Rising rivers and radical relationships
As is usual, below is the sermon that I wrote for this week…which I didn’t get to share as the service was cancelled due to the floods. ‘Lucky congregation’, I hear you say. How very dare you!
As messages of support came in from friends, one or two of my ordained pals joked that God’s judgment had come upon us due to the heretical preaching at St. David’s Uniting Church! Personally, I think that humour can be helpful in times of crisis and I appreciated them getting in contact whilst simultaneously sighing at the fact that in days gone by, the flood would indeed have been seen as an act of retribution by a vengeful God on a sinful people!
Of course, it mostly comes down to how you see the world around you…something that I spoke of in last week’s sermon and touch upon in this one – the Pharisees looking round at a dark world inhabited by filthy fleshsacks who had to be kept away from a pure God; and Jesus pointing to a world of potential blessing, colour and life; where God was already to be found in swaddled babies, rowdy troublemakers and condemned criminals; a world of original goodness and surprising grace.
This weekend, we’ve been encouraged to look around at our world again. Do we see a world of despair and darkness in which acts of God destroy homes whilstanonymous people behind keyboards drive TV stars to their death with their ownflood of bile and judgment…or might we look at the words of support and prayer which have come in from all over the planet? Might we see God at work in the generosity of people picking up buckets to bale out strangers’ houses? Might we hear the cries of social media encouraging us to be kinder to one another – dare I say, to love neighbour as self – and witness that happening as volunteers offer to help out anyone affected – anyone, whatever their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or even view on flipping Brexit? Might we see a community of technicoloured togetherness making God’s kingdom real in quiet, world-changing acts of love; in smiles and ‘phone calls; cuppas and cwtches?
I choose to see a world of hope and beauty and wonder. I choose to see people as made in the image of God. I choose to see a God who is with us in our messiness and magnificence.
Someone who has inspired me with her own grace-filtered vision recently is our own Claire Hughes, who is an absolute inspiration in seeing beauty in spite of brokenness. Given that the flood waters still surround us, here’s a poem written by her this week to remind us of what can follow floods –
I Will Set My Bow in the Heavens
Weary after sleepless night,
Head in fog and pounding,
I emerge to wondrous sight
Of beauty quite astounding.
I felt abandoned, all alone,
To suffer my life’s stresses.
Then all my fears are come undone,
My anguish soon regresses.
For, out of dark clouds and bleak day,
A hint of sunlight flashes
And rainbow hangs in sky and says
‘I’m here’ and all my fears it dashes.
Your covenant is not forgot’
Your holy presence comforts
I have You near, through my tough lot:
In Your praise my heart trumpets.
I feel the succour of Your arms,
On the breeze, Your voice speaks:
‘I know your pain: don’t be alarmed.
My Love all sorrow defeats.’
My Lord, you know my every need.
My prayers need not be spoken.
Within Your love, my heart is freed,
Restored, no longer broken.
If e’er I doubt that You have been
Near to me through my anguish,
You resolutely remind me
That never alone I languish.
And, so, I sing in praise of Thee,
Though sad times still confront me.
For I know I’m not alone:
Your warm embrace protects me.
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:27-31
It’s fair to say that the crowd attending the original sermon on the mount were in for a rollercoaster ride of an afternoon. Within a few verses we’ve gone from beatitudes to damnation; peace-making to eye-gouging! Jesus started off blessing the meek and now he seems to be threatening hell to the loose-lipped. What on Earth is going on here?
Well, let’s begin with a reminder of how last week’s gospel passage ended. After calling us to be salt and light, Jesus told his listeners that he had come to fulfil, not abolish, the Jewish Law and the passage ended with him saying that unless one’s righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, one would have trouble entering God’s kingdom. In these succeeding verses, then, Jesus is suggesting what exceeding righteousness might look like –
‘The Law says don’t murder but anyone who keeps anger with a sister or brother will be judged…The Law says don’t commit adultery, but even looking at a woman lustfully is adultery of the heart’…and so he continues with warnings about our words, oaths and marriages, each time expanding what the Law demands. He also throws in some rabbinical exaggeration – a common teaching tool in his day – to get his point across. Hence the fires of hell, severed hands and evil ones. I, personally, cannot conceive of any other way to understand these parts of Jesus’ teaching than hyperbole, metaphor, vivid pictures to illustrate the force of his point. A literal understanding of Jesus’ words here would see Christians walking around like Horatio Nelson-impersonators, holding on to a view of God that lacks any consistency and that is counter to the grace, mercy and love as fully revealed in Jesus.
Anyway, with all his expansions, exaggerations and examples, what is Jesus trying to teach his disciples here? Well, last week I suggested that a major difference between Jesus and the Pharisees was to do with how they viewed things. The Pharisees saw the world as a dark place from which to withdraw and the Law formed the drawbridge of their fortress. Jesus saw the world as a place of potential blessing, life and light and the Law was a gift which could bless the world with colour, compassion and community – it was not to be used as a reason to retreat or excuse to exclude. Well this week, I think the difference that Jesus highlights between his teaching and that of the Pharisees is that between ends and means. For the Pharisees, obsessive observance of the Law was the goal – it was their whole mission and objective. Hence why they got annoyed with Jesus for healing or picking grain on the Sabbath, for, according to their interpretation of the Law, this was a no-no. You might remember that Jesus responded to their critique with the words, ‘Sabbath is made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath’. This is Jesus’ whole point. The Law in itself was never intended to be the goal. The Law was always intended to be a means of establishing, nurturing and protecting relationships.
It’s all there in the original instruction manual in the Book of Deuteronomy. ‘Choose life’, Moses tells the community as he finishes distributing God’s Law. ‘Live out these Laws and you’ll prosper, flourish and be blessed as a community’. The Law was always meant to be a means to an end – a way of establishing, nurturing and protecting relationships. Let me put it like this – we had a wonderful games evening last month in which people of different ages, genders, languages, sexualities, ethnicities, nationalities and even faiths came together to enjoy each other’s company. I watched Alan teach Tahar – a teenage former refugee from Syria – how to putt a golf ball in English; which Tahar could subsequently do well and so he then taught his Dad in Arabic, before Pam’s gorgeous grandsons exploded into the room and celebrated their wins in Welsh, and there, in the whirlwind of different languages, I heard the melody of God’s kingdom play loud and clear. But imagine, instead, that our focus that night was on a strict observance of the rules of the games we were playing. No consideration of age, no generosity for those playing Scrabble in a whole new language, no practice goes or extra turns….just everything played exactly by the rules with no regard to welcome, inclusion or even joy…imagine that and you get a pretty good idea of the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees’ view of the Law.
It’s within that wider context that Jesus’ words on anger, oaths, adultery etc, must be understood. Then we can see how Jesus placed the real importance on relationship, not law:
‘The Law might say ‘Thou shalt not murder’’, Jesus says, ‘but God calls us to go further. We should also treat each other with respect which means refraining from using words that can do violence.’ A sentiment that feels particularly relevant this morning in the shadow of TV host Caroline Flack’s tragic death.
‘The Law might say ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’’ Jesus continues, ‘but the real issue is how we treat each other. So don’t objectify other people or use them as a means to satisfy your own physical desires.
It’s not enough to follow the Law regarding divorce,’ Jesus then explains, in full knowledge that the Law in his time treated women as property that men could throw out when wanted something new. ‘Instead’, he teaches, ‘we should not treat anyone as disposable and must protect the vulnerable.
And it’s not enough to keep ourselves from swearing falsely or lying to others. We should speak and act with integrity in all our dealings so we don’t need to make pledges at all!’
You see what Jesus is doing there? Yes, the Law is there as a framework – as a way to discourage hurtful practices and to encourage a healthy, vibrant community but in God’s Kingdom, we’re called to go further than to follow the letter of the Law – we’re called, to act more generously, to love more recklessly. The law might be a means; but loving, transformative relationships are the end. A loving relationship with God, with each other, with self…on this hang all the law and the prophets for relationship is central to who God is.
In God’s being – in the Trinity – God is relationship between Creator, Son and Spirit. In bringing form out of nothing, God made space for a relationship with the other, with creation. In God’s dealing with the patriarchs and prophets through the years, in the covenants and laws, God sought relationship with us and called us to be in relationship with each other. In taking on flesh, blood and vulnerability, God came to be in relationship with us, calling his disciples friends and making each and every human being a sister or brother. And through the fruits of the Spirit we are enabled to be in relationship in community and beyond it.
In real relationships, mind, not a superficial civility or shallow tolerance of each other but real, authentic relationships where we are challenged and comforted; where we mightencounter conflict and seek forgiveness; where we discover that our life is not a possession to defend but a gift to share. In every single encounter – at home, at work, on our streets – we have the opportunity to share this gift. Every time we seek to establish, nurture, protect relationships we are ‘exhibiting the divine attributes. We are making God present in this world through our life and humanity!
It won’t always be smooth sailing – with his community constantly arguing over status and seating arrangements, Jesus was all too aware of this which is why he includes that call for reconciliation – to seek peace with another before making an offering in worship. Those of us who watched ‘The Two Popes’ last month saw the redemptive power of such an act when one Catholic priest embraced the leader who betrayed him before they celebrated Mass together. Of course, reconciliation might not always be possible – at least not in the short term anyway. But we must always keep the door open; must always hope for it and later today, as a gesture of that, before we come to God’s offering in communion, we will seek reconciliation with one another; we will share a sign of God’s peace…so don’t say I didn’t warn you!
And after we have shared the peace, we will share the communion meal…a symbol of broken relationships made whole; of the many becoming one; of the dead coming to life. A story that tells us that when we turned our back on a divine relationship, God sought reconciliation with us, even when nailed on a cross. A sacrament that says we remember to re-member, to come together once again as a community that is called to be salt and light in the world; called to love because God first loved us.
The sermon on the mount, then, was not simply a rollercoaster of rhetoric but signified a revolution in relationship. In our communion and our community, in our hearts and in our lives, may God’s relationship revolution live on today. Amen