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness in Bible study after church; so come along to that!  But this morning I want to spend a few minutes on something else.

And I want to notice, in the Psalm, God’s promise to deliver those who love God.  It almost sounds a bit funny, when you think about it; as if we’re a package to be dropped off at a destination marked “Holiness” or “Joy.”  But what do we think it means that God “delivers” us?  And what does that suggest about the nature of God, and our relationship with God?

The basic idea of deliverance goes all the way back to the Exodus; to the time when Israel was a slave nation under Egyptian domination, and God – through a whole series of events – took them from a situation of oppression and suffering to one of freedom and hope.  God delivered them into a new reality.

Now, when we tell the stories of the Exodus, it’s often God’s strength and even violence which are to the fore.  The Egyptian army is dramatically wiped out.  A generation of Egyptian first-bon sons is lost in the dead of night.  And so on.  God is seen as a fighter; one who fights to establish what is good and right, to be sure, but nonetheless, someone with blood on his hands.

This is difficult in some ways.  I knew one Jewish woman who, the year after her first baby was born, left the room, overwhelmed at that part of the Passover remembrance; because how could she love and worship a God who would kill all those babies?   And it’s also potentially a problem, because if it’s okay for God to be violent and forceful to bring about what is right, it suggests a similar ethic for humanity, too.  That the ends might justify the means, even when the means are truly horrific.  That power might become an end in itself, and that human structures of power can be justified by appeal to that God; that domination and control can be seen as Godly; and justice can become a disputed no-man’s-land rather than a vision of human flourishing.

A quick glance at history will tell you that that’s not simply hypothetical.

So this morning I want to ask, what if we thought about God’s deliverance of us in different terms than strength and violence?

Let’s notice, for a minute, that there are some other interesting alternatives offered to us in Scripture; and this morning I want to focus on the image of God as a midwife.

Listen to the poet’s address to God in Psalm 22:
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.”

Or similarly in Psalm 71:
“Upon you I have leaned from my birth;
it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.”

In these Psalms God is pictured as having been the one who caught – or perhaps even pulled – the person coming into the world and into life.  God has that intimate involvement in the physical and emotional messiness of human birthing.

These glimpses of a different side to God might prompt us to ask, what if “deliverance” is – at least sometimes – more like a baby being born than a war being fought (and won)?  What  would thinking about God as a midwife tell us about God, and about what’s going on for us?

St. Paul compared our experience of this life to childbirth when he wrote in Romans: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.”  That’s not a throw away line; it tells us about how the reign of God is breaking into the life of the whole of creation, but is not yet fulfilled.  It is disrupting the patterns of evil and sin in our lives, but we have not yet broken through to the time when those patterns will be completely absent.  What God is at work on, doing in and through the whole cosmos, can be compared to the birthing process for the new reality we look forward to at the end of the age.

There is a history of “deliverance” by midwives in Scripture too; the midwives who refused to kill the Hebrew babies are also part of the Exodus story, and – along with Moses’ mother and sister and the daughter of Pharoah – give us a glimpse of a cooperative effort to resist evil and nurture potential for goodness.

Midwifery is all about relationships.  “Midwife” means “withwoman.”  A God who can be described this way is with us, alongside us in our lives.  Not just passively present but actively engaged in the change that is happening and the new life that is emerging.  The midwife is not a powerless spectator but a competent steward of life for both the mother and child.

Because let’s remember that birth – especially in the ancient world, but still for many people today – is a precarious process.  Many women died giving birth.  Many babies didn’t survive.  The midwife undertook her role in situations of great fear and danger.  In our own fraught situations in life, the ones where we’re in danger, frightened and traumatised, it can help us to remember that we’re not alone, but have God alongside us, supporting, encouraging and strengthening us, in the way a midwife would do for a labouring mother.

This doesn’t remove the struggle, of course, which is very real and – all too often – very painful!  We also have an active role and a part to play in what is being born, in us individually and in our community.

But this idea of God as a midwife shows us a God that is not about death and destruction, but about active engagement in the bringing forth of new life; about supportive compassion for the suffering, the vulnerable, and the powerless; fundamentally about hope.

Recognising this set of values and character traits as belonging to God, can then inform our own way of being in the world: forming a life based on values such as mercy, commitment to life, and concern for the other.  In a world where despair, hatred, greed, malice, violence and abuse of power seem almost unbearable, we need more people to take up this kind of midwifery (in a spiritual sense).  To look for what goodness is being brought to birth and to be in it up to our elbows – even when it’s hard and messy – to make that possibility real.  To bring life into situations of darkness and despair.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote a poem reflecting on this sort of idea, and it runs like this:

When the midwives Shifrah and Puah
Saved the children that Pharoah ordered them to kill,
That was the beginning of the birth-time;
When Pharoah’s daughter joined with Miriam
To give a second birth to Moses from the waters
She birthed herself anew into God’s daughter, Bat-yah
And our people turned to draw ourselves towards life
When God became our Midwife
And named us Her firstborn,
Though we were the smallest and youngest of the peoples,
The birthing began;
When the waters of the Red Sea broke,
we were delivered
So tonight it is our task to help the Midwife
Who tonight is giving birth to a new people –
And so to give a new birth to ourselves.

A Christian, of course, might also have their thoughts turned towards baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as part of the birthing process, but the basic point remains true; God is at work in the world bringing new things to birth.  Our task is to find our own place within that process, that groaning of all creation, in the bringing forth of new life.

Specks, logs, and power.

This is a sermon for the eighth Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Luke 6:39-49.
(Note: this sermon was written during the week that the news of Cardinal Pell’s conviction for child sex offences in this city was published.  That news rocked our community, and is referred to in this sermon).

Specks and logs.  It’s been a week which has given us much reason to reflect on where the specks and logs have been in the life of the church, and how our hierarchies and ideologies of power might contribute to developing logs in our eyes.  What gets in the way of our seeing clearly and acting appropriately.

I don’t really want to dwell specifically on the news, though.  Rather I want to point out that the abuse crisis and its most recent conviction give us a glaring example of what Jesus is talking about, and show us the seriousness and the illness of sin; how it puts obstructions in our ability to understand our world, and cripples our capacity for authentic human relationships.  This is true even when our sinful tendencies don’t lead us to criminal behaviour; they always tempt us to toxic behaviour.

There’s a fundamental principle in group dynamics – and even more fundamental in the dynamics of church communities – that groups of people only function at their best when every member is genuinely committed to personal growth.  This is because the life and functioning of the community will always press upon our weaknesses, our sins; and unless we’re willing to examine and repent of and strive to overcome those sins, they will come to dominate and shape the life and functioning of the group; or, in our case, of the parish.

So I see it as part of my job to always encourage you to make that personal commitment to growth; to see ongoing development in maturity as an indispensable part of the Christian life; and in particular as we approach the start of Lent, that would be one thing I’d encourage you to consider carefully and prayerfully.  Where do I need to grow?

The good news in this is that we don’t face that challenge alone.  While the church community might make us painfully aware of the specks – or the logs – in our eyes, it’s also meant to be a resource to us as we seek to remove them.

Our relationships in this parish should be realities which help us to grow.

When someone is baptised, we promise as a community to support them as they turn to Christ, repent of their sins, and reject selfish and false living.  As a community of baptised people, then, part of what we owe one another is to help each other work through all the things that keep us from being free, whether it be our fears and anxieties, our excessive insecurities or compulsions, character flaws, painful memories or moments of failure. There is much in each of us that works against the love and joy God wants us to have, and one of the great gifts of a church community is not only to give us insight about what those hindrances to love and joy might be, but also to help us eventually overcome them.

This should be a place where we can build genuine friendships; where we can share with one another in ways which give others insight into our particular weaknesses and struggles, because we have built a community in which we can trust the other person to want what is best for us, and to support us in our striving towards that.  That’s the quality of relationships that we should be building here; a place where people can be confident that they will be known and loved with attention and care.  A place where each person is emotionally safe.

Nobody will dare the vulnerability it takes to grow if they don’t feel safe.

While Jesus gives us an example of good intentions gone wrong; the person who wants to help but is so compromised that they’re not able to, the point of the story is not to get rid of the idea that in community we owe it to one another to support each other’s growth.  Rather, it’s to say that supporting one another’s growth is so important we must pay attention to doing it well.

Now, it’s really important to say that none of this is about control.  Neither the community as a whole, nor individuals within it, should ever try to control or manipulate anyone, which is a serious abuse of relationships and of power.  Our relationships in community should cultivate in us a healthy, strong sense of identity and a mutual interdependence; and not in a way which restricts our choices or our growth.  One of the tests of a healthy church community is whether it blesses you when you choose to leave.

Instead, church communities should be characterised by benevolence, which means that we want what is best for one another and are committed to seeking one another’s good.   Not only does a healthy church community desire what is best for us, they also commit themselves to helping us achieve it.  I think – for example – of how when I was a struggling student with a pitiful casual job, some weeks I only ate because my parish gave me financial support.  Most of us are fortunate not to need that kind of very basic support from our churches, but when we do, we ought to be confident that it will be there.  Every healthy church community entails wholehearted devotion to the good of one another, and this devotion demands time, energy, creativity and attentiveness.

All of this hinges on trust, and trustworthiness.  We can’t be the kind of community I’m describing if we don’t demonstrate that we are worthy of the trust it would take to build those relationships.  All of us who’ve been around for a while have some experience of the church not being trustworthy.  That same parish that gave me money for groceries refused to recommend me for ordination because I was a woman.  I couldn’t trust them the same way after that, and in fact I left and went somewhere else.  If a church can’t be trusted, the relationships within it die – or become very superficial – and the church fails to function as it should.

It goes without saying that for many people, earning their trust will be a long, slow process; and rightly so.  The onus is on us to be completely trustworthy, over months and years, if we hope that people will be willing to trust us enough to really commit to us.

Which brings us back around to specks and logs, and the need for us to be far quicker to look for what distorts our own perceptions and understandings, than to correct those of others.  To listen more than we speak.  To be humble in the face of criticism, and open to reflection on our weaknesses.

It’s not always easy, but it’s not optional.  Rather it’s essential if we’re to be the church God intends.

Love your enemies

This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is Luke 6:27-38.

Love your enemies.

I remember, when I was in my first year of theological college, it fell to me to preach on this reading in my placement.  And I told the congregation that day, that I didn’t really feel that I had any enemies.  After the service, one of the people came up to tell me that if I did go on to be ordained, I certainly would have enemies then!

I guess it depends what you mean by “enemy.”  All of us have times when we’re engaged in conflict; when we feel attacked; when our passionate pursuit of something important is blocked by people with an opposing view, or perhaps worse, an inert indifference.  Any of those things can kick us into the mental gear where the other person becomes an enemy.

And by that measure, even if we’re not occupied by a foreign power, like Jesus’ people were, or off to war trying to bomb the other side into surrender, we do encounter enemies; in our everyday lives, in our workplaces, even in our homes.  These are the people who make us angry or fearful, those whom we dislike or avoid, those who provoke us to outrage.  Our instinct can be to fight; to seek to win at all cost; to take offence as the best defence, and counter-attack, either directly or indirectly.

But Jesus is here asking us to take a different approach.  Love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, pray for them.  This is hard.  It is personally costly.  It means having to, somehow, swallow our own emotions and decide to act for the benefit of the other person, in spite of our own hurt and anger and vulnerability.  This is the example Christ set for us on the cross when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Never think those were cheap words.

This tells us, though, that loving our enemies is not about how we feel.  It’s about the attitude we choose to have, the actions we choose to make in relation to other people, for the sake of their well-being, sometimes very much despite how we feel.

I remember, when my husband and I were very new parents, and we were having rather a rough night where our daughter wouldn’t sleep, and wouldn’t feed, and was wailing miserably, and we were exhausted and at our wits’ end, and Daniel looked at me – it must have been about five in the morning – and said “This isn’t what I thought it would be like!”  And he’s very lucky I was holding the baby and couldn’t throw anything at him as I snapped back through my tears, “Well, what did you think it would be like, then?!”  At that moment none of us were feeling anything good about anyone else, but love meant the baby still was gently cared for, and – some years later, when we’d finally had some sleep – my husband and I did eventually speak civilly to one another again.

It’s not about how you feel, but about how you choose to act.

So what do we do, when we find ourselves in conflict or navigating broken relationships?

We pray for the other person.  Jesus told us to, so it’s clearly pretty important.  And it’s important partly because it forces us to confront the reality of what’s going on.  If I’m in conflict with someone, I can choose to go into denial about the problems in that relationship.  But if I take that to God in prayer, if I have to name that person and be real with God about what’s going on… it takes away the head in the sand as an option, and gives me a starting point from which to respond constructively, and lovingly, to whatever has happened.  Prayer keeps us honest, with God and with ourselves.

So prayer is a necessary starting point.  Jesus also told us to do good to those who hate us.  So we have to build on our prayer with action.  This might take some creative thinking.  How can I do something to help the other person?  What meaningful gift can I give them?  What genuine affirmation can I offer them?  Paul tells us in Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Paul wasn’t specifically saying that in relation to dealing with other people, but if we can recognise and praise the good in someone, we uphold them and their place in our community.  And that’s an important dimension of love.

Then there’s the matter of turning the other cheek.  Being vulnerable.  Staying present.  Not giving up on the relationship even when it seems to be shattered.  Too often this has been quoted as if it is a command to let someone keep abusing you, but it comes from a place of more strength than that.

I saw a great example recently.  Sojourner Truth was an escaped slave and a campaigner against slavery in America.  She travelled from place to place speaking publicly against slavery and for the full and equal humanity of people of colour.  In one place where she was due to speak, people threatened that if she spoke there, they would burn the building down.

Her response was to say, “Then I will speak upon the ashes.”

And that’s saying so much more than just, “I will not be deterred; I will speak anyway.” It says that even if you try to burn the place down around me, I will still speak, still find my voice, still hold my hand out to you with integrity, still offer the possibility of relationship and new beginnings and hope.

That’s turning the other cheek from a place of strength and with a strong vision of God’s intention for human relationships and human community.  The vision of possible reconciliation has to be stronger in our minds and hearts than our own hurts and angers, though.   It takes imagination and courage to turn the other cheek in that kind of way.

Here’s the thing, though.  As a student I thought I didn’t have any enemies.  As a vicar, I can see that any time I let my anger, my fear, or my hurt, or even my dislike, dictate how I treat someone, I have made them my enemy.  And I have to un-make those enemies by loving them.

That’s what Christ did.  And it’s what we have to do, too.

Respect

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

A mistress of novices went to see her abbess, to discuss her concerns about a novice who was struggling.

As they walked through the convent garden, talking, the abbess picked a flower bud and handed it to the other nun, asking her to open it.  The blossom fell apart in her hands.

“Why,” the abbess asked, “does the bud fall apart when you try to open it, but when God opens it, the flower is beautiful?”

After walking in silence for a time, the mistress of novices replied, “When God opens the flower, He opens it up from the inside.”

This morning I want to pick up on our reading from 1 Corinthians; and in particular what St. Paul has to say here about respect.  We don’t necessarily talk about respect a lot in churches, but I’d argue that it’s very difficult to truly love someone whom you don’t, on some level, respect; and since we’re commanded to love one another, I thought it would be worth spending some time unpacking what we mean by respect, and what it looks like in a community like ours.

And I’d say we have to start here; every single one of us is made by God.  Our respect for one another is ultimately anchored in our respect for God as creator, and our reverence for what God has wrought in one another.  God made each of you, just as you are, precious and treasured… so how can I despise you?

We need to have that attitude, as a stable and robust foundation for our relationships with one another, if we’re to be a truly respectful community.  But what does that respect look like, in practical terms, when it’s lived out?

Beyond the satisfaction of our basic needs – for safety, food, shelter and so on – we all have relational needs; needs which have to do with what it is to be a creature who lives in community.  Those needs are things like attachment and respect.  And so creating a community which nurtures the wellbeing of all its members, means creating a community which meets those relational needs for its members.

In particular, as a faith community, creating that kind of community which is a network of mutual respect, we reflect God’s love for each of us, dare I say God’s respect for each of us, in concrete and tangible ways.  (And if you’re challenged by the idea that God might respect us, I’d suggest that the fact that, as human beings, we have free will, rather suggests a surprisingly high degree of respect).

St. Paul talks about how we treat our weaker or less honourable members with greater respect; today’s ethicists would talk about how vulnerable people have a special claim to the restraint of those with power or influence.  These are different ways of articulating the same concern; that power or status not disrupt the healthy community which meets the relational needs of its members.  Respect, as St. Paul talks about it, is about allowing everyone a degree of status or standing in the community, even where there is structure and hierarchy.

Now the ethicists largely think and write about this status or standing in terms of freedom.  That is, if you have my respect, I will allow you to make your own choices and will not interfere.  I won’t frustrate your choices, won’t arbitrarily remove options, won’t place penalties on some choices, won’t misrepresent or be deceitful about options.  A clear example we’re all familiar with is, for example, in giving informed consent to medical treatment.  It’s not ethical or respectful if the doctor doesn’t give you all the options or isn’t honest with you about what those options look like.  But the basic principle goes far beyond the limited situation of medical decision making and includes all sorts of things like choices about whether or not to speak, and what to say; how to develop your own spirituality; how you spend your time, and what you do with your money or goods, and so on.

So, for example, it would be disrespectful of me to guilt trip you about missing church, or to try to set a benchmark for how much money you should give.  It would be disrespectful of me to refuse to listen if you want to speak to me.  And in reverse, it’d be disrespectful of you to try to tell me what I can and can’t talk about in sermons or Bible studies (and I have had a parish try to do that!); or to try to micro-manage how I structure my work time.  In one absolutely classic example I saw from a colleague this week, a congregation member had offered to take his wife shopping for “more appropriate” clothes.  (The mind boggles).  These are – sadly all too common – examples of how things often go wrong between minister and congregation, and of course there’s a whole other set of issues that often happen between congregation members.  And I mention these not because St. Faith’s has a particular problem with them, but because the more aware of them we are, the more able we are to recognise that sort of disrespectful dynamic when it starts (even in our own heads) and nip it in the bud.

Now obviously there’s a limit.  Respecting one another doesn’t go so far as tolerating destructive or damaging behaviour.  But as a general rule, it starts with allowing one another each the space to be the person God created them to be, (in the story that we started with of the nuns in the garden, allowing each person to open from the inside, not trying to force what they will be, or the timing that it happens in); not seeking to control or dictate what that will look like.

So much for the ethicists; their perspective is valuable as far as it goes, and there’s a lot to be said for it.  But I would suggest that in a Christian community, respect needs to go beyond passive non-interference with others (allowing them to make their own decisions; although that would be a really good first step), and into active building up of one another; encouraging, enabling and equipping one another; expanding the range of options available to others, and doing what we can to invite and give permission for others to explore the options available to them, to the full.  (This is why teaching is such a crucial part of the Church’s mission; because it is by teaching that we expand the range of opportunities open to people in which they can flower as God created them to).

So in the Church, respect might not just be about others not controlling what you do, what you say, what you wear… but actively creating opportunities for you to try new things, develop your gifts, and be involved in different ways, so that you can discover the place and role that is most fitting for who you are.  That’s not easy to do, but I’m definitely always open to a conversation with anyone who would like to try something new, or even isn’t sure where they fit, but would like to think about it!

In the end, this kind of respect allows people to feel that they truly belong.  That the network of relationships here will sustain them in a healthy way, allow them freedom and integrity, and encourage and equip them as they grow in maturity.  And while ethics and “being a good person,” or even a good Christian, now often plays out for us on a much larger, even on a global, scale; taking care and paying attention to our local network of relationships, creating that space of respectful and safe belonging, allows us to create what one ethicist has described as a “moral homeland.”  A place defined by its relationships where people can truly and deeply belong, grow, and flourish.

St. Paul spoke of that network of relationships as a body; but whether you think of yourself as one part of a body, or at home in a respectful community, or indeed as a flower in God’s garden; the reality it describes is the same; and it lies with us to ensure that that becomes a defining characteristic of who we are, here in this parish.