Living in Harmony – A sermon for the beginning of the choir year. 

September 10, 2017

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace, using Romans 13.8-14 and Matthew 18.15-20 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 10th September 2017, the 13th after Trinity.

May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Welcome to the new choristers and their parents especially and it is lovely to have returning choristers and their parents with us too.  This is one of the two occasions in the year when I give particular emphasis to the choir in my teaching, so forgive me if my sermon is a little biased today. I hope there will be something in it for others too. 

I expect that over the Summer everyone managed to visit lots of exciting places, and perhaps some beaches. Most of those were probably sandy beaches, but perhaps you also came across some rocky ones, which brings me to the subject I want to talk about this morning. I want to talk about stones.

I’m sure all of us have explored a rocky beach at some time in our lives, and seen the smooth stones lying there. They come in some amazing colours, and when the water flows over them, they can glisten like jewels. 

Yet they weren’t always like that. If you read a geology book it might tell you that those stones were originally ugly rough chips off a cliff, with hard edges and they were worn down into that beautiful smooth shape by a number of things: Hydraulic action, the pounding of the waves, and a thing called attrition, when stones collide with one other, wearing each other away until they become smooth and polished. 

You might wonder what on earth that has to do with our bible readings today, or about being a chorister. Well, if we had a theme for today, perhaps it would be harmony. Not musical harmony, but harmony of relationships.  Our gospel reading today tells us what to do if we think someone else is behaving badly, and our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans warns us that we should avoid quarreling and being jealous. Both readings are about how we treat one another and live together as a community, which is exactly the sort of useful advice for the beginning of a new choral year. 

Choirs are very close communities. Members of a cathedral choir see one another every day and work together in very close proximity and for choristers, you learn together and board together too. Yet there is good advice here for the whole cathedral community because we are all living in different types and levels of community, every day (unless we are a hermit!).  

Scott Peck the Christian sociologist, says that when a group of strangers come together to form a community, they go through four stages: the first is pseudo-community, which sounds like a disparaging title for something which is actually very nice, but it’s nice because people hide things about themselves in order to avoid conflict. The people within these kinds of community aren’t really very close to one another even if it can be a pleasant experience. The second stage is when differences come out into the open and people try to convert each other to their way of thinking but don’t really listen to the other person’s experiences. This can be a very unpleasant to live through, but, if the relationships are there it can be worked through.  The third stage is when people let go of their previous expectations and stop trying to change other people to make them clones of themselves. At this point members of a community will begin to feel comfortable enough to share their failures and fears. They start to truly trust one another and strong friendships develop. The final stage is called “true community”. This is often a very peaceful stage as people share their sorrows and listen to one another.  Perhaps that journey that I have just described feels familiar from family life. Many marriages go through this. Perhaps you’ve been on a similar journey with your friendship groups. Perhaps it’s something you are yet to encounter. 

However, if you are living or working very closely with a group of people it is hard to avoid moving onward on this journey towards deeper community. Sooner or later those in very close contact move from the polite surface conversation to something else and sooner or later something will come that causes disagreement. This leads me back to those stones that I mentioned earlier; one of the things that makes beach pebbles smooth is that they are constantly rubbing up against each other, yet encountering others in that kind of way isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you can learn things about yourself as well as other people. We can become more polished as a result, like those beach stones. 

But sometimes we might need to tackle someone else’s bad or hurtful behaviour and Jesus gives us some advice about that in the gospel reading today. Jesus does not recommend gossiping about someone behind their backs, or being violent. Two famous phrases of his are “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”, and “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”. Nor does Christ recommend pouncing on someone in a group which can feel like bullying. No, Christ’s way of solving a dispute is to have a gentle chat with another face to face, reasoning with them gently, and if that fails then we are encouraged to involve another person, perhaps a teacher if you’re at school, or a wise friend if school days are behind you. If the persuasion tactics aren’t helping, Jesus suggests keeping some distance between you, as the Jews did with their tax collectors, but that is only the act of last resort if nothing else works, not the first port of call. I believe that Jesus is advising this for self-preservation purposes if someone’s behaviour is causing distress, not as a punishment for them. 

St Paul also has helpful and practical advice in today’s epistle. He reminds us that all the law is summed up within the simple command “love your neighbour as yourself.” If all of us cared for people that we met in a similar way that we look after ourselves, then the world would be a much happier place. This love isn’t romantic love, it is practical caring action. 

Loving another person as much as ourselves and undoing basic human habits of selfishness can be difficult, which is where I come back to the stones analogy. Peter talks about us being living stones, being built into a spiritual temple. This is the work the Holy Spirit does in each one of us. For the Holy Spirit too is moulding us, washing over us like the waves on the stones in a beach, shaping us to become more like Christ, as the hymn says being “changed from glory to glory, till in heaven we take our place”.