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Strive for Righteousness

October 7, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Matt 6.33 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 7th October 2018 the 19th Sunday after Trinity.

The gospels are like soil. As you dig down, you discover different layers of the tradition, each having been laid down by a process of faithful interpretation. The deepest layer is what we call the Jesus tradition, the words passed from the first generation of Christians, who remembered what Jesus had said and done. In the days when people used something called memory instead of their iphones, the oral record was remarkably reliable.

The gospels began to be written down when this first generation was dying off. By then the situation of the Christian community was changing. It was less of a movement within Judaism and more of a network, with emerging institutional features such as a recognised pattern of ministry and a deposit of belief. In this new set of circumstances, the words of Jesus began to be understood from a variety of perspectives.

There are two reactions we could have to this. This first is to regret that we were not eye witnesses to the life of Jesus, right down at bedrock. I for one am pleased that I was not, as I’m sure that I’d be one of the many who ignored or rejected him. I’m not a radical by any stretch, and Jesus certainly was hard to follow.

The second reaction is to say thank God for those who came along later with their highlighter pens, whose cutting and pasting underlined the significance of Jesus for subsequent generations. Thank God that we don’t just have bedrock but layers of soil in which our weak and feeble faith can take root.

Take, for example, ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and everything else you need to stay alive will be given to you as well’. At bedrock level Jesus’ saying was probably aimed at those who like him were prepared to give up their livelihoods to go around as itinerant preachers, proclaiming that the rule of God was near. Anyone today who feels called to give up their job to be a roving evangelist has the historical Jesus’s backing.

However, on the soil above lies a slightly gentler message for a more settled community. ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ As we read his gospel, we notice that righteousness is one of St Matthew’s favourite words: it’s a word that reminds us how important it is to grow in wisdom and in obedience to Jesus’ teaching. But to do this, we may not need to give up our homes and jobs.

The righteousness of God we should seek is God’s moral and truthful perfection. Matthew is sure that there is such a thing as being righteous, and of being unrighteous. In the Sermon on the Mount he tells us that the rain falls on them both by God’s loving providence, and that the righteous must love their enemies. He gives the righteous a command: Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be fully righteous.

We’re spending time on Matthew’s version of this saying because, even more than his community, this cathedral is settled, deeply rooted in place, with long established practices and traditions, However challenging it may be to seek God’s righteousness and put this seeking before all our material needs, Matthew is opening up for us a way for us to follow Christ.

Last Thursday Chapter went off to do more work on our values. We want the Cathedral to be a place where we have clear values, to which we are all accountable. And one of the values we have been considering is excellence.

Excellence is a two-edged sword. When seen as an elite quality or attribute of a person or an organisation it is a curse, a stepping stone to vainglory and pride. For excellence to be useful it has to be a goal rather than an achievement.

When I was a governor at Peter Symonds College, the management team there sometimes used the phrase, ‘the relentless pursuit of excellence’. It sounds quite driven and unyielding, but, as I recall, it was a phrase borrowed from a report on the College where its culture was positively assessed: no stone was left unturned when it came to improving, even in areas which had previously and consistently assessed as excellent. Special care was taken in the areas needing most support. This is why Symonds undertook regular internal audits which were not strictly necessary. The result was a proper sense of pride in what the organisation was trying to achieve, and success on a number of fronts, despite the very considerable budgetary challenges.

Excellence happens people are determined to excel, to go beyond their habitual standards and attitudes and the exercise of their natural preferences and gifts. It forces you to acknowledge weakness.

So the word that now stands out from Jesus’ command to his followers is ‘strive’. ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and God will look after the rest.’ Some might say that striving has no place in the life of faith: faith is all about accepting the free gift of salvation. We are unable to save ourselves; a Higher Power has to save us.

If we were in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting we would say exactly that: our striving can never be about us lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And neither we should ignore those blessed moments of rest when we give up trying to be God and all our strivings cease, when we are held in God’s peace and know ourselves loved.

However, grace certainly doesn’t preclude our striving to go beyond ourselves. Grace is about growth, and we cannot grow with exceeding our frontiers. Matthew tells us that our growth horizon is God’s perfection. We may never get there, but we can go far, by doing things like loving our enemy and forgiving others, just as Jesus did.

Our striving and God’s grace can be friends. Grace is what we call on when we are in danger of slipping back into our comfort zones, where everything is safe and easy, but just a bit dull. And grace is also needed to help us maintain our best attitudes to learning and achieving.

This weekend we are celebrating not only the harvest but the life of William Walker the Diver, who, as we say, ‘saved the cathedral with his own two hands’. For over five years he went down into the flooded foundation pits, in complete darkness, to lay down concrete bags, so that the pits could be pumped out and the walls strengthened.

This ordinary person has become a folk hero because he, with the help of a huge supporting team, completed an extraordinary task. He said of his work at the end, “It was not difficult. It was straightforward work, but had to be carefully done”. His work remains an example to us all, because he persisted with humility and diligence until his task was done

Perfection, righteousness, seems so often to be so far off, especially whenever we fail and need to begin again, but one thing should strengthen us. The horizon which stretches us is not receding faster than we can progress. It is more than a teasing, tantalising, tormenting ideal. Righteousness and perfection are with us in the person of Jesus Christ.

We do not have to be anywhere else or have any other gifts to excel in what we do; we have only to let go of the old attachments and hold out our hand to Christ, who holds out his to ours. He says let go of the baggage we worry about, because there is nothing more important or fulfilling than to reach out for righteousness, and to be grasped by righteousness.