Morning Service for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Celebrating New Life.     

Feeling like "me" again.  What can get us out of dark places and back into the light? 

Sermon

This sermon is taken from Matthew 5, verses 17-24, 38-48

Walking The Way: In the Light. Celebrating New Life

          CELEBRATING NEW LIFE

 

“Perfect does not work” declares Nicole Kidman at the end of the film Stepford Wives. The men of Stepford have found a way of creating what-to them-are the perfect wives: drop dead gorgeous, glamorous women who create immaculate homes and say, “yes dear,” to whatever their husband wants.   And the only way they can create these perfect wives is by turning real life women into robots. In other words, they rob them of their humanity.

 

 “Be perfect,” says Jesus. And how do you achieve that without losing your humanity? Jesus had been talking about anger- getting cross with people who have hurt you. Don’t hit them. Don’t curse them. Don’t even think bad thoughts about them…..

OK, we are civilised people. Most of us can manage most of the time not to hit someone who is being thoroughly nasty. Most of us can even manage, some of the time, not to say something unpleasant. We can clench our fists and we can button up our mouths. But not even to think angry thoughts? Impossible and, would you not say, unnatural?

Remember another film- Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman?” He is telling Julia Roberts about his childhood and of how he and his mother had been left in poverty because his father had walked out on them. “I was very angry with my father,” he says. “It cost me ten thousand dollars of therapy to say that- I was very angry with my father.” Julia Roberts says that she would have been angry at the ten thousand dollars, but that man desperately needed to express his anger, no matter how much it cost. He needed to understand his feelings. He needed to articulate them because until he could understand how he felt, he would not be able to understand the direction his life had taken and the person he had become.

 

Burying anger, fear, pain and grief deep inside us and trying to pretend they do not exist, that we can cope, results in huge psychological and physical damage- we know that. And surely Jesus knew that, too.

Perfect does not work and in our society today, perhaps more than ever before, the so-called ideals of perfection drive young people into mental illness, self-harm and suicide. They push adults into total exhaustion and self-hatred. They leave older people feeling like miserable, discarded failures.  And we are warned all the time that these ideals of perfection are unrealistic and therefore ultimately destructive. Striving to be “perfect” means denying our humanity and did Jesus really demand that of us?

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The trouble with me is that I jump to conclusions. I hit on one word, one phrase, and construct a whole theory around it which has got little to do with what is actually being said. In this case I hit on the word “perfect” without looking too closely at the rest of the sentence. What Jesus is actually recorded as having said is, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” You might not think that is much of an improvement, for we stand about as much chance of reaching God’s standards of perfection as we do those of the current supermodel celebrity of the day. But maybe what Jesus is directing us to here is the fatherhood of God. Earlier in his sermon he had given the people the words of the Lord’s Prayer- Our Father… Perhaps what we are looking at is not some ideal of divine perfection that is quite possibly along the lines of a “Stepford God” but for perfection in fatherhood? “Be perfect as your heavenly father is a perfect father.”

 

Think for a moment about what or who you would call a perfect father….

Here is the list I made earlier:

A perfect father would not necessarily be one who never shouts at you, but he would be one who never gives up on you.

He would not be one who always gives you exactly what you want but he would be one who tries to give you what you most need.

He would not be one who can never see any wrong in you, but he would be one who says, I know what you are, but I love you anyway.

He would not be one who refuses to allow you your independence, but he would be one who always feels a sense of responsibility for you.

He would not be one who fences you around to keep you safe, but he would be one who is there to pick you up when you fall and set you on your feet again.

He would be capable of anger, of fear, of disappointment but these emotions would be born of love. Our heavenly father, as Jesus made Him known, is a perfect father because his whole nature is love.  

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Be perfect as He is perfect. As I pick this up and start working backwards through the chapter, it begins to make more sense and to look more “thinkable.”

Going back to what Jesus said about anger, the problem with anger is that, unless it can find a really creative outlet, it destroys you. It eats you up inside. I can remember when people have seriously let me down and I have been angry. I have then told a friend all about it and yes, I need to express my anger but in telling the story, you are re-living that anger all over again. Then I tell a second person and a third and the anger is experienced a second and a third time. Even then, it is still buzzing around inside my mind. And until I can let it go, it will keep draining all my energies. And if it keeps on building up, I shall end up hurting someone- not physically- but by taking out my anger on them. And that will start another whole series of destructive reactions. In one of the most ancient stories in the Bible God warns Cain- don’t let your anger take you over. It will destroy you. Let it go. But Cain does not let it go. He ends up killing his own brother and is marked for life.      

 

Jesus was living amongst people who were suffering under the heavy hand of the Roman Government.  They were- quite understandably angry at seeing their resources plundered and their people suffering unjustly. But what good would hitting out at a Roman soldier do? It would simply unleash a flood of retribution in which a lot of innocent people would get hurt. Jesus is trying to help them. He is trying to help them to deal with the anger that is building up inside them so that it does not end up destroying them. He is trying to lead them into a life that can cope- not as in “put up with” oppression and injustice but cope, as in ‘get the better” of it. Take the wind out of your oppressor’s sails by meeting him with kindness and mercy. Give him more than he demands and be the better, stronger person. He has become the victim of violence and injustice because he is living by those standards. You do not have to be that victim. You can choose not to play his game. And this will save you from being destroyed by resentment and hatred.

 

Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. Did not Jesus himself demonstrate that the love of God could absorb all the hatred, injustice and anger in human nature? He could take it all yet, never give way to it in himself. And this way, he gained the upper hand over sin and even over death.

Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. Live according to the laws of love and not those of retribution. Cultivate a heart of love rather than one twisted up with hatred. And this perfection will not involve denying your humanity but fulfilling it. For you will become the person you were meant to be and live a wholly new life.

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That sounds to me a far more attractive proposition than trying to turn yourself into some kind of religious robot. But it is still a high challenge. We are still talking a complete re-thinking of our whole inner being and outlook on life. We are still talking trying to cultivate positive thoughts about that person who has made your life a misery rather than resentful ones. And how precisely do you achieve that? Maybe a robotic existence where you can simply press a button which says “happy thoughts” is not such a bad idea.

 

It is widely acknowledged that it is far easier for a man to be a good father if he himself had a good father. That is not to say that all men who have bad fathers inevitably become bad parents themselves. They do not. But it is much easier to be a good father or mother if you have had good parents yourself. This is partly about example- you see for yourself how things can be done- and partly about confidence in yourself. A person who has grown up knowing that they are loved and loved unconditionally does not believe that they have anything to “prove.’ They are who they are; they are content to be who they are; they trust who they are to survive the harsher side of life and to be able to create some goodness.

When you think about it, a lot of the seriously disturbing issues in the world are caused by people who are trying to ‘prove themselves” through grabbing power, through amassing far more money than their share, through tyrannising over others; through abuse of the most vulnerable. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, war, terrorism, global warming, even many natural disasters are rooted in people who do not believe that they are loved.

 

Jesus offers us a heavenly father who is love. He is introducing us to a source of love and strength that will never fail. He was telling his people that it was God, their heavenly father whose love gave them the right to live and not the Romans, who taught them that they were scum. He tells each one of us that it is God, our heavenly father whose love gives us the right to live and not Boris Johnson or Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin; not the teacher who told us we would never be good enough; not the family member who always undermined us; not the partner who betrayed us; not the colleague who made us redundant; not the celebrities who outshine us. We are the children of God who poured life into the whole universe and who will never stop loving us.      

 

Now surely, if we can only take this on board, we shall find it a whole lot easier to become people whose thoughts and feelings are motivated by love rather than by anger. Remember St Paul, whose life was totally transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ, writing that  letter to the Christians in Corinth, declaring in a later chapter that “love is patient and kind; love does not envy or feel the need to boast; it does not try to put other people down; it is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always keeps trying.

If we truly believe then, that we are loved by God and if we live day by day, hour by hour in the belief that we are loved more than we can ever imagine, then we shall find ourselves hoping for goodness and renewal in the people who have let us down rather than for their destruction. We shall not want others to suffer but to be healed. We shall be looking to enable people rather than to control them. We shall never give up either on ourselves or on the whole human race.  This is the perfection of God and this is the perfection in which Jesus not only invites us to share but makes it possible for us to share. He has been there. He has got the better of pain and anger; betrayal and hatred; suffering and death. And so, he can reach out and help us along our way. We are saved by God’s love; saved by Christ’s victory over sin and death to be ourselves, to fulfil the glorious promise of our humanity, creatures made in the image of God.  

 

And so we finish where we started- taking our place as part of the house inspired by God, created by Jesus Christ, built by the whole congregation with the gifts given to us by God; used in the power of the Holy Spirit who can keep us growing in faith, in hope and in love.

All are welcome in this place. All belong here as children of our heavenly father, who is perfect in his fatherhood.  

Amen.