Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Sunday 16th February 2020 (Second Sunday before Lent)
Genesis 1.1–2.3; Psalm 136; Romans 8.18–25; Matthew 6.25–end
Today in the scripture readings we are asked to reflect on the slow but purposeful working out of God’s plan, first for his creation, then for his people Israel, and finally in the Gospel the slow but purposeful growth of the new people of God, the disciples of Jesus – us! Genesis sets out to describe the order and beauty of the universe, and its culmination in the arrival of humankind, its highest point. The human race is called to be the clearest and most explicit reflection of God’s own creativity and compassion – a woman and man created in the image and likeness of God. In his letter to the church in Rome St Paul reminds us that we have fallen short of that potential dignity and glory, and that at present we live in a world that is subject to frustration and limitation, and that nonetheless we must attempt to live hopefully and expectantly. How? For him the clue resides in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and our share in his Spirit through baptism and renewed from then on at every Eucharist. Finally in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus in his ‘sermon on the mount’ sets out a personal plan for that hopeful living.
In Genesis we see humankind appointed as by God as his vice-regent. The Hebrew word used to describe humanity’s role in the universe is powerful – “Subdue the earth”. The Hebrew word could be translated as ‘to trample on,’ and of course some theologies and cultures have taken advantage of that possibility to excuse them as they ‘plunder’ the earth – the word used by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato si’, a plea to people of all faiths and none to save the planet. True the freedom given us as earth’s caretakers places before us a heady freedom, but at the same time it asks of us a huge responsibility, an awareness and respect for what Francis calls ‘our common Mother and Sister’, touching on the image St Francis of Assisi uses of earth as he calls on all creatures of our God and King to praise God as brothers and sisters.
Paul, while he is quite realistic about the state of affairs we have got ourselves into, where human greed and possessiveness have set us completely at odds with the natural world and with each other, sees a fresh hope and dynamism thrilling through the universe as Christ’s victory over evil and death through his suffering, death and resurrection, and his outpouring of his Spirit on the Christian community, announces a second spring, renewed hope for a lost world. It is a message so beautifully depicted by C. S. Lewis in his Narnia tales, as Aslan, the Lion and Christ figure, stirs from the sleep of death, and bursts the bonds of the evil one. His once dispirited followers, human and animal and natural forces, rally round him, inspired to further his conquest of all that disfigures the universe.
At first sight it would be very easy to miss the connection of this earth-changing, universe-uniting dynamic with the sight in today’s Gospel of that young preacher man sitting on a hillock outside some village urging his followers to live hopeful lives. Until, that is, we realise what Matthew is telling us throughout his account of Jesus’ life, teaching, healing, death and rising. From the outset Matthew is at pains to tell us the true identity of this young prophet. He is God present in our midst. He is the second and greater Moses, the Messiah, who will bring in a new Exodus, an escape from the bonds and injustices and compromises of the present age. He will feed his people with heavenly Manna, the bread of angels to sustain them as they travel on towards the feast of the Kingdom.
We could miss out on what Matthew wants us to realise. In the Gospel today we eavesdrop on the first of 5 batches of Jesus’ teaching which Matthew intersperses with Jesus’ travels and works of healing. This deliberate shape of his gospel is meant to mirror the first five Old Testament books of the Law, the Torah, traditionally seen as written by Moses himself. Now Jesus is the second Moses then, the great prophet foretold by Moses. Later in the Gospel Jesus stills the storm on Lake Galilee. Matthew depicts Jesus as the Lord of Creation, the one who has power over storm and chaos. This travelling holy man is revealed as the one through whom all things were made. So it is this Lord of all creation who in this first public proclamation assures us that God our Father will supply all that we need. We should free ourselves of anxiety, simplifying our lives, setting as our first priority the building up of the reign of God, a reign which includes not only the re-ordering of our human relationships, but our connection to and our responsibility for the rest of the created order. That is where we should be placing our energies. And Jesus sees this commitment to the building up of the kingdom of God in the here and now as a joyful and hopeful task, which will of course face testing and trial, but which we will be empowered and sustained to do by our Father Creator. So it is not to be done with grim, anxious determination. Jesus came from a faith tradition which sees the purpose of human life as working to further God’s plan for his creation, respectful of neighbours, but also immigrants and strangers, supporting the poor and disadvantaged, and caring for the animal and natural world. “Do not worry about what you are to eat and drink and wear,” says Jesus. “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Strive first for the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow.” Today’s gospel contains the call of Jesus to go way beyond the limited and often obsessive demands of the Jewish law as interpreted and enforced by many of the Pharisees of his generation. Jesus despaired of the way that they had become fixated on making people stick to the very last detail of the law. They believed that only so could you win God’s favour. Their guidelines often sabotaged the original meaning of the commands, but worse still it convinced most ordinary workaday people that it was impossible for them to please God. Jesus wants to break down any idea that there is a distance between God and his children. He reassures his listeners that God loves them just as they are. By doing this he was more in touch with the best traditions of the prophets and rabbis. Jesus was part of another movement altogether, the charismatic tradition of the prophets and holy men and women in Israel, who saw the Law in a very different light. One 20th century expert on the rabbinic tradition writes about this creative way of opening out the meaning and practice of the law, so that ordinary everyday people could understand and follow it. Rabbi Schaecter says that this alternative way of looking at the Law was “less calculated to produce schoolmen and jurists than saints and devout spirits.” Which of course is precisely what Jesus was all about. It’s a way of looking at scripture that we seem to have forgotten, especially if we see the Bible as having the last word to say about everything, dropped down from above with definitive answers about every last subject. In fact the scriptures know little about the dilemmas and situations we have to face in a radically changed world, with its leaps in medical science and technology, genetics and psychology. At its best the rabbinical tradition sees the Torah, the Law “at once perfect and yet perpetually incomplete; like the Universe itself- it was created to be a process, rather than a system- a method of enquiry into what is right rather than being a codified collection of answers.” So this tradition, a tradition in which Jesus himself was immersed, believed that the way we interpret the Law means a sharing in the creative work of God himself. Rabbi Schaecter says that, “Joy in the Law is therefore more than the joy in the fulfilment of the commandments: it is also joy in the discovery of new ones relating in situations never before explicitly formulated.” Frances Young, one of our own Methodist theologians, wants us to rework ways of making scripture come to life. She compares the Bible to a musical score, which to be interpreted must be ‘performed’ with all the freedom and the discipline that a good musical performance has. We cannot separate the way we look at scripture from its spiritual roots, something that the Pharisees often forgot about. She reminds us that our interpretation of scripture should be worshipful, calling us to holiness, a process rather like one of those fancy musical fireworks passages that virtuoso musicians indulge in, a musical cadenza, which stretches the ideas and themes and explores new possibilities. Of course this creative way of exploring what the Bible might mean for us here and now needs to be underpinned by a hard won framework of study, getting more organised about our own personal reading of the Bible. Lent offers possibilities for that. In today’s Gospel Jesus calls on us to behave in open, generous, creative ways so that others begin to see that God is beginning his reign on earth in the here and now. Jeremias, one of my favourite New testament scholars, reworks Jesus’ words of encouragement: “Have you ever seen Mr Raven sowing, harnessing up the plough, reaping and taking the crop into the barn? Or Mrs Anemone picking up the spindle, and then sitting down at the loom? You have so little faith. Take God seriously! He knows what you need, You are his children, he will see that hospitable houses open to you.” As you spread the good news of the reign of God. Today Jesus’ words of encouragement are meant to set us free from anxious, fearful living, and encourage us to taste already and share in the joy and spontaneity of the end time.