The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s039g14   Sunday 6  16/2/2014

'first be reconciled to your brother or sister’  Matthew 5.24

I must confess I have never been an ardent ecumenist and surely these words say that I must.   For all the beauty of our liturgy and music, if we know that our brothers and sisters in the church, mosque, synagogue, temple or meeting hall down the road have something against us, then we are bidden to stop our service and first be reconciled to them.   There have often been times when I’ve thought that I’ve stayed an Anglican (Episcopalian 1) because 'better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’. (2)   So if I know that the Anglican Church is in fact no better than any other, then those who worship differently to me have a legitimate case to make against my Anglican pretensions, and my ‘holy communion’ must stop and real communion begin with those who think and worship differently.

But, of course, in western Christendom, ordinary folk have come to realise that the church as an institution is little different from any other corporation.   Of course there is the molestation of children, but it really is more fundamental than this.   The ordinary run of the mill parish politics that abound everywhere only replicates what happens in the rest of society.   Why would any sane person trapped in a political minefield at work all during the week, come to worship in another political minefield on Sunday morning?   A while back we read of the angel confronting Hagar as she fled the abusive Sarai: ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ (3)   Does God really initiate and perpetuate abuse?   So if I know that the Anglican Church is in fact no better than any other organisation then secular humanists have a legitimate case to make against my Anglican pretensions, and my ‘holy communion’ must stop and real communion begin with those who think differently.

You see, the trouble is that we as church claim to be speaking on behalf of God; we claim sole possession of the Holy Spirit - so if our message is wrong, then we fail not just society but God as well.   We are running away from Nineveh, just like Jonah did so long ago.

These words tell us in no uncertain terms that our gifts to God are fine and dandy, but what God really wants is communion across denominational and faith divides.   Everything pales before this imperative.   And the failure of the Anglican Covenant is testimony to parts of the Anglican Church recognising this.   For various reasons I have been looking up quotes by William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942 - 1944) and this was the only one that popped up: 'It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.’   (4)

Again recently we enjoyed the hospitality of good friends who have moved into semi-retirement and built a home in a country town.   They have become part of the parish there, but they found that to really meet people and become part of that community, they joined the local Lions group.   And, of course, they are thoroughly enjoying that group and life in general.   And I guess the Lions are no different from Apex or Rotary or any of the many other service clubs that abound.   And I suppose these groups have their petty rivalries as well as internal politics, but these are not done in the name of any god.   And we reflected as we drove home - that in times past one joined the church and became part of the community.   That is now no longer true.   And it is no longer true because the church is seen as divisive.

So the reason that modern secular society has abandoned the church is not, I suspect, any disbelief in a divine, but precisely because church after church, denomination after denomination, sect after sect have claimed a special relationship with the divine.   And as far as ‘christianity’ goes ordinary people have realised that if not all can be right, then it is as likely that all are wrong.   They have seen that we as church have been content to offer our gifts at the altar, failing to see that our brothers and sisters have something legitimate against us and done nothing about it.   We have failed to believe and act on our own scriptures!   How much abuse is perpetrated by individuals and groups claiming special relationship with the divine?   It starts with the subordination of women - that men are in a privileged relationship with the divine, and therefore are excused their abuse of those of the female gender.   It continues with the alienation of gay and lesbian people who by definition cannot be in any real relationship with the divine, so straight christians are justified in their abuse of them.   And christians are in a special relationship with Jesus (‘Jesus is a friend of mine, Praise Him’) so we are excused withholding any possibility of salvation from others.   Modern secular society refuses to collude with the delusion that if God exists, this is what God decrees.   Of course the church’s claim to a special relationship with the divine hides from the world God’s true nature, the one incarnate in the world, not solely in the church.   So the church has only herself to blame if the world has ceased to believe in her exclusive ‘god’.

I have said often enough that new-comers have been welcomed in each and every congregation I have been in, though mostly to perpetuate what is.   New people are welcomed to admire and support the offerings of the past and the present.   But should a new-comer want to offer their own talent, something which changes the ministry, or heaven forbid, eclipse what is being done - well that is just not proper - they can go elsewhere!    Which parish does not have those who want to assert the primacy of prayer, of fundraising, of liturgy, of music, of maintenance, the list goes on and on, and it is the minister’s task to ‘evangelise’ and get new-comers to support them personally, so that prayer, or fundraising, or liturgy, or music, or maintenance or whatever remains pre-eminent?   Is it any wonder I don’t want to go back to parish ministry!   When we are offering our gift at the altar and realise that it is really only our own offering we allow, then surely our brothers and sisters have something legitimate against us!

And of course there is the abuse by the clergy, that parishioners are there ‘to be seen and not heard’ for it is the words of the service and the sermon that really are the pre-eminent ministry!

When the scientist wants to offer his or her insights into the nature of the universe, at odds with the six-day account in Genesis, then this clearly is not an acceptable offering.   It doesn’t matter what a gay or lesbian person might want to offer, it’s never going to be acceptable!   I mean the list of unacceptable offerings can be endless.   The first murder was committed because Cain perceived that Abel's offering was more acceptable than his own (5) - a perception no doubt distorted by the eating of the forbidden fruit by his parents. (6)

These words of Jesus put all our worship into perspective.   It does not matter what basis we use to avoid conversation with those who believe differently, worship differently, live differently, even call the divine by a different name - the scriptures, the creeds, tradition, the beauty of vestments, liturgy or music - all can avoidance mechanisms to evade the gospel imperative - first be reconciled to your brother and sister. 

It seems ecumenism, interfaith and marketplace dialogue is not easy.   The Wikipedia article on ecumenism dates it as post World War 1.  (7)  The organisational impediments seem insurmountable.   Yet I wonder if it fails because it continues to exclude - to a greater or lesser extent - non-christians - and non-theists. 

Our recently retired country friends reminded us of the lovely Leonard Cohen song ‘Alexandra leaving’ - leaving a loved one, or a loved one leaving, and the loved one being the church, and the difficulty of leaving the loved church and entering the real world.   Mary Magdalene in the garden clinging to her risen Lord. (8)

'Even though she sleeps upon your satin / Even though she wakes you with a kiss. / Do not say the moment was imagined / Do not stoop to strategies like this.
'As someone long prepared for the occasion / In full command of every plan you wrecked / Do not choose a coward's explanation / that hides behind the cause and the effect.
'And you who were bewildered by a meaning / Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed / Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving. / Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.’ (9)

For me this is the yoke of Christ, but despite it’s seeming difficulty, Jesus promises us it: 'is easy .. is light.” (10)    Jesus knows we will actually find him in the real world, amongst christians as well as non-christians, people of faith and none, people of good will as well as the skeptical, for it is here where we find our full health, where we will come to exercise our full potentialities, both as individuals and as church.

3. Genesis 16.9
5. Genesis 4.4-5
6. Genesis 3.5
8. John 20.17
10. Matthew 11.30