A sermon by Alison Sampson
What on earth happened? We are called to love one another. Yet last week, one of our members resigned in a public letter which implied that we had rejected her. It left many of us feeling bewildered; and it left many of us wondering what it means to be a community of love, forgiveness, and grace, and whether we as a church have utterly failed her.
It is particularly poignant that we received her resignation in the week after Pentecost. Last Sunday, we heard about the boundary-breaking activities of the Holy Spirit: how it was poured out on the disciples and enabled them to communicate across every divide. We also heard that the Spirit would prove us wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement, and that our ideas about insiders and outsiders and boundaries would be turned upside down. And then we got a letter which suggested we had indeed judged a member of our church, and drawn up boundaries, and pushed her outside.
Now before I continue, I want to be very clear. For years, the church leadership has struggled to find a way for this person to continue in the Sunday gathering. Many attempts have been made. A couple of weeks ago, after her perceived hostility affected a number of people, we prayed, consulted, and negotiated; and then we asked her to stay away while we tried to come up with a new plan. But we did not expel her: she chose to resign.
All the same, what sort of church are we to exclude anyone from the worshipping community in any way and for any length of time?
Actually, we’re a historically normal church. Issues around congregational participation are hardly new. From the earliest days, Jesus’ followers wrestled with how to balance a call to hospitality with the need for some shared behaviours and values. We see this struggle throughout the New Testament as people sought to live together in their differences, and as churches proliferated, many congregations demanded particular behaviours from their members.
But the church became powerful, and church discipline became a sometimes destructive instrument of control: an anathema to the idea of loving acceptance. At the same time, our culture has gradually moved away from group identity towards individualism. And so in reaction to violent legalism and in a move towards acceptance of individual difference, many churches these days are reluctant to insist on particular behaviours (with the exception of a few sexual norms). Now, the prevailing pattern is to ignore difficult behaviours and hope they will go away.
But they don’t. The difficult behaviours continue, and people continue to be bewildered and hurt, and most congregations spend a great deal of time and energy dealing with the damage wrought by difficult behaviours.
Our congregation is no different. Like others, we don’t like to talk about conflict, or hurt, or difficult behaviours. And yet, we are a covenanting community. This means that we have agreed on some shared commitments on the ways we live our faith, and we renew and re-commit to them every year. This set of commitments, known as the church covenant, declare our orientation, and point us toward our goals. Goals such as seeking reconciliation across anything that divides us, and welcoming and honouring all who would seek to journey with us.
Of course, not one of us is able to live out these commitments. We all fail. The Christian life often looks a bit like slapstick comedy as we fall down. We get up. We fall down. We get up. We fall down. We get up. And so on.
Even so, the covenant is not used as a tool to exclude us when we fall down too many times. If this were true, none of us would be here today! What the covenant does do is name what we are aiming for. More, the covenant implies that if, in our failures to live out these commitments, other people keep getting hurt, then we may find ourselves in the difficult territory of confrontation and challenge.
For example, our congregation has covenanted to heal the broken and stand up for the oppressed. This does not just mean that we go and work with some broken and oppressed people outside the church. It also means that we do not hurt or oppress people within the church through the force of our personalities or our hostile body language or our aggressive acts. When we take the goals of healing and hope seriously, we commit to making the church itself a safe and welcoming place for every person who walks in the door: and this work – of creating a safe and welcoming place – is the work of us all. If we as individuals cannot begin to do this work, we will be challenged.
We have also covenanted to seek reconciliation across our divides; and this will lead to conflict. Because reconciliation means being truthful, and acknowledging that there are conflicts, and there are divides. It means naming difficult behaviours and the effects they have on people, and asking those who continually manifest difficult behaviours to seek help and to find new ways to live, ways which more clearly express our common faith and our shared goals. Of course, we recognise that such work is slow, very slow; none of us are transformed overnight. We know that change takes a long time. But if over the years our behaviours become more and more difficult, and more and more hostile, then questions will be raised about what we are really committing to and we will be challenged.
Churches can be very tolerant places; but tolerance is not love. And when tolerance is taken so far that we fail to challenge difficult behaviour – that is, if we permit blatant rudeness, excuse belligerence and hostility, and turn a blind eye when others are hurt – then our tolerance opens the door to abuse.
“Let the little ones come to me, and do not stop them,” said Jesus. We cannot leave obstacles in the way of anyone’s church attendance or participation at the table; not even the obstacles of our own feelings of hostility and aggression. Paradoxically, then, because her hostility had become an obstacle to participation, both for others and for herself, our sister was asked to stay away from our gatherings until we could think of a way for her to participate that kept everyone else feeling welcome, and safe.
In our Pentecost celebrations, we heard that when we are filled with the Spirit we will communicate across every divide. When our sister resigned her membership a few days later, it felt like we failed to communicate and failed to love across what has become a divide. Maybe this is true. After all, the Holy Spirit is love in action. The Spirit empowered Jesus to live in perfect communion with God the Father; and to live, walk and breathe a parable of God’s love right here on earth. When we are filled with Holy Spirit, we are enabled to live like Jesus, working and praying our way into love. Were we all perfectly open to the workings of the Spirit of love, we might not be in this situation now.
Yet we are human. None of us fully live like Jesus, pray like Jesus, or love like Jesus. With God’s help, we just do our best. We are harsh, and we fall down. We affirm another, and we get up. We are hostile, and we fall down. We beg forgiveness, and we get up. We exclude someone, and we fall down. We make our churches safe, and we get up. And so it goes.
The events of last week might have felt like a falling down. We might feel like we did not love long enough or well enough or hard enough to effect deep transformation in our sister, and perhaps we didn’t; but we are only bit players in this story, and the story is still being written. As we affirm in our daily prayers, as those drawn into the dance of life, we are called to share in Christ’s priesthood, praying for the world day and night until earth and heaven are reconciled, and all things are made one in Christ. And so we must pray, really pray, for our sister and for ourselves, that we might find paths to healing and redemption. And as we also affirm in our daily prayers, nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love – and thus nothing can separate our sister. We will continue to love her outside the Sunday gathering as well as we possibly can.
In the meantime, while our prayers and our sincere efforts and the Holy Spirit do their slow work, let us love one another. Let us love not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s difficult. Let us love with the confidence to ask the best from each other, and the courage to challenge the worst. Let us love through difference, right into conflict, and out the other side. And I promise you this: if we do, if we really love in all its messiness and costliness and conflict, then we will find Christ waiting, arms outstretched, waiting to welcome us to the feast. Ω