by Rev Dr Phil Wall
Sawdust specks, pine planks and gallons of grace.
Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 8:9-11
What do you think the deadline of wishing someone a ‘happy new year’ is? Mid-January? The end of the month? Well, I’m pretty sure I can get away with saying that for at least another week. So – 2019. What do you think of it so far?
It might not surprise you to know that I LOVE New Year. I love the joy of celebrating simply being with one another as the clock strikes midnight on December 31st. I love the fireworks (particularly London’s this year!); love Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny; love the opportunity at five minutes past midnight to say things like “I haven’t eaten all year, I haven’t left this room all year…I haven’t changed my pants all year!” And I especially love reviews of the old year and the sharing of hopes for the new one. I know that new year’s resolutions are not without their shadow side but one thing that attracts me to them is the sense of a fresh start and the encouragement for me to be a better me – to admit that, unlike Mary Poppins, I am not practically perfect in every way! “But you are Phil,” I’m sure I’ll hear you cry…? [I didn’t!!!]. But of course, I’m not. Those of you who have tasted my cooking, heard my singing or witnessed my incompetence and subsequent temper when it comes to technology will attest to this! And the same is quite true of all of us, of course.
Now some of us here with low self-esteem will know our faults and foibles all too well and to those, God says – you are loved, you are important, you are wonderfully made – and perhaps repeating those words or even writing them down and carrying them around may well be all the new year’s resolution needed for them.
But for the majority of us, I think we can be all too quick to look beyond our own weaknesses and instead like to linger longer on
the shortcomings of others. Who of us here is completely innocent of whinging about friends and family, neighbours and – perish the thought – other church members, every so often? After all, between us, it really does infuriate me that you-know-who always likes to complain whilst thingamabob never listens. Then there’s whatshisname who’s always late and there’s the one who never smiles – what’s that about? And have you noticed Mrs Look-at-me who’s at the front all the time whilst Mr grumpy-gills never contributes at all? If only he was more welcoming; if only she was more reliable; if only they were all more…well…more like me! And just as we’re really getting into our grumbling groove, along comes Jesus – that old troublemaker – to spoil our fun!
“What are you doing?” Jesus asks us. “Why are you focusing on all the idiosyncrasies of your brother or sister and judging them for not being perfect when you’re not either, my friend.”
“Well, I know that,” I want to reply. “But have you met my sister, Jesus? I mean, she’s really annoying. And what about that certain church member – you know the one – who tries everyone’s patience…”
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your sister’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Jesus replies, somewhat annoyingly! “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
And there it is – the saviour slap-down. It would seem, then, that two thousand years and a few thousand miles away, our sisters and brothers in the Near East shared the same judgmental tendencies as us. So much so, in fact, that Jesus has to remind his followers time and time again not to think of themselves better than others, not to be unkind or proud, not to judge. That was at the crux – quite literally – of his battles with the religious authorities for they were the ones meting out judgment; they were the ones who declared who was good enough, worthy enough, holy enough to be in God’s presence whilst condemning the God in their very midst who was eating with tax-collectors and prostitutes, who was talking with lepers and children and foreigners, telling them all that they were loved and important and wonderfully made. This was part of the world-shaking message that they tried to silence on the cross…this was the religion-rattling message that Paul tried to silence until he met with the risen Christ. And as Paul wrestled with a fresh understanding of God – the God in Christ, the God of the Spirit, the God is us – he came to the thinking shared in those verses we heard earlier –
“You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
The Spirit of God dwells in you. Isn’t that a wild thought? God’s spirit is in you! What does that even mean? Well, we’d need at least a lifetime of sermons and studies, exegesis and experiences just to begin to get a handle on that but for now, perhaps it’s enough to say that the Bible affirms that we can encounter God in one another. God’s breath is in us, the body is a temple for the Spirit, Christ’s presence is with those in need…all these Biblical teachings and more tell us that we can, we do encounter God in one another…sometimes we might even be aware of it!
I was reminded of this amazing truth at our last film and chat afternoon. A bunch of us watched ‘Joyeux Noel’ – a film that imagined the events of the Christmas Day ceasefire in 1914 – and were going through the discussion questions based on the film. As we wrestled with the human propensity to divide the world into us and them, one of those present asked, “Yes but how can we get them to come to church? Is what we’re offering good enough? Shouldn’t we be offering them more?”
As I began to consider the questions at hand and acknowledged the truth that perhaps the Church often doesn’t seem relevant or engaging to those outside the club, one of the saints of our church suggested;
“But aren’t we offering our love, our welcome, ourselves? And if the Spirit dwells within us,” they continued, “then aren’t we enabling an encounter with God – the God in us; the God in them?!”
Well, I was floored – as I regularly am at those afternoons – because what was said was simple and beautiful and true. That, at its best, is what the Church is. A place where we might encounter God; a people who shine with God’s spirit within.
All of which leads us to the central dichotomy of the Church. The fact that we can be the ones through whom God’s love is shown and in spite of whom God’s love is shown! For we can be spiteful and Spirit-filled, flawed and fabulous…and the fact that God loves us extravagantly and eternally even in our broken but beautiful state, reveals to us something mysterious and magnificent about God’s amazing grace. What’s more, if we are to share such grace with those outside the Church this coming year then perhaps we might first acknowledge that none of us here are perfect and yet every single one of us are the people through whom God might offer hope, share wisdom, and show love? That, yes, it’s possible that old whatshername has got some sawdust or even a whole plank of wood in their eyes but it’s equally possible that we’ve got a whole arboretum in our own and in spite of it all, that God loves us and blesses us so that we might then be a blessing to others.
So as we continue journeying in this season of epiphany – a time in which we’re encouraged to think about God’s revelation through a man in Palestine two thousand years ago – maybe we could give a little more thought to how God is revealed through the men, women and children we meet today. Perhaps we could try to be a little bit more kind to each other – choosing generosity over judgment. Perhaps we can look beyond sawdust specks and pine planks to see and welcome and love one another as we are; forgiving the faults of others, shedding any shame of our own and discovering the divine in one another. Perhaps, as we step into this New Year together, our resolution might be to try to not judge others, but rather to remember that you and me and the person to your left and your right and the overzealous guy and the grumpy woman and even my annoying sister are loved and important and wonderfully made by our astonishing God whose Spirit is within us. With God’s grace, it might yet be a resolution that can last! Amen.