Hello Dear Readers.
Here I offer you tomorrow’s sermon:
Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand: 12.02.17
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
I think that there has been conclusive proof offered that Rob and I are children of the same era – when we read the Lectionary for today, and organised our thoughts – he for his piece in the newsletter, and I for my sermon – two words obviously sprang out for us both, as we both latched onto these words, and made the same connections. “Choose Life”, we read in Deuteronomy, and both of us thought immediately of the 1996 film “Trainspotting”. This film has been described as “seminal”, as summing up the essence of life for young people in that time and it seems appropriate to be talking about it now, as the sequel to this film has just been released. I have to admit that I have never seen the film, although it received much critical acclaim, but there is one speech from the film which has become famous, and almost universally recognised; the speech at the beginning where the heroin addict anti-hero, Renton, exhorts us to “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends…” he continues with a list of the must-have possessions of the era, and finishes with “But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
Renton’s words echo with contempt – or possibly envy – for the banality of a middle-class life; he talks of choosing possessions over experiences, of aiming to acquire everything possible, because it is the collection of Stuff that we feel we have achieved something. These things – the CDs, the washing machines, the dental insurance, even the career – they don’t make us into a useful, fulfilled person, he says, they are just a panacea, something that makes us feel that we are getting somewhere, that we are achieving something. No, these things are not for me, Renton tells us, I chose heroin.
As I said earlier, when I read the part of Deuteronomy we heard today, the words “choose life” leapt out at me – perhaps because of the reviews I have been hearing about T2: Trainspotting, but also because all the readings that we have heard today are about choices. All the readings put in front of us the stark fact that God calls us to make a choice. Not a choice of which pieces of Stuff we are going to acquire next, but rather what is the driving force in our lives? Do we indeed choose life?
In Deuteronomy, we hear Moses exhorting the people to follow the commandments that God has set before them, because it is this way that life lies. I think it is important to realise that the Commandments set before the Israelites is not just a set of rules – or a set of tick boxes similar to Renton’s list, about which one could say “Yep, done that…and that…Aren’t I doing well?” If we see them as this then they become nothing more than that panacea that makes us think we are doing the right thing, getting on with life as we should, but without any real meaning. No, the spirit behind the commandments is much deeper and broader than a tick list set of rules. They are clues and signposts to the unimaginable depth of God’s wisdom, and it is when we mould our lives around the loving essence of this law that we are drawn more closely to the pulse of God. But it is our choice: we can choose the life full of love and wonder that God offers, or we can turn our backs on it and live lives of shallow acquisition.
In the topsy-turvy way in which God so often works, the commandments that were given to the Israelites were not the constraining rigid set of rules that they are often seen as being, but rather they are setting out the way to freedom, to life, if only we make that choice when it is offered to us.
As one commentator, Alan Brehm, writes: We find freedom when we commit ourselves to doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven; we find freedom when we live our lives in harmony with God’s justice and peace and mercy. We find freedom when we embrace a way of living that is defined by love”
In other words, we find freedom when we choose life.
At the beginning, the commandments were about – ARE about – forming a relationship with God and committing to it wholeheartedly. They are not meant to be a burden, they are not an endless list of dos and don’ts, but rather they are parameters enabling us to live a life full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love towards God and each other. If we view the commandments only as burdens we miss the important fact that they begin with “the good news of what the liberating God has done” As God says as he gives the Commandments, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” I have brought you freedom.
But as the years passed, and humans argued and discussed, and forgot about the essence of the Commandments, then perhaps the Torah did start to become a burden. The notion of a relationship between God and humankind slipped, the good news of liberation and life through obedience was lost. Perhaps it did seem that all God had done was to give an impossible ideal to live up to, so finally people were reduced to treating the Law as a tick list, so they could say “Well, I know I’m not perfect, but at least I’ve kept this commandment, and not broken that law…”
So, when Jesus speaks to the people in the reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel, he isn’t “setting us free from the Law” as so many commentators suggest, but rather he is calling on us to understand that the laws of God are central to living in relationship with him. The Gospel of Christ is not about rules – it is about relationships and this is what these difficult sayings of Jesus are all about.
He says that anger is as damaging to relationships as murder is. If we allow anger and fear to fester in our heart, then we are killing the relationships that are at the heart of life. If we allow ourselves to hate a person – whoever that person is – then we cease to see them as human, and we do not care about them or their fate. Equally, He says that if we look at a woman, or man, with a lustful eye, we are objectifying them, and seeing them as less than human. And from there it is only a few steps to treating them badly, or ignoring their needs and wishes, because they do not really matter.
I don’t really think that Jesus wants us to pluck out eyes, or cut off hands – but these images are put in front of us to shock us into realising how important Jesus’ words are. How often have you justified your feelings of anger, or jealousy, or desire by saying “Well, I wouldn’t do anything about it…”? By suggesting that we should rather cut off your hand than objectify someone, Jesus is telling us that thoughts matter, because it is our thoughts that shape our opinions, and it is our opinions that motivate our actions.
I think that by his exaggerated images, Jesus is saying that now, rather than being told exactly what to do, and when to do it, the whole of the Law is thrown open to us. Jesus is telling us that we are being given the grown-up responsibility of observing God’s loving will in all its ideals. In choosing life, in choosing to follow God, we are giving our whole selves into God’s hands – including the hidden parts, the thoughts and the opinions, that might well colour and affect our actions.
When I was at college, my main area of study was Religious Studies – and in one seminar we were asked to discuss the epithet from St Augustine “Love and do what whatever you please”. It was the first time I had heard this statement and to begin with it seemed a little trite and meaningless (if I dare say such a thing about St Augustine’s words!) But the more you unpack the meaning behind them, the more the words come to support what Jesus said when he reminded us to love God, and to love our neighbour. Especially when you consider the second part of the quotation from the Saint, which is less well-known: Love God and do whatever you please: Augustine writes, and then he continues: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.
Because we love God, and have made the choice to align ourselves with the fulfilment of God’s justice and peace in the world then there is nothing in the ten commandments that will limit or restrict us. Because we love God we will find ourselves free to love our fellow human beings, and we find that this is what we want to do. Jesus shows that God trusts humankind to – eventually – get it right. When we understand God’s love for us, and accept this love, then we and all our aspirations, desires and longings are transformed. When secured in love and transformed by unconditional acceptance, humankind is capable of doing good, true and beautiful acts. This is something that fearful rule-makers and law-keepers will never understand.
But of course, we are human. And we fail. Sometimes we fail spectacularly.
Recently I was working with some of my English language students on proverbs – we were looking at English proverbs, unpacking their meaning, discussing if they were actually true, and comparing them to the French equivalent. Did you know, for example, that in English we don’t count our chickens before they’ve hatched. In French, we are advised not to sell the bearskin before you have killed the bear. Or whereas in English you can’t have your cake and eat it, in French you can’t have the butter and the money for the butter. But for me, one of the saddest proverbs, or sayings, in English is “You’ve made your bed. Now lie in it. » That is to say – you’ve made your choice: now live with the consequences. Once your choice is made, you can’t go back on it.
Thankfully, for God, this proverb doesn’t exist. Because for Him, the choice is always there. It’s not a once-only offer, that expires tomorrow. We can choose to turn our backs on him; we can take the easy way of forgetting that our neighbours need our love and our giving; we can fail God’s will time and time again, but he is always there, offering us the choice to turn back to him, to align ourselves with him once more and to move forward towards the life that he offers. As Rob wrote in the newsletter: You can choose. Yesterday’s bad choice or your own personal history is not a perpetual contract. Every moment contains that threshold and that doorway to life.
Through all of the readings runs the theme of choice – In Deuteronomy God sets the way before us: choose life, he says; “Choose to walk in the ways of the Lord,” the Psalmist reminds us. And the Gospel reiterates again that in choosing to give every part our lives over to God – both the parts that we show to the world and the hidden parts – we are aligning ourselves with his will to bring justice, freedom and love into this world.
We find freedom when we embrace a way of living that is defined by love.
We find freedom when we choose life.