Navigating uncertain times

A sermon (Matthew 6, verses 25-34) by Rev’d Malcolm Woolrich, Wadhurst Chaplain, at the Term III Staff Eurcharist.

Welcome back – I trust you’ve enjoyed a well-deserved break. Many of us, I’m sure, are feeling somewhat anxious. As we enter into lockdown again there is a jaded feeling of déjà vu, but also a sense that we are sailing into unpredictable, unchartered waters.

In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus climbs a mountain. A large crowd follows, and so begins arguably the most famous collection of ethical pronouncements – the Sermon on the Mount – of which our reading today forms part.

Matthew is purposely likening this event to Moses’ ascension of Mount Sinai 1,200 years earlier, when he received the Laws of the Old Testament from God. This time, the words are coming directly from Jesus, there is no intermediary. Matthew is equating Jesus with God.

The Sermon on the Mount is troubling, because Jesus sets the ethical bar so high. Just thinking about doing something wrong is tantamount to having performed it physically. So, being angry with someone, without any physical violence, brings judgement from God. We are not to retaliate, even if it is proportional to the original offence. We are to love our enemies. We are to practice philanthropy and fasting privately, not drawing attention to ourselves. We are not to judge others.

None of these things come naturally. And so, when we hear the words, ‘Do not worry’, they need to be understood in this context: these commands are from God, and he has high, seemingly unachievable, expectations.

Some argue that the Sermon on the Mount is capable of being fulfilled by ordinary humans if we strive hard enough, resulting in heaven on Earth. Being rather imperfect myself, I prefer the view that these teachings, while revealing the mind of God, are designed to demonstrate how much flawed human beings fall short of God’s glory, and thus underscore our need to rely on God and seek his forgiveness.

When you listened to the reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus’ words are rather naïve and unduly optimistic, and thus have no application to our present struggles with a pandemic and lockdowns. It sounds like misplaced, gratuitous advice for an easier time.

And yet, the original hearers of these words, two thousand years ago in Israel, also had reason to be anxious – more so than us. They had high infant-mortality rates; poor life expectancy; brutal Roman subjugation; ruinous taxation and financial hardship; eviction from ancestral lands; leprosy; rudimentary medicine; corruption; civil unrest; drought; famine; and little in the way of social security. There was also the occasional plague. We are not living in unprecedented times.

When Jesus concludes his sermon on the mountain, it says that the crowd was astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.

One of the great contributions of Christianity to the ancient world was that it brought a message of peace, through freedom and liberty. These themes permeate the New Testament. In the modern world, we often equate Christianity with concepts such as sin, strict morality, fear and judgement; but these ideas were around long before Christianity and in most cultures.

Christianity bestowed peace on the ancient world. This was good news to a pagan world, which was frozen in fear, as it attempted to appease a capricious pantheon of all-too-human gods. As the Greek poets noted, if you favoured one god, you risked upsetting another. You could never win nor be confident of your standing.

In the monotheistic Jewish world, it was a little easier because you only had one God to contend with, who was fully imbibed with moral qualities. Yet it was a legalistic minefield – several hundred separate ordinances that had to be followed strictly and were inevitably broken. A complex system of unending sacrifice to restore your relationship with God.

By contrast, Christianity radically argued that through the sacrifice of Jesus we have been reconciled with God, once and for all. We are at peace with God. We are his children.

We may be at peace with God, but there still exists a tension. We have a sense of perfection and eternity in our hearts, but we live in an imperfect world. How can we act wisely and rationally in a world that is irrational and doesn’t follow the rules? We have been dealt a poor hand – how do we make the best of it?

In our reading, Jesus draws upon the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, such as Ecclesiastes, and provides some practical advice about how we are to navigate our journey in difficult times. What he doesn’t do is pat us blithely on the head and tell us everything will be ok.

His first point is that while we do live in an imperfect world, God still has the capacity to work through those imperfections for our well-being and provision. Jesus uses a traditional Jewish argument – qal wahomer – ‘how much more’. If God provides for the birds or clothes the flowers, neither of which plan for the future, how much more will he provide for you? (The assumption here is that human beings are dearer to God than birds and flowers).

Jesus argues that if you are to be anxious, worry about those things that are important and within your control, so that you can deal with them and remove your concerns. Don’t get caught up with inconsequential matters. Strive for God’s kingdom (that is, your relationship with God, which is within your control) and you might find that other things fall into perspective.

To remove anxiety, look backwards, not forward. Live in the present moment: it is pointless trying to predict the future. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan and act responsibly, but we need to accept that our plans are not foolproof. Whenever the Jewish people felt anxious or threatened, either at a personal or national level, they reminded themselves of the ways in which God had acted faithfully in the past, giving them confidence that he would act similarly in the future.

Having previously been in lockdown, we should be reflecting upon our recent past to relieve present anxieties. When I was telephoning the parents of my tutor group last term, I expected to hear plenty of disgruntled comments. In fact, the common theme was that a lot of good was coming out of lockdown. Families were reconnecting; they were eating together and even talking to one another. Relationships had never been stronger. Many of our students have actually thrived in lockdown conditions. For those who have struggled, they can be confident that having endured and reflected upon and learned from their experiences they will be better prepared for what may come. We can learn from our mistakes and hold on to the good. It gives us hope for this term.

I trust that these words from Jesus do provide you with some hope and practical advice in difficult times.

Let me conclude with the words of Paul, from his letter to the Philippians:

The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.