Sermon August 12 2018 ~ Ephesians 4:25-5:2 And They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love Rev. Betsy Hogan
So… an interesting thing happened on the way to the new organizational structure of the United Church of Canada. Which, in case you weren’t as un-usefully obsessed with the General Council Live Feed as I was two weeks ago when our No Longer the General Council but the Denominational Council met for its big triennial meeting in Oshawa, I think is actually worth telling you about.
Because it was a little bit spectacular. And proof, I think, that if the Holy Spirit doesn’t have a sense of humour – which I think the Holy Spirit does – at least we can be left in no doubt that the Holy Spirit just flat out enjoys giving our best laid plans just a teensy bit of a nudge now and then, just to make sure we’re paying attention.
Which in fact it’s possible that by the last late afternoon of business on the last late afternoon of the meeting of General Council, very few people WERE still truly fully paying attention. When into that weary end-of-the-week moment of the meeting, just as a bit of a break from the apparently-endless nitpicking process of incrementally putting together tiny piece by tiny piece a new organizational structure for This United Church of Ours…
…arrived the obligatory report of the Intercultural Observer to the meeting – the obligatory report of the Ecumenical Interfaith Observer to the meeting already having been heard.
It’d be a bit of a break. A few words of thanks for the opportunity ato share the experience of the meeting, some inspirational expressions of hope for the future, and then – back to business. Otherwise known, to us here at St. Matthew’s at any rate, as Fun with Remits.
But then something happened. The intercultural observer, a United Church clergyman from Alberta called Paul Walfall, didn’t stick to the script!
Or at least, he made the script his own. Because yes, he shared his experience of the meeting, and yes, he provided some inspirational expressions of hope for the future, but instead of simply doing so in a way that allowed the meeting just to carry on afterward with weary determination to finally FINISH Fun with Remits –
he did so with a bearing witness to his experience as a United Church clergyman of Afro-Caribbean descent that was so discombulating, and so un-ignorable, and so implicitly demanding of real conversation about diversity and racism in the church…
… that it literally hijacked the meeting. Note that I said IT hijacked the meeting. Because Paul Walfall didn’t hijack the meeting – he just delivered his intercultural observer report. But what he said was so inescapably compelling of response, active immediate response, that IT hijacked the meeting.
So that instead of a swift return to Fun with Remits, instead… General Council Commissioners paused that determined trek toward a new organizational structure for the church for several hours and well through suppertime… to listen to one another speak truth.
To listen to one another bear witness to what it’s actually like in the United Church to walk around with an invisible arrow pointing down at you over your head that says “Look! Diversity! Here it is! Diversity in the United Church of Canada”, found here, and here, and there.
The video’s still up, and worth watching, on the GC43 website. Business, Friday afternoon, and it begins about halfway through. And it’s just story-telling. Testimony, really, a bit like the bearing witness that happened at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And stories, testimony, that we were super-lucky to hear.
Which I say even though sitting through it was not terribly cheerful. And not a whole lot of fun. And it was really easy as people were telling their stories to keep feeling defensive, instead of remembering to just listen and listen and learn.
Because here’s the thing. Those few hours were probably the most important few hours in the entire meeting. Because yes, we did get our new structure, Fun with Remits was all duly dealt with, and now we are no longer in Halifax Presbytery or Maritime Conference, but instead in Region 15 Nova Scotia and Bermuda –
And yes, we elected a new Moderator, who is Rev. Dr. Richard Bott, a clergyman from Ontario, who seems an amiable sort of person and I’m sure will be a fine Moderator –
But what broke into that meeting for those few hours was a spectacular – because unplanned! unprepared for! all about the Holy Spirit! – moment, that in the words of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that Bob read for us earlier, was actual church.
Because “Let all of us speak truth to our neighbours,” Paul writes to the Ephesians, “for we are members of one another.” But how often do we make space for ourselves to really do that? Speak the whole truth. Not often enough, it seems to me, which is why – ironically – it required our extremely tidy and well-organized General Council meeting to essentially be hijacked by the Holy Spirit, to allow it to happen. To hear challenging truth-telling about experiences of racism in the church.
We tend to be fearful of that kind of truth-telling that’s going to be challenging. The kind of conversation in which there’ll be disagreement or strong feelings or sufficiently differing points of view that there might be conflict. Or an argument over facts. Or an argument over the MEANING of those facts. Or just defensiveness and hard feelings.
We shy away from difficult thorny truth-telling because we don’t want to cause trouble. Or we don’t want to deal with it. We don’t want to be IN conversations that are filled with tension. Or disagreements. Even arguments.
Which is entirely natural, but as a result, I think, we’re not really that good at those conversations. We tend to either hold our tongues, nod and smile, take a deep breath, and decide not to deal – or we ramp up from zero to sixty in seconds, fling out our irritation, refuse to back down, and take our toys and go home.
And neither is terribly useful. Neither, in fact, builds up. Which is the Apostle Paul’s very favourite thing to talk about, whenever he’s talking to the early churches -- and it’s exactly what he’s talking about in this passage from his letter to the Ephesians. What it takes to build up. To build one another up in community. To build the nature of that community up. Lifting, expanding its embodiment of Jesus’ Way of discipleship. Lifting, expanding its embodiment of love-ness and kind-ness and just-ness and whole-ness.
Because this building up that Paul calls us to, as followers of Jesus, as Jesus’ embodiment in the church, it’s not just all the time being nicey nice. No challenges, nothing untoward.
It’s about truth-telling. It’s about being real. It’s about being honest. And sometimes, and Paul specifically says this, to build up the wholeness and justness and loveness of a community -- it’s even about getting angry. Expressing a real challenge, a real calling-out. Even out loud.
I’ve said this before in sermons, but it’s always worth saying again: when Jesus said ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’ he didn’t mean ‘have no standards and just let everything slide, so as not to stir up trouble’. He WASN’T saying that we don’t get to exercise judgement and call out or question someone’s words or behaviours or actions, and identify them as wrong or unjust or hurtful or harmful when they are.
Jesus himself, in fact, judged others’ words and actions all the time. But what he didn’t do EVER was judge their humanness and condemn or reject them as people. No matter WHAT they said or did. What Jesus didn’t do EVER, even when he was judging and calling out their words or actions, was he didn’t EVER stop treating them like human beings.
And that’s what Paul’s getting at here, in his words to the Ephesians. Real community does demand being real. That’s what builds it up – that’s what raises its embodiment of discipleship. When there can be truth-telling, when there can be honesty, when there can be challenging or calling out or even anger. That’s how we learn from one another to be better. In relatonship, in community. That’s what builds up.
And if we struggle with that, either shying away from conflict or smashing in with all guns blazing, neither of which is AT ALL useful for building-up, as Paul notes -- the good news is that apparently the Ephesians struggled with it too. So Paul gives them, and therefore us, a whole lot of advice about how to get there. All entirely straightfoward – if, alas, for most of us the work of a lifetime to achieve.
Or… maybe not. Because as Paul himself would note, all it really takes is practice. So “Be angry but do not sin”, is how he starts with the Ephesians – but all he’s really talking about is learning how to speak a serious and challenging truth… without being personally hurtful. Without needing to attack the other person as a person.
Question and challenge and disagree and even firmly identify where they’ve gone wrong and how, by all means, but “put away from yourselves” Paul says to the Ephesians, to us, “all bitterness and wrangling and slander and malice. Because these don’t build up, they only tear down. So let what comes out of your mouths only be what’s useful for building up.”
And then “above all,” he continues, “forgive one another”. Which in the context of being in the middle of an emotional, challenging, charged, truth-telling conversation means -- on top of resisting the temptation to insult the other person -- ALSO resisting the even bigger temptation to insult the other person back. When they’ve insulted us.
Which is way harder. But forgive, Paul says. Set aside the desire for payback. Don’t join in what can only tear down – concentrate on building up.
It may be difficult to believe in the current climate, where the rhetoric seems to be getting more and more divisive and the kneejerk reactivity more and more intense, that Paul has the first clue what he’s talking about.
But honestly, what Paul lays out here for the Ephesians, for us, in this passage as a blueprint for the sort of real, truth-telling, unafraid to challenge wrongness conversation that we ARE called to as Christians – and not just with one another in community, but also more broadly – it actually does make a difference. If it’s not magical and miraculous, it does build up, in the sense of making something good possible instead of more wrongness inevitable.
And I’ve experienced it myself in the last little while. Because for whatever reason, and I’m quite happy to blame the Holy Spirit as much for this intervention as for the one at General Council, I’ve found myself recently enjoying a new hobby.
It’s called “Being Reasonable on Twitter”. Which, for those of you who don’t spend any time on twitter is, to put it mildly, not the norm. Twitter tends, in fact, to regularly devolve into a cesspool of all the worst impulses of humanity that ‘anonymous commenting’ can reflect. But I like a challenge, and I hate injustice, and I’m a little mouthy, so I’ve embraced this new hobby of ‘being reasonable on twitter’ with much enthusiasm.
And here’s the thing. I cannot count the number of times, after I’ve challenged somebody who’s written something appalling, that I’ve been sneered back at with a doubling-down response and called an idiot or worse – but when I respond back again? Still calmly, still entirely reasonably?
Whoosh. All that rhetoric just deflates. And suddenly we’re in an actual conversation – not miraculously agreeing with one another, but talking. Engaging. With nuance. About whatever the issue is, like actual human beings.
It does make a difference. And since I also know what a relief and how heartening it is when I read someone ELSE being reasonable on twitter, I have to assume that sometimes my being reasonable on twitter is a relief and heartening to others too. It does make a difference. Especially, I think, in times like this when emotions are no less heightened by social tensions than they were for the Ephesians, with the Roman Empire under stress.
Because if we really believe that God cares about this world and how we are with one another here, then injustice and wrongness and harmfulness and hurtfulness have to matter to God. And so when we see them in people’s actions or hear them or read them in people’s words, that has to matter to us.
And that does mean, to whatever degree we’re able to accept it, that we have a certain responsibility. To wade in. To practice the Christian truth-telling, challenging, calling out of injustice that isn’t always easy, but if we do it well, it gives grace – as Paul puts it – to those who hear. It assumes an existing relationship of a common humanity, and never loses sight of that while provoking for better.
It’s funny, actually. The vast majority of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is actually no less about organizing and confirming a very tidy and effective church structure than the vast majority of our General Council meeting was about. But the Holy Spirit apparently liked to mix things up a bit back then too! Thanks be to God, with whom we are never alone in following the Spirit’s guidance. Amen.