'take one or two others along with you' Matthew 18.17
The first 14 verses of Matthew 18 are about 'welcoming' the child, the 'little ones', and I note that the kingdom does not consist of the theologically erudite but ordinary humanity, in all their simplicity and complexity. And when Jesus goes on to talk about disputes within the community, it is clear that every effort is made to try to include the offender. God is a God of inclusion, not exclusion.
It is also clear that the person to be excluded is the person who doesn't listen to others. It is the 'lone wolf', the independent one, the self-made person, the person who is sufficient unto themselves. It is therefore the particular sin of the clergy person, who often has seen him or herself as the fount of all wisdom. I have heard it said that the worst patients are doctors, nurses and clergy :-) But again, while I might be a loner, the real difficulty is when a church considers that it contains all truth, when the church doesn't listen to the testimony of others - other Anglicans, other christians, people of other faiths and none. This is where the real harm is done, harm on a global scale.
Our local Synod is about to meet, and by the time this is delivered we will have met. We are being asked to consider the Anglican Covenant along with another motion to form a group of people, experts in theology, to consider the issue of the ordination of persons in same gender relationships. Of course, both of these reflect the debate about human sexuality in general. And I am using this sermon to prepare how I might speak against thess motions in the Synod.
It strikes me that to discuss the inclusion of others without them actually being present and able to be heard is to treat others as less than human. In a similar manner we might discuss the appropriateness of having a service for St Francis where people bring their pets to church. Or we might discuss whether aliens can be included in the eucharistic communion. But people in same gender relationships are not aliens and it is entirely inappropriate to consider the inclusion or exclusion of other people at arms length. These are our brothers and sisters, our children and grandchildren! This is entirely contrary to the resolution of difference - face to face. Resolution of conflicts cannot be done via telephone, e-mail, or our particular organisationally favourite method - the synodical decree.
When we deal with others face to face we cannot treat them as objects, as alien, as other. But it is also important that courtesy rules - which is often precisely why people want to have conflicts at arms length – so that they can behave discourteously. One of the reasons scripture asks us to take along someone else is to ensure that in the heat of our anger we might be enabled to listen to the other person.
The whole 'Covenant' is to me an evasion of our duty to listen to others, evading the command to seek to maintain communion with people who are inevitably different from us.
My text 'take one or two others along with you' is the apostolic command to go to meet with the person. Jesus tells us that it is our duty as church to get up off our theological backsides and out of our holy huddles and seek communion with those who are different.
And this makes me question: who is going to read this Covenant? Gay and lesbian persons? Why on earth would they bother! They well know the scriptural and doctrinal objections which make them out to be unclean and less than human - why would they put themselves through more of that? If they were to actually read the text where do they find any hint that the church is interested in any meaningful and respectful dialog with them? And why should the church expect them to? I certainly wouldn't ask any of my gay and lesbian friends to read this Covenant. In fact I wouldn't ask any person whose friendship I valued to read this Covenant.
And I want to suggest we cannot accept the Covenant, because it would actually be a breach of our ethical guidelines. The Ethical Guidelines of our Diocese, 'binding on all clergy, lay workers and members .. holding positions of responsibility ..' state as the primary principle that: ‘Every human being has infinite worth and a unique value as a child of God, irrespective of .. sex .. beliefs .. or spiritual state.' This implies that we are in communion with everyone, regardless of any of these things. The premise of the Covenant is that we cannot be in communion with all people, a premise that our ethical guidelines contradict.
I started this sermon with the observation that the first 14 verses of Matthew 18 are about 'welcoming' the child, the 'little ones', and I want to say that one of the greatest abuses of past times has not been those who molest children, but the almost universal and socially acceptable dictum that: 'children are to be seen and not heard'. How many generations of children have lived blighted lives because of this? Thank God we have moved on a little these days. So we don't treat anyone now as children, to be seen and not heard. People should be encouraged to stand up, not grovel before the Almighty and those who minister (usually male), and encouraged to think and express themselves. These are the characteristics of being fully human. The Covenant tells us that we must comply to be a part of our communion, and Jesus tells us that this is evil. 'If you, who are evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?'
Some way into my sermon, I said: 'These are our brothers and sisters, our children and grandchildren. Who in this room is prepared to consign your son or daughter to perdition on the basis of who they choose to share their physical intimacy? I am to become a grandfather for the first time early next year. Do I determine my attitude to him or her on the basis of acceptance because he or she will be my grandchild, or who he or she chooses to share their physical intimacy? Well, Jesus says to me and to us, this desire to accept others because they are related to us, doesn't make me less evil. It is only when we extend the same acceptance to others to whom we are not related that we do God's will. Again, if I choose to do this on a personal level, it is commendable, but Jesus' words are about us doing this as church. We are called to be an open and accepting Church, open and accepting of those who are different, who don't measure up to the standards set by this document.
And the promise that 'where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them' is not about God blessing holy huddles whose whole raison d'être is the exclusion of others, but about God blessing communities of diverse people, listening to and accepting one another.