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: 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?

+++

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.