Toorak Uniting Church

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It’s all about Relationships

Matthew 18: 15 – 20   Ephesians 4: 25 – 32
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
4 September 2011

About three years ago I had the opportunity to visit Yosemite National Park in California. It is a truly magnificent place. The granite cliffs and rock faces are hundreds of meters high and spectacular particularly when the waterfalls are in full force. The park was established through the inspiration and tenacity of John Muir a naturalist, who lived for over 40 years in what became Yosemite National Park. There’s a museum in the park that is dedicated to John Muir’s life, his work and passion for this unique part of the world. I visited the museum and was struck with one sentence that was writ large on one of the walls. It was a quote from John Muir’s book, My First Summer in the Sierra, and it said:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

That sense that everything in the universe, everything in this world, everything in our own lives is attached to everything else has become a fundamental principle of understanding our existence in the 21st century. We are in relationship to everything else and our relationships with people, the natural world, and even the cosmos are shaped and formed though the encounters we have with them each day.

Someone once said, "All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

That idea of interconnectedness is at the source of our commitment to the environment today. We know that what we do to the water we do to ourselves, what we do to the earth we do to ourselves and so forth. But that’s not the sermon for today. What I am interested in paying attention to this morning is our connectedness to each other and to narrow that even further, to our relationships and our connectedness to one another in this community.

The Problem of Living Together:
There is no denying that we human beings are communal animals. Some might say that we are pack animals or even herd animals, whatever we are we know we long to be together and to live together sharing our lives with one another. Of course this leads to inevitable conflict. And while we seek out company, we never lose our desire to get what we need to live. In fact, I suspect that most of us want more than we need to live. The human being is a collector of stuff and that desire for more and more, whether it possessions or power; popularity or position puts us in conflict and in competition with others. The result is at one end of the conflict continuum, argument and disagreement, and at the other end, violence and war.

Those of us who belong to a religious community are not immune from either end of this conflict continuum. In our name wars and violence have been visited of those we disagree with us, and perhaps in lesser conflicts within Christian communities have caused untold hurt and harm. It is often the single reason people outside the church give for not attending a church. Some will say, "There are too many hypocrites in church that’s why I don’t go there!" My response is, "True, but there is always room for one more." Hypocrisy and a disagreeing spirit is in fact a human problem, not just a religious or Christian one. Nevertheless, we do have a desire in our Christian life and our church community to learn how to get along.

Starting Good Relationships:
Our two readings today, the Gospel of Matthew and the letter to the Church at Ephesus, both tackle the issue of good relationships and our connectedness with one another within the experience of a community. The community that the Gospel of Matthew is written into needs some clear procedures in deal with interpersonal relationships. Remember this is a second generation Christian community. They are surrounded by a somewhat hostile culture. While they have attracted a group of faith followers who want to live a life empowered by the Spirit of God, they still have to deal with the nitty-gritty grind of dealing with daily difference. It might be a wonderful thing to boast that my community is inclusive and open to anyone who wants to participate, but it’s quite another thing to live or at least meet together in the one place with those with whom we have little in common. The author of Matthew’s gospel is going to help this community and by extension, our community to learn how to live together.

"If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out what was wrong, but do it just between the two of you."

At the very heart of this passage and the words I have just read is a willingness to engage in a wholehearted way with those around us. I am sure this passage is not to be interpreted in some legalistic way as if one must follow a particular procedure. You know what I mean, in our day and age we are governed by rules, regulations and procedures. No, I think this is intended to be a more humane, more intimate and more compassionate way of dealing with our disagreements.

It’s a clear recognition that things go wrong between people and there must be a way back to having good and healthy relationship. So first things first, start at the beginning and meet the person, in this case your brother or sister in the Christian faith. Speak to them face to face!

And that friends is difficult to do. And it is a two way street. In this Matthew passage it’s for the one who has been wrong who goes to his or her brother or sister to seek reconciliation. Of course we know that there are times when we have wronged someone and the onus is on us to initiate the face to face meeting. I recall once going to a friend and with a small sense of humility saying to him that I was sorry for what I had said and how I had acted. What do you think he said to me? He said, "You should be sorry!!" There’s no guarantees that your apology or confession will be accepted or renew the relationship.

But in this case in Matthew’s narrative, you are the one who is aggrieved so without anger and blame it’s up to the one offend to take the initiative and heal the broken relationship. It is important to note that this is not only about personal hurt or just about me being wronged. Remember this is the infant Christian church or ecclesia which means gathering, and they take community very seriously. In fact, the ancient world in its the cultural milieu is far more communitarian than we are as Westerners in the 21st century. In the ancient world you were always your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. Your relationships named you and also limited you to who or what you could be or do. We are individualist and don’t have the same commitment to maintaining relationships that were in the ancient world, for life.

But relationships in this new form of community, in the early church, were in danger of breaking down. And if it was not possible to mend them on an individual or personal level then the community needed to be involved.

"If he or she listens to you, you have won them over. But if they won’t listen, take one or two others along, so that this matter may be established by the testimony of witnesses."

There is a memorable scene in the film Crocodile Dundee were the Paul Hogan, character, Mick Dundee is in conversation with a woman about her need to see a therapist when she has a problem. Mick Dundee’s response is "back home if you got a problem you tell Wally. And he tells everyone in town, brings it out in the open, and then there is no more problem." Some things need more than face to face encounters to be solved. The wisdom of the community is necessary. And enlarging the circle can be a strong and mature response to a problem between two people. And friends, it’s far more desirable that gossiping behind a person’s back.

But finally, and this is the tough part, sometimes relationships can’t be repaired and separation is the only course of action. The Matthew passage sounds hard to our ears, "and if your brother or sister still refuses to listen even to the gathering, then they must be treated as you would a pagan or a tax collector." The writer is using strong language, but we all know that there are times when it is better to leave and sever a relationship than to live in a fractious community.

I want to say this very carefully because it is often misused, but there are times when the most loving thing to do is the hardest thing to do. But remember it is not the first thing we do when there is a break down in relationship. The context of all our relationship in the Christian community and really in any of our relationships is guided by the words we read it the letter to the Ephesians:

Stop telling lies instead speak truthfully… If you become angry, don’t let your anger lead you into wrong doing and never let the sun go down on your anger … Don’t indulge in destructive talk … speak only what is helpful for building up others … and do not grieve the Holy Spirit … rather get rid of bitterness, rage and anger; brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Instead be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has forgiven you.

That’s the context in which this process of relationship mending is to take place.

The Centre of our Relationships:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

John Muir had it right in terms of our relationships. In a community when the relationship sours between you and me, it does just affect us, it affects the whole community. We are all in relationship to each other in a kind of "field" where we exist through our relationships. In fact, it is all about relationships. This is present most strongly in the final words of our reading:

"For where two or three gather in my name, there am I in their midst".

It is interesting these words are usually associated with worship. Often something like this, "It does matter if there are only two or three people worshipping today, the Spirit of Christ is still here." While that is true, the context here is not worship, but just being together in community. In fact, it seems to be more associated with the business meeting, where the Spirit of Christ provides a centre around which we gather. And it is the Spirit of the living Christ that gives our relationships meaning and substance.

The Matthean community, as also our community today - needed to know and have confidence that when and wherever they gather they were energized by the living Spirit of Christ. Not just a moral code, or a lengthy history, or even a sacred text, it is that presence of the living Spirit of God that both guides and gives life.

I chose the Aboriginal dot painting on the front of the order of service today, because it so clearly represents the ancient wisdom of all things being connected. Everything is also connected through the centre, except if you look carefully, for two of the circles. They are connected to other circles but not to the centre. They still exist and they are in relationship, but there seems to be a vital connection missing. In the Christian community it is the vitality of that relationship with the centre that names us. It is what forms and shapes all our other relationship.

As I wrote in the TUC Update, that doesn’t mean that we have to be very religious to connect with God or with the Spirit of Christ. In fact, religiosity, procedures, regulations and moral codes, can often get in the way of the relationship with the sacred and with divine. Religion can limit the possibility of a transforming relationship with God. What we need in our lives is a life-long commitment to a journey of openness toward the centre of life and an awareness that we are related and connected to all of life. Emily Dickenson wrote:

Each life converges to some centre
Expressed or still;
Exists in every human nature
A goal.

May God draw each of us in to that centre were all our relationships are held and made whole and where everything belongs.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2011

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