This morning we are coming to the end of our series in which we have been exploring one of our church values, that of “Loving Each Other”. This week we are thinking about “Talking to each other and not about each other” In many ways, this is linked with what David was talking about last week – which was listening. Listening and talking are two of the main components in communication. Right now I’m talking and you’re listening, or not as the case may be. So last week, David helped us to explore what it means to listen carefully, and this week we are thinking about speaking carefully. Both are important, and both help us to grow and show love for each other.
In our reading from Matthew’s eye witness account of the good news of Jesus, we are listening in to a small section of a whole load of teaching that Jesus is sharing with his followers, quite early on in his ministry – we are only in chapter 5. Jesus is talking about how we are to live as his followers, and in a whole range of different areas of life is raising the bar from the Old Testament law. Again and again he says, “you have heard it said, but I say to you…”
In the section we’re looking at today, he’s talking about anger, and the way that we speak about and to each other, and the way in which we relate to each other.
In the first couple of verses Jesus tells us that it is not enough to resist the temptation to bump someone off, but we are warned about being angry with each other, about calling our brother or sister, fool, empty head, worthless.
This is a warning about how we speak about each other. When we are negative about someone else when they’re not around, we can damage their reputation, make others think less of them, cause them harm. It’s also a warning about how we speak to each other. When we run people down to their faces, we hurt them, we label them, we write graffiti on their hearts that can take a lot of scrubbing off.
Now, we have to be a little bit careful here, because it is clear from other places in the gospels that Jesus got angry, and he also said things like, “You unbelieving and perverse generation how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” So, it cannot be that anger itself is sinful, or that we should never have direct or even difficult conversations.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes this, quoting Psalm 4, “In your anger do not sin” and goes on to say, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”
Holding these things together, it seems to me, that what we are to do is to be really careful when we are angry, and to bring that anger to God for scrutiny. Jesus talks about being subject to judgement, about being accountable to the Sanhedrin – the leaders of the religious community, about being in danger of hell. If we are to avoid these judgements and consequences, then before we act on our anger, we need to bring it to God for scrutiny.
We can ask the Holy Spirit to show us the roots of our anger. Are those roots in wounded pride, fear, self-regard, or defensiveness? Or are those roots in something more holy? It is only when we have submitted our anger to God’s discipline that we should even consider speaking out of it. And when we do feel that it is right to challenge someone, then we should do it by talking to them, with humility and gentleness and with at least as much listening as talking.
For us to be able to do this as a community, though, we also have to think about how we receive it when someone comes to us and raises an issue. Last year some of us went to New Wine, and it’s fair to say that there were some organisational issues. It had moved from its long term venue in Shepton Mallet to a new venue in Peterborough. There were some problems with this – the access to the site was difficult, because of supplier problems there weren’t enough loos on site. To compound all this, it was pouring with rain and everyone was soaked. Not surprisingly, folk were getting a bit ticked off. I was talking with someone who knew some of the New Wine leadership team, and he was saying how they were engaging with these problems with “undefended hearts”. That is to say, they were listening, they were open to the criticisms, they were engaging positively. They weren’t getting defensive, or trying to deflect, or blaming other people. That’s not to say that they were being doormats, or automatically agreeing with all the criticism coming their way. But they were being open to hear people.
It encouraged me to think about how I deal with it when people are upset with me, with things I’ve done. Am I able to listen carefully, to understand where people are coming from without putting up the barriers. Am I secure in my identity in Jesus, as a beloved child of God? Do I know that if I have to say sorry, or climb down, or humble myself that that’s OK, because I trust that God loves me and forgives me.
It seems to me that this is one of the things that Jesus is getting at in the second bit of the passage we heard from Matthew. Let’s read it again carefully, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that you brother or sister has something against you…” Not, “that you have something against your brother or sister”, but that “your brother or sister has something against you”. Then go and be reconciled.
Can you imagine the situation? Something has happened in the week, maybe a careless word or a failure to keep a commitment. The person hurt has got in touch and shared that hurt. Defensive mode engaged, it wasn’t my fault really, I didn’t mean it, they shouldn’t be so touchy. Maybe the infamous non-apology apology has been used “I’m sorry if…” It’s Sunday morning and it’s time for church, to come to worship. You remember the conversation. It’s up to you to go and do the work of reconciliation with that person, before you come to worship.
As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “make every effort to live at peace with everyone”. This is not to say that there will never be conflict or disagreements amongst us in church. We’re all different, coming from different backgrounds and with different perspectives. I don’t believe that God’s music is one of unison voices, all playing the same instrument, but one of complex harmonies played upon a variety of instruments, and sometimes there’s a bit of dissonance, which is fine. What is important is that we are all watching the conductor and listening to each other, so that we play in concert not in competition.
If we are to create a culture where we value loving each other enough to have honest conversations, where we can safely talk to each other rather than about each other then it seems to me that we need three things – open ears, controlled tongues, and undefended hearts. This is easy to say, and difficult to do, so let’s ask the Holy Spirit to work in us, as individuals and as a church, so that we can be talk to each other and not about each other.