Imagine, if you would, that you are not sitting here on a wooden pew in this church with the sound of traffic whizzing past, and, most likely, your own car parked not far away. Try and imagine that you are dusty and weary, always rather hungry, always looking forward to the next drink of water, always rather anxious about where those things will come from. You have been walking, almost daily, with some stops for rest where there is a water source. You are surrounded by people you know well. Many of them are related to you in some way. There are the children, the young, stronger people, and the older ones for whom all this is difficult. You had never imagined it would be like this when you left. This travelling has gone on for so long and there seems to be no end in sight. There are times when everyone’s spirits have been low and it has been a hard job for your leaders to keep people focussed on the end point of the journey. Sometimes tempers have flared. Anger simmers not far below the surface. There are the petty jealousies too that can also expand into anger and hurt. So these evenings when you gather around the camp fires are important, because this is when your leaders spell out for everyone again what is important, what basic rules of behaviour need to be observed and respected so that you can continue to hold onto respect for each other, however annoying people may find each other. You all need to keep focussing on your faith, however stretched that may be at times. You need to keep focussing on the One who is the source of life and who, ultimately, holds all this journey in his purpose for you.
You are all refugees, fleeing from persecution and oppression, looking for a place to feel safe, to call your own. That has been promised to you. But the getting there is far more physically, mentally, emotionally demanding than you could have imagined.
No, you are not Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani, Sudanese, Yemeni or whatever. You are the Hebrew people who fled from Egypt in search of the Promised Land. You are told you are God’s chosen people, but it seems as though God forgets that sometimes. What holds you together are those wise words of the Law that Moses, that amazing old man received from God on that scary mountain where there was lighting and thunder and powerful demonstrations of God’s awesome power. It is the words of the Law that you need to be reminded of all the time: the Law that tells you how to live, especially when things are getting tough. What else keeps all your collective human frailties from breaking you all apart? What else reminds you of the way God would have you live, for your own sake and everyone else’s? You know that you always have to make a choice of how you behave, because some decisions lead to death and some point to staying alive and flourishing. Moses tells you this. The words recorded in Deuteronomy are the last words he speaks to the people. He is an old, old man and knows that he himself will not be there to see the completion of the journey. But what he has done is to leave the people with the Law that is to be the guide and foundation for them as God’s people, though it will often be forgotten.
All these centuries later, we are here. We know about that Law still, though maybe we would struggle to name all the Ten Commandments. They have rather gone out of fashion. In between those times back then and now there have been the prophets who tried to remind people, and there has been Jesus. Last week we heard Jesus say he had not come to take anything of the Law away. He had come to fulfil it. Today he elaborates on it. And it sounds hard. Indeed it could be tempting to think that this is all an idealised vision that is unattainable. Maybe it’s all right for monks and nuns who have felt called to spend their lives apart, but for us mere mortals?
But let’s listen again to Jesus: “You have heard it said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement. And anyone who says to a brother or sister ‘Raca’, is answerable to the court. And anyone who says ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” So firstly we see that it is not just the actions that are being looked at, but the inner attitudes behind them. We may not actually stab someone but we may ‘stab them in the back’ as the saying goes. Jesus tells people that that isn’t right either. What he says may seem extreme, and that was the way teachers such as Jesus made an impact. It may seem hard, but don’t we all know how easy it is to put people down behind their back, how easy it is to allow anger at something someone has done to simmer away in passive aggressive attitudes we think are harmless?
People had become so used to the rituals of obeying the Law that they had lost the whole spirit of it. That spirit was meant to show how living in God’s love would lead to love of neighbour, to forgiveness and respect, to honouring of the stranger, the ‘other’, because to do anything different from these things is to dishonour God in whom all life is held. We know around us today, that a spirit of respect seems to be swept away by the rhetoric of individual rights and disregard for those who are different and who struggle.
The talk of adultery and divorce comes from a context where women were disempowered, from a society where attitudes had been shaped in a time of polygamy that had now been changed. We see the rabbi’s understood technique of exaggeration at play when Jesus talks about throwing out an eye or cutting off a hand. But there was serious intent behind what he was saying.
Jesus was uncompromising in his emphasis on the importance of how we think and speak, how we treat one another. It is like a clear, clean, ice cold flood of water washing through our warm comfortable places. It’s not all bad news! It is the refreshment we need, just as our computers need to be refreshed, reset at intervals.
In contrast to the clear cold waters of Jesus’ call to look at ourselves and the way we behave, think and speak, we see around us waters that are very muddy. We can’t easily avoid looking at America and hearing the strong language being quite casually used, words that can be so powerful in shaping attitudes. But it is not just over there, it is here and really everywhere, because social media spreads thoughtless and sometimes hurtful comments like wild-fire. Maybe this is not us, or our world but we cannot retreat from it. And Churches are not exempt from words and actions that are anything but compassionate and loving.
What hits me about what Jesus says about the way we think, the way we speak, the way we act, in other words about how we hold onto God’s Law of love, is that each week here and in churches all around the world we pray “your Kingdom come”. I think we do that with a real desire that God’s rule of love should prevail. “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” We cannot think that we just sit and wait for this to happen, while we simply and quietly get on with our lives. Jesus ministry was a call for people to follow, and, in doing so to discover the enormous joy, grace and freedom that are characteristics of God’s kingdom. We believe that this is what God longs for us to know, to experience. What we hear today is that it begins with the choices we all make about how we think, what we say and how we act. Much of the time we are responding to things that challenge us, that push our buttons, that we feel angry about. Today’s words from the gospel don’t let us off the hook about responding in anger. Jesus is not saying that anger is wrong. He got angry himself at injustice, and so should we. But acting out of anger is not the Kingdom way. Some things are life-giving and some are not. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
There are many, many stories about people who have chosen to turn away from anger and resentment, who have chosen forgiveness of terrible things, and have discovered life. You may well have your own examples of this. We might think of Rosie Batty for one. I am sure I have told you before about the black woman from a township in South Africa whose two sons and then husband were killed by the police one after another, all completely innocent. At a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission she was given the opportunity to tell her story, as the police officer she recognised very well was on the other side of the room. After she finished the commissioner asked her if there was anything she would like to say to that officer. She said she had two requests to make to him: firstly that he take her to where her husband’s body had been burned so that she could gather up the dust and give it a burial. Then, she spoke to him directly and said “You have taken away my sons. I would ask to come over here and let me embrace you and for you to be my son.” After a stunned silence, people in the gallery started to sing “Amazing grace”. She chose life. She knew what led to deathliness. She knew the cost of that choice. She depended on God’s grace.
Jesus was not trying to put heavy restrictions on people or expecting them to be anything but human. He wanted them, and wants us, to rediscover what makes us truly human. He wants us to rediscover the joyous freedom of the Kingdom of God’s love. In a world that both needs and wants to hear and see love at work, may our prayer “Your kingdom come” be a prayer that reaches our hearts and minds and our actions. May it be a prayer we continue to pray for the sake of our world.