A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 12 February 2017, by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(I Corinthians 3.1-9; Matthew 5.21-37)
The play currently showing at Salisbury Playhouse is a farce called 'Worst Wedding Ever'. It focuses on a young couple's plan to get married, and the ways in which the bride-to-be's dysfunctional family manages - both together and each in his or her own way - to sabotage that simple purpose. A key player is the bride's elder sister, who is currently going through an acrimonious divorce.
Part of farce is the gross exaggeration of recognisable situations; and when we saw it last night there were plenty of places where the largely middle aged audience - people who have been to many weddings and may well be finding themselves organising them - seemed to be laughing in recognition of the particular forms of misbehaviour, acrimony and recrimination being played out in front of us. But what struck me was seeing this shortly after having read an obituary for the actress Mary Tyler Moore. She was herself twice divorced, but in her eponymous TV series in the 1970s it was decided not to cast her as a newly divorced character, because the subject was too controversial. Controversial? Find me a family which has no members or friends who have been divorced. It may be a tender and sensitive subject, but divorce was not invented in 1980.
This was every bit as much a live issue during the ministry of Jesus and when his words were recorded. The complexity of the matter is demonstrated by the different accounts we have of what little Jesus said on the subject in Matthew's gospel - as we heard just now - and in Mark's; the Markan version is much stricter. Matthew's gospel is always at great pains to emphasise the importance of the Jewish religious law, of following closely the inheritance from Moses and the prophets; yet here there is clear enough accommodation to the complexity and untidiness of human behaviour, more so even than in Mark, who is not all that well informed about those traditions and is usually pretty relaxed about them.
When you get home, you might look up the paragraph in the Sermon on the Mount which comes immediately before where we began to read today. You will see there how passionately this writer, whom we know as Matthew, felt about the Law and the Prophets. And how hostile he was to Christian teachers who treated them as irrelevant or unimportant - for which read St Paul and his ilk. Yet what Matthew passes down to us in our passage is not a blind obedience to rules of behaviour, but a constant searching for more heartfelt and complete ways to keep it - I might have talked here about the 'spirit of the Law', if such a phrase hadn't sounded so close to the concepts of St Paul. In Matthew's version of Jesus' teaching, obedience to the Law isn't just a matter of ticking the boxes - didn't eat that, didn't do that then, went there then, wore the right things - but a searching out of a deeper, more intimate, personal challenge in those rules. We probably won't murder anyone; but from where inside us does murder come? And making a personal reparation and peace comes before the required religious observance, when there is some cause of division amongst us.
The complexities of being a human, and of having to live with other humans, are currently being played out as farce in Salisbury Playhouse, and to various degrees as tragedy in the politics of our own nation and various other places. Distrust and acrimony come naturally enough, within families, between politicians and their followers, and between people who believe and trust in God. In Galatians Paul refers to those who went to that church with a rather different Christian preaching from his, as 'dogs'; years later, Matthew, who it seems would rather have approved of those so-called 'dogs', has Jesus calling people who thought like Paul 'the least in the kingdom of heaven'.
Yet each of these partisans also knew of better ways. Paul tells his followers in Corinth, a church wracked by partisanship, that they are acting like babies; for we are, he says, 'God's servants, working together'. And Matthew has Jesus tell us that we need to be reconciled with our brother or sister before we fulfil any religious obligation.
We feel passionately about things because we are personally invested in them; and in divided times, like the family members in 'Worst Wedding Ever', we have to ask ourselves whether the truth is in what divides us or in what pulls us together.
Perhaps then it is helpful to remember that - as we will say very soon in this service - we believe in God who is both three and one. Do we believe in the multiplicity of the three, or the singleness of the one? To which the Christian church has answered, through many centuries, in a way both perplexing and annoying: 'both'. God, the originator and lover of absolutely everything, and into whose very being we are being summoned in this Eucharist, this foretaste of heaven, is a unity known in diversity. Just as the persons of the Trinity dance with one another in the bonds of everlasting love, so each of us has no escape from the intricate dances of living with other people in ways which are constructive and loving. They may drive us absolutely nuts - in home, family, workplace, in church or politics - but they are where God is to be found, and where he is truly worshipped.