David Walker's Sermon - 17th February 2019
I want to be perfectly clear this morning. How many times have you heard someone say ‘let me make this perfectly clear’ only to know that it won’t be?
Anything but, In fact. At best it might be a little unclear. At worst, obscure or even deliberately evasive.
In this morning’s reading from St Luke’s gospel, on a level place, with a great crowd of disciples and a great multitude of people from Judea and the surrounding areas, Jesus makes it clear – makes clear his perspective on the world and its values, and what he expects of those who aspire to follow him, who aspire to be his disciples.
And he does this in this great Sermon on the Plain, a shorter and slightly stripped down, and possibly less familiar, version of the Sermon on the Mount that we find in St Matthew’s gospel.
This morning’s lectionary only give us half of it but I want to talk about the whole, so I’m going to read to you the remainder of it, just a few more verses.
It seems logical to do that. Just imagine if I preached half a sermon this morning and promised you the rest in March. How would you feel?
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.’
If we’d only heard up to verse 26 we would still have heard a powerful sermon describing what sort of world Jesus wants his disciples to live in, a world that honours and blesses the poor, the hungry and the sad, where people are valued for who they are, and what they believe, not for their earthly possessions or position in society, and a world defined by a new and radical reality far removed ethically and politically from contemporary Palestine.
What sort of world - Jesus makes the ‘what’ very clear.
But this is literally only half the story. To leave it at a ‘what’ leaves us with just words and words which, with familiarity, we can easily sanitise and drain of their power.
In the second part Jesus completes the ‘what’ with a ’how’. And he does it in a direct way which is simple, concise, succinct and straightforward. Clear. The golden rule, all summed up by ‘do to others as you would have them do to you.’
This is how to live as a disciple of Christ. And we all fall short. Because it’s hard. It may be clear but it’s very hard. We can’t live up to it even though we know that the world would be better if we all did.
Should we despair at that and just give up? No, I don’t think so.
We should take heart from the knowledge that God cares for us so much that he came to us as Jesus to preach to us, to tell us what the world should be like and how we should be going about it - to show us the light so that we might face it and move, however slowly, towards it.
The problem for most of us is in applying what we know to be right to the day to day practicalities of life. That’s when what might seem clear and straightforward becomes more difficult. And that can be made even more difficult because we live in a world in which, whilst we are called to Christian discipleship, many are not and the world is largely a construct of the ‘are nots’.
We’re going through a difficult and challenging period right now.
Whether it’s exceptional, as many would claim, I’m not so sure. Personally I feel fortunate to have missed the 20th century wars which decimated not just the continent of Europe but most of the world. And most of us live materially comfortable lives relatively free from hunger and want and the diseases that threatened our fairly recent forebears.
But we are undoubtedly facing challenges and there is more division in our society and between individuals than we’ve experienced for some time. The only thing certain right now is that uncertainty is likely to continue.
I don’t want to talk about Brexit this morning, perhaps in itself a sign of how toxic it has become in our thoughts and our conversations. I’m sure that whatever I said about it some of us would get upset.
There are many other problems in our society and I don’t know whether Brexit is a cause or a symptom of a wider malaise. But I do know that we will all, Brexiters and Europeans alike, have to come through this one way or another.
How should we be dealing with all of this? How can we be ‘of a mind with Christ’ and still be of this world and live out our lives in the world? How can we best do this as disciples of Christ?
Moving from the 'what' and 'how' of Jesus’ sermon on the plain, specifically what does this mean for us a Christians now and in the months to come?
Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, spoke and wrote recently about how he viewed the Christian response at this time.
He was looking at it in relation to the growth of populism and what that has meant for individual and social discourse in debasing public debate and dividing our communities.
An obvious response is to remind disciples that their calling is to imitate Jesus. But this is, in the understated words of Bishop Nick, ‘quite hard to do’ – just as, I think we’ve probably already agreed that it’s ‘quite hard’ to live up to the message of the Sermon on the Plain.
The spirit of the Bishop’s message is that we all need to pay attention to how we can create a God centred society which reflects the values of Jesus and which encourages characteristics such as kindness, generosity, justice, humaneness and a desire for truth, but which also identifies and challenges destructive traits such as cruelty, selfishness and self absorption, lies, deception, misinterpretation, manipulation and subterfuge.
This is not a call to some sort of fantasy, a Harry Potter world of good and bad wizards, a choice between Harry and Voldemort.
This is a call to a new realism, an understanding of the world as subtle and nuanced; in which crude and simplifying dualisms should be resisted, polarising ideologies rejected; where there are safe spaces for encounter and conversation; where toleration is not confused with acquiescence: where healthy disagreement is allowed to flourish; and where empathy is valued and people take time to consider and appreciate the other’s point of view.
Politics, the media - print, broadcast or social - can often be forces working against this view of society. We, as Christians, need to be a force working for it. We need to insist upon integrity and consistency within clear moral frameworks. And we should be unafraid to engage, not in slanging matches but in trustworthy listening and truth telling.
Above all, we must remember that as Christians we must always be people of hope, drawn by that hope and not driven by fear.
To quote directly from Bishop Nick,
‘Christians must love the light by looking at the world in the light of Christ who is the light of the world. Don’t just look at Jesus; look at the world through his eyes, say what you see, with humility and be trustworthy and faithful to that.’
In a nutshell - we are called to be lovers of light, not colluders in darkness
When we think about the world and its problems, whether that be Brexit, poverty or homelessness, conflicts and wars, immigration or the refugee crisis, global warming or even the gender wars in our national church we need to think, and then speak, and then act as Christians, as disciples of Jesus. We must live and tell our truth - which might not be the same for everyone because we understand things in different ways - but it needs to be honest and spoken with integrity, and faithful to the message of Jesus as we have received it.
So, to remind us once again, this is that message – in bullet points – the ‘how’ made clear to us on the Plain – the ‘how’ that we should all strive for.
· Love your enemies,
· Do good to those who hate you,
· Bless those who curse you,
· Pray for those who abuse you.
· Give to everyone who begs from you
· Lend, expecting nothing in return.
· Be merciful.
· Do not judge, and you will not be judged
· Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
· Forgive, and you will be forgiven;
· Give, and it will be given to you
· Do to others as you would have them do to you.