16th Sunday of Trinity

Rev Jane Fraser

A sermon preached in Worcester Cathedral

There have been times over the summer months when I’ve hardly dared open the newspaper in the morning for fear of what new, headline-grabbing piece I might find on the subject of women bishops or the role of gay clergy within the Church of England. And you’ll be as aware as I am that the underlying theme has not been,  “See how these Christians love one another,” but an almost gleeful, “See how they love to hate one another!”

On the one hand we have those with a more conservative Christian approach to these matters saying, “They’re trying to make it impossible for us to stay,” and on the other hand we have those with a more liberal Christian approach saying, “We don’t want you to leave or to be part of a separate structure within the church.”

And it’s not just the Archbishop of Canterbury who despairs for the future health and
mission of the Church of England!

But let me tell you of another side to all this.

One of the women priests in this diocese decided to invite a few male clergy, known to be opposed to the priesting of women, to an informal lunch. Over a very nice meal (she’s a bit of a ‘foodie’) they each talked about their ministry and its impact on their lives and agreed to meet again – for a very nice lunch. As they got to know each other and their shared interests and vocations (apart from good food), their differences began to seem less important than their common enthusiasm to serve Christ and his church according to their understanding of their vocation. I won’t say that all were converted to the cause of women as priests, but a mutual respect for each other’s ministry was firmly established and some misconceptions demolished.

And there’s another story.

My husband and I had got to know some friends from Canada who we’d met a couple of times on holiday and I’d maintained a lively correspondence with them since. When they were in England last month we invited them over to have a meal with us. Having shared some stories about bringing up teenagers and how, thank God, they eventually grow out of this syndrome, they then told us of their sorrow at finding first one and then the other daughter had ‘come out’ as lesbian and one was now living with her partner. Knowing that I was a priest (and they, too, were Anglicans), I was asked if I would ever conduct a ‘Gay Marriage’ as they called it. Now, although the Anglican Church in Canada has sanctioned the blessing of same sex unions, I was aware that this wasn’t universally accepted over there but I explained the position within the Church of England, which is different. And, possibly fired up by the odd glass of wine, I added my own exposition of the parallels to be seen with our Christian approach to the faithful, exclusive, life-long vows to be made in Christian marriage and how this is reflected in God’s covenant with his church.

At this point I became aware of the look of surprise on the faces of our guests. Clearly, this was not what they had expected to hear! It was also clear that they’d not heard another priest say something affirming of their daughters’ relationships or the potential for commitment and faithfulness within those relationships – and I was afraid I’d put my foot in it. Fortunately, that was not the case and, since then, I’m aware of a dialogue having been opened up between these parents and their daughters on a different level from that of disappointment and disapproval. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways!

These stories, and the Bible readings we’ve just heard all illustrate the basic Christian belief that we must be people who do not create barriers that isolate people from each other but, rather, build bridges between them. This is particularly true in the area of reconciliation, where we must seek to get beyond past hurts, difficulties and differences of belief and opinion and move toward a more positive, Christ-like attitude in our relationships with those we encounter on a daily basis.

In our gospel reading, Jesus gives instructions to his disciples about the proper methods for seeking reconciliation. OK, this does seems a bit legalistic in the way it sets out specific ways of proceeding if a first attempt at reconciliation isn’t successful. Also, and this is a point that we might find difficult to swallow, Jesus goes on to say that if someone goes as far as to ignore what the church is suggesting, then he or she should be treated as a Gentile or a tax collector. In other words, if we can’t achieve reconciliation, this person should be treated as one outside the community of Israel.

There’s a pattern of behaviour we often encounter in the counselling role that goes like this. Very simply, it’s when one person has a problem with another and instead of going directly to him, he complains to another and another and another, thus creating a triangle of confusion. Modern day counsellors are not the first people to warn us against such destructive behaviour. Jesus did so when he told his disciples to go directly and privately to a person with whom they might have a problem. And if that didn’t work, to take it one step at a time until that person needs to be considered a “Gentile and tax collector.”

Lest this final piece of advice be seen as exceptionally harsh, let’s be clear that the thrust of the reading is to seek reconciliation with our brothers and sisters in the Christian community. Jesus certainly built bridges with all sorts of outside peoples: lepers, Samaritans, Canaanites, and various other marginalised peoples and, in particular, those regarded as ritually ‘unclean’. Jesus didn’t keep other people at arm’s length, but rather embraced them, seeking to be a brother and neighbour to all he encountered. The only ones left out were those who had placed themselves outside Jesus’ compassion and love by their refusal to listen and their inability to demonstrate forgiveness and reconciliation to others.

Thus, Jesus clearly wants his disciples to know that their starting point should always be to build bridges between members of the community.

We’re to be like my colleague who built a bridge between herself, as a woman priest, and those who found it impossible to accept that the ordination of women might be part of God’s plan for his church – not to mention women in positions of authority over them as bishop.

We’re to be like those friends of mine in Canada who began to move beyond their initial feelings of disappointment and disapproval to the kind of dialogue that arises from our calling to offer unconditional love to our children – however hard that might be. Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans echoes Christ’s message of being a bridge builder of reconciliation and takes it further. He tells us to,

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

He goes on to repeat the second half of the Great Commandment, to

“Love your neighbour as yourself”.

Paul realised that Jesus’ central message of love demands that we go beyond the basics. For him, the one and only act of respect that all humans should ask of their brothers and sisters in Christ is to love. In order to be a great bridge builder between people who find themselves estranged for whatever reason, requires great love, persistence, and strength. It’s unfortunate, but nonetheless a reality, that our Christian community and local parishes are often in need of significant bridge building to reconcile individuals and groups who stand opposed on various issues, both theologically and socially. I have a great admiration for a couple I know who, when they retired and moved to a different town to be nearer to their family, decided not to go to the local parish church where they’d have been welcomed by lots of other couples who shared their professional interests and lifestyle.

Instead, they chose to attend another church, only a couple of miles away, that drew its congregation from an estate with a multi-ethnic population and few people from the professions. They felt they would have more to offer at such a church and, indeed this was the case. It was a strange experience for them and a bit of a culture shock, but what was more important was that they were able to learn to love and respect people whose experience of life was very different from their own.

Today’s lessons call us to demonstrate love, as the one and only debt we owe to any person, by reaching out and seeking reconciliation with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Few people are not in need of reconciliation, whether it be with a member of our family, a friend, a co-worker, or even God. Today, our Dean and his wife are celebrating their Silver Wedding Anniversary. And it’s right that we should always celebrate such an anniversary for it demonstrates what we mean when we say that Christian marriage is about our lifelong vows of commitment and faithfulness, reflecting God’s commitment and faithfulness to us. For I’m sure that even in such a well-ordered household as the Dean’s, there will have been times of testing and the occasional frisson of discord. Christian marriage has become counter-cultural in demanding that we resolve our differences and difficulties within that relationship and seek reconciliation, rather than abandoning it.

The scriptures provide abundant evidence that God is not only present and seeking our reconciliation, but additionally, we have a significant responsibility to make sure that the bridges we seek to build are actually constructed. In order to do this, it’s necessary to believe that God is there, waiting for us to return, and then transform God’s forgiveness of us into our forgiveness and reconciliation of others.

As a Minister in Secular Employment, working in the field of sex education and sexual counselling, my ministry is largely with those who do not belong to a church. That’s not to say that none of them identify as Christians – far from it. I daily come across people who call themselves Christians, have a prayer life that would put mine to shame, and perhaps even used to, once upon a time, attend church regularly. There may be one of a number of reasons for this but what stands out is the frequency with which I hear stories of a falling-out. Perhaps they didn’t like the new vicar or a particular clique that had become dominant in the congregation. What saddens me most is to hear how many have fallen away because of a perception that the church (or God) wouldn’t approve of a new relationship they’d formed or something they’d done.

The fact that I hear these stories, as a woman in a dog collar carrying out her daily work, is testimony to a crying need for reconciliation – for another Christian to hear their story in confidence – a link, somehow to Christ – like the woman suffering from an issue of blood who touched Jesus’ robe, desperate for healing but, believing herself to be unclean, didn’t dare to ask in public what might be refused.

A powerful image, I believe, that captures the confidence we must have that God is willing, able, and desirous for our return to him. He, in turn will send us forth to build bridges of reconciliation with our brothers and sisters.

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