A Sermon preached at the Mint Methodist Church,
Love your neighbour as yourself
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.
It was the Karl Barth who advised preachers to prepare their sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
Well today we think about the set lessons for the day which we have heard read, but also, on Racial Justice Sunday, very much aware of news items on Zimbabwe, Stephen Lawrence and the anniversary of September 11.
We’ll come back to some of those issues in a minute - but lets start with the Gospel for the day.
It’s a passage which you only find in Mt.
You can’t help suspecting that the Church to which St Matthew belonged had some difficult members and that there were strong disagreements. That would explain why he alone chooses to give space in his Gospel to this very practical discussion on resolving conflicts.
So what does he say do?
· If your brother does wrong, go and have it out with him.
· If that fails, involve more people, if need be the whole Community, in a process of mutual accountability.
But if the alleged wrong doer refuses to change his or her ways, then
“treat him like a gentile or a tax collector”.
That is the bit that sticks in a lot of people’s throats – because it seems to say: if people won’t toe the line, write them off, refuse to talk to them or deal with them again. In fact it doesn’t say that – remember it is Jesus not the Pharisees who says “treat them like tax collectors” – and how did Jesus treat tax collectors? By loving them, dining with them – yes, telling them to mend their ways – but still loving and accepting them.
And if you have any doubt that the confrontation is meant to undertaken in a spirit of love, note the previous passage about the lost sheep, and recall the epistle for the day “Love your neighbour”.
So what we have here is a manifesto for dealing with wrong doers in our midst
(1) Confront their evil and wrong as a community
(2) Keep loving people however much they wrong you
(3) If they exclude themselves from your community, continue both loving them and confronting their evil.
All of which sounds easy, but can be very demanding in practice.
1. STEPHEN LAWRENCE
As you may know, the Lawrence family are members of their local Methodist Church, and amongst the many victims of racist attacks, they have often a special place in our thoughts and prayers.
As Stephen Lawrence dying on the pavement, Conor Taffe and his wife Louise had just come out of a Church Meeting, when they came across Stephen’s body in front of them. They knelt beside him and stroked his hair and offered the prayer “Bless him Lord Jesus, have mercy on him”.
Conor Taffe said ”[My wife] put her hands on his head for comfort. She spoke in his ear….. Both of us knew that the hearing was one of the last things to go, and she said “you are loved, you are loved”
He and his wife went to their nearby Church to pray as the teenager was being taken to hospital. When Mr Taffe arrived home, he washed Stephen’s blood from his hands into a container and poured the water under a rose bush in his garden.
Today’s epistle – says “Love Your Neighbour”
And as we leave Church today and go about our business during the coming week, we will find there somewhere in our path (if we look about us) the violated and persecuted, the despised and the marginalized.
May we show reverence for their life whoever they may be, and through what we do, may they know that they are loved to the end. For whoever we meet, he is our neighbour who needs our love.
DAVID NORRIS AND NEIL ACOURT
But what of David Norris and Neil Acourt – the young men questioned about Stephen’s murder, but now in a separate incident this week convicted of a racial attack on a black policeman just half a mile from where Stephen died?
Well - Christian love is not sentimental – it does not ignore evil or brush it under the carpet – we are to confront those who do wrong with their evil deeds – as it says in our Gospel reading.
But even here we are also to show love. For Scripture does not say “Love your neighbour unless he is particularly unpleasant or sinful - it says “Love your neighbour” – and that includes all the sinners and villains alongside the Sts and Mother Teresas.
I’ve been listening the tape of what Graham Shaw said when here a few weeks ago from Zimbabwe. It would be presumptuous of me to speak of the agonies of his situation when he has spoken so eloquently – only to say, please today as we listen to the news of the latest deadline, and as you see this candle burning, remember Graham and all in his land. He has given us all a stirring example..
Wherever we are we are all called to remember the persecuted and also the persecutors and pray for reconciliation.
Again it is easier said than done. But there is a powerful example of that which comes from Southern Africa itself.
I’ve just finished reading Desmond Tutu’s book “No future without forgiveness” in which he describes the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in S Africa. – an amazing organization which sought to give amnesty to all wrong doers of apartheid in the context of their telling the truth and accepting their responsibility and guilt.
He describes some absolutely horrendous scenes of death through torture meted out by white policemen and others, and then says –
“Frequently we…were quite appalled at the depth of depravity to which human beings could sink – and we would, most of us, say that those who committed such deeds were monsters because the deeds were monstrous. But theology prevents us from doing this. Theology reminded me that however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon. We had to distinguish between the deed and the perpetrator, the sinner and the sin – to hate and condemn the sin whilst being filled with compassion for the perpetrator.
…If perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters…..it meant that we abandoned all hope of their being able to able to change for the better. Theology says that they still, despite the awfulness of their deeds, remain children of God, with the capacity to change, to repent….”
And then in a moving passage he goes on to talk of the shepherd rescuing the 100th sheep – and he says, It would probably not have been a been a fluffy little lamb – fluffy little lambs do not normally stray from their mothers – but a troublesome obstreperous old ram, …thoroughly bedraggled and probably having fallen into a foul ditch smelling to high heaven.”
But this is the sinner that the Good Shepherd came to save – and place lovingly on his shoulders and bring home.
We are all aware that our friend Graham is in very considerable danger because he speaks and lives the Gospel of love and truth. We hold him in our prayers. Maybe we need at the next Church Council to check whether there are more tangible things we should be doing for him.
But in addition, we should be humbled and encouraged by his example Graham carries on, knowing that because of his witness for justice and love he risks imprisonment or worse every day of his ministry.
Perhaps for some of us our unwillingness to speak out begins to look a bit sad even pathetic in comparison. Remember – every one of us is called to speak out for love, truth and justice.
3. ANNIVERSARY OF SEPTEMBER 11
We approach Sept 11 - Another place where we are called to speak for justice and truth and yet love our neighbour, whoever she or he may be, whichever side they are on.
Every generation has its tyrants and its crises. In 1 Kings 19 Elijah flees from Jezebel – he flees to a mountain where he has that famous experience of the still small voice which we often sing of in the hymn “Dear Lord and Father”
Here is a Christian Aid Meditation which uses the same imagery to reflect on God’s presence at Ground Zero –
Now there was a great roar,
And a violent explosion so great that it rent buildings,
But the Lord was not in the explosion.
And after the explosion came the earthquake,
tearing down what once was built.
But the Lord was not in the earthquake.
And after the earthquake came the fire, taking yet more lives.
But the Lord was not in the fire.
After the fire came the rage and the anger and the cries for vengeance – but the Lord was not in the hatred.
Then came the sound of sheer silence
And filling it – our unspoken fears
Of the unknowable consequences for all our futures,
And a pain so deep no words could convey it.
And into the silence a voice spoke saying
Even now, I am with you.
God is there to bring love into our nightmare – but he does not share the hatred and the resentment, the earthquake and the fire – only the death and heartache and sorrow.
Oh – Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, …. Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm.
And yes, we have to stand against terror and evil – love the victim and love the perpetrator.
And so, should we invade Iraq? Does that count as standing up to wrong doers?
This is a sermon not a Party Political Broadcast – so no glib answers to political dilemmas –
But as Christians we have to wrestle with these things –
So here are not answers but perspectives –
1. Jesus tells the early Christians to work as a community with corporate and mutual responsibility for dealing with those out of line. We can’t extrapolate simply to 21st C international politics, but if we could it would say “Find consensus before attacking”
2. More children die every week as a result of contaminated water, malnutrition and HIV AIDS than the total number who dies in NY on Sept 11. That doesn’t lesson the horror of 9/11, but it maybe when we are looking for the bad guys in the world, enemies to blame, we need to condemn all evil – even that in which, however passively, we participate.
3. Every man woman and child who was killed
on Sept 11 was a child of God, and we cannot overestimate the tragedy and the
evil of that day.
And yet every child in the backstreets of Kabul or Bagdad is also a child of God and is just as precious in his sight as the citizens of NY – if we do need (and it is a big if) if we do need to use the weapons of war, let it be with the heaviest of hearts nigh on despir, and may it be with not a flicker of satisfaction, vengeance or triumph.
Whether we are thinking of London or New York, Baghdad or Harare, the message is the same –
Stand up and be counted – fight evil, but love your neighbour.
Hate the sin. Love the sinner,
A final thought.
When Coventry Cathedral was destroyed in WW2, those
from the Cathedral gathered in the still smouldering ruins and prayed – not
prayers of vengeance but
FATHER FORGIVE The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class, .
FATHER FORGIVE The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth, .
Let us pray for the Spirit of love and forgiveness but also honesty and truth.