The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r056.htm
s056g02 Lockleys Sunday 23 8/9/02
'Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. Matthew 18:19
I sometimes think wryly that the likelihood that one would ever get two or three Anglicans to agree about anything on earth is so remote as to be impossible - so I suspect God is not worried that this is likely to happen too often :-) When I was much younger and somewhat more impressionable, I recall a (Anglo-Catholic) friend saying that there were as many Protestant denominations as there were Protestants. I think we've all grown considerably since then! Of course it is no different for Anglo-Catholics. Some people seem quite oblivious to the fact that there are others who actually hold quite diametrically opposed views on some matters :-)
I think that this should caution us about ever quoting this passage. If we Anglicans find it difficult, if not impossible to agree, it sort of puts a huge question mark against the democratic process. In some ways, the turmoil currently in the Australian Democrats is inevitable, for all political parties welcome everyone into their ranks, with all the divergent ideas that this will inevitably bring. But as one gets higher up the organisational ladder, there is an expectation to leave the ideas behind and "toe the party line". The church is not all that different, and it is one of the reasons why I'm quite content to remain a *not very humble* parish priest :-)
I think it is reasonably clear that we are not talking about the easy things. I suppose two or three Anglicans might just agree that God ought to, this very instant, fix each and every war that is presently underway. Sadly, and despite this being the very word of the Lord, I suspect that the two or three Anglicans, despite their agreement, will be disappointed :-). It is not that God wouldn't like this, but other people seem intent on trying to win.
When it comes to verse 20: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" I suspect that this means somewhat more than that God is constrained to act when two or three reasonably like minded individuals who don't disagree too much come to an agreement.
The presence of Jesus among the disciples was not necessarily a comfortable presence. Jesus kept doing things like feeding the multitude with the meagre fare the disciples no doubt wanted to save for their own tea. When they caught a huge catch of fish, the whole lot was left for others to eat, while they went on their way. They didn't even share in any of the 180 gallons of wine - sacre bleu!. Jesus kept blessing other people, like the children, when the disciples wanted to protect Jesus from them. Ordinary expressions of support and prayer that Jesus be spared the cross were dismissed as demonic. A minor debate as to whom was the greatest was very smartly terminated with the prediction of martyrdom for the protagonists. Jesus, on one occasion, invited those who wanted to, to leave. Following Jesus was hardly comfortable and I suspect sometimes it was often a thankless task.
It is generally recognised that Matthew in his gospel is very often speaking to the Church of which he is a member and so he recalls the words of Jesus which particularly pertain to the issues his contemporaries faced.
The reality is, of course, that neither Jesus nor Matthew are able to dictate to people who do not acknowledge membership of a community as to how they should act. Yet so often we as the Church are perceived as telling people outside the Christian community how they should behave.
The reality is that the message is for *us* - myself included - not for others. I have had occasions to think that the reason God called me to the priesthood, is because I need to listen to my words more than anyone else :-) It is I who find my words most difficult to live up to.
One of our Articles of Faith (the tenth of the 39 "Of Free-Will"), speaks about works before faith: "We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God without the grace of God through Christ preventing us ..." (that is inspiring and empowering us) - so we cannot expect people outside to act in *better* ways.
So the words of Jesus are always and ever aimed at us who know of God's love and bid us deal with those around us mercifully. Grace - or lack of grace - flows out from the Church.
And the reality is that it is enormously difficult to get on with those around us. It is easy to be charitable towards people in less developed countries (by giving money), though sometimes one wonders how much our charity relieves governments there from their obligation to stop their expenditure on weapons and use it to better the conditions the mass of citizens "enjoy".
Jesus words are first an invitation, not for the clergy person to spend all his or her time visiting, but for each and every one of us to realise that it is God's will that no one should be lost. So we have here an injunction that no one is unimportant, no one deserves to be written off - and that each and every person in our community and fellowship has a part to play in communicating this message - that all are important. I am not suggesting we have to become intimate with each and every person, but we need to guard our words and actions so as to not "write another person off". If we inadvertently do, then it is up to us to remedy the situation, to not allow the other to stay away. We cannot expect the priest to apologise for us.
I suspect that most people actually leave a congregation rather than quietly point out to someone else that they have caused some offence. We must guard our own tongues.
Jesus' words are an invitation to come together, and in my usual engineering way, I ask myself how we find the Jesus present when two or three are gathered. I suspect that it is not that Jesus comes as an extra individual - the two or three don't become three or four. It is more my experience that when two or three are gathered, Jesus is found to be in one by another, and vice versa. When we listen respectfully, we will find Jesus in the perceptions of another person, and when we listen respectfully the other will find Jesus in us.
For the reality is that diversity of opinion is not a problem to be overcome but a powerful reinforcement of the truth - and particularly the truth that God can act in all sorts of people. This is a particularly precious truth, for it invites us to realise that we also are not excluded, that we have a unique part to play in the working out of the kingdom of God. We all have a part to play, but neither does it depend on me alone.
Today marks the time when I start my trip to the other side of the world - where they are rejoicing in cooler weather when we are looking towards summer. I find it astonishing just how many of you have already been to New York, and how many have wished that they had arranged to stay there longer. About six months ago I was asked to advise some visiting Americans on their proposed trip to New Zealand and Australia, about where they should go and what they should do. And I found it was not an easy task as I initially imagined it would be. As I thought about it, I realised Bondi beach is not for everyone :-) Over the last few weeks I have been pondering why I am going to America, where I should go and what I should do.
It is certainly not because I want to go and convert them to my way of thinking, as some sections of our Anglican communion, like (it seems) the Archbishop of Rwanda, want to go and get them to return to the "true faith".
In the end, I think it is precisely this meeting of people and gaining some appreciation of a country's history and culture that is why I am going. I am sure that I, like others here in this congregation have done before me, will be blessed by this interaction, "when two or three ..."
The exercise has also been interesting, because I have been thinking about our own country of Australia, perhaps trying to anticipate what others might like to know about us. I have had to do a bit of reading myself on Australia - there's a lovely little book called "The Little Aussie Fact Book" which has been extremely helpful. I will be reading Marcus Clark's book "For the Term of His Natural Life" as I fly.
I am sure that you will all be thoroughly blessed by the clergy who will relieve me in my holidays. You will have an opportunity to gather with someone who is different amongst the two or three here. It is said that - while the cats away the mice will play. I hope I'm not a cat restricting your time together. Continue to enjoy your play, your worship, your fellowship - continue to enjoy your selves!
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