I was asked if I had notes from Sunday’s sermon, I didn’t but this is roughly what I said …
Moses gives us a stark choice in the reading from Deuteronomy
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”
And then he says, “Choose life”
It’s a bit of a no-brainer – who wouldn’t choose life? Who in their right mind would choose “Death and adversity”?
And yet so many of our decisions are effectively choosing death. We seem to think that we can fool God or do a bargain with him. We hear it all the time. ‘I never do anybody any harm’; how do we even know that that is true? But even if it is, is that really anything to offer to God; ‘I didn’t do anything’? That is basically what the person with one talent says in the parable of the talents; he does not come out of it well! (Matthew 25:14–30)
Sometimes we act as though we can fool God. I think it was on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 (honest it can be really interesting!) someone wrote in asking why their toddler told lies. Apparently he had appeared with red all over his face. When asked why he had been playing with Mum’s lipstick he had totally denied the obvious, even when Mum said that she could see the lipstick on his face.
Sometimes it must seem like that to God when we think we can fool him by being good and respectable on the outside. He would probably laugh at us too, except that it is rather more serious when we are choosing between “life” and “death and adversity”.
Faced with the choice
Jesus in the gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount presents us with the reality of our choices.
Here they fall into three sections:
- Resentment and hatred
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
I find this scary. There is someone who really winds me up, I had a message from him the other evening, just before going to bed, and it took ages to get it out of my head and I couldn’t get to sleep. “You fool” was mild compared to what I was thinking! And yes, I was in turmoil; it was me who couldn’t sleep, it was me who kept rehearsing what I needed to say to him (though he never would hear it, nice rectors don’t say that sort of thing!). The person I was annoyed with wasn’t, and never would be, touched by what was going through my head – but I was, it was a sort of death for me.
Jesus goes on to talk about lust and adultery. Yes, this is clearly about sexual desire but lust itself goes beyond than that. It happens whenever I reduce someone else to be just a thing that can give me pleasure or something to be got rid of because it irritates me.
Again the truth is that when we do that to others we do it to ourselves too – we reduce ourselves to being a mere bunch of animal instincts and we destroy in ourselves that image of God who is love and generosity.
Finally, we are challenged simply to let our “yes be yes and our no be no”. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Queen Gertrude says of an insincere actor performing in the ‘play within the play’, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.
Overstating our case can be a cover up for guilt, it sometimes shows that we are trying to convince ourselves of the lie as well as others.
As a priest I hear this a lot, people who launch into why they are as good Christians as anyone who goes to church (and at some point, yes, they will usually say ‘I never do anyone any harm’!) as soon as we start to talk. Perversely they actually give the impression that they feel guilty about not going to church and are trying to get their defence in first.
All this seems pretty grim, especially when we see how seriously Jesus takes it.
The Good News – forgiveness
There are two traps that we can fall into when trying to change the way we think. First, we just give in, ‘we can’t help the way we think so what choice do we have?’ Clearly that can’t be right.
But the second may seem more helpful but, in reality, is no more effective; we try to push the thoughts away, to force ourselves to stop thinking about whatever it is. This can work for a while but as we repress our thoughts we are not really dealing with them, so they start to build up. Eventually we can just explode – maybe even venting our frustration on some poor innocent who hasn’t got a clue what is going on. It ends up that this is not much better than the first trap.
But then there is a way that Jesus opens up to us; forgiveness.
As the thoughts come we can just note them. We don’t act them out, but we don’t push them away either. We gently observe what we are doing. So we move from “I think XXX is a complete and utter idiot!” to “I’m thinking that XXX is a complete and utter idiot”. We may find it easier to use our name, so I might think “Richard’s thinking that XXX is a complete and utter idiot”.
I then remember God’s love. God loves me as I am, he does not love me less because I am sinful or because I have thought the thought.
He also forgives me. The word the gospels use for ‘forgive’ is probably better translated ‘let go of’. God lets go of my thought – he does not hold it against me – so I can let go too.
Through all this the though recedes into the distance and I loose sight of it, I find the peace of forgiveness that God offers. I have not squashed it down (just to pop up later) and I have certainly not acted on it. I have simply allowed God’s forgiveness to take effect and found his peace.
Don’t get me wrong – if you’re like me the thought will soon be back, old habits die hard. But remember what Jesus said to Peter about the number of times Peter had to forgive? It was not seven but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22) and if God expects Peter to forgive at least 490 times I guess God will be even more patient. God’s forgiveness does not run out but it is effective, it does change us and Grace works through the Holy Spirt over time.
So we come before God with all our deathly thoughts but we are offered life-giving forgiveness.
We don’t have to be subject to our thought habits; we can choose life.