Sunday, 27 February 2011

Don't Worry... by Anne Le Bas

Second Sunday before Lent

Genesis 1.1-2.3, Matthew 6.25-34

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not worry”.

I wonder how you feel when people say that to you. “Don’t worry” trips very easily off the tongue. “Don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll find another job soon. Don’t worry – the medical tests will probably come back clear. Don’t worry – something will turn up.” Well, perhaps it will, but the person who tells you that doesn’t know the future any more than you do, and being told not to worry can just add insult to injury.

We often tell people not to worry simply because we don’t want to watch them worrying.
We feel uncomfortable because we can’t do anything to help. But they may have perfectly good reasons to worry. The medical tests might not be fine. The longed for job might not materialise. Things might not work out. I am sure we have all been affected this week by the news reports of the earthquake in New Zealand – some of you may have relatives or friends there. We have seen people keeping vigil near the collapsed buildings where their loved ones are buried, waiting for news, listening for cries, anxiously dialling mobile phones in the hopes of an answer, or just a ringtone to guide the rescuers to the right spot. Who would dare to say to those people “Don’t worry”? Of course they are worried. They are desperate with fear. Who are we to tell them that they shouldn’t be?

Today’s Gospel reading then, might seem very inappropriate. Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t worry”. Isn’t this just the same kind of trite reassurance which irritates us so much in other contexts? But before we shut the Bible in disgust, I’d like to suggest that we look a little more closely, because if we do we might find that Jesus is saying more than we first think here. There are a couple of things I’d like us to notice, things that we might otherwise miss, which make a big difference to how we understand his words.

The first thing is that, actually Jesus doesn’t say ”don’t worry” at all. It’s a rather misleading translation. What do you think of when you hear the word “worry”? Probably the emotion of anxiety – that knot in the pit of your stomach that won’t go away. But the word Jesus uses isn’t really about emotion, about what we feel; it’s about what we do. It comes from a root which means “to be pulled apart, divided, distracted”. It is about where we put our attention, where we direct our focus. Older translations sometimes say, “take no thought for,” or “take no care for” and that is probably more accurate. Jesus isn’t telling us how to feel, and he’s certainly not making light of our fears. We can’t stop the emotion of worry just by telling ourselves not to be anxious. What matters, though, is what we do about it, and that brings me to the second thing I’d like us to notice.

Because Jesus doesn’t stop at the words “don’t worry” – however we translate it. He actually says, “Don’t worry about....your life, your food, your clothes.” He isn’t saying that worrying is wrong. He isn’t suggesting that we should drift through life shrugging our shoulders and saying “Que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be.” Jesus wasn’t like that himself; he was a man who cared passionately, worked passionately, gave himself unstintingly to the things he felt were important – and he calls us to do the same. If we live lives that are worth living we are bound to find ourselves caring, working and perhaps worrying sometimes too. The question is what should we be working at, caring, and worrying about? Should the focus be on own lives, our possessions? Is that where we should put our energy? We are surrounded by messages which tell us just that; if you don’t help yourself, no one else will help you, it’s all down to you to elbow your way to the top of the heap; only when you get there will you really feel secure. Look after number one. But Jesus warns us against that assumption.

The Bible has no problem with material things in themselves. In our first reading we heard the story of God creating the world. It is a world full of riches. And every time God looks at what he’s made he cries out with delight – “it’s good!” God likes the stuff he’s made, and he wants us to enjoy it too. Matter matters. But the Bible warns us again and again that we shouldn’t expect our possessions to do more than they are capable of. However hard we work, however much stuff we accumulate, we can’t control everything that happens around us. It doesn’t matter how rich or clever we are, our possessions will never be able to protect us completely against the sorrows of life. The grandeur of the Creation story reminds us of where we really stand in the order of things; beloved creatures, but not gods, given power, but nowhere near all-powerful. If anything, modern scientific discoveries have made that even more obvious than it was to our ancestors. We look up at the night sky and we know how tiny we are in comparison to its vastness, how powerless we are in the face of its might.
If we expect our possessions to protect us and keep us safe – if we focus on these, worry about these – we are wasting our energy, because they will never be up to the task.

So if we aren’t to focus on material possessions, directing our attention to them, what should we worry about? The kingdom of God and his righteousness, says Jesus. Justice, compassion, generosity, love. The hallmarks of the kingdom are things which draw us away from an anxious obsession with ourselves, and open our eyes to one another and to God. They are the things which tend to get elbowed out first when we are under pressure. They feel like luxuries we can’t afford, but actually it is these things which will bring us the security we really crave and need. They will bring us into right relationship with God and his creation.

When trouble strikes it is the loving friendships we have built that matter most to us. If we asked the people of Christ Church New Zealand what they would rather have restored to them, their property or the people they have lost there would be no contest. Money matters – for building structures that withstand quakes, and for the rebuilding that will need to happen in the future, but people matter more. It is the loss of their loved ones which hurts most, and it is the care which is shared among those who survive which will enable them to pull through. Money can’t buy us immortality, invulnerability or freedom from sorrow; it is the loving networks we establish which are our true protection and support in times of disaster.

That is true of our human relationships, and it is even more true of our relationship with God. Our hands will never be big enough to hold onto the things which life throws at us. We might be better at sowing and reaping and spinning than the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, but we are just as dependent on God as they are in the end and it is only when we know that, when we can relax into hands which are infinite and will never let us fall that we can really feel safe. This does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen, but that we know that whatever happens can’t ultimately destroy us. When we have that sort of security we can face anything.

There is a story which is told of a general who led his army on an attack of an enemy village. When the battle was over he sent out his scouts to round up the villagers that remained. They came back and told him that everyone had fled in terror, all except for one man, the local priest, who was quietly at work in his church.
“Take me to him,” ordered the general, furious at the thought that this man seemed so unconcerned by the might of his troops, unimpressed by his own power.
They went to the church, and there was the priest, sitting and reading, as if there was nothing at all to bother him.

The general summoned him to stand before him. How can you look so calm?” He shouted at the priest. “Don’t you know that you are looking at a man who could run you through with his sword without batting an eyelid?”
“Oh yes,” said the priest, I am well aware of that, but don’t you know that you are looking at a man who could be run through without batting an eyelid.”
The general looked at him in astonishment, bowed low to him, and left.

I’m not sure I could ever be quite that calm in the face of death, but I would like to feel that I am moving in the right direction to find that sort of courage. The world is a precarious place, as well as a glorious one. We are very small, despite all our pretensions to be otherwise, and faced with an almost infinite sea of possible troubles, the vast majority of which we can do nothing about at all. The resilience we need to cope with them can’t ultimately be found in possessions, even if we had a world of wealth to protect us. It is found when we learn to trust in God’s promise that he will never fail or forsake us, and concentrate our energies not on ourselves but on building a world where everyone can know what it is to be loved.


Sunday, 13 February 2011

But I say to you... ; a sermon by Anne Le Bas

4th Before Lent 11
Matt 5.21-37

“You have heard it said,” says Jesus in the passage we’ve just heard, “but I say to you” he goes on. Four times he says it, “You have heard it said…but I say to you. “

How do you feel about changing your mind?
Not about what you fancy having for dinner, but about your deeply held beliefs and moral attitudes. Are there things you once thought were wrong, but now accept, or once accepted but now don’t? Are there people or situations you know you once misjudged? If we are human, and honest, there are bound to be times when we realise we’ve got it wrong, when we have to think again. But its not an easy thing to do.

In a previous church I was in there was a man who never used to come up to receive communion. I didn’t ask why – it was his business. One day though, after I’d been there several years, there he was at the altar rail, holding out his hands for the bread and wine. Afterwards he explained that before I arrived, he’d been dead set against women priests, and everyone knew it. Once I was in post, though, he’d quickly realised that it wasn’t a problem after all. He just hadn’t been able to imagine a woman behind the altar. So why had it taken him so long actually to take communion from me? “Ah, well…” he said, “I had always been so outspoken about it that I had painted myself into a corner. And I had to wait for the paint to dry…”

Changing our minds can be difficult and painful. It’s much easier to stay where we are and hold onto our old beliefs about what is right and wrong - even if we don’t really believe them anymore. Our moral attitudes are often deeply ingrained, laid down early in life by parents and teachers, and in the minefield of moral decisions we are called on to make through our lives, it can be a real relief to feel that we’ve got some ready made answers, things we sorted in childhood and have never had to think about again.

The problem is that the answers we learned then may not be enough to see us through. They may not even be right. Our parents and teachers were only human after all, and the lessons they taught us are bound to contain some prejudices and hang-ups along with the wisdom. And new ages raise new dilemmas. Modern medical technology forces us to make moral decisions about IVF conception, stem-cell research and so on - questions previous generations hadn’t even thought of, let alone answered.

Sometimes, too, the answers which were right in one age are wrong in another. Ancient societies, like those which produced the Bible, were normally concerned with the threat of under-population. In an uncertain world, the more children you could have, the better. That shaped their attitudes to the family and sexuality. Now we worry more about over-population. Our priorities have changed, and that affects our moral and social attitudes too.

Making moral decisions isn’t easy. In last week’s sermon I talked about why we try to do good? Are we trying to earn a ticket to heaven, or to build heaven here and now, doing good simply because it is good. But that leads onto an other equally difficult question. What is good? How do we tell the difference between right and wrong? “

It’s not always obvious. We can’t expect to simply coast through our lives on the lessons we were taught in childhood, and in today’s Gospel it is clear that Jesus expects his followers to have the courage to think things through for themselves, to change their minds when they need to.

“You have heard that it was said,” he says to them,”…but I say to you.” So, what does Jesus say? There are four of those sayings in this reading, and I’ll take them in turn.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not murder’” says Jesus. And so have we. It’s there in the Ten Commandments. But murder is more, says Jesus, than just causing physical death. Call someone a fool and you might as well have killed them. He’s overstating the case to make his point, of course. It is hyperbole. But he’s right. If we speak of others as if they are less important, less worthy than us, we pave the way for ignoring their needs and eventually doing them real harm. The Hebrew insult he quotes is “Raka” – it literally means “empty”. They are a waste of space in modern parlance, so why let them take up space at all? The most outrageous examples of cruelty begin when people are dehumanised in the words we use of them. The Nazis likened those they eventually killed to diseases that should be purged. 18th Century slave-traders described their slaves as goods, not human beings. It’s easier to kill people if you don’t think they are people. But if we treat them as rubbish that can be discarded, says Jesus, our own lives become rubbish too, fit only for burning – the hell of fire was Gehenna, not a place of eternal torment originally, but pits where anything unclean was burned in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem.

Secondly Jesus says, “You have heard it said ‘you shall not commit adultery’… but I say everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Like many deeply patriarchal societies, Palestinian Judaism thought that women were dangerous, tempting men off the straight and narrow, in need of control. Any woman who didn’t obey very strict rules of conduct and dress was declaring that she was fair game. It’s wearisomely familiar. “She was asking for it: her skirt was too short.” The truth is, though, that it doesn’t matter how long a woman’s skirt is if this is the attitude of the men around her. Traditional communities in the Middle East, Afghanistan and many other places insist that every inch of a woman’s flesh should be covered up. Before we start feeling superior we should remember that Christian societies have shared this view in the past too. The Victorians thought no respectable woman would reveal her ankles or go out with her head uncovered or her hair loose. And yet there’s no evidence that rape and sexual assault are any less prevalent in societies that think like this, because it’s not the woman’s flesh that is the problem; it’s the man’s mind.

Jesus third saying is probably the most difficult for us. “You have heard it said “Whoever divorces his wife…let him give her a certificate of divorce… but I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery … and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This is probably the hardest of these sayings for us to deal with today. Many people are divorced and remarried, including me, and others will have experienced it in their wider family. So I’m going to take a bit more time over this saying. What sense can we make of it?

It is important to realise that this is the only one of these sayings which has been consistently taken literally by Christians. We call each other fools all the time, but no one tries to pass church laws to stop us. Church courts have never ordered men to pluck out their eyes if they linger too long over the page 3 girls. Swearing by heaven and earth, which I’ll come to in a minute, isn’t something most people get worked up about either. But Jesus words on divorce and remarriage have been taken very literally indeed. Only last week General Synod was debating divorced and remarried people becoming bishops – we used to be excluded from ordination completely. In some denominations divorce and remarriage bars you from receiving communion. The other sayings in this passage are taken as hyperbole, exaggerated for dramatic effect, but these are often taken literally, which is ironic, because this issue – marriage and divorce – is actually the one which is least “portable” from Jesus’ age into our own.

Our idea of marriage is so different from that of Jesus’ day that it is scarcely recognisable as the same thing at all. For a start, Palestinian Judaism – the kind Jesus knew – permitted polygamy. That may surprise you, but it’s true. In fact it required polygamy in some circumstances. If a man’s brother died and his widow was childless, he was obliged to marry her himself. It didn’t make any difference if he was already married. Women had no realistic and respectable way of supporting themselves, so it was far better to be a second wife than on your own. A lone woman often had no choice but prostitution, or accepting the protection of any man who’d take her – with or without marriage. Deliberately to cast a woman off by divorce forced her into sexual relationships that degraded her. It was a cruel and unnecessary act, especially in a polygamous society, where you didn’t need to get rid of her to marry another woman. Divorce saved you the expense and hassle of supporting an unwanted wife, but at what cost to her?

By the way, in case you are wondering how monogamy came to be the norm for Christians, the answer is that it was a Roman custom. Christianity grew up in a Roman world, so it naturally adopted Roman norms, wanting to look respectable in Roman eyes. It could all have been very different, though I hasten to say, I am glad it’s not!

The point Jesus is making here is that we shouldn’t treat those who are dependent on us as if they were disposable. We must live up to our responsibilities towards them, treat them honourably, whatever we feel about them. In another place Jesus has equally strong words for those who give their money to the temple and then claim they can’t afford to look after their elderly relatives. It’s the same principle.

And that thought leads very neatly into the fourth and final saying. “You have heard it said “you shall not swear falsely….but I say to you, ‘do not swear at all, either by heaven or earth or Jerusalem…” Let your yes be yes and your no be no, says Jesus. He calls us to be people of integrity, people who don’t need to invoke the powers of heaven and earth to back us up because our word is enough. He calls us to be people who can be trusted, people who live by principles which we have thought through and made our own, which are rooted and grounded in love and respect for those around us. He calls us to pay most attention not to those who shout loudest, but to those who are most vulnerable. He calls us to do whatever we need to do to make sure that everyone can live with the dignity that should be theirs as children of God, and if that means changing our minds, then we should never be afraid to do so.


Sunday, 6 February 2011

Law and Love: a sermon by Anne Le Bas

5th Sunday before Lent

Isaiah 58.1-12, Matt 5.13-20

“I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it,” says Jesus.

Five hundred years ago, Europe was in turmoil. All sorts of groups were breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church and setting up new churches. Lutherans, Calvinists, Quakers, our own C of E and countless others. There was an explosion of ideas as people started reading the Bible for themselves and questioning what they had been taught. Which was great, except that alongside the new wisdom there was a whole lot of folly too.

One of the new groups that formed then is known to history as the Ranters. The Ranters had got very excited by Martin Luther’s central message, the message which kick-started the Reformation, the idea that we are saved by grace, by God’s own initiative, his decision, his love, rather than by anything we do – good works, prayer, ritual and so on. They got so excited by this that, frankly, they let it run away with them completely. If we are already saved by God, freed from our sins, home and dry, they said, then surely it doesn’t matter what we do or how we live. We don’t have to keep all sorts of rules to make God love us – he loves us and accepts us anyway. In fact, if we really trust him and believe in his love, they thought, then we ought to do whatever we like, however scandalous it is, just to show our faith in that love. The more outrageous your behaviour, the more you demonstrate your trust in God’s grace.
Church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch paints a wonderful picture of what happened next. “[They] expressed their God-given freedom,” he says, “by ecstatic blasphemy, joyous tobacco smoking and running naked down the street.” *

The Ranters never really caught on as a mass movement, which is probably just as well, but they weren’t the first group to think like this and they haven’t been the last. There have always been Christians who have believed that if God’s love is a gift, not something we can earn or deserve, then the logical follow-on is that it doesn’t matter what we do at all. If you like collecting long words, then you’ll want to know that this idea is called antinomianism – that’s one to drop into the conversation over Sunday lunch if you can. Antinomianism. “Nomos” means law in Greek. Christian faith isn’t about keeping laws, says the antinomian. God accepts us whatever we do, so we might as well do as we like…

Hmmm… Feeling sceptical…? You’re not alone. The problem is what that leads to. To “ecstatic blasphemy, joyous tobacco smoking and running naked down the street” it seems.

Balancing order and freedom, law and love, has always been a challenge for Christians, right from the start. In the Gospels the scribes and Pharisees are often portrayed as the bad guys, the ones who opposed Jesus. They were famous for their attachment to the Law of Moses. They insisted that people observe the minutiae of every commandment in the Scriptures. Jesus often clashed with them, challenging them in his words and deeds. He healed on the Sabbath and he ate with those who according to the law were unclean sinners. He seemed to the scribes and Pharisees to be playing fast and loose with the rules of their faith and they were scandalised. But this freedom to reinterpret and reevaluate the law was like water on dry ground to many who had been excluded from the synagogues and Temples. For the early Christians it was a message which was central to this new faith. Gentiles were welcome; there was space for those who had always been regarded as outsiders till now. But did this mean that those ancient commandments of God had no place in the church, that the law didn’t matter any more, that, as the Ranters thought, you could just do whatever you wanted now?

Not according to Matthew in the passage we heard from his Gospel this morning. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it,” says Jesus here. This passage is Matthew’s answer to the antinomians in the communities he wrote for. But he’s not just reasserting the old rules. What Matthew is doing here is trying to help his readers see them in a whole new light.

What does it mean to fulfil the law? It means that Jesus makes sense of it in a new way. In him people can see the commandments of God lived out in flesh and blood as day by day he shows what it means to love God and love your neighbour. Want to see what the law looks if you keep it perfectly, truly, in the way God intended it to be kept? Look at Jesus, is the message of the Gospels. There it is. Not a miserable narrow legalism, but a joyful, life-giving demonstration of how we are meant to be, the pattern of God’s desire for us. God turns words – the dry words of the law – into the living flesh of Christ, so we can’t miss seeing what holiness really looks like.

What Jesus does matters; through it he shows us God. And that means that what we do matters too. “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.” What’s the point of salt if it isn’t actually salty? Without the taste it is just white, gritty powder, no use to anyone. What’s the point of light if you can’t see it? It might as well not be there at all. It matters how we behave, because our behaviour makes a difference.

God doesn’t call us to do right so that we can be saved; he calls us to do right because the right things we do heal the world, bit by bit. Living ethically isn’t some sort of entrance exam to get us through the pearly gates when we die, it is the thing that makes a heaven of the world around us, not just for us, but for everyone.

Isaiah says the same thing in today’s Old Testament reading. God laments that “day by day my people seek me,…as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” But the problem is that they don’t practice righteousness, and that means that their prayers aren’t worth a hill of beans. They make no difference whatsoever. They can pray for heaven till they are blue in the face, they can come along to the Temple day and night, but if they don’t live what they pray for it will do no one any good. Heaven is what happens, says God, when the bonds of injustice are loosed, the oppressed are freed, the hungry fed and the homeless housed. Heaven is something you live, not something you win. And you live it by living God’s law of love, living the way God calls you to, with honesty, integrity, compassion and justice.

All of this might seem glaringly obvious I suppose, but sometimes it’s the obvious things which we miss most easily. The way we live shapes us and our society for good or ill. That’s why we need to take our moral judgements and actions seriously. The Ranters were wrong. Anything doesn’t go. Not because if we do wrong we might lose our salvation, but because if we do wrong, people suffer and instead of the world being set right it is bent even more out of shape.

I read a cautionary little tale in last week’s Church Times. “A British couple in their 70s, who have not been named, caused £23,000 of damage to a 19th-century chapel in Bavaria, after their satnav directed them into the building. They returned to Britain by train”

The question I’d like us to take away to ponder today is this. What is it that directs our course through the world, that steers our path? Is it that ticket to heaven, or the fear of hell? Is it the craving to look good in the eyes of others? Is it the desire to boost our own self-esteem? Is it a deep-seated habit of just doing what we’re told, obeying any voice of authority that sounds loud and clear, whether it is really healthy or sensible or not – and that includes blind obedience to the voice the Bible as if it were some spiritual satnav that could be followed unquestioningly, with no reference to the context it was written in or the very different priorities of our own age? If it is those things which motivate us we may, like that hapless British couple, find we have actually done more harm than good, causing damage that no amount of money can repair.

“I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it”, said Jesus. He lived out God’s law of love among the people of Galilee and Judea, the pattern for life which God had given as a gift and a blessing, not a burden to crush them. He showed them heaven growing in their ordinary lives as they were lit up by that love and he invites us to find his heavenly kingdom too, in us and around us, as we try to live with righteousness and justice.

* “Reformation: Europe's House Divided” p. 526