Sermon for 30th September 2012.
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. David’s Church, Englewood, FL.
James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
Last Sunday I attended the Quaker Meeting in Sarasota. It’s not that I am thinking of becoming a Quaker.
But I sometimes find our Episcopal liturgies to be very wordy – with readings, psalms, sermons, prayers and hymns in abundance :- and scarcely a moment to think or to reflect.
So I decided to worship with a group of people for whom silence is paramount.
Indeed, in one hour of shared prayerful silence there was but one speaker who talked for no more than three minutes.
The formal name for Quakers is “The Society of Friends”. It is based on the words of Jesus to the disciples: - I no longer call you servants but I call you friends.
“Church as a society of friends”: that sounds about right doesn’t it? Maybe you are thinking “that describes St. David’s, we are a very friendly bunch”.
You are not alone. Just about every Church website I visit includes a statement like this: “We are a small and friendly congregation” or “we are a large but friendly congregation”.
‘Tis to be expected: we would hardly expect a parish website to say “we are a quarrelsome bunch”, or “be careful when you worship with us, you may well tread on some super sized egos”.
And yet ... even in the friendliest of congregations there are often silly quarrels, power struggles, and sensitive egos.
These parts of parish life are often hushed up or ignored. It is as if Jesus’ final words to the disciples were “don’t rock the boat”.
Now I am not opposed to friendly congregations. But I believe a couple of things.
First, that true friendship is very difficult. It requires a great deal of patience, of honesty, and of forgiveness. True friendship usually involves being very vulnerable to the other person: the willingness to share fears and doubts, to bear the others burdens, to give the benefit of the doubt, to avoid gossip, to listen to unpleasant truths. Friendship is not easy, even in the friendliest of congregations.
Second, I believe that we make a mistake when we assert that the primary asset of any congregation is its friendliness.
There are at least two prior values. Christian friendship must be built on following and on forgiveness.
Above all else we who claim to be Christians are followers of Jesus of Nazareth. He speaks to us today in the Gospel, in very tough words.
And if we ourselves stumble because of our own weakness, pride, disobedience or sin then we must get rid of the hand (what we do), the foot (where we go), or the eye (where we cast our gaze).
Jesus says: "Cut off that hand. Cut off that foot. Pull out that eye."
Of course it is hyperbole, designed to shock us, designed to alarm us. Designed above all else to make us understand that following Jesus is not a Sunday morning hobby, but a lifelong commitment.
It is very much like the commitment to lifelong marriage. Within marriage we must either get rid of the things which hobble our relationship, or those things will destroy the marriage.
We must become serious followers of Jesus before we can develop healthy friendships in Christ.
The letter of James is a practical compendium for life in the Christian community. It addresses the question which has faced the Church down through the ages. “Just how do we live together in the community of Jesus’ followers?”.
For if “it ain’t easy” to be a disciple of Jesus, it is sometimes darned near impossible to hang out with other Christians!
James knows this, and so he writes “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed”.
Notice please that James did not say “point out other peoples’ sins”. That would be all too easy.
No, he says, “confess your sins to one another”. The healing which comes about is a healing in relationships, and a healing of those wounds which have been inflicted on the Body of Christ by our own faults, errors and sins.
Years ago in a piece of very clumsy and stupid pastoral ministry (the road to hell is paved with good intentions), I seriously offended three parishioners.
I said that I was sorry so many times. But there was something missing, and the offended parishioners seemed to suspend their forgiveness.
Then a light turned on in my dark brain. I telephoned each of the three. In each case I said “I have often said that I was sorry, but there’s one thing I now need to say. I was wrong”. That confession of my wrong-doing led to a renewed and joyful fellowship with those folks. What a blessing.
You see, forgiving one another leads to a renewed desire and strength to follow Jesus.
It is when we are people of forgiveness, who are determined to follow Jesus, that we can truly be described as friendly.