I must have heard that reading (Matthew 18:15-20), about two or three being together and God being in the midst of them, hundreds of times. Each time I have read it as an encouragement to small congregations and it is. When two or three are together God is there. And it would apply to our online worship too where we may only be aware of two or three others worshipping with us.
May be this is you. Throughout lockdown and now as some continue to shield, Susan and I have provided two to add to your one and so together through the internet we have formed a basic community for God to be present. We may also be aware of all the others who join with us, though we can’t see them. Yesterday I heard about one of our number who loved watching this service on YouTube on her TV later in the afternoon, how special it was for her. So two or three gathered has taken on a new dimension in this pandemic.
Reading that passage again, I read it differently this time. It is set in the context of repentance and forgiveness. The two or three who gather with Christ present are two or three who are living differently and living to make a difference. It is an encouragement to the difference two or three can make in a world that likes to blame and condemn.
There is calling to account – we hear of a quiet word, scaling up to a couple of witnesses, perhaps a mediation session, and escalating the process to full on public challenge. So this is not without consequences and confrontation. But the two or three are encouraged that living justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God makes a difference because God is present, God is with us – a great theme in Matthew’s gospel.
We have today entered what in recent years has been entitled ‘Creationtide’. These weeks of harvest and ripening fruit and crops are a time when our dependency on the earth is particularly highlighted. This week we heard that the wheat crop is likely to be reduced due to the adverse weather conditions this year, so we can expect our daily bread to be a bit more expensive. And Extinction Rebellion have a campaign on at the moment to raise awareness of the environmental emergency. It may be that your daily paper was disrupted yesterday by this.
Whether you agree with their methods or not, and they are not without controversy, the issues are pressing. Perhaps Jesus can be taken here to encourage us that two or three can start a movement, can initiate change – and we need to change the way we live. I don’t know much about the sayings of the trade advisor, the former PM of Australia appointed this week, but the idea that trade and the environment are separate is surely bogus. How we trade and its impact is crucial for our carbon footprint and use of the land and animals.
The Old Testament reading might sound like the absence of concern for these things (Exodus 12:1-14). Quite a lot of lambs are slaughtered, eaten and their blood used to daub a mark on door posts. It sounds like humans can treat the created order as its playground and all life with whatever contempt it chooses. But I think there is a deeper layer running underneath what sounds to us rather odd and may even offend our sensitivities. That deeper layer is more relevant to this gospel reading than it may seem at first glance.
The world view of the Old Testament knows no separation between being people, chosen and beloved by God, and being made of the same dust and elements as other creatures. All life comes from God and has the breath of God within it. That breath is what animates the life. So life being used for a sacrifice, for a marking for protection, is to this world view a sacred act which recognises the fundamental connection between us. As the Celtic writer Ray Simpson puts it in a new book on ‘Celtic Christianity and Climate Crisis‘, “there is a unity of all creation in the praise of God”. (Sacristy Press, 2020: p17).
We cherish creation because it has God at its heart. Any spirituality of creation will find that redemption is not far away. They are twins. The Cross, the Tree of death, the limits of time and body, which I spoke about on Wednesday during the online Night Prayer onlast week, becomes in Christ the Tree of life. And if you know the epic poem, the Dream of the Rood, this theme weaves around it as the gold leaves weave round the cross. It is a poem which is reflected in the giant cross in the cathedral and our preacher next week will be the Dean who will reflect on it for Holy Cross Day.
So the two or three who gather in Christ’s name, proclaiming redemption and calling us to account, take us to our rootedness in creation and our unity with all God’s creation in the praise of God. Creationtide goes much deeper than merely wanting to protect the planet. It takes us to the roots of who we are, of the call to make a difference and the encouragement that two or three can do that because “God is with us”.
Sermon for Trinity 13 and Creationtide, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 6th September 2020.