Sermon: April 14 (Pontius Pilate)

This sermon was delivered as part of a Good Friday Three Hours’ Devotion service. It is a meditation on Pontius Pilate.

Audio link here.

Matthew 5:7
Matthew 27:11-26

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. — The gospel according to Matthew, the fifth chapter, the seventh verse.

I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

You killed him. You wanted him dead, because it is better for one man to die than for a whole nation to perish.

Your cost-benefit analysis killed him, as it so often does. It is better for Muslims to be bullied, than for you to feel unsafe. It is better for women and children to suffer in poverty, than for you to pay more for your gadgets and garments. It is better for ecosystems to collapse, than for you to give up your favourite meals. It is better for one man to die, as long as it’s not you. That is a price you are willing to pay.

I gave you a choice, and you chose Barabbas. You chose this brigand, this murderer. You chose violence, as you so often do. I don’t blame you. God knows I would’ve done the same. It is a dog-eat-dog, eat-or-be-eaten kind of world, red in whip and dagger. No one makes it in this world without some ruthlessness, not least Roman governors. We’re not so different: you and me.

See to it yourselves, then. Let his blood be upon your hands. And if you like, let it be on your children too. No sense letting the welfare of future generations get in the way of our immediate gratification.

I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

Yet here’s a spot. The smell of blood still.

+++

Are you their king?
Dear God, say no.
Just say what you’re meant to, the politically expedient: there is no king but Caesar.

You have to help me to help you. I need a reason to pardon you; an excuse for mercy. That’s how it works, in such a world as ours. There is a price for everything. There is one for your head, and if you don’t pay it, someone else will have to, and it sure isn’t going to be me.

Do you not hear? They accuse you of blasphemy, which I don’t care about. Why should I? Your god seems no more real than mine. They don’t do me any good; and, you, well, let’s just say I’d have switched allegiances a long time ago. And they accuse you of treason, which I must care about. Perils of the job. Let’s be frank: we have no god but Caesar, but power, but steel. Say you are a god, if you want: there are pills for that kind of thing. But, by Jove, don’t claim to be king. Don’t you dare dabble in politics. Separation of Church and State, and all that. Keep your moral theology in kitchens and bedrooms, or better still, in good intentions, never to be expressed in the real world. Leave that to the grown ups: government and law and war and money.

My wife, she had a dream about you. She thinks you are a righteous man. And maybe you are, but what has that gained you? Nothing. It doesn’t pay to be righteous. Not here, anyway. Just look at where it’s landed you. Mocked and beaten, spat upon, dressed up in blood and bruises. And worse, you’ve managed to upset my wife.

Maybe it’s your own fault, then, this mess you have gotten yourself into. Why did you come into the city? There are bad people here. You should’ve known better. And if they manage to ensnare you, maybe you deserve it. Were you drunk when you made that decision? You have a reputation for that kind of thing, you know? And why did you arouse these men’s fury? What did you expect would happen? You were asking for it. Don’t look to me for mercy. You should’ve taken the proper precautions. You should’ve known your place, and stayed there. Don’t look to me. Heal yourself.

+++

Then what shall I do with this so-called Christ? On one hand, I could let him go. I could find him not guilty by reason of insanity, seeing as he thinks he’s the Son of God. So does Caesar, I suppose, but Jesus is not nearly rich and powerful enough for it just to seem like an affectation.

Or I could just give him back to you lot, and you can stone him to death, or whatever it is that you do to your unfashionable prophets these days. But you want him crucified. And the customer is always right. The people have spoken, and their word is crucify.

But why? What evil has he done? What is the crime whose just deserts is death upon the cross? I like to think I am a just man, fair in my expressions of imperial might, my meting out of punishment and, less frequently, reward. Not kind, by any stretch of the imagination, but just. So, give me a crime. And don’t just scream treason. I need proof, and he has said nothing about being king of anyone. Clearly, he’s not as dumb as he looks.

But OK, OK: crucify, crucify. And for good measure, a flogging. And for even better measure, a mocking: enter a reed for a sceptre and a crown of thorns. Exit clothing, and dignity. A panto macabre, if you will and for your viewing pleasure. You can’t say I withheld anything from you. Vox populi; and your wish is my command. Not kind—certainly not to him—but generous, in a twisted sort of way. Remember now, next election, how I capitulated to your bloodlust. Don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter; and consider buying some branded merchandise while you’re there. I would like a promotion. Legate of Syria, would be a nice step up.

But remember also:
I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

+++

I have taken a life, and it feels like nothing. This isn’t my first rodeo, and won’t be my last. Jesus of Nazareth is a statistic, to be forgotten just like the others. I’m not even the worst offender. Some people say that when Varus was in charge of Syria, he crucified two thousand Jews at a go. Pesky rebels, after Great Herod died. Varus: what a mensch.

People are killed all the time, and none of us so much as pause to pray for their souls. These men I lead—boys, really—only their mothers know them from Eve. Here they are, fighting for freedom or glory or security or whatever it is that we’re putting on the ads these days. Most of them won’t make it home for anymore Christmasses. And the men they kill? Who cares what their names are? Frankly, I don’t want to know. It’s too upsetting.

And then there’s the slaves. I haven’t the faintest where they’re from. I suppose I could find out. There are probably records. I bet I could even make their lives a little easier, and not just the ones in my residence: even those poor cretins out in the fields and mines. I could fight for a living wage for them: a jubilee, even. I could reunite them with their families. I could, but I probably won’t. Who has the time?

Mercy is always the good that is left undone.

And so it remains, ever and always: slaves, soldiers, men on death row. All just statistics to be forgotten, conveniently abstract and anonymous.

+++

Just give them the body. It is the very least I can do. An act of mercy, even kindness, at the last, in this morass of unjust violence I have perpetuated. It is too little, too late, of course, after so long a career in this bloody business. Too little, too late: the man is dead, and I have killed him. There are not two ways about it. I tried to wash, but even all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten these guilty hands.

This is what I would like to be remembered for, actually, this final act. I could have had his corpse thrown into a pit, an unmarked grave like the fate of so many in his station. But I didn’t. They asked for the body, and instead of turning them away or worse, I let them have what they wanted. I let them bury their king, their friend. Too little, too late, I know, but it’s not nothing.

I know my place in history is sealed. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, people will say. I will not be remembered as a good man, but as the hegemon who, by cruelty or cowardice or both, murdered God. It seems silly now to complain that history so often so unforgivingly lacks nuance, but it does. It paints people into heroes and villains, and I know which side of the ledger I occupy. Were it that I had listened to my wife; thus saith countless men like me.

+++

I don’t know if I would have remembered you. There were so many rebels, so many sages. There was always religious squabbling that may also have been political squabbling; these things always gets so tangled up. Strange places, these backwaters of the empire. Maybe there should have been cultural sensitivity training at the military academy, or something. Yours was not a typical case, to be sure, not in my experience, anyway: if you were meant to be like the other messiahs, you did a spectacularly poor job at it. All the same, I can’t say that I would’ve remembered you for sure. There were so many of you. I cared so little.

I can’t imagine that you’ll forget me, though. The man who could have set you free, but didn’t, who instead gave into the shrieks of the mob, and sent you to your death. And I don’t know if I want you to forget, as terrible as the memory must be. It is more terrible to be forgotten. No: remember me, you tragic and holy fool. Remember me, even in your prayers. Pray for me, you king of the Jews, friend of sinners, sinners like me. Forgive me. Have mercy.

Sermon: Feb 12 2017

Readings

Ecclesiasticus 15.15-20

Matthew 5.17-37

If you will, you can keep the commandments; and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.

Nonsense on stilts. Or rather, more diplomatically, a gross overestimation of the powers of human agency. Much more realistic is St Paul’s observation that he understands not his own actions: for he does not what he wants but instead what he hates. The fact is that our moral choices are almost never between fire and water, life and death, good and evil, but between the more or less destructive, the better of goods and the lesser of evils. 

And yet there is a danger in this latter view, truer though it may be. Too often we take it too far, and down that path is the sort of fatalism that conveniently allows us to exculpate ourselves and blame others for our sins of omission and commission both.

A pox then, on both houses.

+++

What we have before us are the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’s commentary on Moses.

You have heard that it was said of old:

you shall not kill;

and, you shall not commit adultery;

and, whoever divorces his wife,

let him give her a certificate of divorce;

and, you shall not swear falsely.

And then, he responds; and we might wish that he hadn’t:

If you are angry,

you will be liable to judgement.

If you insult a brother or sister,

you will be liable.

If you say “You fool”,

you will be liable to hellfire.

If your right eye causes you to sin,

pluck it out.

If your right hand causes you to sin,

cut it off.

Whoever divorces his wife

or marries a divorced woman

commits adultery.

Do not swear at all.

This is a hard text; it is hard to know what to do with such a text.

The history of the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount provides many fascinating examples of how religious people wrestle with difficult bits of Scripture:

problematic texts are marginalised,

not actually dealt with

apparent inconsistencies are harmonised,

not actually reconciled

ideals are relativized,

never actually endeavoured.

We have, for example, tried to say that these moral injunctions apply only to special classes of people, monks and nuns perhaps; certainly not ordinary people like us. They should be all zen, but we can throw hissy-fits. They should be all chaste, but we can, well, never mind what we can do.

We have also tried to say that Christian morality applies only to a special realm: the sacred and spiritual, but certainly not the secular, let alone the political. God, we think, doesn’t mind what we do with our votes or our credit cards.

But, perhaps in response to these readings, some of us have also gone in exactly the opposite direction, resisting such attempts to dull the effect of these difficult words. The likes of Origen and St Francis and Tolstoy and Gandhi have, in their own ways, taken the absolutist option and demanded of themselves the full rigour of these words taken literally. Of some of these words, at least; even saints read selectively. And, in their own ways, they discovered the limits of this approach. And, indeed, their own limits.

As tempting as it is to go with the more permissive readings of today’s Gospel text, it is hard to ignore the moral force of imagining the sort of world in which we could live like Jesus told us to:

A world without anger;

and in which anger is not necessary.

A world without lust;

without the competition of misaligned desires.

A world without broken relationships,

but whole individuals giving of ourselves.

A world in which oaths are unnecessary

because there is perfect trust.

+++

We cannot take the easy way out: Matthew forbids it.

Matthew’s Jesus separates the sheep—who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the captive—from the goats, who do none of these things.

Matthew’s Jesus declares that not everyone who calls him Lord may enter the kingdom, but the one who does his Father’s will.

Matthew’s Jesus came to fulfil the law, and he adds that whoever relaxes the least of them will be himself the least in the kingdom of heaven.

Preachers have been warned.

+++

Were it only that it were so: that the Wisdom of Sirach were right, in saying that it is a matter of our own choice to live as Jesus demands. But this vision of this world that Jesus casts is not ours to pull up by our own bootstraps. The good news is not that we are now, all of us, moral übermenschen, magically transformed by the waters of baptism. We have not become gods. No. The good news is that God has come to join us in this muck; in the moral morasses so often of our own making; in our moral meanderings, God is ever with us; in our succeeding and failing, with us; in our gathering together and falling out, with us; in our eating and drinking—the breaking of bread and sharing of wine—with us.

The good news is that though our choices are few and our spirits weak, even this will suffice. Appearances to the contrary, we do not after all live in a God-forsaken world, but a world which God has made and calls good, God who calls us to join in this goodness. This is a hard call, if not impossible, but it is our call and our end all the same.   

So, there is work to be done. We have ears to hear and eyes to see that the world is not as God made it to be, and we are not as God knows us to be. We have been given each other, and water and bread and wine for the journey, and so off we must go, out to love and serve, in Christ’s name, to join in his re-making of this world he loved into being. We go, in peace, to try and fail, to die only to be raised up again and again and again: there will always be balm for the injured, bread for the hungry, wine for the weary. We go to do this impossible thing, not because we will succeed but because neither we nor success are the point. The point is that God’s own falling down and raising up is for us the pattern of our lives, the pattern of the faithfulness to which we are called. So we go, and fail the glorious failure that is the better part than cynicism or fatalism or apathy. And then some day—I don’t know when, nor how—(but someday) there will be failure no more, and the world will be made new. 

Amen.   

Sermon: November 23rd 2014

Readings

Matthew 25:31-46

1 Cor 15:20-28

Ezekiel 34:11-17

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in their own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father.  Words from St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So here we are, at the end of the Church’s year. It seems like ages ago, the solemnities of last Lent leading into the rapturous joys of Eastertide. Our memories of those powerful liturgies on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Paschal Vigil are inevitably dimmed behind the shrouds of Ordinary Time, behind the busynesses of our ordinary lives.

Here we are, at the end of the Church’s year. It seems that we can already see and hear and smell Christmas. Or, perhaps, cheap imitations and commercial appropriations of the holy season. Between the soaring gravity of Remembrance Sunday and the building haze of cheap tinsel and kitsch yuletide pop music, it is all too easy to skip Advent altogether, to miss the company of the holy family, waiting, peaceful and strong.

All things considered, the Feast of Christ the King is well-placed, at this otherwise forgettable end of the Church’s year. It serves us well as a timely reminder of our primary allegiances, as easily distracted as we are by the other ways we mark our time: the ends of financial years and election cycles, the ends of school terms and sports seasons.

The Feast of Christ the King is well-placed—with Christmas before us and Holy Week behind us—between birth and death, life and new life. Here and now, we are reminded that Christ, whose undignified beginning is matched only by his shameful end, (Christ) is in the midst of us and at the heart of all things, is our source and our beginning, is our end and our destination.

+++

As, in their great wisdom, the putters-together of the lectionary make clear, the Feast of Christ the King is, among other things, an occasion to reflect on the nature of power, and God’s and our relationship to power.

St. Matthew’s vision puts our treatment of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound—that is, the powerless—at the centre of Christ’s judgement between the righteous and the condemned. This text is a riff on Ezekiel’s depiction of the Lord who, while seeking the lost and bringing them home, while tending to the weak and injured, also promises to obliterate those who unjustly enjoy abundance and strength. St. Paul’s rhetoric is even more blunt: he tells it to us straight, that Christ will come and destroy every rule and authority and power, especially death.

All of which is to remind us that our confession of Christ as King is not the endorsement of the kinds of activities we typically associate with sovereignty, not a sort of religious jingoism that revels in strength and abundance, power and authority. Christ’s power is not Caesar’s power, not Pilate’s power, not Herod’s power, not even Caiaphas the high priest’s power, which is ultimately the power of death, the power to execute dissidents and rabble-rousers and blasphemers. To the contrary, to confess that Christ is King is to abandon our pathetic quests for these pale facsimiles of power, whether physical or psychological, personal or political. Or at least to recognise their insignificance, and potential for abuse and corruption.

To be confronted by Christ the King is to have our group identities, from which we typically derive such power, relativized, lest they collapse into idolatry. Our churchmanships and nationalisms alike, our political partisanships and brand loyalties alike; we are—before the throne of the Son of Man’s glory, that is the shadow of his cross—jolted out of the lulls of our mistaken identities as cogs in the machines of machiavellian politicians and the robber barons of global consumer capitalism.

On this the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (as it is officially called), we must be clear that this Christ the King of the Universe is the same “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” who conquers, not by taking up arms, but by having his arms bound to planks in blood and iron and rust; this too is an indictment of power as practiced in political playgrounds wherever they have been poisoned by humanity’s most pitiable weaknesses, anxieties, and insecurities. Hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound, this King dies for his people to defeat death, the fear of which drives so much of our futile quests for self-assertive power.

+++

Therefore:

If Christ is our King, then our lives must look very different than if we were instead governed by some other set of allegiances.

If Christ is our King, then Pilate is not, he for whom violent force is the price of some cheap imitation of peace.

If Christ is our King, then Caiaphas is not, he who applied the utilitarian calculus, and concluded that it is good for one man to die for the sake of his national security.

If Christ is our King, then Caesar is not, nor are the coins that bear his image. Neither governmental stability nor financial freedom feature in the eschatological hopes of the faithful. Which is not to say that politics and economics are irrelevant. On the contrary, it is to affirm the centrality of Christ—and thus of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound—in our political and economic lives, and to marginalize the interests of lobbyists and marketeers.

If Christ is our King, then our loyalties can be taken for granted by no one: neither Visa nor Mastercard, neither Oxford nor Cambridge, neither Arsenal nor Liverpool, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party. The Church is neither a voting block nor a consumer category; neither a fan club nor an old boys’ club. It is the risen body of the crucified criminal who is, at the same time, the King who ever arrives to defeat darkness and death, who will seek the lost and bring them home, who will feed us justice and peace. The Church is—we are—by the grace of God, the body of Christ the King, taken and broken and blessed and given to the world. We had better behave like it.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: November 5th 2014

Sermon for Keble College Chapel

Readings

Isaiah 2:1-11

Matthew 2:16ff

Religion is often said to be a sort of psychological crutch, a convenient source of comfort that lulls us into a false sense of security, that dulls our senses against the harsh reality that life is nasty, brutish, and short. Alas, this analysis is not far off the mark. After all, the gospel—the central Christian message—is supposed to be good news; that is just what the word means. Christian faith is, in some sense, about how things are better than they might appear, how things will get better than they are now. But such talk of beatific visions at the end of our journeys through vales of tears can, if we are careless, lead to a kind of moral resignation and complacency.

The gospel is good news, but it is bad news before it is good news. That is to say that the gospel is an attempt to confront us with the human condition in ways that may be neither comforting nor convenient. Furthermore, the vantage point of the gospel narratives—beginning as they do with the birth of a peasant child—is not from the privileged arena of medieval academies or Victorian pulpits, but from the margins, the Jewish backwaters of the Roman Empire.

+++

When King Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men gone to visit the newborn Christ, he was furious. And in his rage he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem; any child two years old or younger.

We are often tempted to breathe a sigh of relief here, because at least Jesus survives. And to us—as to Herod—the other children are collateral damage, anonymous and faceless, to be forgotten as soon as their narrative purpose is fulfilled. But the gospel forbids such callousness about the lives of innocents killed at a tyrant’s whim. After all, it is not as though Jesus is really spared in the end. Far from achieving the political power Herod feared, Jesus ends up misunderstood and betrayed and captured and flogged and killed. He joins the anonymous infants, albeit thirty years late; and if his murderers had their way, he too would have been forgotten, marginalised.

This then is the bad news: that our insecure quests for power are inevitably corrupting and damaging. Few of us are—like Herod and Pilate—in positions to pass death sentences, but we nevertheless impose our jealous wills on others, if not by physical force, then by other, perhaps subtler, forms of coercion and manipulation. Then again, in liberal democracies and market economies, we—the global 1%—are the oligarchs and tyrants, the select individuals whose desires move governments and multinational corporations. In his desire for a sort of power, Herod orders infants killed; in his desire for a sort of peace, Pilate orders Jesus executed. In our desire for cheap gadgets, we order the enslavement of anonymous foreigners. In our desire for sex, we order the exploitation of women and men whose names we do not know or will not remember. In our desire to consume more calories than we know how to obsess over, we order the destruction of natural habitats and the torture of animals. Thus, in our own little (and therefore insidious) ways, our insecure quests for self-assertion lead us to hurt people, to strain relationships, to participate in grave injustices.

In the face of this stark state of affairs, what the gospel offers is not just the sweet assurance that “in days to come” things will be different, that one day many people shall come and walk in God’s path and the haughty and proud shall receive their comeuppance. One day, but not today; perhaps not even on this side of eternity, but on the other, with a slice of pie in the sky by and by. To think of the Christian hope solely in these terms makes us complacent, if not complicit in the horrors of the world. Prophecy can and must be read differently, as commands rather than passive predictions about the future. Prophets are not fortune-tellers, after all. Thus, when Isaiah says that one day “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks”, we should hear God telling us to beat our swords into ploughshares; our gluttony into generosity, our narcissism into love, our passive aggression into truth. One day we shall do these glorious things, and why not today?

+++

The gospel is good news, and the good news is not just that we will eventually be rescued from ourselves, some day later rather than sooner. But it is the confidence that the world is, in the final estimation, good; not only because God made it, but also because God is, in Jesus, making it good. God is—in humanity; in the humanity to which Jesus belongs perfectly and to which you and I belong imperfectly; God is in us—making the world good. The doctrine of the Incarnation, which provides the context for infancy narratives like this one tonight provides the basis for a kind of theological humanism that is neither pollyannish about our ability to pull ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps, nor complacent about being saved by an interventionist God, nor cynical because it sees people as inherently and hopelessly sinful. What the gospel provides is a hopeful confidence in the God who elects to work through us, fallible though we are, meandering though our moral journeys are.

In other words, the good news is—like prophecy—also a command, a call to “come…walk in the light of the Lord”, to “get up and go” into the world to make some prophecies come true.

Sermon: September 28th 2014

Sermon for St Mary Magdalen, Oxford

Readings

Ezekiel 18.25-28

Philippians 2.1-11

Matthew 21.28-32

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

…and I believe in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. I also believe in life on Mars. Or somewhere else in the Universe; it just seems silly to think that a place so big and old could be empty but for Earth.

…and I believe in democracy. Most of the time; except when the majority disagrees with me. And in freedom of speech. Almost always; except when people are racist and stuff. I also believe in washing my hands before meals. Because there are germs literally everywhere. I guess this means I also believe in germs.

But I digress.

I believe in one God, the Father. And in one Lord Jesus Christ. And in the Holy Spirit, worshipped and glorified with aforementioned Father and Son.

And while God is certainly rather unlike a germ or democracy or the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, it is less obvious whether or not my believing in God and germs and democracy and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics amount to the same kind of human activity. On the face of it, they all seem to involve agreeing that some claim is true: “God exists”; “There are germs literally everywhere”; “Democracy is a rather good idea”; “The Copenhagen interpretation is the best available explanation of the formal mathematics of quantum mechanics”. At the same time, however, it seems equally obvious that at least in the case of God, there is more to believing than simply assigning positive truth value to some proposition. Belief is more than just a mental state.

+++

A man with two son tells them each to do some chores. One refuses perfunctorily, but then thinks twice and does as his father requested. The other obsequiously agrees, but then does not follow through. Which one, Jesus asks, does his father’s will? The answer is obvious, and indeed, the chief priests and elders knowingly respond that it is the first child who is, despite his initial petulance, the obedient one. At first glance then, this is a parable about the relationship between words and deeds, and the priority of the latter. Talk is cheap, Jesus implies, and hypocrisy is bad. Or, as business-types might say: always under-promise and over-deliver.

This initial impression is problematized, however, when we get to what Jesus says directly to his interlocutors. His accusation is not simply that their actions failed to match up with their words—as in the case of the second son in this parable—but that they did not believe John the Baptist. In contrast, the publicans and prostitutes did believe, which is supposed to remind us of the first son who utters rebellion, but then later behaves obediently. Thus, for St. Matthew’s Jesus, true believing is bound up with right action. Belief is more than just a mental state, and certainly more than empty words.

Repent and believe. The refrain of this parable is developed over and over again in the rest of St. Matthew’s ethical teaching, not least in the moral rigour of the Sermon on the Mount. To repent in St. Matthew’s sense of the word means much more than to feel remorse over some action; rather, it is to undergo a deep change in disposition, a change in heart and mind. Repentance involves more than experiencing negative emotions and a change in our opinions; but it is also more than simply a matter of changing our outward behaviours. Recall the famous “But I say to you” passages, in which Jesus cites some legal injunction and then attempts to get underneath and go beyond it:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not kill”; but I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”; but I say to you that everyone on looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

And so forth.

We must not hear wrongly, as people are prone to do. Repentance involves more than feelings of remorse or changes of opinion; repentance goes beyond behavioural modification. “More than” and “beyond” are the operative phrases here. In these and other passages, what Matthew is emphatically not saying is that our actions don’t matter, only our intentions. After all, St. Matthew’s is the gospel of “I have come not to abolish [the Law] but to fulfil [it]”; and the gospel of “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”; and the gospel of “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.

But if the costly discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount is an important aspect of what it means to “repent and believe”, so is the other thread that runs through the gospel. Not once, but twice, St. Matthew cites the same line from the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Difficult as Christian discipleship may be, it is not costliness but compassion that St. Matthew’s Jesus demands. And, of course, this mercy that is expected of us derives from God’s own mercy toward us: the God who when asked for mercy—as Jesus often is in St. Matthew’s gospel—supplies it abundantly, giving sight to the blind, health to the sick, and freedom to the possessed; the God who who forgives the debt of ten thousand talents; the God who has come to call not the righteous but sinners. Time and again, the counterpoint to St. Matthew’s apparent moral pedantry is his insistence on God’s mercy, which is itself the power that enables us to live godly lives.

+++

We believe in one God:

The Father Almighty.

The Lord Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit.

That is to say that we think the sentences of the Creed are true, which is not to say that we think they are comprehensible, these truths mysterious and glorious in equal measure. And it is also to say that we pledge allegiance to live the topsy-turvy life that Jesus carved out for us on, of all things, a Roman cross. The “I believe” in the Creed shares the grammar of the “I will” in the wedding liturgy. The Creed is, as philosophers say, “performative”. But this performance has us dressed in more than the heroism of lofty moral ideals, but also reckless, child-like trust. To believe is therefore finally to trust in a God who is ever for us and for our salvation; ever self-emptying; ever obedient even to the point of death at our hands and for our sake. To believe is to trust that God’s mercy—God’s indefatigable love for the world—is the interpretive key to how we should live, including how we should fail, as we inevitably will, to live the kind of perfect life Jesus demands. We are, all of us publicans and prostitutes and Pharisees, to cry—with the blind and sick and possessed—“Lord, have mercy upon us”. And God will.

Sermon: September 21st 2014

Sermon for All Saints’, Dunedin

Readings

Proverbs 3:13—18

2 Corinthians 4:1—6

Matthew 9:9—13

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let’s pick up where we left off.

As most of you will no doubt remember, when I was last here in February, I spoke about the so-called four antitheses, a part of the Sermon on the Mount in the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. These are the “But I say to you” verses, in which Jesus presents a series of legal injunctions—against murder and adultery, for example—and, in each case, gets underneath and goes beyond them, warning against anger and lust and so forth. Back then, I said that the impossibility of these moral ideals ought not lead us to think that Jesus was kidding, and that we don’t really have to change the way we live at all. On the contrary, St. Matthew’s Jesus takes our moral lives perfectly seriously. After all, this is the gospel of “I have come not to abolish [the Law] but to fulfil [it]”; and the gospel of “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”; and the gospel of “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. These are difficult words to hear, especially for those of us who are accustomed to a diet of harmless, inconsequential religion. Surely, the strict, overbearing deity of yesteryear is passé now: the almighty consumer has spoken, and the god we want in our shopping carts is the pocket-sized buddy Christ. And yet, and yet, here we are, confronted by St. Matthew’s Gospel and its recurring insistence on repentance, on the transformation of our entire lives.

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And as most of you will no doubt remember, when I was last here in February, I spoke about the generous providence of necessary grace as the counterpoint to this impossible requirement of perfect goodness. For mortals, Jesus says in Matthew 19, salvation is impossible, but for God all things are possible. This then is our joy and our salvation: that in Christ God has, in God’s mercy, given us our perfecting hope. Which brings us to this morning’s gospel text and, arguably, the central theme of The Gospel according to St. Matthew, whose feast we celebrate today.

If St. Matthew’s Gospel is most often remembered for its moral stringency, what is unjustifiably neglected is Matthew’s emphasis on mercy as the main theme that binds together his various ethical demands. Not once—here in the ninth chapter—but twice—again in the twelfth—does Matthew quote the prophet Hosea’s summary on theological ethics, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice”. As costly as Christian discipleship doubtless is—not least as St. Matthew has it—it is not the costliness that matters, but mercy. We have, many of us, and perhaps more so in this country, a sort of fetish for the difficult that, in an odd way, complements the commodification and domestication of our Christianity. We of No. 8 wires and electric fences; we of grey winters in the cold and damp of single-glazed homes; as we are with life, so we are with ethics. The virtuous, we expect, is difficult; it engenders suffering or, at least, discomfort. And so it does. Goodness does involve sacrifice, and naturally so: to be good, we have to sacrifice our base desires and conveniences for the sake of others. We spend scarce resources—our time, our money—to protect the environment from industrially-driven degradation, to avoid the exploitation of anonymous labourers, to extend generosity to friends and strangers alike. None of this is easy, nor should we expect it to be. But our sacrifices are not virtuous because they are costly; difficulty and inconvenience do not a good deed make. God desires mercy, says St. Matthew’s Jesus and Hosea both. But what does this mean?

+++

God desires mercy, and at first glance what that looks like is Jesus walking along and picking up corrupt apparatchiks and petty criminals to have dinner with. That is to say, at first glance, to have mercy looks like hanging out with our social or moral inferiors: the publicans and prostitutes of our world, whoever they may be. But there is, I think, something wrong-headed with this view. It comes from a place of presumed purity, of assumed elevation: we should, like Jesus—halo shiny, with wings of drifted snow—descend and deign to fraternise with rascals and ragamuffins; the poor and ugly things graced by our precious presence. We ought to kiss the frogs to make them princes, in God’s love and in Christ’s mercy. The problem with this view is, to my mind, not so much that it is patronising, which it is, but that it involves a sort of deluded assessment of our selves and of each other. The problem—ours and that of the Pharisees—is not that we don’t hang out with sinners, but that we don’t hang out with people whose sins are not just like our own. We are prejudicially picky and parochial about which sinners, what kind of sinners to sup with. This then, is what St. Matthew would recognise as mercilessness: not that we refuse to engage with those beneath us, but that we perceive others as being beneath us in the first place; the putting of ourselves on pedestals and the presumption that we have a monopoly on high ground. In other words, mercilessness is the assumption that we have no need for mercy ourselves.

+++

God desires mercy, says the prophet Hosea, but before that, he says:

Come, let us return to the Lord;

for it is the Lord who has torn, and the Lord who will heal us;

the Lord who has struck down, and the Lord who will bind us up.

It is the Lord who will revive us and raise us up,

that we may live before him.

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;

his appearing is as sure as the dawn;

he will come to us like the rain,

like the spring rains that drench the earth.

In other words, we are called to cast ourselves upon the mercy of God. Mercy—hesed—is, in the first place, a divine prerogative.

God desires mercy, says the prophet Hosea and St. Matthew’s Jesus, and not sacrifice, and what they mean is that we are all of us in this together, in need of mercy:

the Pharisees, the tax-collectors, the so-called sinners;

the two blind men in Chapter 9, who cried out,

“Have mercy on us, Son of David!”;

the Canaanite woman in Chapter 15, who shouted,

“Have mercy…for my daughter has a demon”;

and the man in the crowd in Chapter 17, who pleads,

“Have mercy…for my son has epilepsy”.

The mercy demanded of us is thus in the first place, an acceptance of the mercy offered, the consequence of which is the extension of this mercy to others.

God desires mercy, says the prophet Hosea and St. Matthew’s Jesus, and not sacrifice, and what they mean is that:

God has made a world for us and like the spring rains drenched its soil with faithfulness and love.

God has made a world of us, a bound and healed people, called to reconcile others to themselves, to each other, and to God. 

God has set a table for us, and we are to all of us sup and feast together on bread and wine: publicans and prostitutes, the blind, the possessed, the epileptic, and even you and even me, us Pharisees all.

God desires mercy, and is mercy.

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: February 16th 2014

All Saints’ Sermon, February 16, 2014

Readings

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

Ps. 119:1–8

1 Corinthians 3:1–9

Matthew 5:21–31

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Preamble: Last week, Fr. Michael asked if I would like to preach when I came back, and I said “Yes” as usual, without having read the text first. And then I did. It’s a hard text. So, before I could write the sermon, there was a lot of reading and thinking to do.  I wrote most of the script on the plane, on the way here, and was never really satisfied with it. Now, when I was at a Pentecostal church, preachers used to claim all the time that they’d prepared sermons, but that they’d abandon their scripts to go with the flow, or whatever. Whenever that I happened, I thought to myself that I’d never do that. But today, at at 8am service, I decided that my sermon was rubbish, really. So, in the time between services, I rewrote it, scribbling some things down that I don’t think I can actually read. In any case, I’m going to try again.

I was recently interrogated by the Church of England, as part of the discernment and ordination process, and one of the questions they asked was, “What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?”. It is as good a question as any, I suppose, and—in the middle of my sermon at the 8am service—it occurred to me that today’s texts may have something to say about how to answer it.]

+++

What we have before us are the four so-called antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’s commentary on Moses. He begins:

You have heard that it was said of old: you shall not murder;

and, you shall not commit adultery;

and, whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce;

and, you shall not swear falsely.

And then, he responds; and we sort of wish he didn’t:

If you are angry, you will be liable to judgement.

If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable.

If you say “You fool”, you will be liable to hellfire.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

(This is where I’m glad I’m left handed.)

Whoever divorces his wife or marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Do not swear at all.

It is a hard text; it is hard to know what to do with such a text.

The history of the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount provides many fascinating examples of how religious people wrestle with difficult bits of Scripture:

problematic texts are marginalised, if not actually dealt with

apparent inconsistencies are harmonised, if not actually reconciled

ideals are relativized, if never actually endeavoured.

We have, for example, tried to say that it applies only to special classes of people, monks and nuns perhaps; certainly not ordinary people like us. They should be all zen, but we can throw hissy-fits. They should be all chaste-like, but we can…well…never mind.

We have also tried to say that it applies only to a special realm: the sacred and spiritual, but certainly not the secular. There shouldn’t be ecclesiastical oaths and religious wars, but it might be alright to swear in a civil court and to sign up to defend our country.

But, perhaps in response to these readings, some of us have also gone in exactly the opposite direction, resisting such attempts to dull the effect of these difficult words. The likes of Origen and St. Francis and Tolstoy and Gandhi and King have, in their own ways, taken the absolutist option and demanded of themselves the full rigour of these words taken literally. Of some of these words, at least; even saints read selectively. And, in their own ways, they discovered the limits of this approach. And, indeed, their own limits.

As tempted as I am to go with the more permissive readings of today’s Gospel text, it is hard to ignore the moral force of imagining the sort of world in which we could live like Jesus told us to:

A world without anger; and in which anger is not necessary.

A world without lust; without misaligned desires of any kind.

A world without broken relationships, just because we are not broken people.

A world in which oaths are unnecessary because there is perfect trust.

+++

Most sensible people agree that this text casts a vision, provides an ideal too lofty to ever meet, and therefore contains a theology of grace. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. It is a classic move in atonement theology to insist that Jesus came to fulfil what we cannot fulfil; Jesus does what we cannot do by our lonesome. This is not—as some might suppose—to say that Jesus does these things instead of us as if we have swapped places, and have no part to play in the economy of salvation. Rather, Jesus lives and dies for us, so that we can present a perfect offering to God. This presentation of a perfect life is our participation in that life, the fullness of which is to live as Jesus lived.

This is, as I said, a sensible, a reasonable reading.

The theological point about the impossibility of goodness and the necessity of grace is fine as far as it goes, but should not distract us from the fact that Jesus is—here, and elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel—takes our moral lives perfectly seriously.

Recall that Matthew’s Jesus separates the sheep—who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the captive—from the goats, who do none of these things.

Recall that Matthew’s Jesus declares that not everyone who calls him Lord may enter the kingdom, but the one who does his Father’s will.

Recall that just as Jesus says that he came to fulfil the law, he adds: whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven

+++

What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?

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In the Book of Deuteronomy,

At the edge of the promised land, Moses speaks:

the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded

the words of life and death,

good and evil,

blessing and curse

the word that is not far off, but nearby;

in our mouths and in our hearts

Moses—one hundred and twenty years old, his eyes yet undimmed—stands before his pilgrim people, and he speaks of a life he will not share in a land he will not inhabit.

Moses—one hundred and twenty years old, his vigour yet unabated—will die before his people cross the Jordan, but not before he sees, from the mountain of the Abarim:

Gilead, as far as Dan;

All Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Judah, as far as the western sea;

All the Negeb; Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.

+++

What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?

The Good News is that Jesus sees Moses, and raises him.

If Moses was a peasant turned prince, Jesus is the prince turned peasant for our sakes.

If Moses walked dry through water to salvation, Jesus drenched himself in baptism to save us.

If Moses wandered in the wilderness stopping short at the promised land, Jesus defeated the evil in the desert to bring God’s promise to fruition.

If Moses climbs mountains to receive laws, Jesus makes them his own.

The Good News is that Jesus sees us—meandering through whatever wilderness we are meandering through—and raises us. We will see the promised land, like Moses did, but we will also live in it.

The Good News is both that the world must be a better place than it is, and that it will be.

It is, at the same time, ruthlessly realistic about what needs to happen, and almost laughably optimistic that it will…

Let me try again.

The Good News is that:

Appearances to the contrary, we do not, after all, live in a God-forsaken world.

God made a world that God calls good, and calls it—us—to be good.

And goodness is hard, if not impossible, and yet that is our call and our end all the same.

The Good News is that:

God is in our moral meanderings, ever with us; in our succeeding and failing, with us; in our gathering together and falling out, with us; in our eating and drinking—the breaking of bread and sharing of wine—with us. And that is what, in the end, makes us good.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.