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.