ST BARNABAS’ ANGLICAN CHURCH, RIVERVALE
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY – 16th February, 2014
Many years ago – it’s funny how more and more of my stories begin like that these days! – many years ago, when I was a lad, I met a retired couple at church who were seriously unto prospecting for gemstones. We lived in Kalgoorlie, and there were several good areas, not more than an hour or so’s drive from town, where quite a wide range of gemstones was to be found. I went on a couple of day trips with these folk and came home with a nice little haul of coloured rock, rough samples of what, I was assured, were good bits of gems which needed work.
In due course, the couple took me to their gemstone club, which met in the manual arts department of my old high school. There, over the course of a few evenings, I was taught to cut up my samples with a diamond-bladed saw and put them into a small “tumbler”, rather like a miniature cement-mixer, lined with abrasive paper, and left to run for several hours.
As the stones were tumbled at speed, they rubbed against the abrasive lining and one another. The end result was smoothly rounded and polished “real” gemstones, fit to be attached to cufflinks, tie clips, brooches or even gold rings. They looked pretty flash and the hobby interested me for at least several weeks 🙂
When I am doing marriage preparation with couples – many, many times over recent years – we necessarily talk over the area of communication and the resolution of conflict. By way of illustration, I usually show them a set of coffee tables which grace my study, and which I made in night classes at Toodyay District High School in my time as rector of that parish. I explain that, from basic timbers salvaged from a house my Lions Club demolished, I created my “masterpiece” entirely with the aid of friction – saws, planers, chisels and lathe, drills, sanders and sandpaper, and finally the application of polishes. All the processes involved friction and any amount of heat. And I tell my couples that a good marriage will have its fair share of friction and heat as two different people grow to become one, adjusting to each other’s likes and needs, and forming a strong and lasting bond.
As most of you know by now, KT and I have been married exactly forty years this very day. And I’d love to be able to say that we’ve never had an argument or a cross word, but I’d hate to be loudly contradicted while I’m preaching! In truth, I readily acknowledge that we’ve had our share of conflict and of situations that required serious discussion, heart-felt apologies and forgiveness, and even some fun “making up”!
In today’s readings from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the subject of conflict, as he speaks about relationship and forgiveness.
Jesus speaks of someone coming to make an offering at the temple – for which we can appropriately substitute “church” in our context – and remembering that he/she is at enmity with a “brother or sister”. It is clear that the offering and its accompanying worship of God must wait until there is reconciliation with the one aggrieved. I would add “at least a serious attempt at reconciliation”, because not always will the one hurt accept an apology and grant forgiveness. Then, Jesus says, it will be appropriate to come and bring the offering and, by implication, rejoin the people of God in worship and fellowship. I note that Jesus says, “If you remember that your brother has something against you”, but I’m sure that it is equally relevant if you have something against your brother or sister – in the faith and/or in the family
In each Eucharist, as you are well aware, we have the moment which is called in the Prayer Book, “The Greeting of Peace”. Sadly – and sometimes frustratingly to us clergy, at least – this greeting has tended to degenerate into a free-for-all, in which we catch up with one another’s health and family situations, and even the weather. Whether I or anyone can actually change this back to its original intent is a moot point; but let me explain its intended significance.
Our Eucharistic liturgy follows a simple pattern:
• Gathering – greeting, prayer of preparation, hymn of praise (“Gloria”) and prayer of the day
• Ministry of the Word – we hear readings from the Bible and listen to the sermon, which – ideally – expounds the scripture and makes application to our lives as church and Christians
• The Prayers of the People – in which we bring to God our concerns for the world, the church, the community, the sick and suffering and we remember those who’ve died in the faith
• Now we come to preparation to receive the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. In this section we acknowledge our unworthiness to receive the Sacrament (the “prayer of Humble Access” or “Approach”, and we confess to God our sins – all that has damaged our relationship with God and with one another – and hear the words of Absolution, assuring us that we are reconciled to God in accordance with God’s promise to “all who turn to him in faith.
• And so to the Greeting of Peace. Reconciled with God, we turn to one another and express our acceptance of and unity with one another, including forgiveness and reconciliation as necessary. We are, as the priest declares, “one body in Christ” and “Christ has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross”, and thus we “share his peace”.
To return to my original stories, it is clear that in any relationship – friendship, marriage and church – there will be times and occasions of conflict. I have many memories of conflict in the churches where I have served as priest – serious disagreements at Parish Council meetings, how money should be spent, the times of services, arguments over the placement of flowers, unhappiness that so-and-so didn’t clean the toilets properly, and various interest groups debating who should have the use of the church or hall when – to which, I have no doubt, you can add many conflicts you have experienced.
In our Prayer Book wedding service, we say that “as God has called [Fred and Mary] together in marriage, so he brings their differing gifts and hopes into a unity of love and service”. And we all know that such unity does not come magically and mysteriously in the wedding service, giving the couple an automatic and everlasting happiness. We well know that the grace of God in bringing us together is sufficient as long as we are willing to adjust and even compromise to build a great and lasting relationship. We will – in the nicest possible way! – knock the corners off each other in the tumbler of marriage and will probably after many years begin to look and speak and think alike – not by the victory of one over the other, but by the gradual and willing adjustment of each to the other, creating something beautiful for all to see and admire.
As Christians everywhere, but especially as the people of St Barnabas’, we are called together by God, and “as he has called us together, so God brings our differing gifts and hopes into a unity of love and service”. When we come to church, we cannot guarantee that the congregation will be made up entirely of people who are “just like us” – in fact, we probably wouldn’t enjoy that much, if at all. We are, like my gemstones and the timber we salvaged from a demolished house, in a pretty rough state. But God is at work in and among us to create something beautiful.
In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul has been berating the people of the church over their divisions – jealousy and quarrelling”, he calls it. He urges them to concentrate on what matters – it’s not about who is more important than whom, nor about who is the better leader to follow. Rather, he sums it up by saying, “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
I like the expression, “God’s building”, because it is not a concrete word, like a building of bricks and mortar completed and signed off. The word, in the Greek in which St Paul is writing, means “a work in progress”.
After forty years, KT and I are still a work in progress, and will be as long as we live.
And we all – as individual Christians, as a parish, and as the church on earth – are God’s work in progress, and we are called to work together with God and one another to bring that “building” closer to completion.
Apology, forgiveness and reconciliation are the stuff of our relationships;
love and service are the evidence and outworking of God’s great and beautiful creation.