A Sermon for Woodstock
The Third Sunday before Lent 2017
- THE RECTOR
On Thursday night I was in college attending a colloquium organized by Megan on ‘Exploring Intelligence’. Megan had got together four world experts on Emotional intelligence, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Divine intelligence – and even Alien intelligence. It was fascinating.
Do you know what the word ‘perfunctory’ means? Do you know why aliens haven’t visited us yet? Will computers control us one day? Is God like Google? We went on a roller-coaster ride through cybernetics, philosophical theology, quantum mechanics and planetary atmospherics.
Many things struck me – one of which is blindingly obvious, and which, unsurprisingly, we miss all the time. It is this: our intelligence is limited. We are human; and that means that our intelligence is human intelligence. We can’t imagine what we can’t imagine. There are boundaries to the possibilities of our imaginations. If there are aliens, we can’t think like them, because we’re not aliens. And if there is a God – and I’ll quietly assume that we can go along with that as I’m in church, and its Sunday, and this is a sermon – we can’t think like God, because he is God, and we’re not. Assuming that God can think: after all, thinking is what we do. How God does the things of God – well, we can only guess, imagine, discern; and all of that is contingent on the limits of our humanity.
All of this set me thinking afresh as I came to consider what to say about today’s Gospel passage. Preachers – except for weird, and probably quite nasty preachers – dread this one. We’re still on the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve had the nice bit that everyone likes (the Beatitudes); we’ve had the memorable bit from last week (Salt and Light). Today we’ve got the hard bit. Murder. Adultery. Divorce. And swearing.
They’re interesting, because Jesus takes each one, and adds to it. Yes, of course murder is bad – but anger is just as bad, says Jesus. If you call your brother (that means friend, neighbour, etc) ‘Raca’ you are in trouble with the PCC (or Sanhedrin, as Matthew puts it). ‘Fool’ means you’re heading for hellfire. So reconciliation is vital, not legalism.
Yes, of course adultery is bad – but fancying someone else is just as bad, says Jesus. If you look with desire at a woman (note this suggests the audience are all men) you’re as good as an adulterer. More hellfire. Purity of heart is vital, not lustfulness.
Yes, divorce is – well, not necessarily bad, certainly not good, complicated: definitely. Jesus doesn’t seem keen on grounds of mutual incompatibility. Hellfire, fortunately in this day and age, does not make an appearance here. Faithfulness is vital, not infidelity.
Swearing – in the sense of oaths, and no doubt other senses, is bad too. Do not swear, says Jesus – let your yes be yes, and your no, no. If you equivocate, you’re essentially evil. Straight-talking is vital, says Jesus, not having recourse to oath-making.
Hearing all that, you might reasonably think ‘blimey, this Christianity is hard’. Well, possibly. The bar for our ethical standards is set high by Jesus, and deliberately so. He’s trying to make a point, and the point is simple, and it is this. Our hearts should be in the right place.
If I hear people say, ‘his heart was in the right place’, they invariably are making an excuse for someone. So and so is a complete pain in the backside, but ‘his heart is in the right place’.
BUT - to have our heart in the right place is not an excuse, but a way of being. Better than that, it is THE way of being if we are those who follow Christ’s teachings, who know the reality of his love, who are willing to let their light shine so that God may be glorified.
The colloquium in college talked about Emotional, Artificial, Alien, Divine intelligence. What we are given in the Gospel is an insight into, if you like, Gospel Intelligence. It invites us to think WITH OUR HEART. If you think with your heart, you do things differently. You consider things differently. You treat others differently. You recognize that your stupid self-righteousness, your judgement of others, your lusts, your desires, your attempts at self-justification before God and others – are all destined for hell. You are not called to be like that. You are called to be salt and light. You are called to shine. You are called to be Blessèd.
One of the reasons that so many of us are crawling up the wall with frustration at our Bishops at the moment is that the document that the House of Bishops has produced following the shared conversations on sexuality is a document which is, to all intents and purposes, heartless.
I know they didn’t mean it to be – but it is. It misses out on Gospel Intelligence, and replaces it with the very legalism which Jesus seems to condemn. It’s a tragedy. And its consequences will not be good.
(But let’s leave that to one side, just for today, lest I fall into the very bear trap that I’m preaching against.)
Blessed are the pure in heart, says Jesus at the beginning of this monumental sermon. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. The word for pure, καθαροί, is from where we get our word catharsis. It’s about healing and wholeness, reassurance, cleansing, forgiveness, hope.
The Gospel invites us to think with our hearts. If you are centred on healing and hope, says Jesus, you will see God. To desire that, above all things, is the height of intelligence.