Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 13th February 2011, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany.
Every time I sit and watch a new film I am impressed by the power of stories to capture our attention and draw us in. What I particularly like about films is their capacity to stimulate imagination and open up possibilities which we may have never considered before. Perhaps because of that, one my favourite genre is science fiction. I always loved science fiction films, ever since I was a boy. I grew up with Star Wars and Flight of the navigator. I also remember a trilogy called Back to the future.
I don’t know why, but the possibility of going back in time has always been a favourite theme in science fiction films. Think about it: If you were given the possibility to go back in time, how far back would you go? Or if you were given the possibility to go into the future, how far would you go?
I think it would be really exciting if we could travel back in time, say, during the time of the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt. If we could walk among the Israelites and strike up a conversation with them. If we could watch how they relate to one another, how they prepare their food and tend to their flocks. If we could smell the heat of the desert of Sinai, and wait with them while Moses is up the mountain talking with God.
If we took our own understanding of what is moral and proper behaviour, and tried to apply it in that context, we would probably be shocked at the savagery and immorality of that enormous crowd of refugees. They had no law just yet. Moses had to come down the mountain and instruct the newly formed nation into every little aspect of life, as he laid the foundation of their moral fabric. He had to spell out all the basics, from ‘thou shalt not murder’ to ‘wash your hands before you eat’.
Perhaps we would be so shocked and frightened by what we saw, that we would want to get back into our time machine and go forward a few centuries. Maybe we would like to visit Israel during the golden age of Solomon and the great prophets.
After the shocking trip to the time of Moses, we would definitely notice an improvement in the level of morality in Israel. Clearly, the nation of Israel moved on in their development. They had a temple and priesthood, the law was read and studied. What was acceptable during the time of Moses was clearly frowned upon and rejected during the reign of Solomon. We would notice that the moral standards of the nation were clearly higher.
We could then make several jumps through history and notice that sometimes humanity went through rough times when standards decreased, and then increased again. We would be shocked perhaps at how slowly humanity develops its moral standards. But if we looked closely enough, we might discover an overall steady progression.
Certainly what we have in the ministry of Jesus was a turning point in the history of humanity. The law of Moses taught them the basics, the prophets reminded the nation of the letter of the law, as well as the spirit of the law, and Jesus elevated the standards to a level which was never seen before. Jesus makes references to what was taught in the past, and points the way to the future. We can look at this as a father who teaches his grown up teenager a different level of life lessons to the basic rules of ‘don’t hit your brother over the head with a cricket bat’. The older we get, the more subtle and complex life becomes.
If for a primitive society is was enough to iron out the basics of morality, Jesus is here moving humanity to a new level towards the justice of his Kingdom. He moves humanity from the primitive brutality of physical murder, to a new level of moral awareness, where words can sometimes do more damage than the sword. It is obvious to us that to kill someone with a gun is immoral. But it may be less obvious that calling someone a fool is just as wrong and unjust. What Jesus is teaching in this passage is truly revolutionary, as he points the way towards a new humanity.
If we look around in our society, it is already obvious that humanity moved on quite a bit in this area. If 20 or 30 years ago it was perfectly acceptable for a teacher to call a pupil a ‘dummy’ – and I’m using a euphemism here – today that would be unacceptable. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I’m saying it is considered unacceptable. People still mess up in this area, but we are becoming increasingly aware of how our words affect others. We still have a long way to go, of course, but we have moved on.
It is amazing to me when I talk to people today how sensitive they are to how others feel; how careful they are not to offend or embarrass others by their words, their attitudes and their actions. There seems to be an increasing desire in people to be useful to others, to enable others to enjoy life, to be supportive in times of need and distress.
Perhaps if we went back 200 years and asked a slave owner if he ever considered how his slaves felt about their condition, he would not even know what we’re talking about. What was perfectly acceptable two centuries ago is completely unacceptable today.
If we only went back 100 years and tried to challenge the marginalization of women in the church and in society, very few would regard this as a moral issue and have any sympathy for our cause. The assumptions of patriarchy are still very strong today, and they are clearly reflected in the remuneration gap between men and women. Somehow companies are still getting away with paying women less than men. We have moved on, but there is still a very long way to go.
Throughout history we have seen a huge transformation in the nature of relationships, and especially in the way we look at marriage. If during the time of Jesus it was perfectly acceptable for a man to divorce his wife by simply giving her a letter and sending her on her merry way, without assuming much economic responsibility for her, nowadays that is unthinkable. In most cases, you can’t divorce a woman without providing some kind of financial support.
Jesus’ injunction against divorce was meant to protect the dignity of women. This is also seen in what Jesus says about ‘looking at a woman’ and ‘wanting to possess her’. Women are not objects to be possessed and traded, used and discarded. The new humanity cannot look at any category of people as objects. We have such a long way to go in this area. There is still a lot of buying and selling of people today, even in this country. Often this happens in more subtle ways, in the way marriage is sometimes regarded more as an economic transaction, than a partnership of equals.
If we take a close look at our society today, and perhaps an even closer look at the way we personally relate to one another, we may feel that we have come a long way compared to our ancestors. But we all need to ask ourselves where we still need to go from here. We have clearly not arrived yet.
If we went on another journey in our time machine, and this time went into the future instead of the past, what could we discover? Would we perhaps discover a world where women are paid the same wages as men, and they are no longer financially and socially vulnerable? Would we discover a world where people care so much about each other that they not only resist calling each other names and treating each other as objects, but that they also learned how not to be passive aggressive and subtly judgemental? That they would be sensitive enough to know that sometimes all it takes is a look, a frown or a shake of the head to destroy someone’s dignity and self-image.
Where will the Holy Spirit lead our humanity next? We all know and have a clear sense that there is still a long way to go. But we are assured that we are not alone on this journey. God is walking alongside us, teaching us, inspiring us, disturbing us, challenging our status quo, opening our eyes to new possibilities and a better way to live. So let us follow him in faith, trusting in his leadership and direction. Amen.