Last month, through one of my various wider church roles, I had the great pleasure of leading the worship at the United Reformed Church’s Youth Assembly weekend. With modelling clay, postcards, cairns, and a few film clips (of course!) we explored what it means to celebrate the Jubilee of the URC – commemorating our past, celebrating our present, and creating our future. It truly was an inspiring weekend, which culminated in the induction of Port Talbot resident and friend of our churches – Jo Harris – as Moderator of URC Youth. As with all induction services, we read the Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church, which includes the line:
Held together in the Body of Christ
through the freedom of the Spirit,
we rejoice in the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts
and uphold the rights of personal conviction.
I could bore you for a long time explaining why I love this sentence – how it resounds with centuries of theological wrestling; what it says about the Church; how I see it in action in our congregations – but we’ll save that for another day. For now, I rejoice that we are churches who celebrate our rich diversity of gifts, beliefs, and ministries – who declare that God can and will speak through any one of us in a myriad of different ways. Today, fresh from her training with the URC’s Stepwise course and blessing us with her unique voice and gifting, our own wonderful Claire Hughes gives the reflection and shares our leading of Holy Communion. I wonder how God will speak to us through Claire today…
Reading: Luke 6:27-38
Well, I don’t know what the reading says to you but this passage has always left me feeling that it’s almost impossible to live up to – or even to completely understand, make sense of! ‘Turn the other cheek’? What is that about?
I’m no theologian – far from it! There are scholars who offer interpretations of what Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples to achieve, how he wants them to live and, certainly, this passage sees him suggesting breaking with the conventions of the time, where behaviours towards one’s neighbours were very much reciprocal.
I can’t offer a better theological analysis than these scholars. Therefore, I am going to do the only thing left to me: tell of how it speaks to me….
To start, then, what about ‘love your enemies’, ‘turn the other cheek’?
I study the martial art of aikido. The interesting feature of this art is that we learn how ‘not to fight’. By this I mean that, should I come under physical attack, then I don’t retaliate and try to harm the aggressor. Rather, my objective is to nullify the attack and leave both myself and the aggressor safe.
After all, if I were to retaliate against my attacker, then does that not make me as a big a bully as they are?Who hit the other first is a moot point: it’s just chronology – we both became violent, so we were both in the wrong.
This describes a reaction in physical terms but this principle might be just as well be applied philosophically. Indeed, my late husband, Rob, who was also my Sensei, considered the art to be, first and foremost, a study of philosophy and saw the physical techniques we practised as a means to an end, a way of proving a principle.
I see a direct correlation here between the principles of this Japanese martial art and what Jesus was saying when he asked us to ‘turn the other cheek’ and treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.
Whether it be with words or actions, if we retaliate in a situation, we exacerbate conflict and disharmony. By turning the other cheek, we are not being weak or becoming victims. Rather, we are giving peace and love and harmony a chance to shine through.
Later in His teaching, Jesus implores us not to judge others… Easier said than done? I confess that I can fall foul of this particularly when driving. ‘Road rage’ can trigger an irrational intolerance of other road users, as I make judgements about their standard of driving! And, be truthful, now, folks: how many of us have voiced less than kind opinions of our politicians’ recent actions, making our minds up about their behaviour without knowing all the facts? I put my hand up: guilty as charged.
Having said that, I do try to be more aware of not making assumptions about people or criticising their actions without understanding the reasons behind them. I think that I have become more tolerant since entering middle-age and my experiences have helped me to be more considerate, sympathetic, especially through the last four years, much of which was spent as a carer, when I learned that patience is, indeed, a virtue.
My stepson, who is a social worker, taught me a valuable lesson: never assume, always assess. I admire the Native American culture and they have a proverb ‘never judge another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins’. If we did try to see things from the other person’s perspective, though, would we, even then, have a right to judge? Another saying is ‘wise men don’t judge: they seek to understand’, or as Walt Whitman phrases it: ‘be curious, not judgemental’ – thank you. Phil, for that reference!
That drug addict living in a shop doorway may have escaped an abusive home life; the arrogant show-off might be masking a huge insecurity and lack of confidence; the miserable person at the bus stop, who didn’t engage in conversation, might have just had dreadful news from the hospital.
Let’s try to be more compassionate and think twice before making assumptions or judgements and treat others as we’d like to be treated ourselves.
When considering Jesus’ directive to do precisely this, a conversation with our own Catherine Naamani made me see a link with our Community Saints project.
After all, the people who we will be celebrating are those who do just that: treat others well. They are the ‘good eggs’ in our society and the kind of people who restore one’s faith in humanity. However, it is interesting and not entirely surprising that a number of those community saints who have been nominated don’t want to receive any public acknowledgement or recognition for their actions: they aren’t motivated by reward and wish to remain anonymous.
They are good people, doing good things because it is in their nature to do so, or perhaps, because they’re ‘paying it forward’, giving back, in thanks for the blessings that they have received in life. Maybe it’s simply because they get a kick out of it! Think about it: I’m sure that, when you’ve done someone a favour or kindness, you feel a lovely warm glow inside – it feels good to do good and help others. That is satisfaction and reward enough.
If that is the case, then, you might well ask ‘what is the point in having a community saints project at all?’ After all, in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus warns against showing off one’s good deeds and the Pharisee standing in the temple and bragging about how good he is definitely isn’t the hero of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector, so shouldn’t our saints be ‘hiding their lights under a bushel’?
This initiative isn’t about encouraging showing off, though. I think it is important to recognise our community saints because – and I go back to my earlier observation – they restore our faith in human nature and their generous behaviour encourages others to do likewise. In the same way that ‘violence begets violence’, I believe that kindness and good deeds promote more of the same.
Take your minds back to when we were in the first lockdown of this pandemic: we would clap every Thursday evening to thank the emergency and other service providers. We were acknowledging the acts of those ‘saints’, albeit in a small way and even though they didn’t ask for or expect it.
We recognised what they were doing as good, brave, decent, unselfish acts and we appreciated them! For all the horrors of particularly the early days of the pandemic, everyone seemed to be a little kinder to one another. Society came together in a more positive way than I can remember witnessing in a long time! Certainly, Rob and I got through our long period of shielding only because of friends and neighbours helping by bringing us shopping and walking the dog.
Therefore, although I’m not suggesting that our community saints act like the pharisee making a show in the temple of thanking God for making him a wonderful and generous person, it is good that society sees good being done and help being given so that the kindness can spread and more of us can enjoy the ‘feel good’ factor that it engenders!
For me, all of Jesus’ teaching and actions can be summarised in the three little words ‘Love One Another’ and I believe this is the principle behind today’s reading and our raison d’être, as His followers. So let’s encourage each other to live out this tenet in our daily lives. Perhaps it’s not so impossible to live up to after all: treating others as you’d like to be treated doesn’t need to be anything massive or dramatic. We will shortly be celebrating our Patron Saint’s Day and David himself implored us to ‘do the little things’ because even the smallest act of kindness can bring much joy!
We’re going to listen to one of my late husband Rob’s songs now, the hook-line of which was inspired by something written on a bookmark: ‘if you see someone without a smile, give him one of yours’. It’s the simplest act of benevolence and love but it can really brighten up a person’s day and, talking of proving a principle through action (as in my aikido reference), can you resist smiling back when someone smiles at you?
Music: Ianto Fullpelt: ‘Give Him One of Yours’
See the summer sun up in the sky, he smiles on you
See the twinkle in his eye, out of the blue
And, as he smiles, his golden rays, they gently warm
So, if you see someone without a smile, give him one of yours
See the new-born baby girl, she smiles on you
Lying there so safe and warm, her love shines through
And, as you gaze, you’ll soon forget your worries and your chores
So, if you see someone without a smile, give him one of yours
Life’s too short to walk around with a frown on your face
Growling and scowling, people look the other way
Cheer up, for God’s sake, and use your laughing gear:
Put a grin upon your face that splits it from ear to ear!
Cats purr and birds sing and my dog wags his tail
We all need someone to say ‘Hey, it’s ok!’
And, in this game of life, there’s one way we can even up the score:
If you see someone without a smile, give him one of yours.
Go on, give him one of yours!
Go on, give him one of yours!
(Words & Music © Ianto Music) Used with permission
Prayers of Intercession:
It is not always easy to take the path of what is right or good. Thank you for people who have the courage to do the right thing, even when it is difficult. Let us be inspired by them and give us the courage and strength to be living examples of your love and help us to make wise choices.
So many people suffer from poverty, war, disease, the cruelty of fellow human beings. Covid-19 has shaken our lives, taken our loved ones. You have appointed us custodians of this beautiful planet, yet we harm it through our greed and desire for luxuries which are literally costing the Earth.
Help us to do what we know is right for our friends, our community, our society, for this amazing world that you have given us for our home; to stand up against injustice; to find practical and meaningful ways to help others; to be kind to one another and witnesses to your love in all we do.
Thank you for our church community, which is not limited by the boundary of the four walls of a building but extends across the globe. May we prayerfully and lovingly support each other, rejoicing in our happiness and consoling in our sadness. We ask for your guidance as we consider the shape and path of our future as a church. You have blessed us with many talents: guide us in channeling these to your glory and to the benefit of our worldwide community.
We remember the many friends and loved ones that we have lost, particularly through the period of the pandemic: be with those who grieve and hold them gently in your loving arms. Breathe your healing breath on those who are ill and ease their discomfort. Watch over those who have struggled with anxiety or loneliness or have financial struggles, with household bills rising and wages falling in real terms: let them know they are not forgotten and keep them safe.
Let us take a moment to bring our own silent prayers before God, (PAUSE)
We gather these prayers together in the pattern of prayer that Jesus taught, saying in whatever language we are most comfortable,
Ein Tad,yr hwn wyt yn y nefoedd,
sancteiddier dy enw;
Deled dy deyrnas; Gwneler dy ewyllys,
megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaear hefyd.
Dyro i ni heddiw ein bara beunyddiol.
A maddau i ni ein dyledion,
fel y maddeuwn ninnau i’n dyledwyr.
Ac nac arwain ni i brofedigaeth;
Eithr gwared ni rhag drwg.
Canys eiddot ti yw’r deyrnas,
a’r nerth, a’r gogoniant, yn oes oesoedd,
Blessing and dismissal:
As we prepare to live out our faith beyond these walls, I leave you with some words from Pope Francis:
‘Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is….life is good when you are happy; but much better when others are happy because of you.’
Inspired by these words, let us all go out, make a difference, touch a heart, encourage a mind, inspire a soul and enjoy the day!
The blessing of God be upon you,
The One who loves you,
The Christ who calls you,
The Spirit who makes you holy,
Today and always.