Rev. Judith Brooks
6th September 2020
“Only connect!”

What was your most challenging lockdown experience? Top of my list, and it may be top of yours, was not being able to see family or friends – or if I could see them, having to keep my distance. A close second challenging lockdown experience for me and my family was that our immediate neighbours (four of them in total) chose this time to have some extensive work, loft extensions etc. completed on their houses. This has meant the sounds of drilling, banging, sawing, grinding, shouting and radios playing at full volume through the majority of the lockdown as home worked and schooled. And they’re not finished yet! Of course, people have the right to complete home improvements – we might even contemplate some ourselves one day! But it did make living in close quarters a challenge for me at least and I had to exercise a degree of fortitude and forgiveness on a daily basis.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus offers us some very clear guidance about how we are to live together in community. This can probably be best summarised by that well-known phrase of novelist E.M. Forester – only connect. Reflecting on this phrase has lead me to ponder on the nature of community and what this means for us in our current reality.

We are all members of many different types of community. There are communities of place such as our local community or neighbourhood defined by location. There are communities of interest where people share a common characteristic – our church community is one of these. Finally, in its strongest form community or ‘communion’ entails a profound meeting or encounter – not just with other people, but also with God and creation. The Christian communion of saints – the spiritual union between each Christian and Christ (and hence between every Christian) is an example of this type of community.

At all levels of community, there are ties that bind us together in a shared life. It is this shared life that poet and artist William Morris talks of when he speaks of fellowship:

Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell; fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death; and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake ye do them.

Only connect. So far, so good but we all know that the reality of living in community is far from straightforward and takes courage, humility and wisdom from all its members. It is especially tested when people have different points of view, or to put it less politely, fall out with each other.

In most communities today – and be in a church community or anywhere else – what typically happens when people disagree with each other is that the one who is upset says nothing to the person who has caused the difficulty. But the wounded party does talk to their friends and begins to gather support for a message that the other person has done them wrong. Usually things die down but sometimes disagreements seem to take on a life of their own and can develop into a large and growing group who know of the wrong done and bring to it their own baggage of hurts as well. Meanwhile, the person who is now being vilified has no idea that they have done anything. Often when the problem ultimately comes to a head, the original issue has been completely forgotten. Avoiding this sort of situation is what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel when he says:

‘If a brother sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the brother listens to you, you have regained that one.’ The NRSV unhelpfully translates the word ‘brother’ as a ‘church member’ probably in an attempt to render the word gender neutral but Jesus wasn’t talking exclusively about church communities (or men) – he was talking about human ones, and at the heart of his message is the need for us to be connected and reconciled to each other.

This need for connection and reconciliation is relevant for all the communities we are involved in – including digital communities such as those on social media.

I have a real love / hate relationship with social media! How about you? Are you a regular user of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and all the rest? Or do they never touch your life at all? Perhaps you haven’t got access to the internet or a device by which you can access it. Or maybe your phone is glued to your hand most of your waking hours.

I love the opportunity that social media provides to connect with each other; to reach out in the name of fellowship and friendship to those who are physically distant so that we can share our thoughts, our occasions of sorrow and joy and the minutiae of our everyday lives. This sense of shared experience is fundamental to our humanity and we are all the poorer without it.

Social media can be a powerful tool for mission too. Most churches, St Matthew’s included, have a Facebook or Twitter presence these days whether to simply disseminate information or to share words of hope and faith or to express ethical and moral standpoints.

However, I do wonder sometimes about the sense of connectedness that social media seems to provide. At times it can appear pretty shallow. We often forget that we are viewing an essentially curated image that others want to present – the best of their lives, if you like, which we then comparing this to our own messy existence. For young people with their developing sense of identity, in particular, the constant comparison of their appearance and achievements with others can present real problems before we factor in the spectre of on-line bullying. We can forget that true worthiness is not based on ‘likes’ or numbers of followers but by our human nature – a nature held in such regard by our Heavenly Father that he chose to share it.

So we have to be as mindful as possible when we use the wonderful opportunities that social media presents. As Paul in the New Testament reading this morning says: ‘any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’ Love and connectedness walk hand in hand.

When people disagree, refuse to be reconciled and then begin to live farther and farther apart – that sense of community; of connectedness; of fellowship and love disappears.

Love here does not mean kisses or hearts and flowers. This kind of love is about a deep care for the other person’s well-being. Wanting what is best for the other person, even when they have made us upset or angry. If we have that sort of love for each other, we will always want to be reconciled and will always accept each other’s apologies – because that’s what people who love each other do. That’s what Christ did – and does – with us every day.

So if there is someone who we know holds a grudge against us for something we did, or were perceived to have done in any of the communities that we are part of – we need to sincerely ask for forgiveness. Likewise, if there is someone who comes to us and asks forgiveness for something that has caused us to hold a grudge against them, grant them forgiveness. To ask forgiveness is not weakness. And to grant forgiveness is not to condone what someone has done and often there may need to a clear understanding about future conduct too. Buy these are the steps toward reconciliation – the thing that Jesus did when he reconciled the whole world to God by hanging on a cross.

We need to be reconciled to each other because otherwise we are divided, separate and isolated. To be so is to negate a fundamental part of our God-given humanity – we need to be together in community, rubbing along, tolerating difficulties, learning from each other and walking alongside with others in love and humility.

It is a great blessing for us to be back to together again church (and a huge joy and privilege for me as your new curate to be with you today); being part of a visible community and in communion with each other. If lockdown has taught us anything it is that we need to be with each and be together in community – following the example that Jesus gave when he called his disciples to be in community with him.

As E.M Forester says: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’

MATTHEW 18: 15-20