Sunday 10 September 2023 Trinity 14, Twenty-third in Ordinary time, Proper 18
Turning, Waking, Loving
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Context: a Sunday Eucharist in a central London parish, with an intergenerational congregation from a wide range of backgrounds and identities
Aim: to explore conflict in community and its potential to be transformed from violence to peace through love
TURNING BACK, MOVING FORWARD
Sentinels keep watch, often for long periods of time, staying vigilant when others may be resting, busy elsewhere, or simply not paying attention. Their role is to be attentive, no matter what. When God appoints a prophet as a sentinel, as happens here in this passage in the book of Ezekiel, the responsibility is a heavy one. God’s own heart appears heavy too, as God yearns for the people to return to a way of life founded upon and directed by love. The prophet confronts them with a stark but luminous opportunity. They can, if they wish, learn to love. They can ‘turn back’ and change their minds and hearts. Even as God’s heart aches for God’s people and their decisions, God’s steadfast hope remains. The prophet will, inspired by God, stand alongside the community, inviting them to move from a position of distorted living to authentic living. The choice is theirs. The freedom to live well is the same freedom that leads to catastrophic and violent decision-making with earth-shattering repercussions. Turning back often involves apology, vulnerability, and reparation. In doing so, the result can be liberation from one’s own destructive patterns. In that liberated state, free from despair, the Israelites’ question, ‘how then can we live?’ could be transformed from the desolation of shame to the openness of a hopeful future with God.
WAKING FROM SLEEP
In Ezekiel 33, the people are lost in their own pain, unable to envision a world forged through compassion and equity. If the passage displays the despair of wandering without a compass, Paul’s recommendation to the Romans provides orientation and sustaining nourishment for the journey out of the wilderness of one’s own making: ‘owe no one anything, except to love one another.’ Competitiveness, abuse of power, and the impossible traps – material and psychological – of debt are all obliterated in this assertion. By loving one another, the people fulfil God’s call to authentic community and in doing so, they wake up. The sleep-walking circumstances of so many societies are driven by greed, injustice, oppression and exclusion. Waking up can be risky, as it may involve letting go of behaviour that keeps us safe, even as it destroys our neighbours, our communities, and the planet we share. To be awake is to be aware of God’s love as a sustaining force that subverts even the nightmares. ‘Love does no wrong to a neighbour’ and it is divine Love itself that invites us to dream better dreams in the full light of God’s own dawn, if we dare.
LOVING AND GATHERING
Matthew’s Gospel provides guidance for love in action when conflict cuts into the heart of the church. He offers a process: first, to address the pain together and listen deeply to each other. If that’s impossible, the circle of listening widens to build trust and maintain truthfulness amid sharp suffering. If this is ineffective, the whole community contends with the pain. If one person is suffering, all suffer. Patience is required at each step. The road to reconciliation must be built together as it is being walked. And in community, even just a community of two, the presence of Jesus is assured.
Explored together, Ezekiel’s vision, Paul’s letter to the Romans and Matthew’s Gospel invites us to question patterns and processes for identifying, navigating, and resolving conflict through love. The theologian Henri Nouwen included a simple ritual within his prayers before going to bed each night. He would ask himself the question, ‘Did I love well today?’ This is the question threading through each of these readings in ways that offer striking parallels. We might ask ourselves: did we choose the best path when presented with options that might lead to painful consequences for ourselves or others? Are we truly waking from sleep and living honourably? Are we recognising the presence of Jesus when we gather? Opening up spaces of searching and reflection can be searing and confronting. And yet, at the epicentre of these spaces, love abides. Exploring this landscape and addressing our behaviour in relationships and communities is a bold and courageous act. When we long to lead lives that are truly loving, we might also be comforted and inspired by these words, from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves.’
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