Sunday, September 25, 2011

Humbled for a season . . .

Text: Philippians 2:1-13 (Jesus' humility and exaltation)

This week, the world economy has been moving closer to the edge. The severe recession of 2008, caused by bad housing debts in the United States, looks set to return. Except that this time it might be worse.

In 2008, governments everywhere pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into banks to save them. They also ran up huge deficits in an effort to stimulate the economy. But this time around, it is government debt, especially in southern Europe, that threatens the economy. And world leaders are struggling to come up with a plan that would prevent a banking crisis, another recession, and perhaps even a new Depression.

Millions of people could lose their jobs. Many more might slip further into poverty and hunger. Young people might find it even harder to start careers and leave home. And pensioners could lose their savings.

I was thinking of all this gloomy economic news while reading our text from Philippians this week. The subject of the text is humility; the word humility shares the same root as the word humiliation. And what could be more humiliating for political and business leaders than another economic crisis following three years of their heroic efforts to fix the last one?

In the face of all our collective human genius and effort, another depression would be a humbling disaster. But would the humiliation of our leaders lead them to humility and repentance? Well, personally I wouldn't hold my breath.

Although humility and humiliation are connected, humiliation does not always lead to humility. This is true both for countries and for individuals. And so my subject today is the alchemy that sometimes helps us turn humiliation into humility.

Paul commends humility and encourages us to have the same mind as Christ. He writes that Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross."

Then, because of Jesus' humility and his humiliating death, Paul writes that "God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

In a nutshell, Paul lays out here the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. But how are we supposed to have the same mind as Jesus and achieve the same kind of humility and sacrifice? We are just ordinary sinners. So how can we align our lives with the perfect humility, and therefore the perfect exaltation, of Jesus?

William Shakespeare wrote the following in his play Twelfth Night: "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." Since humility is kind of the opposite of greatness, I propose a variation on this quote: "Be not afraid of humility: some are born humble, some achieve humility and some have humiliation thrust upon them."

Being born humble? Well that is easy. We all begin life as helpless infants who depend on our caregivers for everything. And as for humiliation being thrust upon us, that also comes to all of us in due course. We stumble and make mistakes as we grow up, find careers, and build families. And all of us are fragile and mortal. We all face the ultimate humiliation of sickness and death.

But achieving humility out of all this raw material? To quote Shakespeare again, Ay, there's the rub. For many of us, achieving humility is a rare thing.

Probably we can all remember times when, in the face of painful humiliations, we did not become humble. One way we avoid humility is through blame."I got involved in crime because of my friends" one might say. Or, "I failed at school because the teaching was no good." Or "I got into debt because my family insisted that we spend too much  on luxuries." And so on.

But sometimes in the face of humiliating circumstances people do become humble. St. Paul gives us a clue as to how this is possible. At the end of today's reading, he writes that we should "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

I am scared by the sound of the phrase "working out our own salvation," so I glad that Paul adds the phrase "with fear and trembling." But then Paul continues with the good news that God is in work in us. And the truth of that latter statement calms me down.

Paul is saying that humility, like other virtues, is not something we can achieve on our own. We have God working in us, and it is only this fact that enables us to have the will and capabilities to work for God's good pleasure.

Our lives involve a lot of striving. We work and study hard to get ahead. We make plans and marshal our mental, physical and spiritual resources to achieve those plans. We build lives and often feel proud of our accomplishments.

But worship and prayer can remind us that our individual achievements mostly are not due to our own efforts. Our lives depend upon an endless stream of gifts: the gift of our existence, of our bodies, of the natural world, and of the accumulated culture of thousands of years of human history – language, knowledge, institutions, and so on.

The reality of these gifts does not free us from having to find our own way. But by thanking God for these gifts, we remind ourselves that our individuality is largely an illusion. We exist in a web of friends, family, society, and history not of our own making. Remembering that these are gifts can help turn our pride into humility.

By the same token, we are often not to blame for the humiliations that happen in our lives. Young people who have trouble finding work are not to blame for the Great Recession of the last three years. Somali families that have fled this year's  drought to Kenya are not responsible for the famine that has overwhelmed them and devastated their lives. Cancer patients are not responsible for the tumors that make them sick. And none of us are to blame for the sickness or trauma that will eventually take our lives.

Just as the successes of our lives cannot be claimed as solely our own achievements, neither can our failures be blamed solely on us as individuals. Accepting the tough conditions in which we live helps us turn humiliation into humility. We are only human, after all.

When Paul writes that God is at work in us, this points to our baptism. At baptism, we are reborn into life in Christ. And life in Christ means both the joy and love experienced by Jesus and also the humiliating human condition that Jesus adopted in solidarity with us. So just as we give thanks to God for those aspects of life we love, we also give thanks that Christ is with us in our darkest hours of pain, loss and death.

This is not to say that we welcome pain, loss or death. Just that when these things inevitably come into our lives, we remember that Christ suffers with us and helps us to accept them

Neither would any of us welcome a new economic crisis. I hope that our political and business leaders find ways to avoid a new recession. But if a recession does occur, it could be a moment to pray that this humiliation might lead us to humility.

Perhaps we might reexamine the values embedded in our economy. Many of us are unhappy about the greed and competition that characterize the economy. In the face of new economic problems, we might be motivated to build communities based more upon solidarity, conservation, and cooperation than upon individualism, waste of resources, and competition.

Well, finding new values upon which to found the economy sounds even more difficult to me than finding a way out of the debt crises threatening world markets. And I certainly don't have any solutions.

What we do know, I think, is that any painful moment can be an opportunity to notice where God in Christ might be working within us. Through Christ's solidarity with our suffering and humiliation, God helps free us from fear and blame.

Christ came to us with complete humility. He came as a baby born into a poor family in an oppressed part of the world. And he came as a companion who died a horrible death for his friends. Today Christ calls us to give thanks to God as the source of life and love. And he calls us to courageously accept those painful things about the human condition that we can't change.

If the economy does stumble this fall, we may have difficult days ahead. But if those difficulties oppress us, we know that God in Christ will be there to meet us. Christ will continue to show us that joy, hope, peace and love are possible even in the toughest circumstances.

God in Christ through the power of God's Spirit embraces us in every moment, both those of triumph and those of humiliation and suffering.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Late to the party

Text: Matthew 20:1-16 (fairness in God's vineyard)

This week we have been preparing for a special service on Tuesday evening at Wesley United in Rockglen. At that service, a covenant will be made between the three churches of Borderlands Pastoral Charge, myself as minister, and Chinook Presbytery. And so, I have been thinking a lot about ministry this week.

In looking forward to that service, I have also reflected on how recent my return to the church has been and how little church experience I have compared to some other people in our church.

This Sunday marks exactly 10 years since I returned to church. To my mind, 10 years does not seem like a very long time in which to turn one's life around, hear a call from God, and complete the four years of full-time training for ministry required by the United Church of Canada. And yet, just 10 years after first worshipping at Kingston Road United Church in Toronto, on Sept 16, 2001, I now serve as an ordained minister in three churches in southcentral Saskatchewan. I am enjoying ministry here and feel confident about the work that we are doing together. But there are some things about the life and work of church of which I remain unsure.

This is the personal background that I bring to Jesus' parable today about the labourers in the vineyard. Jesus begins by saying that "the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers." Most interpreters see the landowner as a symbol for God and the labourers as church members. But beyond that, interpretations differ.

Some think that the labourers hired at dawn represent Israel and that the labourers hired at the 11th hour represent non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Some think the parable calls us to practice radical equality in church and society. And some think that the wage given to the labourers represents salvation. In the latter interpretation, the parable is reminding us that all of us are loved by God no matter how long we have been working to help bring about God's rule on earth.

It is this last interpretation that got me thinking about my own situation. Sometimes I feel like a latecomer to the church party. But despite this, I have sought a leadership role in the church. So when I hear of the resentment felt by labourers who started to work in God's vineyard at dawn towards those who did not start until the 11th hour, I wonder if some in the church might feel similar resentment toward people like me who have only recently returned to church and yet are now in leadership roles . . .

I drifted away from the church as a teenager. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, was a minister in the United Church of Canada. But like a lot of my friends, by the time I had entered high school, I had decided that the Bible, God and especially the church were not for me. I continued to sing in the church choir while I lived with my parents. But as soon as I left home for university in Toronto, I gave up the church habit.

After that, I only went to church when my parents visited Toronto. And 10 years ago today was one of those times.

Usually when my parents and I went to church, we attended Bloor Street United in downtown Toronto. All three of us liked the music, the welcoming atmosphere, and the liberal theology there. But in September 2001, my ex-wife and I had just moved into a house in the east end of Toronto, which was four houses away from Kingston Road United Church. This was the church where my younger brother, Andrew, his wife and their two young sons worshipped. So that morning, my parents and I decided to walk the half block to Kingston Road instead of going downtown.

While I often enjoyed my infrequent visits to church with my parents, that day on September 16, 2001 I was not looking forward to it. My anti-religious antennae were on high alert because this was the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

But in the event, the service deeply touched me. The sanctuary was packed. The atmosphere seened tense. And the message of the sermon was not what I had expected.

The minister, Rev. Rivkah Unland, did not use her sermon to bash Islam or cheer-lead the militaristic response to 9/11 being planned by the United States. Instead, she used it to call for openness in the midst of mourning, hope in the midst of fear, understanding in the midst of rage, and reconciliation in the midst of plans to bomb and invade.

The United Church of Canada had struggled with big shifts in our culture during the years when I didn't attend. Because of this, the church now seemed less mainstream to me, perhaps more humble, and more open to the stark and difficult messages of Jesus as the Christ. It felt to me like a place where people were honestly trying to be salt, light and yeast in a suffering world; where they were trying to stand up against the powers that be; and where they sometimes woke up to the glory and pain of our human condition.

On that Sunday on September 16, 2001, I liked the message, I liked the community, and I liked the minister. I felt a space opening in my heart into which flooded grief and hope. And so I joined that church, joined its choir, and laid myself open week after week to the gracious effects of the Spirit that moved in that community and which slowly, I believe, helped to transform me.

Since that Sunday 10 years ago, I have devoted a lot of time to work in the church, to study, to discussion, and to spiritual disciplines. Within the United Church and with God's Spirit, I believe that I have experienced a large measure of healing. And I believe that in many moments, I have at least briefly grasped the good news found in the difficult Way of the Cross of Christ.

And yet, I still feel like the prodigal son who has only recently returned home. And to be frank, now that I have "arrived" at ordination and my first full-time paid job in ministry, I often fear that I don't know what I am doing.

I have many unanswered questions. I wish that I knew the Bible better. I wish that I had more experience in administration. I don't really know how to fulfill our mission as congregations. I don't always feel confident in crafting worship services. I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of the physical and emotional pain experienced by members of our communities. And I often don't know what to do next. Nevertheless, here we are. And we are about to make a covenant with each other on Tuesday . . .

In Jesus' parable, God hears the resentment of the faithful labourers in his vineyard towards those who arrived late. They resent that everyone gets the same reward regardless of how much work they have done. God replies that those who have always been faithful receive the just reward promised to them from the beginning. Given this truth, why should they be resentful if God is generous to those who come later?

If we think of the wage paid in the parable as a payment for work done, I can understand the resentment. But if we think of the wage as a symbol for salvation, then it is easier for me to see that fairness does not apply.

Salvation is not a matter of quantity. Rather, salvation is a blessed state, and one in which we can participate in any moment. Regardless of whether we have been consciously trying to follow God's path of faith, hope and love for 90 years or for only a few days, there is only ever this moment in which to know God's grace. There is only ever this moment in which to feel God's touch. And there is only ever this moment in which to love one another.

Not every moment in our lives feels like one in God's kingdom. But by the same token, any moment can be such a moment of salvation. We do not know when we will again become aware of God's love. But having known such a connection once or a million times, we trust that such healing is our destiny and birthright as children of God.

And what about our long days of toil in God's vineyard? Do we undertake this work to win a reward? Well, sometimes that might be our motivation. But I believe that more often we undertake the work of ministry in gratitude for the healing we have already experienced, and because loving service is its own reward. We toil gratefully in God's vineyard knowing that whatever grace or healing we may experience in the future will come not from our own efforts, but will always be a free gift.

And those of us who have been toiling in the vineyard longer than others? Surely in ministry, as in any other part of life, years of experience are useful and should count for something?

And of course, we promote and appreciate long years of effort in church work. Those years can build wisdom and help keep a community healthy. But when those of us who are relatively new to work in Christ's church join hands with those who have sustained it over many years, Jesus' parable helps us to see this from God's point of view. The union of newcomers with elders is a moment of joy. And a newcomer, although inexperienced or unskilled in some ways, is just as likely to experience healing in worship, in service, in thanksgiving or in mourning as are those of us who have been here for many years.

When we hear a call to worship in, or serve with the church, we answer it not as a ploy to try to win God's healing or love. We answer it as a natural consequence of moments of joy spent in communion with God's Spirit. And these moments, while often fleeting this side of the grave, can sustain us for a whole life.

That notion reminds me of a love song from the Broadway musical "Hello Dolly" titled "It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long." But beware of such moments of love! You never know where they will take you. Perhaps in a few short years, they might lead you to a life of service in the church that you previously could never have imagined.

And what could be better than that?

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Judgement and forgiveness in the shadow of 9/11

Texts: Romans 14:1-12 (withholding judgement); Matthew 18:15-20 (forgiveness without limits)

Today, millions of us around the world are marking the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States. The attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. on 9/11 caused a tremendous amount of death, sorrow, shock and horror. And the responses to that attack have changed our culture in many ways. So as we mark the anniversary, we have an opportunity to remember, to mourn, and to try to place the tragedy and its aftermath in the context of our faith.

Our two Scripture readings today are heard against the backdrop of 9/11. In the first reading, St. Paul talks about judgement. And in the second, Jesus talks about forgiveness. Today's anniversary, I believe, illustrates in the sharpest possible manner how difficult it is not to judge someone who attacks us; and how difficult it is to forgive such an attack when one does succumb to judgement.

St. Paul urges us to leave judgement to God. In essence he says that, "To err is human; to judge divine." But Paul was writing in the context of disagreements within a loving community. Surely it would be a stretch to extend his thoughts to deadly terrorist attacks and subsequent wars.

In our Gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus a question about forgiveness. In reply, Jesus urges us to forgive without limit. He says that we should forgive a person who sins against us seventy times seven times. Then to illustrate this radical idea, Jesus tells a parable about an unmerciful servant that is filled with wild exaggerations.

The debt owed by the servant is an impossibly large sum. The punishment of enslaving the debtor and his family for non-payment is brutal. The offer of the servant to repay the debt over time is not believable. The ruler's subsequent forgiveness of the debt seems surprising. The lack of mercy by the freed man to someone who owes him a small sum seems hypocritical. And the final punishment of the ruler is as terrible a one as we could ever imagine.

Is Jesus saying here that we are to be as merciful to each other as God is to us and to forgive without limits?

Sometimes the debt a person owes truly is massive. And sometimes a sin can be as terrible as the attack by the 9/11 hijackers. 10 years ago today, 19 men in the span of a few hours killed more than 3,000 people, caused massive economic damage, and traumatized those of us who watched the horrible spectacle live on TV. The notion that the hijackers and the Al-Qadea network behind them could ever expect that their victims would not judge them as evil, or that the families of the victims would ever forgive them seem as beyond belief to me as the details in Jesus' parable.

In the event, the response of the U.S. government to the 9/11 attacks was the opposite of forgiveness. On the day of the attack, George Bush spoke for many when he labeled the event as evil and called its perpetrators evildoers. He sought revenge through two long wars that led to the deaths of 10s of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. He restricted U.S. civil liberties with the Patriot Act and used torture to gather intelligence both in U.S. detention camps and via third-party states like Syria and Egypt.

Bush's government saw the attacks as a "clash of civilizations," which has sometimes made it difficult for people from countries with largely European and Christian roots, like Canada and the U.S., to relate to people with largely non-European or Islamic roots, like those from North Africa and the Middle East.

In my opinion, the results have been mixed. The wars cost the U.S. and its allies trillions of dollars and have contributed to our current economic problems. The invasion of Iraq -- which had no ties to 9/11 and which, contrary to U.S claims, did not harbour weapons of mass destruction -- led, at first, to a growth in extremism. But today, religious extremists seem to be weaker than before 9/11. The war in Iraq has largely been wound down. And countries like Canada no longer have troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan.

Finally, the popular revolts in Arab countries earlier this year have proven more effective in bringing real change in that part of the Muslim world than invasions and bombings by Western countries.

Today we pray for the families of the victims of 9/11 and for all the military and civilian victims of the wars that have followed it. We remember the 157 Canadian men and women killed in Afghanistan and many other Canadians injured. And we hope that security measures, social development, and cultural reconciliation will led to an end to terrorist attacks and an end to wars in the years ahead.

When any of us are attacked and hurt, our reactions flow automatically. First we feel pain, anger, fear, and a desire to be safe. Then, despite the advice of St. Paul, we often go beyond our feelings to judgement. In the cases of 9/11 and beyond, it seems easy to conclude that the terrorists who killed friends and neighbours, or the countries that bombed and occupied our country, are evil and beyond redemption.

The feelings are natural and acceptable, I think. But the judgements, while also understandable, can cause problems, as both St. Paul and Jesus try to remind us.

Even in the most destructive acts such as 9/11 and its subsequent wars, there are human motives on all sides. We don't have to agree with these motives. But since we are part of one human family, we are called to see ourselves in the mirror of all other people, even those who injure and enrage us the most.

In Al-Qaeda, we could see the shadow side of religious fanaticism. Fortunately, such terrorists are a rare strain within today's religions. But when we confront their fanaticism, we might also see reflections of Christian terror, Christian wars, and Christian genocide of other cultures.

The destruction suffered in New York City 10 years ago still shocks and horrifies us. But it might be a moment for us to also remember incidents like the destruction of what is now Mexico City in the 1500s by invaders from Spain. In a few short weeks, they killed 10s of thousands of people and utterly destroyed a complex and beautiful civilization, all with the support and approval of the Church in Europe.

On 9/11, many of us were shocked when we saw Palestinian teenagers cheering the attacks in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But before we judge them, and without agreeing with their response, we might also ponder why the United States gives more military aid to Israel than to any other country even as Israel has illegally occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in defiance of the United Nations for decades.

One reason to resist judgement, I believe, is that it clouds our own ability to see into our own hearts and mind. When we cry "evil" or "devil" against those who have hurt us, it can prevent us from seeing the hurt caused by our nation or by the religious and economic systems in which we live.

Not judging an attacker, or finding a way to forgive them when we do judge them, does not mean forgetting the attack. It does not mean erasing the feelings of hurt and loss, or rage and fear that the attack causes. It certainly does not mean condoning the attack. Nor does it mean evading our responsibility to keep ourselves safe. However, it does mean opening ourselves as much as is possible to the wider reality of the whole world and all its pain, and not just to our own corner of it.

The people of New York and Washington D.C. suffered terribly on 9/11. Their deep feelings of hurt, sorrow and rage, which we share, are normal and completely acceptable. But unfortunately, we live in a world filled with hurt. It is a world that bears the scars of colonialism, of economic oppression, of poverty beside wealth, and of seemingly endless wars, occupations and cultural insults.

On September 12, 2001, the Paris newspaper Le Monde ran a headline, which I liked. It read, "Nous sommes tous Américains" or "We are all Americans." By the same token when bombs later rained down on Iraq in 2003 and thousands died, we might also say, "Today, we are all Iraqis."

None of us, of course, support the hate-filled actions of those who perpetrated 9/11. But we also no longer support the occupation of North Africa and the Middle East by Britain and France in the 19th and early 20th century or the more recent U.S. support for brutal dictators such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. It is sad to say this, but there are no end of victims, and no end of perpetrators.

Jesus and Paul both advise us not to judge those who sin against us even as they also warn us that judgement is inevitable. But they know that it is God's terrible judgement that matters, and not our own flawed judgements or that of our institutions.

The extent to which we can avoid the trap of judgement and find the path to forgiveness is the extent that we can remain humble, confess our own sins, and try to love our neighbours and even our enemies.

Unfortunately, the infinite forgiveness promoted by Jesus is not possible for any of us, and certainly not in horrible situations such as 9/11. That is why we can be cheered to know that God, while being our terrible judge, is also the source of an infinite mercy given to us all.

In Jesus' parable today, the debt of the servant is so huge that it can only be a symbol for life itself. We owe everything to the source of life, love and being, which we call God. The world in which we live, our bodies, and the language and ideas that help make up our minds, all come to us as a free gift. It amounts to a debt that we can never repay. And so we fall down in thanksgiving and praise to our source, who is God, even as we also beg God for mercy.

Many things that we do not like also comes to us unasked for in life -- things such as our fragility, our mortality, and life in a world that is often torn apart by competition and violence. Living in, and being hurt in these tough circumstances often leads us to judge others. And so Jesus calls us to repent and forgive. He calls us to participate in the forgiveness given to us by God in Christ.

This is a call to which we cannot always respond on our own. Being able to forgive requires grace. And the good news is that such amazing grace is offered to us all, on all sides of our wars and disputes, all across this pain-filled world.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 we pray for the victims and their families. We pray for an end to terror attacks and an end to retaliatory wars. We pray that people of different religions and backgrounds can build peace and justice together and find unity in our diversity. And we give thanks that, in the face of the terrible judgement of God, we are also offered the infinite mercy of God in Christ. Christ stands with us in our suffering and offers us his mercy in every moment.

When we are attacked, we cannot achieve the perfect forgiveness of God. But as recipients of God's forgiveness, we are sure that God will eventually bring us home to a wholeness and security beyond our human fears and beyond our partial and flawed human judgements.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

"Two or three sinners walk into a church . . . "

Texts: Romans: 13:8-14 (love and law), Matthew 18:15-20 (conflict and repentance)

This Tuesday evening, our Central Board meets for the first time this season. Perhaps it is timely, then, that we have just heard another passage in which Jesus talks about the church. It is the second such reading from Matthew we have encountered in the last month. These two readings are the only places that Jesus says anything about the church in all the gospels. And today, Jesus focuses on conflict in the church.

Conflict in the church -- in local congregations, within a denomination like the United Church of Canada, and between the world's different Christian denominations -- is quite common, unfortunately. Sometimes we disagree about doctrines. Sometimes we disagree about cultural issues such as equality for men and women in the church. And at the local level, we sometimes disagree about how to spend our money or fulfill our mission.

Church disputes are often resolved by the respectful airing of differences that leads to consensus. But at other times, church disputes end in fighting, unhappiness and splits.

In our reading today, Jesus suggests that if another church member has offended us, we should first try to resolve the issue face to face. If that doesn't work, he then suggests that a select group of elders try to help the wayward member see the light. It is only when these efforts fail that Jesus suggest that the church then treat the offender as a quote "Gentile and a tax collector."

But how does one know when a fellow church member has committed a sin? An action that I might consider to be offensive might be quite acceptable to another one of us. And what does Jesus mean when he says that we should treat a church member who refuses to repent as though he were a Gentile and a tax collector? Is not Jesus famous for bringing the good news of God's healing not just to the Jews but also to the Gentiles? And is not Jesus also famous for spending time with, eating with, and becoming friends with the hated people who collected taxes for the Romans in Palestine during his ministry?

I hope that a simple example of a dispute from my former church in Toronto might give us some context. Three years ago, all of the windows in the sanctuary of that church were being replaced. After 80 years of existence, window replacement was one of many upgrades required in the church building. One Sunday during the service, a maintenance committee member announced that there would be a congregational meeting after the service to make a decision about the replacement of the last of the windows. It was the large, plain window that fronted out onto the street at the back of the sanctuary.

The committee proposed that the ordinary glass be replaced by stained glass similar to many of the other windows in the sanctuary. The committee had found an artist who had created a design, and we were asked to approve it. Since the work on the window was happening that week, the church needed to make a decision that day.

About 45 of us stayed after the service to discuss this stained glass design. When I had glimpsed the design as it circulated during the service, I didn't much like it, so I wanted to have my say. In the meeting, some others also said that they didn't like the design. Unfortunately, it was the only design on offer. So if we rejected it, the window would be replaced that week, but with ordinary glass as before.

Other people, however, liked the design just fine and were grateful to the committee for coming up with the idea and bringing it to the congregation for approval. After about 15 minutes of discussion, the issue was put to a vote. 30 people voted for the design and 15 of us voted against. Since two thirds had voted yes, the decision was approved. And the stained glass window with the design that I don't like has been at the back of that sanctuary for more than three years now.

Not a big deal, eh? But it made me think about how we reach decisions in a church. I don't always support making church decisions by voting. Sometimes I prefer that we thoroughly discuss an issue, hear other viewpoints, and figure out what feelings and values lie behind different opinions. The hope in such a process is that a consensus would emerge.

When a large group have objections to what the majority proposes, then perhaps a decision should be postponed. Unfortunately, in the case of the stained glass window there was no time to wait -- the window was going to be replaced that week regardless of what we decided.

In the grand scheme of things, who cares about a stained glass window? Well I for one seemed to care, at least at the time. Perhaps at that time, I might even have gone as far as to conclude that the maintenance committee had sinned against me and the church. They had called a meeting where a decision had to be made on the spot. They had only commissioned one design. And in a final insult, they had chosen a design that I considered to be ugly!

But if I step back from my reaction and judgement, I might also be able to see things from the point of view of the maintenance committee. Like all church committees, its members volunteered their time. They were supervising renovations that we all agreed were necessary. They had decided to use the renovations as an occasion to change a plain and drab window into one that conveyed more of the story and beauty of our faith. And they had decided to seek approval of this idea from the whole church instead of going ahead without feedback. Seen in this light, I have difficulty being as upset now as I was then about their work.

Further, if I look within myself to examine why the issue seemed so important to me, I might find things of which I am not proud. Was I more focused on the church building than on proclaiming and living God's good news? Was the high value I gave to a window a sign that I had stumbled into a type of idolatry related to beauty​? Perhaps I could go on . . .

I hope that this little example shows how I got caught up in an issue that later looked silly to me. If I had gone as far as to judge the maintenance committee as sinners, I would have been mistaken, I believe. Instead of making such a judgement, all I could truly own was my own upset reaction. But such a reaction then demands three things, I believe. First ,unearthing the feelings behind my reaction; second, discovering the desires or values that lay behind my feelings; and third, determining if those desires and values lined up with the values that I publicly profess.

Unfortunately, those three steps often do not come easily to me. The preliminary step of noticing that I am upset is easy enough. But going beyond that into discernment might expose things about myself that I don't want to expose. And although I might grow through such discernment and exposure, such growth often involves some pain.

When Jesus says we should treat an "offender" in the church like a Gentile and a tax collector, I believe that we can hear his words not as ones of condemnation and exclusion, but as words of welcome and inclusion. They point to the welcome that Jesus extended to Gentiles and tax collectors all throughout his ministry, I believe.

One of the things that I appreciate the most about church is the understanding that none of us are perfect. Al of us are sinners. All of us are sometimes in the wrong, and all of us need God's forgiveness. Indeed, the very next words spoken by Jesus, and which we will hear next Sunday, are about forgiveness.

In this light, to be treated like a "Gentile and a tax collector" in the church is to be embraced, welcomed and loved as yet another sinner by the other sinners in that church. This is also the advice we also get from St. Paul today; to treat all our neighbours in love.

Now acting in love does not always come easily. Given the difficult conditions we live under, we do not always have the self-respect that is the necessary condition for mutual respect and love.

The good news is that we don't have to achieve self-respect on our own. The Bible, our tradition, and our life experience all teach us that God in Christ forgives and loves us just as we are. With this reality firmly in our hearts, we are then freed to love our neighbours as ourselves even though we are not perfect and even though we don't agree with each other on all the issues.

In Christ's church, we are all sinners, we are all beloved, and we are all neighbours. So when we gather to discuss church matters both big and small on Tuesday or on any day, we do so secure in our worth and in our own salvation. We do so as ordinary, broken people who are freed by God's love and healing to love ourselves and each other.

Where two or three self-confessed sinners are gathered in Jesus' name, there God in Christ is also found.

Thanks be to God, Amen.