Exceeding righteousness

Exceeding Righteousness

Sermon first preached, and posted on my blog, 16 February 2014

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has quite a good press really. Lots of people who are very far from being practising Christians regard it as being evidence for the belief that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Sadly, that doesn’t always (often?) lead them to follow these teachings. It’s easy to see that if more people did actually live by them, most of the world’s problems would simply go away. But I don’t know whether Christians have been all that much better at following these teachings. In fact I seem to remember that the Scofield Reference Bible (a very influential study bible among evangelicals even today) has a note explaining that since the Sermon on the Mount is impossible to actually put into practice, it must be Jesus’ teaching about how people will live after the Second Coming has taken place and he has established his kingdom. If this is actually what it says (and I haven’t just imagined it) it’s a disastrous example of how Christians misread and misunderstand even the most important of scriptures.

It’s true that we struggle with the Sermon on the Mount — but so we should, and we’re going to struggle with it a bit more this morning.

It seems to me that the passage we have for this morning’s Gospel (Matthew 5.21-37) can be read as a kind of exposition or unpacking of what Jesus tells his disciples in v.20: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, his disciples will have felt crushed at this point. Oh! whoa! what chance have we got then? Because the scribes and the Pharisees were the. most. righteous. people. ever. They were the ones everyone looked up to, regarded as an example of godly living, were sure they could never aspire to. Well, the scribes and the Pharisees thought that as well, and had succeeded in getting everyone else to think it. And that, probably, was the problem.

Because what follows is Jesus explaining the Law and its teachings in such a way (remember, he’s said that he hasn’t come to abolish the Law; not a stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished) that he completely undermines much (most?) of what the religious teachers stood for, and shows that their so-called righteousness is really nothing of the kind, it’s not what God has in mind at all. This is the thing about so much of what religious people mean by righteousness: it’s based on a very legalistic kind of religion, which puts external conformity way ahead of the heart of the matter.

Here’s what I mean. Legalistic religion is all about knowing, and telling other people, how to be righteous. You must do this; you must not do that. And perhaps even more importantly: you don’t need to do that; doing this will suffice for you to make the grade. So, if the Law says Thou shalt not kill, it will be sufficient if you haven’t actually terminated someone’s life. If it says Thou shalt not bear false witness, it will be OK to lie anywhere else, as long as you don’t lie in court.

But Jesus isn’t having any of this dishonesty, this cheating with God — which is what it actually is. The Sermon on the Mount undermines these pretences by going to the heart of what God really desires. Jesus wants to talk not just about what the Law is, what it says, but what it’s for. And I would say the whole purpose, aim of the Law, is to enable human flourishing. It is all about shalom, the total peace and well-being and common-wealth that is God’s will for humanity, in fact for the whole creation. So, it’s not enough not to have murdered anyone. We also need to deal with the root cause in the human heart: which is anger, despising your neighbour, thinking that they are of so little worth that you can call them fool, or spit on them, or abuse them, or discriminate against them, or mistreat them in some way. It’s not enough not to have actually committed adultery: we must deal with the lust in our hearts which looks at another person not as a person at all, but as an object for our physical pleasure or gratification. It’s not enough to observe all the proper legal forms when you want to divorce your wife (and in those days men could do that, on pretty trivial pretexts): you shouldn’t even be there in the first place. Don’t even think about it, I think Jesus is saying — remember what marriage is, what it’s for. It’s not enough not to swear falsely: you shouldn’t need to be swearing at all, your speech should be so true, so transparently honest, that it doesn’t need any So help me Gods, or whatever. So all the time, when Jesus is saying, You’ve heard that it was said … but I say to you … he’s not undermining or revising the Law. He is saying: The teachers of the Law have misrepresented what it means; and what I’m telling you, is what it’s really for.

So. How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? With the Church we love tearing itself to pieces in arguments about gay marriage, and women bishops, and looking more and more stupid and irrelevant to people outside — wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus had said something about these things? Sadly he didn’t. So I don’t know what the answer to that question is: How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? I don’t know, and I’m getting too tired of the argument, and the people who are doing it. Because so many of them seem to want to portray themselves as the righteous ones, and their opponents as the opposite. It reminds me of a novella that I had to study at university, Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist. I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it, except for the description of this central character, in the very first sentence: On the banks of the River Havel there lived, about the middle of the 16th century, a horse-dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, who was at the same time one of the most righteous, and one of the most entsetzlich [= terrible, dreadful, horrific, inhuman] men of his time. His passion for justice, righteousness, was so overwhelmingly huge, that it led him to commit the most terrible atrocities, causing death, destruction and mayhem to the whole country.

It’s not a bad description of people who adhere to any extreme form of religion or morality, whether it’s bombing abortion clinics and killing people who work there in the name of the right to life; or killing women for sexual transgressions, even if the transgression in question is having been raped. Of course, the squabbles about gay marriage and women bishops aren’t exactly in the same league, but there’s a tang of the same tendency. We are right, and we know we are right, and we don’t care how much damage our rightness causes to those who disagree with us.

Let’s step back and say, It’s time to stop looking at what we think the rules are and what they say, and think about what they are for. If they contribute to shalom, the flourishing of human beings and creation, then OK. If they prevent that flourishing, perhaps it’s time to let go of our interpretation of the rules, and change it, or the rules. I haven’t been keen on the idea of gay marriage. In fact when I was first ordained I would have taken the evangelical line that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, and that’s it. As if we could say to a gay person: You may think you are attracted to someone of the same sex, and your life will be enriched by being with them, but you’re mistaken. What you need is to marry a nice girl (or boy) instead. But what I’ve been hearing for years from the gay people I listen to (and how brave are they, to speak about it at all!) is that their sexual orientation is a deep part of their identity, it’s how they experience that God has created them — not a wilful choice, not any kind of choice. And a permanent, faithful, stable union with a partner — what we call marriage if it is between a man and a woman — will save them from loneliness and desperate promiscuity. In other words, help them to flourish. Why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities to flourish, as men and women who want to share their lives?

I’d say the case for women bishops is even clearer. Not that I welcomed the thought of women bishops either, at first — but then I’m not all that keen on male bishops (don’t tell Bishop John). The supposed arguments against, from scripture and tradition, are frankly unconvincing, while the effect of not having women in leadership positions serves to perpetuate the subjection of women to the rank of second-class human beings, which has so often been the way not just in the church (actually, I think the Church can point to some shining exceptions) but in so many societies to this day. Giving proper scope for the wonderful gifts of women in ministry, releasing those gifts in the church, not only helps those women to flourish, but helps the whole church to flourish.

You might disagree with how I’ve applied what I think Jesus’ approach to the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is. I’d have to accept that, because it’s part of what I described as our continuing struggle with understanding, and living out, these teachings. But what I would encourage us all to do is keep on with that questioning and struggling. The heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the idea that we are called to live as children of God, our heavenly Father, and that relationship undermines, or trumps, all other human loyalties or obediences.

Let us pray.

Written with StackEdit.

New Zealand: 11. A first look at Christchurch

Leaving Nelson on Monday morning (bags out at 0700, depart at 0800) we began one of our longest days on the road, travelling down to Christchurch. Christchurch is almost directly south of Nelson, but since the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake (the second largest earthquake in New Zealand since European settlement began) it’s impossible to take the SH1 highway down the east coast. Instead we had to set off south-west on SH6, then south on SH65 through Victoria Forest Park, then south-east on SH7 before rejoining SH1 at Waipara. It’s a total distance of over 420 km, which Google Maps reckons takes 5 hours 13 minutes, but I guess that would be by car rather than in a 53-seater coach. Much of this route is not designed for the heavy traffic that has been forced to take this diversion since the earthquake, so there were many twists and turns and roadworks along the way.

Although we had various photo stops to look at the view, I didn’t take many photos. Here are some trees, mountains and clouds,

Somewhere on the road to Christchurch

and here is one of the many ‘braided rivers’ that are so characteristic of New Zealand’s landscape.

Braided river

It’s the kind of place I imagined seeing the refugees from Rohan crossing. Instead, there’s just a big orange digger out there in the distance.

When we reached Christchurch, everyone was a bit tired and crotchety. But Alison and I were very keen to try and get into the city centre and have a look at the ‘cardboard cathedral’ which we had heard about when Bishop Victoria spoke to the Oxford Diocesan Clergy Conference in 2014. We knew that we were scheduled to return to Christchurch later in the tour, but we weren’t entirely confident about how much the itinerary at that point might allow us to see. So we decided to walk into the city centre – which turned out to be 4.9 km, and took about an hour. It wasn’t helped by the fact that, as we neared the city centre, there were more and more road closures and diversions where work was still going on to demolish, repair and rebuild in the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. But we found our way to Cathedral Square, where what is left of the original Cathedral stands temporarily derelict.

Christchurch Cathedral in ruins

Then we continued to the site of the transitional cathedral AKA cardboard cathedral. We had hoped it would still be open – the guidebook we had looked at said it was open till 7 p.m. in the summer. The guidebook was wrong! It closed at 5 p.m., and the custodian had just set the alarms and locked up.

Christchurch Transitional Cathedral

Ever since 2011 there have been heated discussions about what to do with the old Cathedral. We got the impression from Bishop Victoria that she might have been of the party which wanted to demolish it completely and build something new. But the heritage faction, who wanted to rebuild the old Cathedral exactly as it was (it is, after all, 130 years old!) appears to have won the day. Perhaps if the original Cathedral had been more thoroughly destroyed they might have been able to do something like in Coventry? – building a modern cathedral alongside the ruins of the old, as a reminder of… well, in this case, the forces of Nature, perhaps?

The custodian gave us a lift part of the way back to the hotel, for which we were very grateful after the long day of travelling.

Written with StackEdit.

New Zealand: 10. A second day in Marlborough and Nelson

Almost as soon as we set foot on South Island, waiters and other people, when they heard we’d just come from the North, began asking us, “So, which do you like best? North Island or South Island?” The answer we came to give, more and more (so that we might appear to have given it some serious and measured thought) was something along the lines of, “North Island for the history, and the Maori culture; South Island for the scenery.” But in truth, now that we’re home, I would probably say much more unequivocally, South Island.

(Oh, I don’t know though. What about Auckland? and the the Bay of Islands? and Napier? So maybe the jury is still out, after all.)

But South Island! Which is often called (by South Islanders!) “the mainland”. It is, quite simply, stunning. Almost beyond belief.

On the first morning we woke up in Nelson, the coach took us north along the coast of Tasman Bay, to the town of Kaiteriteri. This is the place of embarkation for the boat cruise up into Abel Tasman National Park. Suzanne had warned us that the boat operators were fairly laid-back and disorganised about which boat ticket-holders were supposed to embark on, and this turned out to be the case. I think we finally boarded from the third queue we had joined. Having watched the film Dunkirk on the flight to Singapore, I was used to the idea of lining up on a sandy beach to climb a gangplank onto a small vessel. But was relieved that we were not being strafed by Stukas while we were waiting.

Some of our party opted to be put ashore at Apple Tree Bay and walk 7 km through the park to be picked up again by the boat at Anchorage. But it was such a hot sunny day that Alison felt the heat would prove too much, so we decided to stay aboard and enjoy the ride. There was a sense in which both choices were wrong. Yes, we didn’t get sun- or heat-stroke aboard the boat; but the view of most of the coast was just rocks and trees. While for those who took the walk, most of their way was in the shade of the trees; but they didn’t get too great a view either.

But on the other hand, though rocks and trees may start to look a bit samey, you also get spectacular views of little islands, huge skies and distant mountains:

Abel Tasman Bay

The most-photographed rock in the National Park (possibly in the whole of New Zealand) is Split Apple Rock

Split Apple Rock

It’s a huge round piece of granite, which looks like an apple that’s been sliced in half. Natural forces are awesome1, aren’t they?

We returned to Nelson in the early afternoon with the rest of the day free to explore on our own. Nelson is an attractive little city, famous for being the place where the first game of rugby in New Zealand was played, in 1870, and for being the Centre of New Zealand (allegedly, or possibly. Or maybe not.) As well as being the place where the One Ring to rule them all was really made. For the film at least.

A word of wisdom about walking to the Centre of New Zealand. It is quite a steep climb to get there, and we were climbing it on a very hot sunny afternoon (and had left our water behind because we thought it was only 50 metres away like the sign said2), and were not helped by cheerful kiwis walking the other way and telling us “It’s not that far now!” ‘Not that far’ when you’re walking steeply uphill turns out to be very different from how the same distance feels to the people coming back down.

Part of the view of Nelson from the Centre of New Zealand

Part of the view of Nelson from the Centre of New Zealand

It was in Nelson that we were able to get to our only Sunday service of our stay in New Zealand, which was Evensong at the Cathedral.

Nelson Cathedral

The Cathedral has some PROs: We could find the entrance; and they were actually having an evening service. And some CONs: It has a beautiful labyrinth on the floor, but you couldn’t walk it because it was covered up by a ghastly display of Christmas Trees, which had proved so popular that it had been extended right through January. Evensong was conducted by the Dean, who didn’t seem overly familiar with the Book of Common Prayer: we didn’t have either a psalm or the Collect of the day, because they weren’t printed in the congregational order of service. But he was obviously enjoying himself greatly, and really appreciated our singing.

Dinner in the hotel restaurant, because they had a special offer for guests who ‘ate in’ on Sunday evening. This wasn’t a bad idea for them, in a city where there were so many other great eating places. But the hotel food was pretty good, too.

Written with StackEdit.


  1. We enjoyed the New Zealand use of this awesome word. Quite often used by waiters taking your order: where in this country they might record your order with the words “Great choice!”, we found in New Zealand that “Awesome!” was much more common. Such fun. ↩︎
  2. It was 50 metres from the sign on the corner of the street, to the entrance to the park. ↩︎

New Zealand: 9. Crossing to South Island

North Island to South Island

It was up before 0600 the next morning to leave the hotel at 0730 to catch the ferry to South Island. In the near perfect summer weather we were having, it was a beautiful crossing, leaving the port of Wellington and sailing the 92 km over the Cook Strait and along the Marlborough Sound to Picton.

Leaving Wellington Harbour

Leaving Wellington Harbour

And this is why it’s called Aotearoa: the land of the long white cloud:

enter image description here

From Picton our coach took us first into the Marlborough wine producing region, to visit the Wither Hills Winery. Wine-tasting! We were surprised throughout our time in New Zealand, that the wine in the restaurants seemed quite expensive. On reflection there was a much higher mark-up than we’re used to at home, compared with the prices in the supermarkets and liquor stores which were substantially less.

Wine-tasting at the Wither Hills Winery

And then back to the city of Nelson, where we were to stay for our first two nights in South Island. Nelson is a sweet little city with its cathedral, and straight main street where most of the shops and restaurants are situated. It turns out that the ring used as the ‘One Ring’ in the film Lord of the Rings was made by a local jeweller in Nelson. Wow!

On a balmy summer evening there were lots of great eating places along Trafalgar Street, with people sitting at pavement tables. We ate pizza at Bacco, with a nice bottle of Montepulciano from the local Marlborough region.

New Zealand: 8 To the Nation’s Capital

After Napier, we had another long day on the road for our last day on North Island. One of the features of driving in New Zealand, is the number of major roads that are closed for long periods of time because of earthquakes or rockfalls. The diversionary routes are often smaller roads, not designed for the volume of heavy traffic they’re now expected to carry. So there is a constant programme of road repair works to keep them going, and this work is done – as it is all over the world – in the summer. Once or twice we even found ourselves in lines of traffic, waiting for the Stop – Go signs to change.

The road from Napier to Wellington took us across the southern part of North Island on State Highways 2 and 57, to join eventually with SH1 for the last stretch down the west coast. Our morning stop was in the little town of Dannevirke, whose unusual name comes from the fact that it was originally settled by people from Denmark. Here I visited my favourite public toilets in New Zealand: not as aesthetically stunning as the Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa, but much more sociable. These were the talking toilets of Dannevirke.

On entering, and sliding the door closed, you are greeted by a voice telling you, “The door is not locked. Press the LOCK button, to lock the door.” When you’ve done so, it informs you, “You now have ten minutes, after which the door will unlock automatically.” Then it plays you some piano music: ‘What the world needs now, is love, sweet love’. When you’re ready to leave and press the blue button again, it tells you “Door is unlocked”. I found myself saying “Thank you” as I stepped out into the street, to the amusement of the workers who were mending one of the toilets. We had a good chat about toilets we have known. New Zealanders are friendly and hospitable, like that.

When we reached Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, our first stop was the Te Papa National Museum, where there was lots (too much) to see in displays about New Zealand history, geology, flora and fauna. My favourites were the Gallipoli exhibit, telling the story of the Anzacs’ traumatic World War I experience in 1915-16, in which 2,721 New Zealanders were killed and many more wounded; and – other end of the seriousness spectrum – the Lego exhibits (not my picture). Sadly I didn’t have time to join in.

Lego at Te Papa museum

Wellington is a fun city, not perhaps as lively as Auckland. We had an obligatory photo stop near the Parliament buildings but although I have pictures I don’t think they were interesting enough to share. If you’re curious, you can find some on Google Images. In the evening, looking for somewhere to eat, we wandered down to the harbour side and found a branch of Wagamama. We’ve been missing Wagamama – the Oxford branch is closed for refurbishment. 1 So how could we resist eating there? And we felt even more at home when our server was a young woman with a distinctly Glaswegian accent.


  1. It’s been closed since November, and was supposed to be reopening on 6 February, but when we passed by earlier this week, there was still a skip outside and the building looked like a shell. So it’ll be a while yet. ↩︎

Written with StackEdit.

New Zealand: 7. Art Deco Napier

The next day took us from Rotorua south towards Lake Taupo, the largest lake in North Island, and then south-east to the east coast city of Napier. This was the scene of a huge earthquake in 1931 which destroyed the city. It was then rebuilt in the currently fashionable Art Deco style, with the result that the city probably has the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings anywhere in the world. There was a time around the mid-1980s when some of the buildings were beginning to look a bit tired, and one or two were demolished and replaced by buildings in the 1980s Brutalist style. Then the people of Napier woke up and realised what a treasure they were taking for granted. The Napier Art Deco Trust was established to protect, preserve, restore and promote the city’s very special character.

It was raining, the afternoon we arrived in Napier. But that didn’t stop us enjoying a guided walk around the city centre, led by an enthusiast guide from the Trust. We were shown not only some of the most interesting exteriors, but also a few of the striking and beautiful interior features of some of the buildings. Some of my favourites (mostly forgotten the exact places, sadly…)

Even the manhole covers in the street:

We loved Napier! Also that evening (though it took us a long and rather grumpy walk to find it) we enjoyed our first Indonesian restaurant meal, at Restaurant Indonesia, which claims to be “Currently the ONLY restaurant in New Zealand where you can enjoy ‘Rijsttafel’, the famous Indonesian banquet, where a multitude of cold and warm dishes is directly served to your table and kept warm on small candle powered heaters.” Delicious.

New Zealand 6: The Shire to Rotorua

The roads in New Zealand are like those in Britain in that they drive on the left; unlike, in that they measure distances in kilometres.

On the next day of our adventure we covered fewer kilometres, but saw a lot of new things. The first part of the drive from Cambridge took us further across the Waikato region, and especially through the Matamata district, an area of rolling grassy hills that looks uncommonly like the Shire. In fact, it was the Shire in the LOTR movie. For copyright reasons, all the sets for the movie had to be dismantled when filming was completed: the only set that remains is the Hobbiton Movie Set which is close to Matamata. Sadly, it wasn’t on our itinerary – it turns out to be an expensive option for a visit – but we were able to visit the office and have our pictures taken with Gandalf:

Our way went ever on and on to Rotorua (which is Maori for Lake #2). A strong wind was sweeping across the lake, which made our lunch break a cool and blowy occasion. In the gardens of Rotorua we enjoyed the municipal flower gardens, and a more-English-than-the-English croquet tournament in progress. I never knew there were such things as croquet pros, like the pro golfers. I do now.

Rotorua is known for its thermal activity, with super-heated steam escaping from cracks in the ground in random places all over town. Near the lake is St Faith’s church, modelled on, and decorated in the manner of, a traditional Maori meeting house. The side chapel window shows Christ dressed in a Maori cloak, appearing to walk on the water of the lake beyond. Because of the thermal activity, conventional burials are impossible so the dead are interred over-ground, as they are in parts of Italy, New Orleans and other exotic places. If you bend over and touch the ground in the churchyard, it’s hot.

Our afternoon visits took us to the Te Puia Maori cultural centre and geothermal valley with the spectacular Pohutu geyser and the bubbling mud pools. The high winds meant we didn’t see the geyser attain its full height, but it did well for length, soaking visitors over quite a wide area. In the evening we enjoyed a hangi or aori feast at the Whakarewarewa Village. The food cooked underground by the geothermal heat, and informative talks and entertainment by many of the local people. Highlights: the men of our party called to the front to perform the haka, and the very camp Maori in the lineup who reminded you of Frankie Howerd. Was he deliberately ‘sending up’ the whole performance, was it part of the act, or was he genuinely a third-gender person, like the Two-spirit people among indigenous North Americans? As Grandpa knows, there are more questions than answers…