St Stephen’s Lewisham
4th September 2005
Ezek 33: 7-9, Rom: 13: 8-10, Matt 18: 15-20
Can you guess who said the following?
"Children today are tyrants. The contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrranize their teachers."
No, it wasn’t some tetchy old lady in Lewisham High Street who has just been jostled off the pavement by a party of merry young people who have had too much to drink.
The words are those of Socrates, who lived in Athens about two and a half thousand years ago. Some things never change; or rather, they change for a while and then revert to being much as they were.
Words like ‘discipline’ and ‘respect’ spring readily to most people’s minds when they talk about present-day morals, or the lack of them – but discipline and respect are only symptoms of a deeper malaise, which I will call the Loss of Oversight.
There was a period, within living memory, when everybody expected to be overseen by someone else from the cradle to the grave. Our overseers included our parents, teachers, friends, bosses, tutors and officers of the law. Their job was to be continuously on the alert to help us when we needed it. If some trainee nurse wasn’t confident about performing a medical procedure there was always a Sister or Matron nearby to help her. When we had done a job specially well, there was someone, teacher, or parent to praise us. When we behaved offensively at home or in the street or in class there was someone, a parent or sibling, a policeman, a teacher or a prefect to reprimand us.
But, as always happens from time to time, the idea takes root in people’s minds that they can manage without overseers. From there, it’s only a short step to believing that we don’t need a God to oversee us, so for all practical purposes we can ignore Him. And if we can ignore God with impunity why bother about what those silly old parents think? In the street, closed-circuit television has replaced the all-seeing God of Heaven; but unlike God, of course, CCTV can be artfully dodged by the expert, and anyway it tends regularly to break down making the likelihood of being caught remote. So why bother to behave decently? Confront your critics with a sufficiently in-your-face, threatening response and the chances are they will leave you to misbehave at your will.
So what’s the answer? Well, there isn’t a simple answer of course, things got out of control as they have today just as they did in the days of Socrates. But when we say there is no simple answer, that doesn’t mean that we are justified in doing nothing about it. Listen to these words of Ezekiel the Prophet (a near-contemporary of Socrates)
Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name. If I say to a wicked man: Wicked wretch, you are to die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death.
Now, one thing that stands out a mile from this is that it can’t be right for us Christians to ignore the wrongdoings of others, least of all those for whose oversight we are responsible: that includes our family, our neighbours and, not least, our fellow-Christians. Listen again to the words of our Lord in this morning’s Gospel:
Jesus said to his disciples: 'If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother
Once again we have it in the plainest of terms that doing nothing isn’t the answer. So what should we do? Given that it is our duty to do something, what should that something be?
Well, Jesus told his disciples (and that implies that he was only talking to those who were prepared to learn from him – because ‘disciple’ means: ‘a learner, a student, a pupil) that we should, firstly ‘have it out alone between your two selves’. ‘Having it out alone’ implies discretion and confidentiality.
Discretion means making every possible allowance for the other party’s behaviour. Ask yourself whether their offensive behaviour may have been partly due to their feeling ill, worried, insecure or just plain unhappy. Confidentiality means choosing the right time and the right place to have a talk with them, not when they are terribly busy, not when there are dozens of other people milling around and it’s impossible to have a sensible discussion, not when there is anyone else within earshot.
Secondly, whatever we do or say, we must do or say in love. This is what St Paul wrote:
Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.
But supposing they won’t listen to us. Well Jesus went on to say:
If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you:
‘Taking one or two along with you’ needn’t mean confronting the offender with a whole committee of people to back us up. It means equally explaining, again in confidence, to one or two fellow Christians what the problem is and, as the saying goes, ‘getting their take on it’. It may quite possibly be that what appears to you or me to be a serious fault in someone else, be it our child, neighbour, parent or fellow-Christian, doesn’t look quite so inexcusable in the eyes of others –- or else, which is equally possible, we have ourselves in some way contributed to their fault by, for example, being inconsiderate towards them.
But sometimes it can be the mere presence of someone known to be a practising Christian which brings people up short and makes them think twice about what they are doing. Let me tell you about an initiative which is having remarkable success in controlling bad behaviour by young persons in the street around closing time.
It’s called the Street Pastors, a group of Christians of many denominations who walk through the streets of Lewisham in pairs just to be seen, and to talk to anyone who wants to. They wear a uniform with STREET PASTOR on them in large type. Each Street Pastor agrees to go out just one Friday or Saturday every month between 10pm and 4am . It’s all done with the approval and cooperation of the local police force.
One thing Street Pastors don’t do is preach or evangelise the people they talk to. They are far more likely to be escorting some tipsy young girl to the bus-stop or station to help them get home, or simply having a chat with the shopkeepers who keep late hours. It’s astonishing how many hairdressers and corner shops are open till well after midnight, not to mention all-night filling stations. Those who work there are often bored to tears and a chat with a Street Pastor makes a welcome diversion.
It may interest you to know that the Police in Bristol, where my son is an Inspector, tell me that closing-time crime has fallen by 70% when the Street Pastors are around.
It would seem that the mere presence of Street Pastors makes a big difference. As the Lord said to Ezekiel:
Son of man, I have appointed you as sentry to the House of Israel.
The role of a sentry is partly to be a watchman on the look-out for anyone who needs their help, but also to be a presence to remind people that they have an overseer who is responsible for their welfare. What this generation appears to have lost sight of is the fact that the Church of God has a responsibility for them. Responsibility involves oversight which in turn implies both seeing and being seen. An invisible (or absent) pastor is less useful than one who sees and is seen..
Well, I have enrolled as a Street Pastor. I had an induction session last Saturday in New Cross, and found it really worthwhile. Street Pastoring is open to all men and women, 18 years-old and upwards (no top age limit). Some of you would find it a most rewarding activity, besides doing something (and something which really works) about the present downward slide in public behaviour which we see all around us.
Let me urge you to come and find out more about it when Mr Eustace Constance, the organizer of the Lewisham, Street Pastors comes to a meeting at St Stephen’s in the near future to tell us all about it.
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