Wednesday, 15 February 2017
You have heard that it was said”.
I’m sure that you have heard many things said in the news recently. The president of the United States has said that he has been told lots of things such as there being 5 million illegal voters in the presidential election. We’ve heard lots about alternative facts or alt-facts which aren’t facts at all. Facts don’t seem to matter to many people any more. Say the right thing to get your audience’s attention. Say the right thing to stir up controversy and play on the prejudices that people hold.
We are not immune to this kind of thing in Canada. There is the proposal of Canadian Values Tests for immigrants. There are proposed bans on certain kinds of religious symbols. We had the terrible event in the Quebec City Mosque where the Powers of Darkness struck against innocent people.
We hear lots of things these days with the 24-hour news cycle and social media and Twitter reigning over everything else. So what are we to make of what Jesus is telling us?
“You have heard that it was said...But I say to you”. Jesus repeats this formula three times in the Gospel reading today. So what is he saying to us about what we have heard? There different ways of hearing. Jesus tells us that anyone who has ears should listen. When Jesus said this he was not saying that we should just accept everything we hear as, well, as Gospel truth.
We should not listen without judgement to people who spread alternative facts which are in fact lies. We are called to discern what we hear. We need to have ears that hear truth and can discern the truth from lies. When Jesus tells us, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you”, he is telling us to have ears to hear the truth of what he is telling us. He tells us the truth about many things in the Gospel passage. He is tells us in the passage just before today’s Gospel passage, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”.
For the law to be fulfilled means that the essence—the spirit of the law is what matters—not the letter of the law. He showed what this means when he said the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath.
It is the spirit of the law that matters to God and therefore to us. That is why God became incarnate in his only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. God’s chosen people were given the law—the Torah. The tablets were received by Moses on the mountain top. They tried for two thousand years to fulfill the law by living according to the letter of the law. Jesus Christ came to show them and us what the truth of the law was and is:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
That is what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you.” So how do we know truth? How do we know when something we hear is the truth or a lie? To do that we need to have the gift of discernment. We need to draw on the revealed word of God in scripture. We need to draw on tradition. This we Anglicans can do because we have the revealed word in the Bible every time we worship and when we read and reflect on scripture at home. We Anglicans are also are steeped in tradition. However, we need more than tradition. We need to draw of experience. We need to be able to draw on the experience of God working in our lives and in the world. This has been something that the church does not always recognize and embrace. Richard Rohr a Franciscan priest and mystic notes:
In the early 1960s, Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984) stated that if Western Christianity did not rediscover its mystical foundations, we might as well close the doors of the churches because we had lost the primary reason for our existence. Now don’t let the word “mystic” scare you. It simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions at their mature levels agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and even available to everyone. Richard Rohr January 24, 2017
We need to be able to recognize when and how God is speaking to us. We need to pray and read the bible. But it is just as important to listen to what God is saying to us. God is speaking to us in many ways which we no longer recognize. We need to be still and know that God is there even when we do hear him because of all the noise in the world.
Most of all we can listen and respond by loving God with our hearts, and with our souls, and with all our minds. We can respond by loving our neighbours as ourselves. Believe me, I know as well as anyone else that that is not easy. Fortunately, God knows that we will not be successful all or even most of the time. More fortunately, Jesus shows us that we are forgiven. God does not expect perfection. God expects us to try and try again. I invite you to turn to page 53 in the Book of Alternative Services and recite that ancient prayer the Hear, O Israel.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and the great commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these. Amen.
A few weeks ago I introduced the idea of sin as those things which chain us to the past. I want to explore that concept further this week. I came across this concept or definition of sin quite a few years ago. However, the source has been lost in the recesses of my memory. My supplication to the god Google was not answered. So I have to accept the uncertainty of the genesis of this concept of sin.
The concept of sin as being chained to the past resonated with me when I first heard it and I still believe that it gets at a, if not the, fundamental aspect of what sin is. Sin is not morals or ethics; although sin can certainly involve moral and ethical behaviour. However, if we see sin more as an approach to life and to how we respond to life in all its aspects, I believe we are getting to the heart of sin as being chained to the past.
Humans are created in the image of God. However, that image does not mean that we are God or gods. We are imperfect and we will not follow the course of life that God intends for us. So what is it that chains us to the past? We all have developed survival mechanisms which we believed, on an unconscious or conscious level, were necessary for us to be successful in life. Indeed they may have been absolutely necessary given the cards we were dealt in life. If someone was raised in an abusing environment they developed mechanisms that helped them survive e.g. run and hide from the abuser when certain signs were there that abuse could be about to happen. If someone was raised in a scarcity of food or shelter, a person would develop ways of doing what was necessary to gain those necessities. If someone was ignored as a child they may decide that they need to act out to get the attention they crave to have their existence acknowledged. In my case I found the world I was in to be a puzzling and somewhat scary place outside my home. So found my small corner which was safe and which I could withdraw to when the world became too much for me to deal with.
These survival mechanisms were necessary and appropriate given the circumstances people find themselves in. However, when our circumstances change, perhaps knowing that you will have the necessities of life, or that the people in your life now are not abusive, the person may not accept that as the reality and react as if the world is still the old familiar way which is no longer necessary. This prevents us from living the life as fully as possible. It chains us to the past and does not enable us to become the people that God intended us to be when God created us; that for me certainly one aspect of sin.
I recently finished reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. I believe purchased the copy some years ago but had never read it. It describes wonderfully the concept of sin as being chained to the past. The book is an allegory along the lines of Pilgrims Progress (although not quite up to that caliber) which describes a scenario where a bus has arrived in heaven with a load of passengers who have come from the village where they have been. This village is, in reality, hell—although they do not recognize that it is hell not having experienced hellfire and brimstone. These souls are met by residents of heaven who they have known in their lives and who are their guides to the heaven where they now find themselves. The souls find heaven to be too real and too substantial. They are insubstantial so even the grass is too solid and too uncomfortable for them to walk on without some discomfort. Different souls are presented as stereotypes that reject heaven because of their beliefs and ways of being.
For example, one resident (angel) of heaven greets a “Fat, Clean-Shaven Man” who he knew in life. The angel tells him that he is now indeed in heaven and the place he left was indeed hell. The soul refuses to believe him and engages the angel using semantics to defend his view of reality. The angel tries to make him understand that his view of reality is wrong. The soul rejects the angel’s “crude salvationism” and unwilling to abandon his intellectual construct of life smugly goes off to catch the bus for the return trip to what for him is an acceptable existence in the village.
I do not agree with Lewis’s theology on some points, however, I enjoy his writing immensely and there is much about his faith and belief that I admire. In The Great Divorce I believe he has caught the essence of the concept of sin as those things that chain us to the past. One of the callings and challenges we have as Christians is to try and discover and break those chains that keep us from living the life God intends us to live.
Blessings on you journey.