At the end of our gospel reading Jesus tells his hearers that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees they will not enter the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:13-20). This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount. He has just given them the Beatitudes, when he explains what being a citizen of heaven looks like. He then goes on to tell them that this citizenship is not something to hide. It is to shine out, like a lamp. It is to make a difference, like salt. And if we truly live as citizens of heaven then we won’t hide who we are and we will make a difference for good. This is the key to understanding that word ‘righteousness’, which is to exceed that of those who should be the experts to follow – the scribes and pharisees. As we know with Jesus in the gospels, he exposes hypocrisy and points out when those we expect to live up to high standards fail to do so. The standard is set high.
The root of the word ‘righteousness’ is in being just, in following the correct path. To do that we need to be reinforced in the road map and that comes through being deeply rooted in the teachings and wrestling with the faith that shapes us. For Anglicans that has long been the three pillars of Scripture (the Bible), Tradition (the journey that has brought us to this point) and Reason (how we bring in all of the things we know from other disciplines). We have brains, we have God given skills of evaluation and reason, and we should use them when working out what is true, what is just, what is right. There is no place for using faith as an excuse for thin thinking or bolstering prejudice. We are to let our light so shine that others may see our good works and give glory to God (v16).
There are some key debates bouncing around at the moment. Few people are looking to churches for answers not least because what they often hear does not make sense to them or connect with how life is. And there have been some spectacular failures of integrity and process, not least with safeguarding, which have damaged our image and reputation. Why should anyone listen if they see the gap between words and deeds. This should concern us deeply. In spite of this, I still find that there is a yearning for meaning and for faith to make sense. When we fail to speak into this, or fall short of what is expected, I think there is a great sense of disappointment. And when we do speak with faith-filled intelligence and behave as expected, there is a look of relief and deep interest. The challenge is to become known for thoughtful, intelligent comment and reflection, which actually helps people live righteously, justly and find the path that is life-giving. The challenge is to live with integrity and behave well.
If we are to enter into debates and discussions with the spirit of righteousness, being rooted and shaped by the path of faith, then this is not just a matter of repeating whatever we hear elsewhere. There is a distinctive faith view which should help us see deeply into issues of concern and bring some fresh thinking to bear. There are some trends which are to be challenged and the church has been at its most vibrant when it is able to articulate why it takes a different view to what might be the dominant one. So in a culture which values people according to how rich they are and what they have, the path of faith will offer fasting, denial and restraint. Consuming more and more is not a good way to be, and we are learning this truth from the environmental angle, where we are encouraged to reduce, not just reuse and recycle. Living simply and with balance has long been a Christian virtue.
There have been trends that assume money is king and profit is the most important criteria for investments and trading. There is a growing interest in ethical investments and looking at the wider responsibilities which trade and investing brings. All trading enters us into a web of relationships, many hidden and far from sight, but should still be our concern. How much is the person who makes what we enjoy paid? What are their working conditions? How does the company care for the communities in which it operates, or does it just exploit them for its own ends? What difference does their trading make?
Tax justice came into my inbox this week as Bewiched, the independent coffee shop on Bridge Street, Tweeted that it pays more tax than Caffe Nero, a multinational brand. Tax dodging is not being ended and it denies communities vital funds. When our government is cutting services and councils are struggling with reduced budgets, tax dodging is not victimless. We suffer from it directly. The way of righteousness requires loopholes to be plugged, even more than they have been.
Safeguarding has become a major area for ensuring that we live up to what we proclaim, that our righteousness exceeds. The disclosures and exposures over high profile failures, where even a former Archbishop of Canterbury has been shown to have failed to protect the vulnerable, these are not moments when the church has been seen to be righteous, just, honourable or true. There is a major challenge going on at the moment for it to get its act sorted and it needs to do this. I think this diocese is actually on top of this and we take safeguarding very seriously in this church. Megan, our safeguarding officer, and I recently sat down to review where we are and to check that we have everything in place that we need to ensure everyone is safe and looked after. There will be some follow up from this, as rules have changed, and this will require us all to catch up with role descriptions to be clear on the expectations, responsibilities and accountabilities for what we do, Disclosure and Barring Service checks so that we can prove we have done everything we could do. This is part of us letting our light shine – being transparent and open. No one is exempt. I have to complete a DBS clearance every 5 years and if I don’t then my licence to officiate as a vicar will be removed. I have to keep my Safeguarding training up-to-date otherwise I will be deemed to be failing in my duties. So I am no different to anyone else. Please don’t be surprised if you hear from us in the coming weeks asking for various things to be brought up to date.
This is one of the fastest changing areas of church life. The rules we work to change frequently and they are set nationally. Previously we were told we couldn’t DBS check our administrator because they weren’t engaged in what is called a regulated activity. This time round all of the applicants were asked to complete a confidential declaration and the successful candidate will be given a basic DBS check because of the responsibilities and trusted position they have.
Having given his hearers a statement of 8 ways that they can see what it means to be a citizen of heaven, the Beatitudes, Jesus pressed this deeper. He told them that they will display this by being seen as a light shines out and in making a difference as salt flavours food. In doing this they will live the righteousness of God – God’s justice and following the path of truth. Be seen, make a difference, follow the path of life and blessing. These things challenge us so that we have something profound to say to a world wanting to see integrity and hope. We are to be shaped by our citizenship of heaven and to live up to this by making a difference, and being seen to do so.
Sermon for 3rd Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th February 2020