Today’s readings are a beautifully-assembled collection of passages from holy scripture. Each of them has something important to say to us as people living in Christ, worthy of considering on their own. But there is also a beautiful common thread running through them, calling us to reflect on the larger themes of trust, compassion, and love in our relationships. Our relationships with God, our relationships with each other, and even our relationships with ourselves.
The psalmist and the wisdom of Sirach remind us today of two fundamental truths about our lives of faith: That to give up our own will to the will of God is not oppression but freedom and that this act is not compelled, but always a free choice we make. These two truths can sound impossible, like a bit of a paradox, as so many things do when we’re talking about God.
To give up our own will to the will of another is a frightening thing. To say that we will no longer make choices of our own and be directed in all things by someone else means giving up control, something we covet greatly. (There is another whole sermon about the illusion and delusion of control, but that’s not for today.) For this to be a situation that was at all comfortable, we would have to hold perfect trust in the person we were submitting ourselves to. We must believe that they hold our needs and our wellbeing in the highest priority so that, when they make decisions, they will be in our best interest. That’s a very tall order.
Some of us have people in our lives who fit this bill. Family, friends, spouses. Some of us do not. Some days I’m not even sure I trust myself to act in my own best interest, never mind anyone else. But the person we can trust, always and every time, is God. Submitting ourselves to the will of God means relying on God to take care of us and trusting God to always respond in love and compassion.
We know that this is what God will do, but it isn’t always easy to believe it with our whole selves. I am sure all of us have had moments, days, weeks, months, or longer where we argue with God, where we’re angry with God, where we’re unsure what God is doing because it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s in our best interest. Trust is a difficult and dangerous thing for us humans. Which is why God never compels it. God always lets us choose, even if what we choose is to turn away or to hurt others or ourselves.
St Paul describes these choices, and our regular failures to choose and uphold trust, as a process of growing or maturing in our faith. He uses the analogy of plants, saying that we might plant a seed and another might water it, but it is God who causes the growing. Our participation is important to the outcome, but it is assistance, not what makes the plant grow. If we focused only on our efforts of planting and watering and omit God’s work in the process, we would have a lot of very soggy seeds and no plants.
The same is true in our relationships and our faith. When we are small children we are focused on ourselves and our own needs. We expect others to cater to us because we cannot help ourselves in many ways. We must learn how and, eventually, we begin not only receiving but giving in our relationships. We begin to understand what it is to evaluate priorities and even consider others as more important than ourselves.
This is not easy to do because it leaves us vulnerable and means that we really do have to trust the other in our relationship. Even when the other in the relationship is God, this trust is no small demand. Just as we trust the plant to grow when we plant and water the seed, we are called to trust our relationships - with God, with one another, and with ourselves - to grow in healthy ways if we tend to them with love and compassion. St Paul minces no words about the jealousy and quarrels that erupt when Christians prioritize themselves over one another, or even over God.
We’ve heard from Sirach and the psalmist about what it means to choose trust and compassion in relationships. We’ve heard a bit from St Paul about how we grow and mature in that choice. What does it mean to put this choice to trust God and live according to God’s will, in gracious and loving, trusting and compassionate relationships with the rest of creation?
In this passage from St Matthew’s telling of the Gospel, Jesus speaks about what it means to live with trust and compassion using a series of examples. In each example, Jesus provides a bare minimum of how we ought to live in that relationship and then goes on to describe how it might look to do more than the bare minimum. The examples move from major and nearly entirely black-and-white into more nuanced and grey areas of relationship and decision-making.
Jesus begins with an example that likely nobody would disagree on: Murder. It’s a serious breach of trust in a relationship and evidences no compassion or regard for the wellbeing of the other. A failure to maintain the bare minimum, let alone the care and fostering of flourishing life that God intends for us.
Adultery and divorce may seem like a strange pivot right after murder. It is unlikely that anyone is being killed in a divorce. However, in Jesus’s day, divorce was a topic of long-standing discussion in his community with strongly-held opinions and deeply entrenched, divided camps. Think of issues today like abortion access, Medical Assistance In Dying, LGBTQ+ rights, or the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. Jesus is describing, using divorce as the illustration, circumstances where promises have been broken, compassion forgotten, relationships fractured, and where repentance and reconciliation have been excluded.
Finally, Jesus moves to the subject of promises, both making and keeping them. Here, we might have guessed at the bare minimum: Don’t break promises. But the extended conversation around them is an interesting and difficult task posed by Jesus. Let your yes be your yes and your no be your no. You shouldn’t need to make vows, swear oaths, or make promises. Your trustworthiness ought to be so evident in your life, that a simple statement of “I will” or “I will not” is all that anyone needs to believe that you will follow through. No contracts, no solemn public vows, no passwords, just a simple statement between people who trust so deeply and are so compassionate in their understanding that all the rest is unnecessary. Dare we to imagine such a people? Such a world?
The thread running through all of today’s readings is the necessity of trust, compassion, and love in our relationships. Our relationships with God with one another, and with ourselves. We are reminded again and again of God’s faithfulness to us and God’s love and compassion for us. Even when we break trust with God, we are called to repent and return to the endless love and compassion of that relationship.
God’s love for us is assured and never-failing. With this security, surely the bare minimum we can offer to one another and the rest of creation is to approach our relationships with the maturity St Paul describes, considering others as well as ourselves. As we heard in the Gospel passage this morning, Jesus calls us to consider more than the bare minimum.
Today, we as a parish consider our relationships, our past, present, and future as a congregation and parish. We have abundant evidence of God’s love and compassion for us - 155 years of it at the very least in this place. Have we the courage to do more than the bare minimum and to show one another and the world that we, too, can be icons of boundless love and compassion?
Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash