Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean
Trust God. Live Differently
Isaiah 49: 8 – 16a
1 Corinthians 3: 18 – 4: 5
Matthew 6: 22 – 34
No matter how late the date of Easter, each year I find myself surprised that the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent comes round so quickly. It really does seem just the other day that the Cathedral was filled for the back-to-back Christmas services. And yet here we are, pancakes ready to be eaten later this morning and our last reading, at least for the moment, from the Sermon on the Mount. For five Sundays our Gospel readings have come from this first collection of Jesus’s teachings in Matthew (there are four other collections in the Gospel). Each week we have read a handful of verses from the three chapters concerned and, in the course of a 12 – 15 minute sermon, attempted to gain insight and understanding as to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. In a world of instant news, fake news and the increasingly influential ‘tweet’ perhaps it’s time to press the ‘pause’ button. After all, Lent recalls the forty days that Jesus is supposed to have spent in the wilderness on retreat – preparing for his adult ministry, which itself recalls the much longer forty years spent by the Israelites wandering around the wilderness after they were given the Ten Commandments. Even then, they did not always get it right.
If I include the time I spent at theological college I have been preaching for forty years. That seems like an awfully long time and a very large number of sermons – none of them recycled by the way! But I wonder what I have learned in those years, and I wonder what the people who have been gracious to listen to all those words have learned about being a Christian, a disciple of Jesus?
One thing I have learned is that we should be very careful of reacting too quickly to one verse or passage from the Bible – and certainly not take a sentence out of context because it seems to affirm what I am already thinking and feeling. This is called proof-texting, is far too common, and we are all guilty of it at times. My favourite story of proof-texting is the slightly bizarre and decidedly not pc story of the person who was feeling down and wondering whether life was worth living. Deciding that God must have a word for him he turned to his Bible. First text to notice was this: Judas went out and hanged himself! Bit extreme he thought, let’s try again. Go and do likewise! Help? One more try. What you must do, do quickly! You can have fun finding these passages in the Bible.
So let’s pause a little in our journey through the Sermon on the Mount and take a moment to think of the whole. Stay with me for the next few minutes.
Two weeks ago some took offence, rightly, at the strong words on divorce that Jesus used. “I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery …” and so on. (Matthew 5: 31 ff) The first thing I want to say is that the Church has moved massively in its understanding of marriage and divorce. I was unable to officiate at the wedding of my brother about thirty years ago because he married someone who had been previously married. That was the ‘law’ and our understanding of Jesus’s teaching. Today many sitting here this morning have been previously married. Yet they are welcome. And we don’t castigate or cast aspersions. Indeed we focus on the joy and graciousness of God’s grace and recognise that, despite our best intentions, things do not always work out well – and that some are given another chance at marital happiness. Thank God for that. But I am also aware that last year a woman who worshipped with us, let’s call her Mary, was divorced – not by her will or even her husband’s, but because her mother-in-law wanted the grandson the couple were not able to have. Fortunately Mary is well-educated and able to earn her own living. In Jesus’s day that was unlikely to be the case and a woman, divorced by her husband for whatever reason, was likely to find prostitution her only source of income – a matter of survival.
Just last week we read the words about turning the other cheek (Matt 5: 38ff). For generations this passage was used to justify passively accepting the power people had over others – especially if you were the one holding the power. I am taken back to preaching on this passage many years ago. As I tried to unpack its meaning, especially the idea that Jesus was actually suggesting that by turning the other cheek the ‘victim’ is in fact inviting the aggressor to notice him as a human being, not some sort of dog to be slapped out of the way, a woman in the congregation burst into tears. For years she had been abused by her husband – submitting to it because of her reading of this passage. No one had ever helped her to think about the context Jesus had in mind, or that there might be another reading of the passage.
Many people love Psalm 121, especially set to Walford Davies lovely Chant which, incidently, the choir will sing next Sunday. In the still familiar words of the Book of Common Prayer the opening verse read: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” A former colleague of mine could never bring herself to say it. Her sister-in-law had stumbled when crossing a stream and drowned. How, she kept asking, did God not keep the promise in that psalm that “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved…”? At last Thursday’s Eucharist we read from Mark 9: 42 ff, including these words: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones ….” The night before five Roman Catholic Archbishops admitted publicly to catastrophic failure on the part of the church to care for children in their care. Lest we have even the inklings of smugness let me remind you that a week earlier the hard-hitting report of the Royal Commission on Case Study 36 was released, documenting the Diocese of Adelaide’s own sad history in this area. And yet, I can’t help thinking, it is not only the children who have been abused, but increasingly, it seems to me as I have watched those Catholic Archbishops being humiliated, and witnessed firsthand the toll on our own former Archbishop and his wife of listening to the stories of survivors, there is a secondary abuse going on of those who are now having to take responsibility for the actions of others.
We pride ourselves on being an ‘inclusive’ community – the word appears on the front page of our service booklet each week. Perhaps the decision to include that word comes from our reading of the story of the wedding banquet when everyone, even those from the highways and byways, was invited. Yet during the week I have had to make the difficult decision of saying to someone, sorry, for the time being at least, you are not acceptable in this particular role. The United States continues to be divided over the election of President Trump. While some see him as the saviour of the nation, others see him as the enemy. Yet did not Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies…”? (Matt 5: 44) Whether you like him or not the principles of democracy prevailed and he does represent the views of millions of Americans. Of course, democracy as practiced by its inventors, the ancient Athenians, was never universal and actually did not last that long as a way of functioning government. And by the way, before Australians get too high on their hobby-horse, perhaps we should consider another verse from the Sermon on the Mount, which we are not reading this year but is nonetheless there. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but not notice the log in your own?” (Matt 7: 3)
Let me draw to a close this invitation, perhaps even a warning, to us to think carefully about, and become more aware of, the overall context, the rich history and ever-changing understanding of the Bible. If Jesus needed forty days in the wilderness, and gave three years of intense teaching to his disciples, and they still frequently got it wrong, and Moses and the Israelites needed forty years before being allowed to cross into the Promised Land, perhaps we should recognise that five short extracts over as many weeks does not really equip us to pronounce unequivocally on the Sermon on the Mount. So to finish today two comments on today’s passage – summed up in the four words offered on the Welcome page: Trust God. Live differently.
By saying to his disciples “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6: 24) Jesus really does invite, demand, a decision of us. The weeks of Lent are a pretty good time to contemplate that decision. Lent began as a time of preparation for people to make what was often a very costly decision – that of being baptised. To say that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord could cost the early Christians their lives. That’s what baptism was about. On Easter Day, in our glorious services of praise and celebration of the resurrection, we renew our baptism faith that Jesus is Lord. That yes, we do trust and serve God.
To our modern ears, concerned as we are with the state of the world, the education of our children and grandchildren, the performance of the stock exchange and the impact of that on our Super funds and all the other things we spend time worrying about, Jesus words not to worry seem absurd. It’s all very well to consider the lilies and birds, but really Jesus, that does not buy a knee replacement, pay the mortgage or solve the ongoing crisis in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan (not to mention the places of conflict that have long dropped off the world’s media agenda). And yet, in his seemingly naïve suggestion not to worry Jesus calls us to live differently, to live as we pray, that God’s kingdom will indeed come, on earth as in heaven.
This Lent: Trust God. Live differently.