Fools and hell fire. Insults and council. Anger and judgement. Look and lusts. Adultery. Divorce. Cutting off hands and tearing out eyes. Yes or no and nothing in between.
What are we to make of this challenging Gospel reading? None of us can hear these words without feeling uncomfortable. Indeed one might say these instructions are impossible and place them in the file marked Jesus having an off day.
And yet there is something here, for is not the point that they are indeed impossible. Maybe Jesus never intended these words to be taken literally.
Maybe instead they were given to remind those who sought to guard faith by rules that however well we think we are doing, it’s never going to be enough.
Now that seem like a difficult thing to say and we might then be tempted ask, why bother? If we do then perhaps we’re getting to the heart of what these words might have to say to us.
Words that invite us to see that we do not flourish as fully as we might on our own strength alone, that we will always need help, always need God’s forgiveness and mercy and grace.
Jesus was speaking to a community of people defined by rules. Rules about what to eat and when. Rules about when to pray and rest. Rules about who can be talked to and by who.
These rules were not all bad but they could and often had become a rod to beat people with. Rules that kept people in their place. So it’s as if Jesus is saying if you want rules, I’ll give you rules. Rules that are impossible.
Jesus pushed their buttons to get them to see that no matter how righteous and devout they were, they would still not be there yet. They would always be works in progress in need of God’s grace.
In some way Paul was wrestling with a similar challenge a few years later. The cult of personality had got its claws into the church at Corinth. Jealousy and quarrelling had arisen.
A chap called Apollos had a particular gift for preaching and teaching and had stirred things up a bit. Paul hears of it and writes, reminding them that both he and Apollos are secondary figures, at the centre of faith is not them but the God who gives growth.
Both readings then in some way call us back to God.
The Gospel because it reminds us that no matter how sorted we think we are, we are not really, we are still works in progress.
The Epistle because it reminds us, and especially those of us called to leadership that we are always to point beyond ourselves to the God at the heart of it all.
A prayer we know so well came to mind when thinking about this theme. A prayer which for a long time I struggled with, we sometimes use before Communion. It begins ‘We do not presume’ some of you I know are fond of it. I have come to love it too but not before I didn’t like it very much.
I didn’t like that it said ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs from under your table.’ It felt too much like a prayer to keep us in our place.
Yet if we think about, in some ways that prayer has the same effect as that rather uncomfortable Gospel we have heard. It comes as a reminder, especially as we come to the altar to receive Christ’s very self that ultimately we really are not worthy because we have all made a mess of life at some time or another we do not deserve it.
And yet and yet as the prayer goes on the God who draws us here, is a God whose nature is to have mercy. A God who gives us what we need if only we’d stop trying to make it on our own strength alone.
And we’re all sometimes guilty of that.
Last week, as some of you know I was on retreat in what is a holy place for me, The Convent of the Incarnation at Fairacres in Oxford.
As I arrived, to a real and slightly bizarre sense of coming home, I felt the layers of self-made anxiety and fear being stripped away, reminded if you like that my ministry here amongst you isn’t about me but about God.
As I work here, you have got to know me, and I cannot not be me, but I can as I hope to do always strive to point beyond me, to the God in whose grace and goodness I am thankful to be able to stand here this morning.
In my room at Fairacres was an icon of Mary. As an image it expressed something of what I am saying.
I sat before it a good deal and reflected on how with her arms open directed away from herself she was embodying words on the lips of John the Baptist ‘behold the lamb of god who takes away the sin of the world.’
Part of our sin is that sense that we can do it alone. And if we look around the world, leaders are so often defined by their strength and not their weakness. The church is not immune, egos and ambition is present amongst Christ’s body and it was ever thus as St Paul reminds us.
However the life changing gospel of Jesus Christ invites us time and again to see things differently to remember that it’s in our weakness not in our strength that we find God.
Lent is just around the corner. A season when we enter a time of stripping away all the nonsense that we sometimes put in the way so that we might remember who we really are before the God who invites us to depend on him and not on ourselves.
And we do sometimes we need a jolt, because we do sometimes think we have it sussed but thankfully, a season like Lent or an uncompromising Jesus found in the words of our Gospel remind us that we are works in progress and that God hasn’t finished with us yet.
We do not presume
to come to this your table,
trusting in our own righteousness
but in your manifold and great mercies.