SERMON 19 February 2017
I wonder what “do’s” and “Don’ts” you grew up with. Maybe “Wash your hands before you eat”, “Don’t speak with your mouth full”, “Don’t interrupt”, and lots more. And, if you are a parent, you probably heard yourself saying the same things to your children. Some of these basic things get handed on from generation to generation – or we hope they do!
We’ve been hearing some tough words in the readings about keeping the Law in the last few weeks: quite a lot of “don’ts” to govern behaviour. We know how important the Law was for the guidance and wellbeing of the Hebrew people. What we don’t always understand is the culture that lies behind some of the statements. “An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” comes from a society where response to an injury was not proportionate but often extreme. Not an eye for an eye but death for an eye. Tribal killings in response to a murder. In other words, “An eye for an eye” is a moderating reaction. It was seen as allowing a balanced reaction, a just situation, and this had been the pattern for centuries.
Now we put Jesus into the mix and we can see how he is pivotal he is in what he teaches. “You have heard that it was said ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth’. But I tell you ‘Do not resist an evil person’ ”. What he says is truly revolutionary. It inspired Mahatma Ghandi, who is well known for saying that if we take an eye for an eye the whole world would be blind. “Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Let’s picture this for a moment. Imagine you are facing someone, and we assume you are right handed. To slap the person in front of you on their right cheek you have to do a back-handed swipe. That was what happened. It was seen as a particular insult to back-hand someone and it demeaned the other person. Jesus is saying, in effect, “Stand there. They will then have to hit you as an equal, on the left cheek with their palm”, man to man, as it were. No more treating others as unequal, unimportant. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Everyone has dignity.
Having got through the logistics of hitting someone we can go on to see how Jesus is building a picture of the generosity of life lived under God’s Kingdom’s rules. It is always about doing more, in love: giving one’s coat as well as one’s shirt, going the second mile, loving our enemies. I don’t think we are meant to get caught up in the specifics. As when we looked at anger last week, Jesus is more concerned about attitudes than actions.
There is something of core importance that underlies what Jesus is saying. It relates back to the beginning of the reading we heard from Leviticus, the book of laws. All those imperatives, the “Do not’s” are prefaced by the words “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy”. Be holy. I wonder how that feels to you. Holiness is most often a word that we link to God alone. We have sung “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty”. Do you have any kind of image about what holiness might look like? Would it be related to light, purity, or even cleanliness which my grandmother’s generation at least was brought up to think of as being next to holiness, or godliness. That was the Victorian era mindset that would cover up the legs of a piano in order to be “correct” and somehow undefiled by legs. Really though, all this holiness talk doesn’t seem like us, either because of the degree to which it has been equated with some kind of forced respectability or because of who we know ourselves to be. After all, each week we pray a prayer of confession which alludes to the inescapable fact of our human frailty. And yet, “be holy” says God to the people and follows it with a list of rules about how to behave.
Jesus follows his revolutionary teaching about “an eye for an eye” and so on, with the words “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I spend quite a lot of time listening to people in supervision, to ministers and pastoral carers and many others, and I know how heavily those words can sit on people’s hearts. It can drive people to an exhausted sense of failure from which they can see no let-out. To give in or give up only compounds the feeling of failure. I also think that kind of feeling lurks not far from many of us at times. “I need to try harder to be the perfect person God wants me to be.” Can this be right? I hope it doesn’t fit with your understanding of who Jesus was or what he taught.
Part of the trouble is with the translation of the word we have as “perfect”. It seems immediately unattainable. In any case, I think relating a perfect person would be hard! Maybe I told you how, in Beirut, Clive and I were sitting in a café where there were several women, all immaculately dressed, bejewelled and with hair just so. Clive asked me if I felt out of place! For a lot of people, perfection has more to do with appearance than inner qualities. Do you remember the woman who was so obsessed with looking like Barbie that she underwent lots of surgical procedures? Which all makes me also question how we are to understand any connection between the joyful freedom we are offered in Christ and a drive for perfection. Knowing we are accepted, just as we are, seems much closer to the gospel. Don’t we get on with each other much better knowing that we are all a bit flawed and can therefore begin to understand other people’s struggles?
Clearly we need to look again at this idea of perfection. Closer words to convey the meaning would be “Complete” or “Whole”. Where does our wholeness lie but in God’s grace and love? It also has a meaning of “Mature”, being the opposite of the word Paul uses when he talks about the infant requiring milk. We don’t get to maturity without living through life’s struggles.
We are dealing with a tension between the call to be holy, to be perfect, and our own humanity. In both Leviticus and in Matthew these ideas are connected to practicalities about how to behave. Jesus takes the Law and blows it wide open. In doing so he helps us understand the extraordinary breadth, depth and height of God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom here on earth. Because that is the point. This is not about striving for some far off nirvana. It is about seeing holiness in the here and now. It is about being open to the vision of what God, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit is calling us to be. After all, God, in Jesus, was showing us holiness come down to earth. Isn’t that why the image of the manger and the stable resonates with people, even those of no faith? There is a worldwide attraction to Celtic spirituality and I am sure this relates to the incarnational understanding and seeing both the holy and the presence of the saints around in every part of life. There is no great division between the physical and spiritual. It is given voice in prayers like this, said at the kindling of the fire in the morning: “I will raise the hearth-fire as Mary would. The encirclement of Bride (Bridget) and of Mary on the fire, and on the floor, and on the household all. Who are on the bare floor? John and Peter and Paul. Who are by my bed? The lovely Bride and her Fosterling. Who are those watching over my sleep? The fair loving Mary and her Lamb. Who is anear me? The King of the sun, he Himself it is. Who is at the back of my head? The Son of Life without beginning, without time.” Or this blessing: “May you have walls for the wind and a roof for the rain, and drinks by the fire, laughter to cheer you and those who you love near you, and all that your heart may desire.”
While these clearly come from a different time and an age when the angels’ presence was part of everyday life, they show a life where nothing was separated from the holiness of God, and where life was to be lived within that. We are far removed from such thinking, and maybe we have lost something in consequence. There are very many more modern Celtic blessings and prayers that speak to many people’s awareness of God in everything.
To be holy, whole, complete, is to place oneself within the awareness of God and God’s calling to follow the Way of Jesus. It is a way that offers every individual respect and dignity, that acts out of a generosity of heart through the grace of God. It is the way that calls us to love our neighbour and, equally, our enemy. It is a call that echoes in the hearts of people everywhere. Barack Obama, in the speech he gave in Cairo, said “It’s easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do to others as we would have them do to us. This truth transcends nations and peoples; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It is a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions.”
“Be holy, because, the Lord your God, am holy”. The holiness is there, it is here, it is everywhere because nothing is outside of God. If we are to be holy, what we are being asked to do is to place ourselves, always, within that holiness of God. When we turn towards that, as we do when we repent, we know again that wholeness is what we are offered and what is possible. This is not just about ourselves, it is about the way we relate to each other, the way we relate as communities, as nations within a world that needs us to relate to the creation as well. It is the way of God’s peace and is, as Obama said “the belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and still beats in the hearts of millions”.
Can you sense the holiness, the perfection of God around us? God’s Spirit never ceases to weave this holiness into the world along with the call to all people to be holy and to be “perfect”. We are part of God’s holiness, that down to earth holiness that we discover in Jesus. Maybe, after all, holiness is a call to live in love.