A note from the Minister: after completing this sermon I fell ill and was unable to deliver it on Sunday morning. I’m grateful to the Rev Morven Archer who took our services in my place, and who used much of the material below. This is the sermon I would have preached had I been able to. I’m glad to say I’m on the mend, since you ask!
Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 7 September 2014: Year A, Proper 18
Who needs reconciliation anyhow?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This week the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Rt Rev John Chalmers, chaired a ‘respectful dialogue’ on the independence referendum. It was held in a Glasgow church, but the rest of us could participate because if was put out live on the Internet. At the Crown Church, we watched the speakers live on a big screen, had own audience comments section, and emailed our thoughts back to Glasgow. It was a fascinating experience, being linked up in that way to others around the country. As I was checking that I could communicate with the person receiving the emails in Glasgow, I suddenly thought of the Eurovision Song Contest- ‘Hello, this is Helsinki, here are the votes of the Finnish jury’. Maybe one day the General Assembly will be replaced by this kind of technology- although perhaps the Assembly will be unlikely to turn into a version of Eurovision.
But I wouldn’t mind too much if the General Assembly- and our TV political debates- were replaced by the kind of discussion we had the other night, for it was truly respectful. No interruptions. No applause during speeches. We all listened more than we spoke. One of our members who attended the Crown Church event said it was the best discussion of the referendum he’d heard. Nobody was trying to win- but everybody got a chance to say their piece.
For years, politics in Britain has been in crisis. The number of people involved in politics has been plummeting. Fewer and people are voting, political parties have haemorrhaged members, and much of our political news has been dominated by personalities or scandals. Politics, especially since the MPs expenses scandal, has fallen into deeper disrepute than ever before. The foundations of our democracy have been threatened by the apathy of voters and the overweening power of the lobbyists for big business and special interest groups.
However, perhaps temporarily, the decline of interest in politics has suddenly been arrested in Scotland. Even although many people might claim to be weary of it all, this is a fascinating time to be living in Scotland. When did we last have an election where people were queuing out the door of council offices to register to vote? How often, this week, has someone brought up the topic in conversation? Walk down Inverness High Street any Saturday, and there’s stalls from both sides, and generally good-natured discussions going on. The TV debates garnered enormous audiences for such events. Our meeting at the Crown Church the other night was just one of many meetings, in halls up and down Scotland, where people have gathered to debate and discuss the independence issue.
I have never known anything like it. It’s as if our democracy has had a new lease of life. People who have never been to a political meeting in their life are getting involved in the campaigns on both sides. And on the whole, even if it is passionate at times, it is a good-natured conversation. Yet because this is not just any political question, but a question about nationality and identity, the passion does sometimes spill over into something ugly. John Chalmers, the Moderator, has said, ‘I have faith that despite divergent views most Scots are behaving courteously during the run-up to the referendum. However it has become clear that some are not. I fear that something ugly may be beginning to permeate the independence debate’. (There’s more thoughts from the Moderator here).
And so as well as helping to show the world how to have a courteous debate, the Moderator has also said that he intends to preach at St Giles’, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, on the Sunday following the referendum, at a service to which the leaders of all political parties have been invited. Some have pooh-poohed the idea- it’s not as if we are having a civil war, after all. On the other side of Europe, cities are being shelled, tanks are rolling across the countryside, and an airliner was shot down, as people in eastern Ukraine literally fight over issues of national identity. Here, all we are doing is having a vote. For once, we are setting a good example to the world.
Yet I think the Moderator is showing leadership by suggesting that reconciliation will be needed. If the opinion polls are anything to go by, a large proportion of the Scottish population is going to be left dissatisfied the day after the referendum. At the General Assembly, he said that after the referendum, ‘There can be no more them and us’. Scotland, the nation we all love, is a small place. We need somehow to get beyond our differences and ensure we all work together for the common good.
But has the church any business in getting involved in all this? Absolutely, for we are in the reconciliation business. Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans comes right after Paul has spoken of the Christian’s duties to the state- to honour rulers, pay taxes, and, generally speaking, to be good citizens. But then he turns to our duties to our fellow-Christians, and says we are under no obligation to each other except to love one another (just as Jesus taught his disciples). Paul writes to the Christians of Rome, ‘If you love others, you will never do them wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law’; and ‘Let us conduct ourselves properly, as people who live in the light of day- no orgies or drunkenness, no immorality or indecency, no fighting or jealousy’.
And yet often there are bad relationships between Christians, just as there is in the rest of the world. We argue, we fight, we get jealous of one another. Our dialogues with one another are not always respectful. I suspect that John Chalmers is interested in respectful dialogue because he has spent many years in the Ministries department of the Church of Scotland. In that role, he helped to look after the church’s ministers. Sadly, where there is stress and burnout in the ministry, it is often because of breakdowns of relationships within congregations. In some congregations, controversies get out of hand, and the stress which that puts on ministers and their families can be intense. John Chalmers has seen to many such situations, and therefore he is interested in alternatives to such conflict. Indeed, the national Church of Scotland has begun to develop things like mediation methods in order to deal with serious conflict in such congregations. Sadly we Christians are not always a good example to the world in how to have respectful dialogues.
St Paul, who often had to deal with conflict in his churches, knew that as well. And Jesus, it seems, saw it coming. And so he gives instructions about what to do if someone within the church does something which hurts you. Jesus is describing a process, a way of putting into action what he has said before about forgiveness.
‘If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault. But do it privately, just between yourselves. If he listens to you, you have won your brother back’. How much anguish and harsh words could be avoided if only we were willing to go and speak to one another, privately, about the issues which divide us. Even today, the best way to deal with hurtful words or actions is to get together with the person you disagree with, and to have a conversation. He should listen as you explain what the problem is. You should listen as he explains his side of the discussion. If necessary, you can involve other people. This process which Jesus describes is a respectful dialogue. And what matters most in such a situation is not what you say to the other person, but that you listen. It is a process which allows us to seek reconciliation, to offer again and again the possibility of healing our relationship with the person we feel as wronged us. We are to offer to listen, because only that way can we can begin to heal the breach.
For reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel. St Paul understood that the world was estranged from God- we have ourselves enemies of God. God’s response is not to punish us, but to try to win us back. That is what the birth, life, death and resurrection was all about. To church at Corinth (who were notoriously prone to factionalism and argument) Paul wrote ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5.19-21 NRSV).
Christians are to go the extra mile to bring about reconciliation, because in Christ, God went the extra mile to reconcile the world to himself. If we can, we are to try to make friends with our enemies. If we can, we are to try to bring enemies together. If we can, we are to get round our differences, stay in relationships with one another, work hard at reconciliation and being reconciled to one another- and to God.
When his disciples asked him how they should pray, Jesus gave them a prayer which included the words, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’. We are all debtors- we all owe God much, there are people we owe much to, because we have done wrong to God and done wrong to others. At the heart of the Gospel is the promise that God writes off our debts to him. God reconciles us, and treats us as if we don’t owe him anything.
But if we have our debts forgiven, so we too are to no longer to hold any debts against other people. As God has forgiven us, so we are to forgive other people. And so the Christian church should be (although we often fail to be) a model of a reconciled community. And we are to do anything we can to bring about reconciliation among people who disagree, who call other ‘opponents’ or enemies. This is the tough work of peacemaking.
Jesus famously said that the peacemakers are blessed. But peacemaking is not just a job for statesmen or diplomats. There is probably someone today whom you need to be reconciled to. There are probably people you know whom you could perhaps help become reconciled to one another. We can be peacemakers, reconcilers, in our families, in our workplace, wherever we are together with other people. It does not always work (as the Gospel passage admits). But we are to try. And in our church life, too, where too often we find ourselves at loggerheads, where personality clashes happen, where misunderstandings can spiral out of control- just as happens in every other area of life- we are all of us called to seek peace and reconciliation with each other.
Jesus said that his followers could be like leaven or salt- we do good just by being there. So during the next few weeks, we can all be seeking to be reconcilers, helping each other to live with whatever the consequences of the referendum result is. It’ll be a time to renew old ties, frayed perhaps by all this controversy. We Christians have a mission in Scotland over the next few weeks- to be people of peace, and dialogue, and reconciliation. That is our gift, God’s gift, to our broken world.
Usually we will do so quietly and privately- a kind word, a wee sign, to indicate that we are still speaking to someone. But sometimes the church as a whole gets the chance to be a sign to the world. I think that’s what the Moderator will be trying to achieve at his service at St Giles’- to very publicly remind the nation of our that there is no them and us, that we have to be reconciled so that we can work together for the best for our country.
In this city, we as congregation have a chance to be a sign of reconciliation even before the referendum. The Kirking of the Council is next week, and it so happens next Sunday is the last Sunday before the referendum. In recent years the Kirking has become a celebration of our life together in this city, a sign that we are united by more than divides us. I cannot emphasis strongly enough how important I think it is that you all be at the Old High next week. This is a three-line whip- to be there to be a sign of reconciliation our city at this time in our nation’s life. There will be an act of reconciliation within the service. So it is an excellent opportunity for us to speak to our city of our faith in the gospel of reconciliation.
We’re living in an exciting times, but it is a time when we often feel divided as a nation and as a community. But, says St Paul, God ‘has given us the ministry of reconciliation’. So let us exercise that ministry of reconciliation- next Sunday, in the eyes of our city, and in the weeks to come, in small, private personal ways. For if, indeed, God has reconciled us to himself, we ought to reconcile others.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, except where otherwise noted
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo