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.

So, what was school good for?

This post first published on January 6, 2017

(From Pink Floyd’s classic music video)

It turns out several Web friends also still have their old school reports… so I have quietly refiled mine. (Better not tell Alison.) But that blog post about why I kept mine? and speculating that it was because being Top of the Class was the only thing I was any good at, the only thing that made me feel I was any good at anything… it all looks a bit bleak, doesn’t it? It looks as if I had a miserable, unhappy childhood?

And yes, I don’t remember being a child, still less a teenager, with any sense of joy or real happiness. My school days are not a time I look back on as ‘the best years of my life’. I can understand why teachers and adults generally try to perpetuate that myth. It could be the only thing they think they can be good at, is making children’s lives happy and worthwhile. I feel sorry for them too. But that’s another problem.

The things I remember about school days, are predominantly fear and boredom. I wasn’t afraid of the teachers; mostly I trusted them because I learned how to cope (obedience – at least when they were looking – and jumping through the academic hoops). But I was afraid of just about everything else: playtime, games, other children, being made fun of, looking foolish in the eyes of my peers… Often, being afraid of going to and from school. This was the dangerous place where you could easily become the prey of teachers if you weren’t wearing your school cap, or of other pupils if you were. Or, you ran the risk of meeting pupils from one of the other schools in town, especially the boys from Huxley Secondary Modern who were said to hate us, be constantly lying in ambush to attack us, taunt us with their hate song:

“Latymer loonies
Smell like cheese;
D’you wanna go to Huxley?
YES, PLEASE!”

Should I mention, at this point, that I never met any of them in seven years, and was never attacked – by them – on my way to school? Perhaps they had their own myths and fears about our hatred and ferocity, and ran for hiding when they saw me coming? Though with hindsight I have every sympathy with them. Why shouldn’t they feel aggrieved, who had been told at 11 that they had failed, and were second-rate scholars? The grammar school system, much vaunted as the great post-war engine of social mobility – and certainly it was what got me to university, as one of the first generation in my family to do so – was also the great divider of society, relegating the overwhelming majority of children to that stigma of ‘failed the 11-plus’.

And boredom. Hours and hours of boredom in dull dull lessons. I used to think in my arrogance that it was because I was bright, and had to spend so many hours waiting for the less bright members of the class to catch up. Who am I kidding? If I had been really intelligent, I would have used those opportunities to learn better, to learn more, to seek more knowledge and abilities than the basics, to aim for outstanding excellence, rather than just to satisfy the exam system and be Top of the Class. True, the teaching styles of the 1960s left much to be desired, based as they were on writing down everything the teacher said, rote-learning, regurgitating class-notes in tests. We didn’t have the inspirational, life-changing teachers you come across in other people’s lives, or in the movies. (Dead Poets Society, anyone?) The ones I loved, and who, yes, did change my life in some way, were relatively few. Lovely Miss Loewenstein who taught English, and scary-edgy Miss Edwards, who started me on Latin, but also gave me my love of German.

And yet. And yet. Miserable though it was and I was, school did make me the person I am, and for whatever is good about that, I am indeed grateful. It’s often said that the commonest and greatest phobia for many people, is the fear of public speaking. Well, my secondary school really worked hard at teaching us how to do that. Can you believe that, in the first year of secondary school, we had a timetabled lesson each week called Speech Training? Perhaps part of the agenda was to get all these North London kids speaking ‘properly’, using correct Received Pronunciation; but it was also a way of spotting and correcting genuine defects in speech. I wasn’t pronouncing my r’s: when they got me to read in house assembly, it came out like, “Pwaise the Lord with the sound of the twumpets.” And actually I’m glad they worked on me to try and change that. Though you can still hear it in my speech quite often, I’m at least glad I don’t sound as bad as Jonathan Ross. But see this video: is it really a speech defect, or is it simply becoming an alternative way of speaking?

Lots of the diaries from my school years (confession time: I still have most of those, too) record my pride but also my embarrassment about speaking in front of the class or the school. And of course I still have nerves about public speaking in unfamiliar settings. But it isn’t the huge terror many say it is: it has, after all, been my life.

Another thing for which I am forever grateful about my school years, is my faith. If I am a Christian, it’s down in large measure to the influence of school. In those days the law about a daily act of worship in schools was still actually observed. (There was none of this modern nonsense about teachers not wanting to lead an act of worship because they – or many of the children – don’t believe. Ritual doesn’t require belief: it requires performance. That is how faith is taught, communicated and nurtured. So probably the teachers’ reluctance to lead corporate worship is a fear that they themselves might ‘catch’ religion? Well, I couldn’t possibly comment.) It wasn’t designed to interest or entertain, like modern school religious assemblies are required to do. In fact I don’t recall anything like a comment or a homily. Assembly consisted of a hymn, a Bible reading, and a prayer read by the headmaster, often one of the BCP collects at Morning Prayer, but also sometimes prayers like the prayer of St Ignatius: Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest… It quietly, modestly, without fuss or perhaps even noticing, puts God there in the start of the school day.

And then there were the Christian teachers, who believed in what they believed, and wanted to share that Good Thing with the children. I was often blissfully unaware of it at the time, but even though I never went to the Christian Union (why would I?) there were other occasions. Like the day our form teacher invited some of us for tea and conversation about our ideas and what we believed. I didn’t realise at the time that there was a faith-sharing Agenda. As a teenager I was always bolshy about people trying to get me to believe as they believed. I was ‘C of E’, for God’s sake, like everyone else – what else did they want? Also a Protestant: I would believe as I chose to believe. It now seems extraordinary that the school even organised a group excursion to Earls Court in 1966, to hear Billy Graham speak during his London crusade. I especially resented his whole style of emotional manipulation and appeal, though it made a big impression on some of my friends… And yet here I am, where I am today. The Spirit works unpredictably, through all our life experiences.

So, yes, in ways that it and I probably never knew or imagined, school helped make me what I am. For sure, I can imagine ways in which it might have made me different. But that is fantasy. For what I am, it was certainly good for something.

(And, pace Pink Floyd, we do need yes education. The best of it is probably not conveyed by the Curriculum, the exams we study for, or the school system. But it may still, often, be somehow imparted by school in spite of itself.)

Seeing the way God sees us

Occasionally Facebook throws up a ‘memory’ of one of my blog posts of yesteryear. And sometimes I think, Actually, that’s worth another look. I’ll post it in my new blog.

So here is the first of those. Originally posted on 5 October 2012.

This unaccountably made me cry this morning:

If you come to a parish church in England after the service, what you will see is a (small) crowd of elderly people, middle-aged people and young families, balancing biscuits and cups of coffee in one hand as we do crowd control on the children with the other, and making slightly awkward conversation about the weather, holidays, cricket scores, the news, the progress of flowers and vegetables. We don’t necessarily have very much in common with each other, by all the usual standards. We’re embarrassed, probably. (After all, this is England.) And yet that’s not all that is going on. We’re also celebrating the love-feast. Our hearts are in our eyes as we look at each other. We are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us. That is, as if we were all precious beyond price, for reasons quite independent of any of the usual cues for attraction we apes jump to recognise: status, charisma, beauty, confidence, wealth, wisdom, authority.

From Francis Spufford, Unapologetic.