[Buzzfloyd speaking to us.]
This week I caught myself doing something that made me laugh. I had been reading something that got me thinking about how some people who are on the other side of the political fence from me are apparently motivated by fear. In present times I often find myself feeling angry with those who vote and think differently from me (not that uncommon, I think), so in a way it was a welcome change when I momentarily felt compassion instead. And I thought – I kid you not – “I’m glad I’m not like them – driven by fear and ignorance!” Then, immediately, I thought of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector that we just heard from Tony – and I had to laugh at myself. “Oh, God, isn’t it marvellous that I’M so wise and benevolent – not like THEM!” Oh dear!
I read an interesting article the other day about how white people who want to be allies in the fight against racism can often make matters worse by being too angry and divisive in the stance they take, when they are best placed to speak to other white people about race. The writer, Dr David Campt, says it’s important to be able to let go of our own anger and to centre ourselves before having conversations in which we listen, find points of common experience and humanity, and practice humility in how we offer alternative views. I’ll post a link to the article during coffee at the end of the service for anyone who wants to read it later.
Without that relinquishing of our own anger, without mindfully centring ourselves in our intentions, we risk driving a wedge between ourselves and those we would seek to reach out to, born of our own contempt and anger. Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, ““You have very little morally persuasive power with people who can feel your underlying contempt.”
This idea – that our ability to bring goodness to those around us, and to be a positive influence in the lives of others, rests upon the strength of our inner discipleship – is what Jesus is talking about in this story of the Pharisee and tax collector. Goodness is not achieved by trying to follow the rules. Goodness is the outcome of centring God in your life. In the gospels, people often note that Jesus spoke with authority. He told his disciples that that authority was his because he is one with the Father. Jesus can do his saving and healing work because connection with God is central to everything he does – the miracles and the wisdom are the fruits of this.
There’s a sort of joke in this story too. We hear about that stuck-up Pharisee, smirking at the tax collector, glad that he’s not the same, glad that he’s getting things right. And we, as the listeners, are in a position to laugh at the Pharisee, and think, “Haha, I’m glad I’m not like that Pharisee – I don’t look down on people like that!” And yet, in that moment of judging the Pharisee, we ARE the Pharisee. ‘You see?’ Jesus asks us. When we focus on how people are behaving, it is so easy to be judgemental, so easy to create a divide between us; not just for some stuck-up Pharisee, but for you and me too. Our focus then is on the wrong thing.
I’m in a Facebook group for Progressive Methodists. I joined it imagining it would be more progressive than it is. The other day someone posted a link from an evangelical source debating whether tattoos are acceptable according to the Bible. What, I had to wonder, is the point of that? On what planet is legalism about individuals’ physical presentation remotely the concern of a Christian? We, who follow the teachings of Jesus – who told us our one job is to love; who told us to stop judging people and get the plank out of our own eye before thinking about a speck in someone else’s; who befriended and loved people who were serious rule-breakers – we should surely have greater things on our mind. And yet, am I not partaking in the judging by judging them? Where, then, should my focus be?
Perhaps this was a perfect moment for the Ho’oponopono prayer we looked at a few weeks ago, taking responsibility and centring on my choices and my treatment of others instead of on their behaviour. My evangelical friends, I love you; I’m sorry; please forgive me; thank you.
When I was a teenager, the Methodist Church in Britain held a wide-reaching consultation over the treatment of gay people by the church and their standing within the church. The result was, ultimately, a statement of inclusion and affirmation of gay and lesbian Christians. A secondary result was the exodus of people from our churches who believed this to be wrong. Through all of the debate and the fallout, I never heard my grandfather (a lifelong Methodist, local preacher, leader of the Boys’ Brigade and pillar of the church community) give an opinion on homosexuality. Instead, he continued in his lifelong practice of humbly cleaving as close to Christ as he was able. His opinion on the sinfulness or not of other people’s behaviour was irrelevant to his own practice. He made space for outsiders, he showed love in the ways he could, he reserved his judgement most of the time, and he maintained his own habits of prayer and study. Personal holiness, we call it in the Methodist tradition.
I think of my grandfather when considering this topic, and of the prayerful humility and focus on Christ that was at the centre of his life. The fruit of that discipleship was as Jesus said it would be; “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.” Grandad wasn’t a perfect man, by any stretch – who is? But he sought to make peace between himself and God every day, and when things went wrong, he’d try again to do better; and that is what enabled him to bring peace to so many of the people who his life touched.
I titled today’s service “Peace in me” because this is what I ultimately wanted to leave you with. If we want peace in the world, we must focus on peace within ourselves. We cannot put things right with others until we have put things right within us. We are not responsible for, and nor can we control, the behaviour of others. But managing ourselves is within our remit. “Peace be with you” was Christ’s message to people of faith. Let our prayer today be for ourselves, then, that we might turn our eyes to our own paths instead of to others’, and seek God first in our lives: that we might be people of faith, receiving Christ’s word of peace; and that peace within us may spread out and become peace within our communities, peace within our nations, peace within the whole world. May we graciously embrace the action of the Spirit in our hearts, learn from him, and become more and more every day the embodiment of Christ in the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.