Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 5 February 2017
4th SUNDAY BEFORE LENT, 2017 EVENSONG
Readings: Amos 2.4-16; Ephesians 4.17-32
“A moral isn’t a moral unless it costs you sex.”
No, you had not nodded off, that statement was not taken from either of tonight’s readings; nor is it to be found anywhere else in sacred scripture, or in the Fathers of the Church, or the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, or Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” or Richard Hooker’s “Laws of Ecclesiastic Polity.”
It is pasted on the outside of a telephone box in Market Place. What if any relationship it has with the cards inside the box, I don’t know.
However, what it does demonstrate is a very narrow understanding of morality: it’s only about sex. Now people could be forgiven at times, even at this time, for thinking that’s the Church’s definition of it, too. We have the Church of England discussing same-sex partnerships and the unusually public squabble in the Roman Catholic Church between those who favour the admission to communion of those who have been divorced and remarried and those like the American Cardinal Burke who is threatening to issue a public correction of the pope.
I’m not going to repeat Fr. Barry Orford’s sermon from this morning. Instead I want to consider a wider understanding of what the Church means by moral theology.
As we listened to the reading from Amos tonight, we did hear one of the Lord’s strictures uttered through the prophet, we do hear condemnation of sexual misconduct: “father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned.” But that sexual immorality, is only one of a range of offences against God’s law:
“…they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals –
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
They lay themselves down beside every altar on garments
taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God
they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.
You made the nazirites (that is those vowed to temperance) drink wine,
and commanded the prophets, saying,
You shall not prophesy.”
And earlier at Mass we heard Isaiah (58.1-9) in similar vein:
“….you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the things of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house; (or in our case, into our church),
when you see the naked to cover them,
and not to hide from your own kin?
The Church’s moral teaching, following that of scripture, is not concerned simply with sex. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican have repeatedly taught that the way we organize our society and economy are moral issues. Contrary to what Billy Graham’s son Franklin says, the issue of refugees and migrants is a biblical one.
When Pope Francis speaks of God and the Church’s option for the poor, he is not saying something new, but merely reiterating in fresh and clear terms, what his predecessors have been saying. This is a challenge to all political systems. The Church’s stress on the dignity of the individual challenges the totalitarian. Its emphasis on the importance of the common good is equally a challenge to the advocates on unbridled capitalism.
The words the writer to the Ephesians addresses to “thieves” apply not only to old-fashioned petty criminals – burglars and pickpockets – but to the so-called “white collar criminals” who perpetrate frauds on often massive scales, the tax evaders and money launderers, the corrupt businessmen and politicians, whose crimes are anything but “victimless.” They undermine the common good and in the words of the prophet, they “grind the faces of the poor.” They weaken a society’s capacity to provide education, health and social care, the administration of justice and the maintenance of public order, the transport and other forms of infrastructure on which industry and commerce rely.
The prophets were addressing a nation; one which was meant to be holy.
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians was addressing a small Christian community facing the dangers, not so much of persecution, as of absorption by the values of the surrounding culture.
The Letter celebrates God’s reconciliation of all things through Christ. It then moves on in a passage like ours to spell out the consequences for a reconciled community. It paints Gentile or pagan society in rather stark terms: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. This is not the way you learned Christ!
In their preparation for Baptism, the Ephesians had been taught about Jesus and the truth which is in him. They were taught to put away their former life, their old self, as if they were taking off their old clothes and putting on their baptismal robe – “renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe themselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God, in true righteousness and holiness.” The image and likeness of God has a moral quality rooted in the reconciling love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Amos had spoken of the people being “led astray by lies.” Ephesians points to the importance of truth and truthfulness. In this “post-truth” age, in which there are no lies but simply “alternative facts,” when lies and distortions are spread and believed by users of social media, then adherence to truth and truth-telling is of more importance than ever. Politicians, like other human beings, have always told lies or at least been economical with the truth. But repeated lying dulls our consciences and our consciousness of when we are lying: so that in time we no longer know the difference between truth and falsehood.
As with most aspects of sinfulness, the avoidance of lying is only part of the solution. Untrue speech, slander, bearing false witness, needs to be overcome by positive speaking of the true and wholesome: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
Our baptism gives us a responsibility for the moral and spiritual well-being of our brothers and sisters, as well as for their material. How we speak and act towards others makes a difference – for good or ill.
When the late Fr. Kenneth Leech heard someone going on about the traditions of anglo-catholicism, his response was to say that he had always thought they were “gin, lace and back-biting”. Well, here we don’t wear lace. We are partial to a gin and tonic after evensong, but – whatever we wear in church or drink in the bar – we must resolve to renounce back-biting.
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
When Ephesians says, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil,” we are not to take this as a license for what we consider our righteous and justified indignation: firing off intemperate emails or tweets. The tense in Greek means that there will be occasions when we will feel angry, but nursing that anger makes room for the devil.
Sundown in the Jewish world was the beginning of a new day, so each new day should begin in peace. Each evening then should be an occasion for an examination of our consciences. Have my words today
- imparted grace,
- strengthened faith,
- encouraged hope,
- shown love?