Saturday, February 19, 2011

Up until recently...

A very good friend of mine, who also happens to be a muso, has just released a new album.

The friend is Mark Robinson, and the album is called Up Until Recently.

His songs are quite deep, and honest in a raw kind of way; and talk about emotions and experiences that most of us can relate to. Through the songs, a strong theme of yearning to be loved, and to connect with other people and with God comes through, because this has been Mark's journey.

Rod Boucher reviewed the album in these words:

Delicate reflecting with crack - like a slap across my face with a velvet glove on a steel hand. Intimate punch - a whisper in my ear like the roar of Aslan the lion. There's space to sup the sounds, crunch to tap and nod, smesh to surround and wrap and just a smidgeon of techno whistling to the family dog in all of us. Friendly, concerned, passionate, personal and wonderfully played, sung and recorded. I love it all and so would Elvis Costello. Lyric, acoustic yet explosive rock.

Mark's website contains links to sound samples and lyrics for all the songs. A minister colleague suggested that the lyrics of the songs would be really useful for people working with youth.

The album is available for purchase/download from iTunes, CDBaby and CDs will also soon be available- check the website for details. Do yourself a favour and have a listen.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sermon from 13 Feb 2011 - Matthew 5:21-37

Hate... lust... divorce... swearing...
We've got it all, folks!

Today's Gospel is a hard reading to preach on; so much so that I was tempted to preach on one of the other readings from this week's lectionary, but then realised that they're no easier!

As a preacher, it's easy for me to bring my own prejudices, my own 'slant', or the idea that I know the passage, having read it or preached from it before. In fact, I was recently talking to a friend who came back to the faith after wandering in the wilderness for some years, and he asked me: "I've only just started reading my Bible seriously in the past year or so. I presume you have continued to read yours all these years- so how do you not get arrogant, and feel that you know it all?"

I remember advice I was given in preaching classes at Theological College: before I, as a preacher, can have anything of substance to offer you, as listeners, I must have wrestled with the reading, really struggled with it, so that I'm not just reiterating stuff that I already know (or think I know).

Now I have a confession to make- I don't do this as often, or as thoroughly, as I'd like to. Sometimes I borrow ideas from others, sometimes I rely on what I already know (or think I know). Perhaps the observant among you will be able to tell when I have genuinely struggled or grappled with the text by the passion, rawness, freshness of my preaching? (something for you to look out for in the future). Of course the acid test will come at the end of this year, when I have worked my way through the full 3 year Revised Common Lectionary cycle with you, and the temptation will be strong for me to 'recycle' bits from 3 years ago- not necessarily reproducing whole sermons or worship liturgies holus bolus, but rather preaching the same ideas and understandings I had three years before.

This has been a slightly long-winded introduction, basically to tell you that I found this passage hard word to come to terms with, and to find ways to use it as a vehicle to bring you some 'Good News' (which is what the Gospel is about, after all).

We know that Jesus is a good preacher, and there is bountiful evidence of this in his most famous sermon, found in Matthew chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount. He starts off with the Beatitudes, a series of blessings pronounced on his audience, after which they are no doubt feeling all warm and fuzzy. Then he moves onto some encouragement and exhortation (which we heard last week): "you are the salt of the earth... you are the light of the world", and then in the passage before us today, he gives some harder moral teachings. It's almost as if he starts off slowly, and softly, and works his way up to the hard stuff. So let's explore what this passage has to say to us today.

It's a common belief in the Christian Church that the New Testament 'supercedes' the Old Testament, and somehow even negates it. The apostle Paul's writings about 'grace vs. law' are often used to support this argument. The four examples of "you have heard it said that.... but I say..." are sometimes referred to as 'antitheses', because Jesus seems to be comparing and contrasting the legalism of the Old Testament wiht the new, higher righteousness of his own teachings.

However, I think that in this passage, and in fact, in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, rather than negating the existing law, Jesus' teachings are actually in theological continuity with the law.

Jesus speaks a lot throughout his ministry about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, and how it is 'at hand' as he begins his ministry. The Sermon on the Mount, and especially this part of it, invites us, the readers, to live as if the Kingdom of God is fully present.

In the 4 examples Jesus talks about here he raises the bar for our behaviour:
1. "You have heard it said 'you shall not murder', but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable"
2. "You have heard it said, 'you shall not commit adultery', but I say that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart"
3. Jesus setting stronger conditions on divorce
4. "It has been said, 'you shall not swear falsely', but I say do not swear at all- let your yes be yes and your no no".

It is easy to look at these and wring our hands in despair. How can I possibly live up to these? Jesus has taken moral standards that are already difficult to live up to, raised the bar and made them even harder to keep.

However, rather than just giving us more difficult hoops to jump through, I think it's more a case of Jesus seeking integrity, consistency in living out our faith at all levels; not just in what we do, but in how we think- this reaches beyond our mere actions into the very core of our being. Not just our public actions, but also our private thoughts, emotions, desires need to be brought into line with Kingdom values.

Well may we ask, 'why is Jesus concerned with our thought life?'
There's an old Chinese proverb that says:
Sow a thought... reap an action.
Sow an action... reap a habit.
Sow a habit... reap a character.
Sow a character... reap a destiny.

Our inner world does influence our outer world, and what starts with an errant thought or desire, if allowed to take control of us, can lead to devastating results.

Also, you might notice, that in the 4 examples given by Jesus: murder/ anger, adultery/lust, divorce and being true to one's word, there is a common thread. All of these deal with broken relationship from the perspective of the Kingdom. Why is this a problem? Well, it's God's intention for people to live in mutual relationship and support, that's what community, at its best, is about.

Yesterday, I officiated at my first wedding. When I confessed this to the couple at our first meeting, they looked at each other, giggled, and said, "That's ok, it's our first wedding too!" It was certainly a special occasion for all present. In the marriage service, there is a recognition that although it is only two people up the front making promises to each other, the reality is that a marriage doesn't only involve two people, but needs a whole community of support- from family and friends- to help the couple to honour their marriage vows.

Jesus is saying here that we need to be vigilant in maintaining our relationships, and not let festering anger, or lust, or anything else destroy them. We need to watch out for 'the thin edge of the wedge' in how we relate to others. 'Playful insults' can all too easily descend into bitterness and vitriol which poisons a relationship- resulting in the loss of Kingdom possibilities in that moment.

You may have noticed that I have been speaking fairly generally, and have not gone into detail on any of these four examples. There's an awful lot that could be said about this passage, and about each of those 4 things (so this means that I'll have plenty of material to work with next time this passage comes up in the Lectionary!). But before I finish, I do want to speak about one of the specifics.

This passage is often used to bash people who have suffered through the painful experience of divorce. Even reading this passage in church is challenging pastorally, as statistics tell us that about 50% of marriages today end in divorce.

When the idea of divorce was introduced in the Old Testament, there was the expectation that marriage should last for life; 'till death us do part'. However, God in mercy introduced an 'escape' because God recognised that humans are imperfect and frail, and 'hard-hearted' and so sometimes it's just not possible to make a marriage work. I think the process for divorce in Hebrew law was fairly simple, the man (because it's always the man in that culture who needs to take the lead) had to say to his wife, "I divorce you" three times, give her a certificate of divorce, and it was done. Maybe by Jesus' time, divorce was seen as a too easy option, and so he uses his words here to underline the seriousness of the marriage covenant, warning people not to enter into it lightly- or leave it lightly.

The text presumes that the marriage relationship can be shaped by the presence of the Kingdom. But it seems to me, that in some marriage relationships the dynamics of the relationship are Kingdom-resistant; and that the purposes of the Kingdom might better be served by freeing the couple to live into other relationships.

As you can see, there's a lot in this passage to wrestle with, and I've really only scratched the surface, plucking out a few ideas and leaving plenty for the next time this passage crops up in the Lectionary.

So that leaves us with the question: what is the good news from this passage? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to a higher standard of conduct, in thought, word and deed. However, we are not bound to be slaves of the Law, or required to follow the letter of the Law in order to secure our salvation. Rather, we are invited to respond to God's goodness and grace to us by striving to surpass the law, not only out of duty, but out of love and gratefulness to God.

It's a bit like when you're at uni, you can still get your degree if you only ever get Pass grades, but there's a certain satisfaction in aiming a bit higher, to get a Credit, Distinction or HD- maybe because you love the subject, or maybe because you just want to do the best that you possibly can.

In life, why settle for mediocrity, when we can aim much higher? And the good news is that just as he set the bar higher for us to aim for, Jesus also provides the strength and support for us as we aim for that higher goal.
Thanks be to God.