Friday, 21 February 2014

Perfect Law - belief & action

Readings : Leviticus 19: 1,2 and 9-18; Matthew 5: 38-48

Just this week, the old chestnut of ‘should the church get involved with politics?’ has reared its head. 43 Christian leaders, including 27 Anglican bishops, signed a letter urging David Cameron to ensure people get enough to eat. This did include some URC moderators and some Methodist Chairs of District – although some of the press reports focused rather on the bishops.
Alongside the questions the letter raises about food justice and food banks and benefit cuts, some reporters wanted to ask ‘should the church be saying anything about political issues at all?’. My answer to that would be that for Christians not to speak out about the lives of people who are suffering would be to try to break the link between what we believe and what we do, and it seems to me that Jesus was very concerned that we should not allow that break to happen.  Instead Jesus wants us to ask ourselves ‘how does what I believe about God’s love and God’s rule affect how I should live and treat others?’. Today’s readings are an example of that link between believing and doing.
First we heard from the book of Leviticus, in what we sometimes call the Old Testament. The danger with the term ‘Old’ Testament is that we might think these are the old laws, the outdated ones, the superceded ones – and indeed there are laws in Leviticus about what to eat and what to wear that we no longer consider relevant to us as Christians.
But we shouldn’t for a moment think that following Jesus means we don’t need any laws any more – and maybe that’s the sort of thinking that Jesus has in mind when we says to those who are following him ‘do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets – I have not come not to abolish but to fulfill’.
 If we look at the laws we heard today from Leviticus, I don’t think there are any there we would want to say should not apply to us as Christians : Leave a harvest for the poor, do not steal, lie, swear falsely, or exploit others. Judge justly, do not slander, and do not hate, but love others.
There is a concern for doing the right thing, living the right way, and caring especially for the poor, which is shot right through so many of the laws of the Hebrew scriptures.
If some people think that following Jesus is an alternative to following the law, Jesus says do not follow the law less, but follow it more closely – exceed what you think is the letter of the law – aim for perfection.
The problem with rules and regulations is that there are different ways of ‘following’ them, aren’t there. Think of someone who is operating a ‘work to rule’ at work, for example. The attitude becomes ‘you can only make me do what it absolutely states in my contract of work I must do and no more’. The rules become the limit of what is required of that person, rather than the foundation for the work they do, which may well include things which aren’t actually written down anywhere at all. The danger of this attitude to rules or laws is that it can lead to a grudging acceptance of how to behave.
We know that Jesus faced this sort of attitude from people of his time, because we have the example of the rich young ruler who says to Jesus ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark ch 10). When Jesus says ‘you know the commandments..’ the young man says ‘I’ve kept all those’. But when Jesus says ‘then give everything you have to the poor’ he goes away saddened, because he can’t bear to do that. He didn’t realize that the law to care for the poor might actually extend to giving up his own wealth. He thought there was a limit to the law.
But here, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear ‘you must be perfect, as God is perfect’. Our following of God’s way cannot have a limit, any more than God’s love has a limit.
Jesus gives examples of what he expects:
‘Do not resist an evildoer.. if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.. if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.. if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’
And if this level of perfection starts to sound impossible, we need to remember that Jesus did not just say these things but he did them.
Turning away from violence, allowing evil to take its course, accepting physical beating, being stripped of his clothes, and submitting himself to crucifixion, whilst also praying for his enemies. Jesus was prepared to do what he believes, to live out his own teaching, to show us how this perfect law actually works in real life.
We will not, of course, face Roman crucifixion, but Jesus’ teaching about how we live this law of love without limits is still relevant for us.
We sometimes use the phrase ‘a slap in the face’ to mean something more than a physical blow. When we face that sort of treatment, Jesus says accept it with love and forgiveness.
When we are faced with the temptation to be less than honest, whether it’s getting too much change in a shop, or hovering over our tax returns, Jesus says be honest in all your dealings.
When our press or our politicians tell us that we shouldn’t get involved, Jesus says love your neighbour, follow the law -  and the law of Leviticus says ‘feed the hungry’.

And how can we, imperfect as we are, show this limitless love of the law of Jesus?

As we follow Jesus we are walking a way of perfection – not because we are perfect, but because we know that following Jesus is the way to completeness. It is the way that allows the limitless love of God to flow into us and through us – giving us the strength we need to be more complete followers of Jesus, people who are more loving and forgiving and.. well, perfect.

When, through God’s grace, we are enabled to follow Jesus more closely, we show other people the limitless love of God in action – we are signs of God’s kingdom of love, joy, peace and grace.

So may we live to God’s glory, inspired by God’s Spirit to walk Christ’s way. Amen.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Choose Life...Orders from God or the order of life?

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Matthew 5: 21-27

This is proper ‘Old Testament God’ stuff from Deuteronomy:
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish”.

On the face of it this is fairly straight forward – choose to follow God’s laws, or perish.

And it’s no good looking for a get-out in the words of Jesus, either. The Gospel reading had Jesus saying:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

But before we all fall quaking to our knees, let’s just go back to that word ‘choice’. God says to the people of Israel – choose life. Choose to walk in God‘s way. Choose to be mindful of God’s laws, and to keep them – not because otherwise you fear punishment, but because this is the way to live full and happy lives. So do not kill – not because you will be punished by God if you do, but because when everyone keeps this law society is richer and better. Do not break God’s laws, because in laying down the laws, God has shown people the best ways to live.

But how do we choose well, not when it is fairly easy and straight-forward to tell right from wrong, but when life is a lot more murky?
Faced with the choice to kill someone or not to kill them, I think we all know what the right choice is.

But Jesus warns his followers ‘if you are angry you will be liable to judgement’. If you are angry with someone you are choosing the path that leads to sin – the path that ultimately can lead to murder. Jesus wants his followers to orientate themselves towards the will of God – to know how to turn at every twist in the path of life. Jesus wants us to choose well, and to choose always what enhances life and affirms and builds up, rather than destroying life and hope.

To underline how important it is to make the right choices, even when they seem small choices, Jesus points out that anger can eventually lead to murder, that looking lustfully can eventually lead to adultery, that divorce should not be entered into lightly and thoughtlessly, any more than marriage should be in the first place.

And in case his listeners think that sin is only about big things and not the little choices, Jesus uses some dramatic language:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Jesus doesn’t want us to be able to blame a wandering eye or itchy fingers for what we might think of as ‘minor’ sins. Jesus wants us to be wholehearted in our walk in God’s way - loving God with all our heart, soul mind and strength and choosing the right path, even in the little things of life.
So the good news so far is that we are not walking in fear, trying to be good in order to avoid God's wrath & judgement.
It is not about obeying God’s orders, it is about following God’s order for life. But it’s still not feeling like really good news, is it? It still seems that so far we’ve been thinking about what we need to do to get our lives right.

But let’s not forget that we do not walk in fear and we do not walk alone. We are following Jesus.
This is just some of his teaching to a crowd of followers in the fifth chapter of Matthew, that we call ‘the sermon on the mount’. Matthew places this teaching right at the start of Jesus’ ministry. And where does Jesus start? With blessings: ‘Blessed are the poor, the humble, the hurt & grieving’.
Jesus starts with a message of God’s love for all people – especially the ones who might feel that life suggests they are cursed, not blessed.
Then Jesus talks about his followers as salt and light for the world – spreading the good news of God’s new light & life to everyone. Then, and only then, does Jesus turn to the law, and warns ‘I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it’.

Jesus says know you are loved & blessed, be ready to share that Good news with the world, but don’t think you can live however you like – live as children of God who walk in God’s light. Jesus will move on to teach about revenge, love, giving, prayer and money. But the conclusion of this ‘sermon’ is simple ‘do not worry. Your father in heaven knows what you need’.

God knows the strength we need to be enabled to make all the right and good choices in life.
So it is good that we meet today in the Lord’s house. Here we have a reminder of all that God’s love has done for us and all that God wants to give to us.

Here we can receive the strength we need to choose well and live well and walk well.
Here the Holy Spirit will come among us and dwell in us, to help us to live as God’s beloved children.

Children who are loved, and blessed and enabled to walk with God.
To his praise and glory.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Salt, light and better buildings.

This Sunday I am preaching on Isaiah 58:1-9a, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20 to a church, Southernhay URC, who are celebrating the end of a phase of building redevelopment. 

What are you here for? What a dangerous question to ask a church full of people. You might all suddenly slap your hand to your forehead & say ‘well, now you come to ask, we have no idea – there are so many other things we could be doing this morning – having  lie-in, reading the Sunday papers, washing the car .. the list is endless’.

And if it’s not bad enough to have to face up to self-doubt. (why am I here? Let’s try not to obsess on that for the whole sermon) we hear a gospel reading in which Jesus says to us “ you are the salt of the earth” – and we all know that salt isn’t mean to sit in the pot on the table, any more than light is meant to be hidden, it is meant – salt and light – to be spread around, to bring savour and illumination to the whole world.

Jesus makes it clear to his listeners that the law is there to help people to live lives of righteousness, worshipping God with lives of justice and mercy, not locking themselves away in buildings to rehearse the law together. We might conclude that serving God happens out there – in the cold world, not in here in the warm.
Jesus didn’t say anything about buildings for the people who followed him, and some people conclude from this that Jesus didn’t mean us to have church buildings at all – but then Jesus didn’t say anything about coffee and biscuits, either, but no-one can imagine church without those.

So.. to build or not to build? And when we have buildings, to improve or not to improve? I would be a bit of a party-pooper today if I had come to tell you that buildings are all a waste of time and money, and church improvements are going to be included in the new list of deadly sins. But you can all breathe out, because I have come to say that I believe God can and will bless our use, and our better use, of church buildings. (Phew).
Because, much though we would all want to say that the church is the people and not just the building, we also recognize that our God is a God who works through bodies – solid stuff – real matter – and is not just a God of airy-fairy ideas.

Isaiah brings the importance of embodiment home very powerfully. God is described as ‘the high and lofty one
 who inhabits eternity’ – not much room there for a down to earth theology, you might think. But did you hear what Isaiah says this Holy God is looking for? Not fasting and pleading and religious law-keeping, but justice and freedom and service of others.

Through Isaiah, God says “Is not this the fast that I choose… to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn”.
Jesus echoes these very words when he tells his followers the parable of the people separated like sheep and goats who say ‘when, Lord, did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink – when did we see you naked and clothe you, or sick or in prison and visit you?’.

Both Isaiah and Jesus are clear – you cannot call yourself a follower of Jesus or a worshipper of the Holy One if you are indifferent to the bodily needs of other people. Shining like a light is about how you live your life and treat others.

And Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that, for Paul, the way to know the mystery and the wisdom of God is to know Christ crucified.
It doesn’t get much more bodily than this – God in human flesh, not just looking like one of us, but actually suffering like a mortal being, dying on the cross – real body, real blood, real pain.
God thinks bodies are so important he made one his earthly home when he came to us in Jesus Christ.

So what does the importance of bodies – the bodily needs of others, the bodily display of God’s love for us in Jesus – tell us about our church buildings?

They are here to be physical signs of God’s love, places of justice and mercy, light and hope. They are to be used to help us to care for others, welcome others. They are here to be places where we hear God’s word to us, remember Christ’s presence with us, and celebrate the living Spirit at work in all our lives. They are here to change and respond to the needs of the society around – not as clubhouses for the faithful people of God, but as lighthouses of God’s gospel of love for the world. Church buildings are here, dare I say it, to evolve.

When I asked ‘what are you here for?’ it is just possible that some of you thought “I am here to mark evolution Sunday”. Today is the nearest Sunday to Charles Darwin’s birthday, when many churches choose to remember the great creativity that emerges from a relationship between faith and science.
I could start a second sermon here on the danger of the supposed conflict, in some people’s minds, between theology, especially the Bible, and science, especially theories of evolution. I could start a second sermon – but I won’t. If you are unconvinced I direct you to the writings of wonderful ordained scientists like John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke.

But for those of us who do believe in a God who creates the world through a process of evolution, we find we have a responsibility to take seriously the impact we can have – not only on our physical home which is the church building, but also on our physical home which is the earth itself.
I have driven here this morning from Somerset. Try telling the farmers of Somerset that we’re taking seriously our responsibility for the environment in which we live. Should we be dredging the rivers? Should we be protecting the coastlines? Should we be preventing fast run-off of water from our hills? Should I be driving a car at all? A climate scientist in the United States, Hunter Lovins, instead of talking about global warming has coined the phrase ‘global weirding’ to describe the higher incidence of strange weather across the world – which he claims is caused by humankind’s over-dependence on fossil fuels. The earth itself is changing and evolving – and it may well be that we humans are causing irreparable damage by the way we live.

The good news? We can make a difference – and I won’t start a third sermon by addressing all the things we could be doing – but I would point you towards the Bishop of Crediton’s suggestion that we could all have a ‘carbon fast’ through Lent – looking for ways we can cut our negative impact on our world as individuals and as churches by reducing our energy use.

Bodies matter, what we do matters, the environment matters – because God says it does.

But the Really good news? Jesus says ‘you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world’.  Not you can be, you ought to be, or you need to be… you are.
Shine, good people of Southernhay URC, enjoy this new evolution of your church building, and may God bless you and it to be a sign of the rule and reign of God – in hope and joy, peace and justice, now and always. Amen.