Sunday, 2 March 2014

Sunday next before Lent

Matthew 6, and we're back on the low hills outside Capernaum sitting at our Lord's feet and listening to the Sermon on the so-called Mount: the topography is more Chiltern than cuilin, to be honest, but the idea is to hark back to Moses giving the Law from Mount Sinai. As I've said before, Matthew's very Jewish account of the Sermon on the Mount, compared with Luke's more gentile one, is very much about Jesus' relationship to Moses and the Law. He said earlier on that he did not come to change a 'jot or tittle,' even the dot of an 'i' or the cross of a 't' of that Law, but then, you'll remember, he gave a whole series of startling interpretatations of particular laws. "You have heard it said," he kept starting, in traditional Rabbinic fashion, but then He qualified every instance with the words "but I say to you..." And it's the "I" that is so important here, so important and so controversial: in fact, it's the "I" that would get Him crucified, because Jesus was inserting Himself into the Law. Jesus makes Himself the editor of God's unchangeable, eternal Law, He puts Himself at the centre of it. And today's Gospel shows just how radically deeply He embodies the Law, becomes the living Law, and how he wants us to embody it, too: without anxiety, and in our hearts.

But before Jesus starts telling us not to worry, there's something he says that shocks, even grates, right at the beginning of the Gospel: "no one can be the slave of two masters." I know he's talking about God and money, and there's an obvious sermon in that - so obvious that I'm not going to go into it - but isn't it the word "slave" that sticks out? I haven't yet seen the new film "Twelve Years a Slave," but I've heard that it's not exactly a family rom-com: more like an American Schindler's List. I can't imagine what it must be like to be owned, to be someone's property that they can dispose of as they will, whether it's in 19th century America or the ancient world Jesus lived in. But I'm sure we're all imaginative enough to recognise the horror of it: OK, you might be a comfortable house slave, even in the ancient world a teacher - but the point is, you wouldn't have the choice. You could be cleaning the stables one day and then sent down the mines, or into the gladiatorial ring the next, and you'd have no say in it at all. So what on earth can Jesus mean by advocating that we be slaves to God? And how can that fit in with the overall Bob Marley-esque theme of "don't worry, be happy?"

I think there's a big problem with using language of slavery in the Church today, yet we do: for example, when the modern baptismal liturgy (unlike the old Prayer Book rite) asks candidates whether they 'submit' to Christ. But to a lot of people, especially given the sexual scandals of recent years, the language of slaves and masters, of submission to authority, has connotations of serious and systematic abuse. Yet here it is, in the language of Scripture, in the words of Our Lord Himself. So, I would say, we can't avoid it. But it needs serious qualification. And Jesus does gives it qualification. He juxtaposes the idea of slavery with a message of liberation: liberation from the anxieties that hold us back from the true freedom of living in God's love.

Jesus tells us not to worry, not to get worked up or guilty about keeping the letter of the Law: we are not bound by the Jewish laws that tell us what we can and can't eat, what we should or shouldn't wear. We are not to be enslaved by them. And we are not to be enslaved by our possessions, our greed, the anxieties that money and property can bring if we don't see them for what they are: a gift from God. Our material goods, like the laws we keep, are meant to be a tool, not a straitjacket, something we can use to the glory of God rather than something to enclose and stult us. Jesus wants us to see the world and the Law as gifts from God, not a prison, and certainly not a slavemaster. It's the pagans, the infidels, who are enslaved by these things, and they're the ones missing out.

The recipe that Jesus gives us for seeing the world and the Law as he wants us to, is this: set your hearts on the Kingdom first. And that is where the paradox of being slaves to God, which sounds so repugnant, makes sense. If we accept the kingdom of God, that is, the rule of God in our hearts - if we let God be our master - then we are truly free: because instead of being mastered by the false self, the self we think we are if we're left too long too our own devices - the self that is gratified by material luxury and status and law-abiding pride - instead of that, we are mastered by our true self, and that is the image of God in which we are all made. True freedom is mastery by the true self: mastery of the heart by the image of the God who is Love.

We begin Lent this Wednesday, and I'd love to see us all go forward as a church together into the wilderness, supporting each other in our journey deeper into the profundity of God's love. We can join in the discipline of Lent by setting ourselves some simple rule. But today's Gospel makes it pretty clear that if it's just some test of your resolve that's going to cause you anxiety, it's frankly not worth very much. Giving up the booze or chocolate is all well and good, but it needs to be done as a free gift to God, an offering made with love, not anxiety or guilt. It may be better to offer some daily or weekly act of prayer, perhaps committing to come more often to the Eucharist - the Lent course conveniently begins with Mass at 7.30 every Wednesday...

Whatever you do, it's my duty to urge you to begin by coming to the Ash Wednesday Eucharist at 8pm, and make your promise to God there and then. It could be the start of a spiritual adventure which could truly enrich your relationship with God if you join in as fully as you can; if you empty yourself so that Jesus, the living Law of God's love, can enter in and rule in your heart. For He is our true source, our true self, and our true goal.

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