A Different Response - A Better Way
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
25 May 2008, 10:30 (Trinity 1)
It is extremely sad, I know, but I wrote this sermon leaning on the roof of my car. Ten days’ ago Jack and I drove up to Scotland to do the Three Peaks, and on the way, just north of Stoke there was an accident on the motorway. Traffic came to a complete halt and we were forced to sit and wait. After a while, to stop myself fuming about the traffic jam, I decided to get a sheet of paper out of the boot of the car and start writing this sermon. It is based on perhaps the most famous passage in the Gospels – the Sermon on the Mount. I called this the Sermon on the Astra. It is perhaps the only time in my life I wish I drove a Mondeo.
The Sermon on the Mount is after all about how to live well in real life situations. It arose out of Roman occupation and the 101 different ways that being an occupied, oppressed nation impinged on the daily lives of the Jewish people. Passive resistance, loving your enemies, meekness, mercy, purity, peacefulness overcoming anger, living life as an example to others, right priorities, treasure in heaven, letting go of anxiety, leaving judgements to God, embracing all of life with prayer and faith. Somehow the traffic jam was already feeling less of an inconvenience.
The particular bit of the Sermon on the Mount before us today is about passive response to intimidation. That in itself is an alien concept to us in our world of inalienable rights and litigation but at root it is about finding a different response, a better way. Both of today’s passages, the Old Testament one from Leviticus 19 and the New Testament one from the Sermon on the Mount, are to do with social relationships. The Sermon on the Mount grew out of Roman occupation and it grates with us because Jesus’ insistence on non-violence seems very passive, it seems to accept the social status quo. Is it condoning oppression and maltreatment? His suggestion that we should not retaliate in kind is a challenge to those who suffer at the hands of oppression. What about Tibet? What about Zimbabwe? How would it read if we translated this passage – “Do not resist Mugabe. If he strikes you on the right cheek offer him the left also. If he takes your house let him have your farm as well”. Or suppose a man you know loses his job through no fault of his own. He has been badly treated by his employer and, although his departure is kept within the boundaries of the law, it is only just so. The firm proposes a derisory severance package. The man has therefore lost his job, his reputation, his salary, but he is a man of faith so he comes home and reads Matthew Chapter 5 verse 38 onwards – “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say to you do not resist one who is evil but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also, and if anyone would sue you and take your coat let him have your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse him who would borrow from you”.
What should he do? Should he accept what has happened and move on in faith. Or should he involve his solicitor and challenge what has happened, if not for his own sake but that of his family. And if not for them for the sake of other employees in the firm who may later fall prey to the same treatment.
Jesus seems to be calling for a response far above and beyond what seems natural or even right. Certainly, far above and beyond what others might do. You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. Scholars argue, of course, over what is actually going on in the Sermon in the Mount. Is it raising the bar of human behaviour to impossible heights? Is this the unequivocal Jesus telling his disciples how to live if they want to earn the name of Christian? Or is it presenting an impossible ideal, precisely to convince us that we will always fall short and, therefore, be in need of redemption? Is it teaching that Jesus offered in the belief that the end of all time was just around the corner? Is this the way of living that Jesus felt was appropriate, if indeed the end was nigh. Or was it that the Sermon on the Mount calls forth from us better than we can ever imagine is within us? Does it inspire us in our behaviour?
In a strange way I think that the passage in Leviticus 19 can help us understand what the Sermon on the Mount is about. Leviticus 19 was written to a people who were oppressed and had found their freedom. Like so much Old Testament law it is a challenge to the people to incorporate their experience of oppression and slavery into their own laws and customs, such that they determined to put freedom, dignity, respect and justice at the heart of the society they create, and it culminates in the commandment that Jesus quoted and lived by – “Love your Neighbour as yourself”. Just as in Leviticus 19 the people are challenged to allow their experience of redemption from slavery to affect the way they live when they have their freedom, so the gospel of redemption that Jesus gives to us should inspire us to be generous, forgiving people in our turn. You find this time and again in the gospels – a symbiotic relationship between what God has done for us and what we must then do for others. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Love one another as I have loved you. God will bless you in abundance so that you may provide an abundance for every good work. The words of the old chorus are apt and fitting here – “freely, freely, you have received, freely, freely, give”. That seems to encapsulate so much of what the Gospels teach us. And this helps us to understand the Sermon on the Mount better. It is not so much that it holds an impossible ideal before us, it is teaching for those whose lives have been touched by the grace, forgiveness and love of God and who are therefore capable of being stretched so much further than they thought possible in their response to God’s love in their own lives. The life that no longer finds its worth in possessions is able to cope with having things taken away from them. The one who has already given up their will to God has nothing more to lose from the hands of an oppressor. The person who has known the searing liberation of forgiveness can forgive more in others than they ever thought possible. There are many extraordinary accounts of Christians who have done this down the years and risen to the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount behaviour. Gordon Wilson, whose daughter was killed in the Inniskillen bombing all those years ago, is one who comes particularly to mind. His ability to forgive those who had perpetrated such violence on his daughter was a tribute to his own experience of forgiveness. If we want to live like this, if we aspire to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, the way forward is not a steely resolution and a determined bending of our will to the will of God, in my experience that leads nowhere. This cannot be achieved by human effort, it is a gift of God. The answer, if answers we seek, is to put ourselves in the way of God, to go down deeply once more into the experiences of love, forgiveness, redemption and freedom that lie at the heart of our relationship with God. These are the things that will change us. It is called grace, and, if we are lucky, we can come across it in the oddest and most unexpected places in life, even leaning on the roof of a Vauxhall Astra.