Here’s the sermon that I preached this week. I always like a difficult gospel to try to do something with. This week the gospel was Matthew 5: 21-37
This is one of those gospel passages that just makes some people groan and turn off. It seems at face value as though we serve a moralising Saviour who has values that none of us will be able to live up to.
You know that dreich gloom that pervades Scottish theological thinking – well it is based on passages like this. We’re all sinners. None of us deserve to be loved. We’re all at risk of getting it in the end. Don’t be angry for that is tantamount to murder. Don’t look fondly at someone you shouldn’t because that’s already adultery. Rip out your eyes and pull off your hands. We’re all miserable sinners anyway so we might as well be blind miserable sinners and if we are going to be blind miserable sinners we might as well be blind miserable sinners with no hands either. Maybe if we take such extreme measures we won’t commit adultery. No-one will have us if we’re ripping bits off ourselves anyway, but that’s alright because we don’t deserve much anyway.
There’s a sense of gloom in the local psyche. A maudlin way of understanding religion that is at its happiest being gloomy and knows that we’ll never live up to who we should be anyway.
Maybe it comes from the weather.
But it exhausts me.
Is that what religion is all about? Is that who we really, truly are?
The only thing that ever perks me up about preaching on this text is that it is another excuse to trot out the best theological one-liner in all of the Christian tradition – which is: never trust a two-eyed fundamentalist.
But let’s have a look at this gospel and try to reframe it a bit and see whether there’s some good news tucked away in there.
First of all, let’s list what we’ve got.
Jesus talked about murder, debt, hatred, adultery and telling lies.
What we’ve got here is the first five minutes of every episode of Eastenders. (Or Downton Abbey for those of you who live in Hyndland).
It’s funny, isn’t it. When we read it on a Sunday in church it seems terribly harsh stuff. Put it on the television and it becomes entertainment.
We mustn’t forget that going from preacher to preacher in those days was part of the entertainment of the day. And we mustn’t forget that soap operas with all their unlikely plots reflect human reality.
Now, they might be a bit far fetched. They might be a bit over the top. They might tend towards hyperbole in the way they help us make moral judgements about their characters. But then that’s Jesus’s way of teaching too. He and the other preachers of his day. Over the top illustrations. Hyperbole. Laying it on thick. These were the ways that preachers used to make an impact and get people to remember their teaching.
And with Jesus it worked. For we are still reading it now.
Part of what Jesus is doing is telling his hearers that motives matter as much as actions.
Now, we have to beware here. The black and white way that Matthew tells stories can tempt us down paths where we might be unwise to go. The Pharisees are wrong – Jesus is right! The letter of the law is bad – the spirit of the law is good! – Jewish Law bad! Christian freedom good!
And before we know where we are we’ve constructed a mindset that sees Christianity as better than Judaism. That sees Us as primarily better than Them. And it is on such ground that the weeds of anti-Semitism and discrimination and prejudice flourish and grow.
We need to tiptoe our way through this territory with more caution.
The truth is, Jesus was Jewish and both a keeper and an interpreter of the law. And to state the perfectly obvious, Jewish people were and Jewish people now are living lives that are full of freedom, grace, humour and joy.
What Jesus is doing in his teaching, and this is part of the sermon on the mount, don’t forget, is stepping right into the thick of the debates of his day and taking a stance.
I happen not to agree with all he says here about marriage and divorce and adultery. And I can say that freely from the pulpit because our church doesn’t agree with him. Years ago now we changed our marriage discipline because the church didn’t agree with Jesus in this passage. But he wouldn’t expect all his hearers to agree anyway. He is getting stuck into debates about the law that were an essential part of Judaism. He is engaging in contemporary controversies about marriage and divorce and arguing it all out in public. He is stating a view and taking a stand.
The big mistake is to read off these pages a hard-hearted morality for ourselves and try to live by it. If we do we’ll not just be sinners we’ll be particularly miserable ones.
Remember the big themes and apply them to the world around you and you won’t go wrong. He says it is about our motives after all.
Always remember when reading the Sermon on the Mount that it starts with a demand that we see life from the margins.
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are we if we realise that we don’t have the power within us to live up to the narrowest of demands of any moral code.
Blessed are we if we grasp the bigger picture seeing life from the point of view of the marginalised and weak and try to live up to the task of building the common wealth of God’s kingdom rather than getting too muddled up in making morality into a religion.
It never was, you know. Not one that ever satisfied anyone anyway.
I don’t think it is correct to listen to this teaching about marriage and adultery and divorce and think it is merely a harsh set of rules for people to live by today that seems to be all judgement and no compassion.
I think it is correct to see Jesus getting stuck into the controversies of his day and remembering his example get stuck right into the controversies of our own.
Jesus argued about marriage in public. So must we.
That’s what has been going on in public for the last few years. And we have a new settlement. Our parliamentarians have decided that marriage is to be open to more couples than once it was.
I’ve been at the heart of that debate. And I have huge respect for all those who have made it happen. I’ve respect too for those who have taken different positions to mine in public. I respect those with whom I’ve been in public and feisty disagreement.
I have less respect for so many of our religious leaders who have sat on the fence over the questions facing us about marriage and who continue to try to do so. Sitting on the fence and hiding in the pack mentality of Episcopal collegiality.
Those who sit so firmly on the fence are at greatest risk of getting splinters where they least want splinters to be.
The bigger picture in all that debate is that fidelity, love, passion and delight are still what people hope marriage is all about.
And the bigger picture of the sermon on the mount is that God sees things from unexpected points of view.
Today, partly because of my advocacy of same-sex marriage I’m named in Scotland on Sunday as one of the people on a new Pink List of influential gay people in this land.
And I’m excited and thrilled to be recognised that way. And excited and thrilled to be listed with people who are so powerful.
But today I read from the sermon on the mount which always reminds me that it isn’t all about power at all. And it isn’t about Us and Them either. Life, true life starts when there is no such idea as a Them.
The message I take from this morning’s gospel is that Jesus engaged in his world and that gives us a mandate for engaging in our own.
And the bigger picture I take from the sermon on the mount is that justice, equality, liberty and love are the tools Jesus used to fashion his engagement with that world and they are all on offer still.
Justice, equality, liberty and love.
Try living life by those mandates this week. If you do, you’ll find yourself closer to that joyous kingdom of God than you’ll ever discover by any amount of gloomy religion at all.
In the name of the God, Creator, Redeemer and Holy Liberator. Amen