Archives for posts with tag: sermon on the mount

FFC51CEC-7413-42F0-BAE5-6E554435EB6DSermon for Evensong on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

(Exodus 2:23-3:10;) Hebrews 13:1-15

‘NEVER CEASE TO LOVE your fellow-Christians. Remember to show hospitality. There are some who, by so doing, have entertained angels without knowing it.

Remember those in prison as if you were there with them; and those who are being maltreated, for you like them are still in the world’. [Hebrews 13:1-2, NEB]

As well as the lovely angel reference, this is good advice for Christians about how to live a good life. Jesus’ two great commandments were to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. It is that second commandment that our lesson from Hebrews is all about. Do as you would be done by, sometimes referred to as the Golden Rule. It’s so familiar that nobody would really challenge it as a recipe for a peaceful and harmonious life. But I think it’s worth just pausing to look at it in more detail.

The examples in Hebrews are encouraging us to put ourselves in the shoes of various other people. People in prison and people who are being maltreated in one way or another: what does it feel like? What does it feel like to be in prison?

Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, in the context of learning how to do the right or the good thing in life, isn’t just an exercise in sympathy or empathy – you know, ‘I feel your pain’. Saying that, after all, doesn’t really mean anything, because you can’t feel another person’s pain.

Never mind pain. You can’t actually perceive exactly what that other person perceives, either. When I was younger, my mother had a Mini, which, because it was the swinging 60s, was a very fetching shade of pale yellow. It was called ‘Fiesta Yellow’ by the manufacturers. But an awful lot of our friends thought that the car was light green. One person’s Fiesta Yellow is another person’s light green. I have a picture of the car on my phone if you want to inspect it afterwards and see which colour you think it is.

You can’t feel another person’s pain, but you can certainly imagine what it would feel like to have something or other done to you. You know that you would not want to be hurt; and what Jesus is saying is that therefore you should not want to hurt anyone else. And, following St Francis of Assisi, you might extend that principle to all God’s creatures. Do as you would be done by. What if you were a cow? How do you feel about roast beef?

We rapidly stumble across the same sort of issues that we encounter in the context of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5]. Jesus seems to be putting forward counsels of perfection, things which you can’t actually carry out perfectly in practice.

It raises issues with the Ten Commandments (which, after all, are all summed up in the two great commandments.) ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example. So we have all the elaborate legal and philosophical theory which has created the concept of the ‘just war’, effectively putting two moral principles against each other and making one take precedence over the other. The idea is that in certain circumstances justice may be served by making war where there is no alternative, for example where a country has to act in self-defence. In the ‘just war’ theory, the principle of upholding justice between nations, international law, is regarded as more important than ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

Jesus, however, did not talk about ‘just wars’. He did talk about loving your neighbour ‘as yourself’, and therefore not wanting to harm your neighbour, without any ifs or buts; without any exceptions.

This idea of sympathy, feeling with somebody, which is what the word literally means, clearly has paradoxical implications. You can’t get inside somebody else’s head. We are all separate individuals: except, perhaps, if you are Jesus himself. We say that Jesus took upon himself the burden of our sin. He suffered for us.

It is relatively straightforward for us to be able to say this, but really difficult to know what it really means. You might say that it is really a sacred mystery. Jesus entered into our world, our personality, our souls. And, according to some theologians, he took upon himself the burden of our sin and suffered for us. But again, it is difficult to make literal sense of that. What is the sin that Jesus took upon himself? Sin is usually defined as whatever it is that separates you from God, so it seems odd that Jesus, who was God, could take upon himself things which were anti-God.

There are, of course, examples from history of people making heroic sacrifices in order to save other people. We have just, in the church’s calendar, remembered a brave Polish priest, Maximilian Kolbe, who died in the Second World War in Auschwitz. The Nazis were executing people in the camp, in reprisal for a breakout attempt, and they had selected 10 prisoners at random. Father Maximilian volunteered to take the place of one of the prisoners selected. He had heard the prisoner crying out that he would never see his wife and family again. That’s why father Maximilian stepped forward and said he would take his place, so that now he would be able to see his family again. The Reverend Father’s sacrifice saved the family. But it’s not clear that what Jesus did, by suffering on the cross, actually falls into this category.

Perhaps it was more a way of his demonstrating the ultimate expression of loving one’s neighbour as one’s self. Jesus knew that people are crucified, symbolically and actually. People suffer, and he entered into their suffering; he endured the same kind of suffering. He was like a leader who leads from the front. There is nothing that he asks his army to do that he won’t himself do. It means that Jesus, God, is in us, is with us, alongside us at every step of our life.

The God with us gives us a challenge – the Christian challenge. Do we really try to handle others as we ourselves would like to be handled: to give to them, to take away from them, to build them up, or to do things that hurt them; do we do that, always thinking at the same time what it would feel like if it was happening to us?

That’s today’s message. It’s deceptively simple, but it is absolutely revolutionary for our lives. So let us give it more than a second thought. Think about what your neighbour will feel if I do what I do to him – or her.

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Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday 2015

Isaiah 10:33-11:9; John 14:1-29
‘We will remember them.’ This has been a time of remembrance today, looking back in remembrance on all those brave people who have given their lives in the service of their country in war. Now in the evening of the day, ‘at the going down of the sun,’ it is time perhaps for us to look forwards, and reflect on the question of peace.
‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them …. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.’ This beautiful and mystical scene is the prophecy of Isaiah. And then in St John’s Gospel, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions …. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
When I started to study Latin and Greek, the Latin was Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico (‘about the war in Europe’), and the Greek was Xenophon’s Anabasis, another history of war. Julius Caesar, as you know, invaded Britain in 55 and 54BC – less than a century before the time of Christ. It was definitely a warlike time throughout the Roman Empire.
Jesus grew up surrounded by wars. Before then the world of the Old Testament was permeated with lots of violence and wars. The story of the exodus from Egypt was very violent and the entry into the promised land equally involved a number of battles.
In the passage we have read from St John’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ Presumably, that includes ‘Thou shalt not kill’. But even so, Jesus himself also said, ‘I came not to bring peace but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34). So would Jesus have belonged to the Peace Pledge Union, and worn not a red poppy, but a white one, today? Just as today most people see war as something to be avoided if possible, but never to be ruled out as a last resort, in Jesus’ time, war was an unavoidable fact of life.
Following St Thomas Aquinas, the church developed a doctrine of the ‘Just War’. (See Summa Theologiae 40.1). This is what Aquinas says. ‘If a war is to be just, three things are needed. It must be waged by the due authorities, for those who may lawfully use the sword to defend a commonwealth against criminals disturbing it from within may also use the sword of war to protect it from enemies without. … the cause must be just, …. And those waging war must intend to promote good and avoid evil.’
It might be instructive to compare these principles with the principles laid down in the United Nations Charter allowing a modern nation lawfully to declare war – or at least to make war, even without a declaration – on another. These days the requirements for a war to be just are: that it should be in self defence; or because a treaty obliges us to wage war to protect another nation – as we were obliged by treaty to protect Poland at the beginning of WW2 – or because the approval of the United Nations has been obtained.
But the original ‘just war’ principles are still influential. War can only be waged lawfully by a sovereign nation: you cannot have private wars, vendettas, as they have in Sicily between Mafiosi. The cause must be just. A nation can’t wage war simply in order to benefit itself. So Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum, literally, ‘living space’, territorial aggrandisement, was not a legitimate occasion for making war.
And the means employed must be proportionate. Proportionality is an old legal principle dating back at least to the lex talionis, an eye for an eye, (Deut .19:21): the point is that it is just an eye for an eye, not more. There were similar provisions even earlier, in Babylonian law and the laws of Hammurabi.
There must also be a reasonable expectation that the war will be successful. This does still come, perhaps, from Aquinas. He says, “The Lord’s words, ‘I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance’, [Matt. 5:39 ] must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self defence if the situation calls for that.” (Summa Theologiae 40.1) Pyrrhic victory might not be lawful. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus certainly went much further than the Lex Talionis.

Are we content that there is, or there can be, such a thing as a just war? Does it matter that some of the wars which have been waged, at least arguably, as just wars, have not achieved their objectives? See for example the situation in Iraq today, or even more tragically, in Afghanistan.
Is it reasonable to ask, what would Jesus do? Would he have something to say, for instance, about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, (the rationale behind the holding of nuclear weapons), or of ‘shock and awe’ as used in Iraq. Would these doctrines square with the doctrines of just cause and proportionality in the case of MAD, or proportionality, in the case of ‘shock and awe’?
The theory of nuclear deterrence does not depend on the rightness of one’s cause. The opponent is deterred not because we are right, but because we can kill him. Perhaps it is proportional to respond to a threat of global annihilation – with what? With a threat of global annihilation. But perhaps that simply illustrates that the principle of proportionality is inadequate in the context of nuclear weapons. And again, what about a nuclear suicide bomber? MAD will not affect them.
I for one was very encouraged when Parliament refused to back military action in Syria. It seemed to me that the criteria for a just war were indeed not properly met. There was no threat against this country, so as to raise a question of self-defence. There was no treaty obligation to help some of the Syrians against the Syrian government – how could there be? And what was the likelihood of success – if indeed one could agree on what would constitute success? Of course, the question may come up again soon.
So much of our Remembrance Day liturgy and poetry was inspired by WW1. That was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’ – which must be a perfect example of Aquinas’ second test for a just war, that the cause must be just. There can surely be no more righteous cause than the eradication of war for the future.
But even in this most worthy objective, war was not a solution. Indeed the seeds of the Second World War were sown in the aftermath of the First one. Can we honestly point to many wars and say they have really achieved anything?
Perhaps universal pessimism is not justified: it was vital that Nazism had to be defeated: war was the only way to do it; the war succeeded. The war on Nazism succeeded at least in that the military threat to this country was removed – it was justified according to the principle of self defence.
But one cannot change people’s minds by war against them. Just as there are still people who are Nazis, even in this country, and there certainly are still Nazis in mainland Europe, it is certainly arguable that people have been inspired to take up terrorism by their believing that the West has waged war unjustly in the Middle East.
This is a terribly difficult area. Clearly we can be, and we are, really thankful for the bravery and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. That is the main purpose of Remembrance Sunday. But it is much more difficult to know where our duty lies as Christians in the face of the threats to peace which the world now faces.
We must say our prayers, we must pray for world peace. But also we must be alert, we must scrutinise everything that is done in our name, especially if warlike acts are being prepared. ‘At the going down of the sun’ we will remember. We must remember – and because of what we remember, we must be careful. And we must be just.

Sermon for Evensong on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 16th March 2014
Luke 14: ‘For which of you … counteth the cost?’

I’ve never really got this passage. On the one hand, Jesus tells his disciples that they must turn their backs on family and friends, must give up everything, if they are to become his disciples, his students.

On the other, He asks some rhetorical questions about making prudent choices, making sure you have sufficient building materials before starting to build; weighing up the relative numbers of opposing armies before launching an attack.

On the first hand, Jesus seems to be calling for reckless abandon on the part of his followers. Cast off the trappings of life. Have faith.

On the other, He says, everyone figures out the odds before committing themselves. Is it really worth doing, to become a disciple of Jesus? What are the pros and cons?

These two points of view can’t both be true. Conventionally, scholars reconcile the apparent contradiction – reckless abandon versus figuring the odds before acting – by saying that this is about the seriousness of the commitment needed in order to become Jesus’ disciple. I’m not sure that’s right.

Lent is supposed to be a time of reflection and self-examination, reflecting the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, during which time He was tempted by the Devil. Traditionally we have made this into a time of abstinence and fasting, a time of self-denial. So people typically give up alcohol and chocolate as a sign that they are marking Lent, that they are part of the group that is marking Lent, that is, the Christian church. Let’s say that their reflection and self-examination correspond with being Jesus’ sensible builders, figuring out the odds.

But let’s face it, the abstinence, the keeping off chocolate – unless you are Revd Keith Hebden, the vicar in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, who is going to take no food for 40 days and nights in order to support End Hunger Now – whatever you do, will be relatively trivial.

Not but what I hope that you will, for example, support the Bishop’s Lent Call, for which there is a flyer at the back of the church on your way out, which puts a price on various things that you might do in the normal course of your life, so that, rather like a swear box, you will pay a little penalty for doing a particular thing, like taking more than 2½ minutes to have your shower in the morning, or having an alcoholic drink: I’m not knocking any of this.

I think that anything, which makes you reflect, is a good thing. But I have experienced something in the last few days which has made me realise what it is to search my inner being in a way which I have never had to before. I have been attending court for the last week, to support a friend of mine who is on trial.

I got to the end of the third day of the trial, and as I drove home, my mind started to fill with all sorts of testing thoughts. I thought about the testing time which Jesus himself suffered: and I slowly began to realise what a real, serious, testing period could involve.

Obviously I can’t tell you in any great detail about the court case, which, incidentally, is still going on. It is a re-trial. The whole trial has taken place before, but the jury was unable to agree. So the prosecutors decided that they would do it all over again. Three months later, a new jury was empanelled, the new hearing began, and the evidence was starting to be set out all over again.

But after three days, three days of the retrial, one of the jurors called in sick. The rules are that they are supposed to get a doctor’s note to justify their absence, or else such absence becomes a criminal offence in itself. Well, by the next day the juror hadn’t turned up, and the police had been round to his house to find him, but he had disappeared. No doctor’s certificate had arrived.

Both sides don’t want less than a full jury, so it looks as though there is going to be a third trial. What I was reflecting on, as I drove back from the court, was how all the various people involved in the case must have been feeling. My friend, who is on trial, is under terrible stress. He maintains that he did not do what he’s accused of. There is a witness who is effectively accusing him of something which, if it is proved to have happened, would amount to a very serious crime, for which he could be sent to jail for several years. There is apparently evidence on both sides.

Now I don’t know about you, but I quite enjoy policier stuff on the TV. The whole emphasis is on the thrill of the chase. Whether we’re watching Wallander or Dixon of Dock Green, the idea is that the policeman is out to catch criminals and have them locked away when they have been convicted in court. You can thoroughly enter into this and enjoy it. My favourite detective at the moment is Montalbano. Montalbano is a detective in Sicily. He has the most beautiful flat, which is on the beach. In the opening sequences we see him enjoying a swim before he goes to work. Various things happen, sometimes involving the Mafia, and sometimes even involving murders. Montalbano’s method of working always involves lunch, in a congenial trattoria where he’s extremely well-known, and where he lunches people who might be helpful in the context of his current case. Strangely enough, such people are always very good-looking girls.

It’s great viewing on a Sunday evening after Evensong. But having been in the court this week, it certainly occurs to me that real crimes, and real criminal law, aren’t like that. It’s not fun. The court has to establish the facts, then to establish if those facts mean that any law has been broken, and then to establish whether the person in the dock did the things which amounted to the breach of the law: and if so, the right penalty, as prescribed by law, has to be handed down.

So far, so uncontroversial. And frankly, so unconnected with our comfortable lives here. Some of us may have done some prison visiting, and some of us may have gone to one of those Grange Park Opera productions performed in prisons around the country. But what would you feel like, if you were watching your barrister and the prosecuting barrister fighting it out in front of the jury? And knowing that, if it goes the wrong way, you will end up for several years in jail?

What does it feel like for my friend? He’s a professional person. He went to a good university. He had a professional job. Something has gone terribly wrong. He is ruined. He is already ruined, even before the verdict, just by being in court on trial. His wife has left him. But he didn’t do it.

But will the jury believe him? Will the jury weigh up the evidence, with the help of the barristers on each side and with the help of the judge, who will give directions? What happens if he’s acquitted? There are still those people who accused him. They’re still going to be out there.

What if he goes to jail? Where will he end up? Will any of his friends be able to come and see him easily? What about those long periods when his friends can’t make it? He has no family any more. It’s not like hospital visiting, just down the road. For whatever reason, people are not going to do it so easily.

I know he’s a Christian. He prays every night, and he asks me to pray for him. And I do. And then I find all these thoughts come crowding in. What if the jury finds him guilty? What if he does go to jail? What am I supposed to feel if they find him guilty of the things he’s accused of? Then, on the face of things, he would be a terrible criminal. Certainly the rest of the world will think that.

These are my reflections, my trials in the wilderness. Would I choose that fight? How strong are the forces ranged against my friend in the court? I’m figuring out the odds.

And that sort of reflection, that sort of analysis, doesn’t help. When I came back from the court, full of conflicting thoughts and emotions, deep, rational thoughts, thoughts fit for Lent, even – they didn’t help.

But if I thought in the way Jesus started off arguing here, just dropping everything and falling in behind Him; getting rid of all the baggage – then what? I think that is the clue, that is the way to look at what Jesus was saying. Not that one should weigh up carefully the cost/benefit of being a disciple, and then make a reasoned commitment: not that. Nothing wrong with figuring things out – but this is different. This is in a different league. What Jesus is looking for is commitment, commitment untrammelled by the baggage of life.

So when I worry about my friend facing his trial in court, I can reflect all I can, but it won’t get me anywhere. ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?’ Jesus asked, in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matt. 6:27). What will happen, will happen. What Jesus is saying, is raising things to a higher plane. Whatever happens, proved innocent or proved guilty, my friend is still my friend. I can hate the sin – if there is one – but love the sinner. We are all sinners. But Jesus shows that, if we are prepared to make a commitment, to take up a cross and follow him: to be reckless, reckless about the cost – then He will be there.

Even in that court this week, in the context of serious crime, God was there. He gives us reason to hope. He will give my friend reason to hope, whichever way it goes for him. Let us today remember, as part of our Lenten observance, those people who are being tested, tested in a much tougher way than just giving up chocolate. Where they are concerned, let us pray St Ignatius Loyola’s prayer: ‘Teach us, good Lord, …. to give, and not to count the cost’. [St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)]

PS – this story has a happy ending. My friend was acquitted of all charges.