The best is yet to come

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it refers to is Philippians 3:3-14.

When I was about 16, I was pretty unhappy.  In hindsight, I probably had undiagnosed depression (it was diagnosed years later); but what I knew at the time was that I felt pretty worthless.  Not smart enough, not pretty enough, and definitely not sporty enough to have any area where I felt I had value as a person.

That was a difficult time, because when you’re 16, you don’t have the life experience or perspective to know that how you feel right now isn’t how things are going to be forever.  But I have a distinct memory of sitting on the beach one evening and deciding that I didn’t have to be worth something right now; as long as I could see that I was working on improving myself, that was good enough.  It was good enough to be on the way, rather than having already arrived at a destination marked “fabulous.”

And while that didn’t fix my depression – or my low assessment of myself – I think that was a turning point in how I learned to live with those things.  It was about openness to the future, rather than being defined by the past, or even the present.  I think in terms of today’s educational buzzwords they’d talk about me having developed a “growth mindset.”

And in a way, in today’s epistle reading, Paul is also encouraging the development of a growth mindset.  He draws a careful contrast between the things from his past – or his people’s past – which might be seen to define him; and the things held in trust for his future.

Here’s what I mean.  He describes what he has been; an Israelite, a Torah-keeper, a Hebrew-speaker, a pharisee, a zealot.  And he doesn’t say that any of those things are, in themselves, bad or wrong.  But then he contrasts that with gaining Christ and being found in Christ, knowing Christ’s power and resurrection and becoming like Christ and – finally – sharing in the resurrection from the dead.  These are the attributes he holds up as preferable, as being a much more sound basis for his identity, life purpose and so on.

But the thing to notice about this is that these are not things which he yet possesses (or at least, which he does not yet possess to the full) when he writes.  His sense of what’s important in his life has shifted from past accomplishments to future promises.

You might remember that a few weeks ago I preached on another passage from this letter and explained that it is a “letter of consolation;” that Paul through this letter is arguing that the Philippians need a change of attitude and to become more joyful.  This part of the letter is one plank in that argument; he’s telling them that if they’re unhappy with where they’re at now, they can rejoice in knowing that this isn’t how it’s going to be forever.  God’s got better things in store.  The best is yet to come.

I wonder if sometimes, our churches need to make a similar mental shift?

Where do we root our sense of identity?  Is it in what we have been?  Are the things which are important to us here that we are church members, Anglicans, progressive catholics, take up particular ways to serve, and so on?  Note that I’m not saying any of those things are bad or wrong.  But are they the point, or are they markers on the way to what it’s really all about; being Christ’s body, experiencing Christ’s power, being oriented to the reign of God and making that real and known in the world around us?

What I’m asking is where we focus our attention, and how we choose the priorities for our energy and efforts.

It seems to me that all too often, churches get caught up in focussing on the wrong things; pour their time and energy and money (and, let’s face it, angst) into parts of their life which will never make one shred of difference in mission.  (I think, for example, of one parish I was in where epic battle raged for months over the question of how to serve morning tea).   But this is fruitless, just as focussing on keeping Torah or speaking in Hebrew would have distracted Paul from any effective ministry in the Greco-Roman cities to which he travelled.  And what we see from the letter to the Philippians is that’s a problem not just because it makes us ineffective Christians (although that’s bad), and not just because it tends to lead to conflict (also bad), but because it robs us of our joy.

When our sense of identity, our sense of purpose, and our priorities all align with a clear, Scriptural understanding of what God is doing in the world, and what the end result of all of that is going to be… that’s when we find the true joy of being Christians.

It does take work.  It means actually knowing the Scriptures well enough to have a very clear sense of what the reign of God is all about.  It might sound obvious, but we can’t know what it means to be found in Christ, unless we really know Christ.

It also means, not just knowing Christ, but having the ability to translate what we know about Christ, in the abstract, to recognise and participate in what Christ is doing in the world, in real and concrete ways.  It means that if, for example, we talk about “justice,” we have a very clear sense of what justice means in the playground and the workplace and on the street.  What it means in terms of policies for institutions, and priorities for individuals.  How a sense of justice might inform our interactions with everyone from our local politicians to the folks seeking emergency relief at the vicarage door.  And not only justice, but hope and faith and peace and all the fruits of the Spirit.

Because when we have that clear in our own heads, we can make our way through the world, confident that we are being who we are meant to be; more than that, growing into who God calls us to be!   And that we are participating in bringing the future God intends into being.

And that’s where we draw our joy from.  Anything else that we do, without doing that, is going to be a drain and a distraction, rather than a wellspring of joy and of life.

The good news for us here is that this is something already begun, in which we can continue to grow, and which will find its fulfilment.  The future is open, and taking Paul’s growth mindset to it, we can more and more be part of the reign of God as it grows.  We are not only the sum of what we have been or are right now; God has so much more, and so much that is better, for us to press into.

Paul told the Philippians that “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  What will straining forward to what lies ahead look like, for you, this week?

Advertisements

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?

Not about the money

This reflection was given at the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Mark 10:17-27.

It’s not about the money.

But of course, we attach lots of meaning to money.  Money is power; money is security; money is freedom; money is a measure of self-worth; and so on.  There’s a reason that lots of work in marriage preparation ends up being about money and the different meanings that both people attach to it; and the arguments they have about it!

The question then becomes, do the meanings we attach to money get in the way of our relationship with God?

I do realise that there’s quite an irony for me to be talking to you about this, when you’re a community of people who have renounced attachment to money for the sake of your relationship with God.

But we can’t renounce attachments altogether.  While people who have money – or at least, might hope to have money – attach particular meanings to that, people who don’t have money are tempted to place the same distorting meanings and attachments onto other things.

How do people in this community seek power, security, freedom, or a sense of self-worth?  Or any of the other things that people pursue money for?

You will have far more insight into the private dynamics of community life than I will, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.  I’ll just leave those as questions for you to consider.

But the point remains; our attachments are a problem when they get in the way of our relationship with God, or with one another.

Lent’s just a couple of days away.  As you ponder how best to make use of that season, maybe there are worse things you could do than take an inventory of your emotional attachments, and offer them to God.

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.

Happy families

This is a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas.  The Scripture it references is Colossians 3:12-17.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That’s the opening line to Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina; but the week after Christmas is a time when I find many people reflecting on the many ways in which families may be unhappy.  Perhaps it’s not surprising; we expect a lot of our families; our physical and emotional safety, a source of our own identity, values, and a sense of our place in the world; ongoing support through the various phases of our life, and so forth.  And when you have many people all with different needs pulling the family in different directions… maybe it’s not surprising that there are many ways for families to be unhappy.

Of course, we talk about church as family too; especially for small (or family-sized) churches like ours.  And while the metaphor of church as family has strengths and limitations, it does tend to mean that we bring a lot of our family baggage into church life.

It’s a bit like when a couple get married, but come from very different families; and part of marriage preparation means that you have deep and meaningful discussions about everything from how often you mop the floor to how you handle money, to significant celebrations and how you mark them.

Except when you join a church, you don’t necessarily have the same deep and meaningful conversations, so it’s easy – and very common – to make the mistake of assuming that the patterns you learned in your own family are what should happen at church as well.  Whether it’s the person who’s absorbed the lesson that all disagreement is bad and we must avoid arguments at all cost, or the person who’s come from a very authoritarian family and thinks we should all work to a leadership model that says father knows best, or whatever it is… we all bring that stuff with us.

And even more than that, we tend to bring the roles we played in our own families.  The person who took on the role of being peacemaker at home will tend to be peacemaker at church; or the decision maker, or the contributor of ideas, or the one who makes sure everyone has fun and laughs.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, not at all.  But the reason I point it out is that sometimes, it helps if we’re conscious of it.  I know when I talk things over with my supervisor, he’ll often encourage me to reflect on what has shaped my own expectations and reactions and patterns of behaviour… and sometimes how I feel about something in the parish has nothing to do with this parish at all, but with some other context I’ve been in before; and often, because of the power our families have to shape us, those earlier contexts are familial.

But the reason I’m thinking about this now – apart from it having just been Christmas – is because of the reading we had today from Colossians.  In it, Paul describes the loving dynamics which should characterise a Christian community – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on – and which we so often learn (or fail to learn) in our families.

Paul often describes the church in familial terms, and in effect, he’s saying that the church should be for us what a family should be; a place of safety; a source of our identity, values, and orientation to the world; a place for mutual support.  But where church perhaps goes beyond family is that church also has a mission, a purpose, beyond meeting the needs of its members.  The church should be always reaching out beyond itself, proclaiming the good news, responding to the needs of others, and so on.

And here’s the thing; an unhappy church, a church which doesn’t have its internal relationships in a healthy and functional state, is not going to be effective in mission.  Part of the deal with family is, as the saying goes, that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family; the same is true of church.  By our common baptism we’re bound together whether we want to be or not, and we have to learn to get along and work together even with people we never would have chosen.

And this is also part of why Paul starts this section of his letter by reminding the Colossians that they are God’s chosen people; it’s God’s initiative which has brought each of them into the church family, and it’s not up to any human being to try to countermand God’s choice.  God chose each of us, and therefore nobody has the right to decide that any of us don’t belong or have a place, or don’t need bearing with when we hit a rough patch in life.

And not only are we chosen by God, but that choice sets us apart from the world (that’s really what the word “holy” is about; about being set apart), in order to accomplish God’s purposes.  That’s the importance of mission again.  So we are chosen, we’re set apart for a mission, and in order to be able to carry out that mission we must have our internal affairs in order; hence the need for compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on.  Each of those virtues could have a sermon of its own; but for now perhaps it’s enough to note that they are mostly other-centred.  Compassion is about our ability to recognise and respond to the sufferings of others.  Kindness is about our benevolence to others.  Meekness is about how we respond when we find others difficult.  Patience about our emotional steadiness when frustrated with others.  And so on.  We are to clothe ourselves with an all-encompassing loving attitude to others, one which in every situation seeks the good of others in ways which enable the church to function well.

Now this doesn’t mean tolerating bad behaviour.  Paul isn’t here telling you to tolerate – or forgive – ongoing mistreatment, and neither am I.  But it’s about how we choose to respond, so that we can put proper boundaries in place, end bad behaviour… and then forgive and move on, not letting old conflicts hamper us indefinitely.

It’s probably true – with apologies to Tolstoy – that all happy churches are alike, but each unhappy church is unhappy in its own way.  What Paul has given us this morning is a prescription for a happy church, and if we follow it, we may also find ourselves able to give thanks in whatever we do.