October 30, 2016 – “Being the Church: Creating Safe Space”

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Matthew 5:13-14, 21-22, 43-47; 7:1-5
John 14:25-27

“Being the Church: Creating Safe Space”

On Friday evening, I attended one of the Interchurch Health Ministries education sessions. That’s the program that provides training and support for parish nurses, as well as for congregation members and clergy who are working with parish nurses, like ours, Laura Van Loon.

The particular session was on the topic of family violence – helping us to identify its various forms, realize its prevalence, and become aware of how we can assist those who are victims of physical, emotional, psychological, or economic abuse perpetrated by their own family members.

As the session neared its conclusion, we were invited to consider a question: “What is the faith community’s responsibility with regard to family violence?” What is our responsibility as parish nurses, clergy, and congregations when women, children, or men are suffering violence at the hands of their own loved ones?

I immediately thought of the responsibility to report suspected abuse. There is both a moral and a legal imperative to speak up when we think that a vulnerable person like a child, youth, or elder is being abused. But then others in the class pointed out that our responsibility is deeper and more significant than just “blowing a whistle” at something happening outside of the church community.

They said that, as churches, we are called to be safe places for those who are vulnerable… places where violence, in any of its forms, is not tolerated; places where abuse can be safely disclosed; places where victims are not blamed, but supported and encouraged; places where all kinds of people can come together, and be themselves, without fear of judgement or ridicule or violence.

We all know that the church has often failed to live up to that responsibility, to be a safe place for all people. Stories of abuse by clergy and other church leaders are a great shame, and undermine our chances of being considered trustworthy. And even if churches are free from actual abuse, they may still not be seen as places where people will be safe to come “just as they are.”

Among people outside of churches, it is not unusual to assume that churches are all about evaluating, judging, and punishing one another for our sins and shortcomings. Church is a place you go where there are high expectations for how you dress, how you speak, and how you act – conforming to certain norms and patterns of polite society in the 1950s. And when it comes to the preaching and teaching of the church, people may expect to be scolded and warned with a “fire and brimstone” sermon about the terrible ways you will be punished if you don’t change your life.

We have a lot of work to do still, to change those assumptions, showing the world our true mission and purpose, and proclaiming God’s love in Jesus Christ in word and deed to our neighbours, and friends, and the strangers that we meet.

You may be aware that on the last Sunday in October, many Protestant and Reformed Churches take the opportunity to remember the 16th Century Reformation of the Church. Next year, we’ll probably make a bigger deal of Reformation Sunday, as it will be the 500th Anniversary of the day that Reformer, Martin Luther, nailed his 95th theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg – an event that is often considered to be the official beginning of the Reformation.

As we remember the Reformation, we may note the particular reforms of that era that have shaped our denominations’ history – like translating the Scriptures into our local languages, an emphasis on education for both clergy and laity, and a deep conviction that our salvation is not something that we can earn, but a gift of God given by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

But this morning, as I think about the church’s calling to be a safe place for all people, and especially those who are vulnerable, I’m remembering one of the other big Reformers, John Calvin. In Calvin’s 16th century Geneva, the church and the civil leadership worked hand-in-hand. And that meant that as the kind of lead-pastor in the church, Calvin had a huge amount of influence on legal decisions, and the church played an integral role in adjudicating cases and ruling according to Christian principles and morals.

I’m not suggesting that the church and state should be so bound up together here and now, but what I appreciated reading about Calvin’s leadership at that time related to his treatment of marriage and divorce cases. What he brought to those cases was a concern for the most vulnerable people, and he was willing to reform the law in order to make things better and more just for them… new rights for wives, fault-based divorce on grounds of adultery and desertion, protection for impoverished widows, and concern for children’s welfare.

I expect that Calvin’s reforms in the area of marriage and family life were inspired by his reading and studying the Bible. After all, the imperative to protect and care for the most vulnerable people (namely, orphans and widows) is all through the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, and the example of Jesus teaches us to treat both men and women with dignity and respect.

Nearly 500 years later, we continue to be reformed by the Holy Spirit, and hopefully we keep on moving towards greater safety and greater care for vulnerable people, both inside and outside our church communities. Like all the major Christian denominations, our church has developed a policy and set of practices that is intended to ensure the protection of children, youth, and vulnerable adults in our midst.

A cynic might suggest that the policy, called “Leading with Care,” is just about protecting the church from liability if there is a fire, accident, or case of abuse. But when we embrace it, I think that “Leading with Care” can be an expression of our genuine love for people, and our desire to make our churches safe places for everyone.

The policy introduction says this: “The Presbyterian Church in Canada is committed to providing safe environments for all persons, including children, youth, vulnerable adults, and those who minister to and with them.” And this includes the commitment to “protect the vulnerable in our midst. The Church affirms that the protection of all children, youth, and vulnerable adults is a spiritual, ethical, and legal imperative.”

“Leading with Care” includes check-lists of safety items in and around our church buildings and sites, as well as suggestions for reducing risk when planning events and working with children. But it is more than just our physical safety that we are concerned about. Protecting each person’s emotional well-being is important also. And this morning’s Gospel text should help us with that.

Rev. Emily Bisset reflects on the Gospel: “In this series of teachings, which follows the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus touched on concerns about hospitality, concern for the body, and concerns about spiritual practices and relationships. Jesus described human tendencies towards anxiety, exclusivism, judgement, and piety for show. At the same time, Jesus called his disciples to a higher standard of behaviour in interpersonal relationships – beyond what was obligated by law or beneficial only for oneself. Jesus called upon his community of followers – and the church today – to be a safe community where human beings can be their best selves, as God created them to be.”

I’m not sure that the church has always done so well at this particular piece of being a safe place. It’s not difficult to go through a facilities check-list or an event check-list and make sure that things are relatively safe and our risks are reduced. But how do we make sure that our hearts are protected also?

This is a community in which we enter into relationships with each other, and the more we do that, the more we open ourselves to each other, the more vulnerable we become. In Bible study, in prayer, in working together on committees, in sharing deeply in each other’s lives, hopes, dreams, questions, and fears, we take risks.

And we don’t want to stop taking those risks, because those relationships are exactly what being a church is all about. We do need to consider what Jesus teaches us about relating to other people, and always be thinking some more about how we are doing in making this an emotionally and spiritually safe place for each other.

Refraining from criticizing and judging… taking the log out of our own eye, rather than complaining about the speck in someone else’s eye… being patient, listening, and seeking to understand each other, rather than making assumptions… working on not just our behaviours, but holding ourselves accountable for our negative words, thoughts, and even feelings – especially what we say about other people when they are not present.

Rev. Emily challenges us: “The church is called to be a messenger to the world of God’s peace. A church community can do this when its people strive to live as Jesus instructed in Matthew 5-7, reaching out to each other and beyond themselves to provide safe, welcoming space for everyone and anyone. But when an individual (or a community) judges, distorts, and refuses to see others as God sees them – as beloved creatures made in the image of God – barriers and divisions are created. The effect can be tragic, and all too common: increased vulnerability, absence of safe space, and denial of the opportunity to receive God’s peace.”

The good news is that we are not alone in the task of creating a safe place for all people to gather, and worship, and serve together in faith. God is present to guide and help us, and through instruction of the Scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do far more than we could otherwise.

“If the church can create safe space, where we welcome all perspectives, respect each other in Christian love and honour one another’s experiences of God at work in our lives, then – and only then – do we make room for the Holy Spirit to teach us. For, if our job is to speak with honesty, listen with genuine openness, and respect each other, it is the job of the Holy Spirit to change the church, to sweep through us and inspire and empower us to live as God would have us live with one another. If we set out to do our job to create safe space, can we trust the Holy Spirit to do God’s job as well?”