The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
This week the Independent reported on a head teacher in aStaffordshire boarding school who believed teachers should be living in a culture of fear for their jobs. By means of performance assessments the teachers should be scared that if they don’t perform, they will be asked to leave.
I can remember my annual Professional Development Reviews at Airbus. We would prepare for them by trying to shoe horn the work we had been doing over the last year into the targets we had been set at the beginning of the year. The targets had to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.
We all know stories about what can go wrong when we let targets govern every aspect of how we live. We see it in the setting of the dimensions of what a bedroom is when imposing a bedroom tax. And we see it in the mythical story of a shoe factory in the soviet union, which, to meet it’s target for the number of shoes produced efficiently, made only right size 9 shoes. The teaching of Jesus drawn together by Matthew in today’s Gospel is railing against the target setting of the day. It’s not enough to tick the boxes, what is your intention in doing so? A chaplain wrote an article in the Telegraph online this week saying we shouldn’t read the bible like a car manual.
This was after a reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy, one which declared a woman was not permitted to teach or have authority, was dropped from Morning prayer at Synod on the day they were scheduled to discuss the legislation which would allow for women to become Bishops. Said Chaplain, a Jemima Thackray, was arguing that while the passage was not progressive by today’s standards, in the context of the day it was making the revolutionary demand that women should learn. The scripture is misogynistic, not because the people who were writing it were bad people, but because they were of their time and context.
Our readings today point to the need to think beyond the prescriptive car manual or company professional development process. Jesus gives a number of examples of rules that it might be easy to say we’ve followed and challenges his audience to try harder. It’s not good enough to tick the box and say, I haven’t murdered anybody this week, we are asked to look into our own souls and ask if we’ve even been angry with anybody this week.
The Pharisees, the rabbis of the day set targets, simple rules you had to follow to receive God’s blessing. According to misunderstandings of scripture, which are still common place in the church today, the idea was that obeying the rules would result in your prosperity. Jesus was calling the people to read their scripture properly and recognise that it wasn’t about meeting targets, it was about how we choose to live our lives. Jesus isn’t calling for us to live attainable, time-bound lives. How can the hopes of an eternal God, one who exists outside of time, hopes for the lives of his creation be measurable in the ways we want it to be. The targets are intended for a lifetime of struggling. Judgement is there not to punish but to help guide us back onto the track towards the maturity we eventually gain in God’s Kingdom.
In the eye’s of an infinite God, we all seem pretty childlike. When I first read today’s passage I got about half way through and thought, oh no, not divorce. I might have considered doing what Synod did, and asked to cut the reading, but we need to engage with what is there in the Bible, the lectionary ensures we don’t just put our heads in the sand and pretend it’s all easy. We don’t just choose the bits we like, or that prove our point, ignoring the rest. But, here, while Jesus is, in part, reiterating and supporting what is laid down in scripture, he is also challenging the way it’s being used. According to Jewish law the husband can dismiss his wife if she fails him in some way, in practice anything was being used to dismiss a wife, even a bad bit of cooking could be a justification for immediate divorce. But Jesus calls on his listeners not to live by some box ticking exercise to justify what we want to do in our lives.
Reminding us not to come to the altar before we’ve reconciled ourselves to our brothers and sisters. Jesus is calling us not to be the cause of another’s suffering. He calls on us each to take responsibility for the grief we’ve caused another. Being right with God requires us to be right with each other.
Our professional development reviews worked in spite of our annual objectives and targets, not because of them. Sure, the objectives provided a framework for the conversation, but as I found when I began conducting reviews of my own team, the objectives were a small part of what had been achieved. Often they weren’t appropriate for the individual. Targets are generic and biased towards certain dispositions or styles of people. The best members of my team had no interest in managing a team. They were, however, extremely competent engineers, whose work was essential to what we did - they were invaluable, whatever the targets and tick boxes tried to tell me. Recognition and reward was given, thankfully, when the person being reviewed had gone beyond their objectives. When they had gone beyond achieving the targets they were given at the beginning of the year and done what was necessary to better the company.
Jesus isn’t suggesting that we need to live in a culture of fear. A fear of the perishing described in the Old Testament or the fear of loosing our jobs which the Head Teacher in Staffordshire wants other teachers to feel, or even the fear of Hell and damnation which comes from fire and brimstone preaching, creating guilt and shame. Jesus is not preaching about a culture of fear, he is preaching about a culture of responsibility for ourselves and for others.
We are each born with an ability to think and wonder, each in our own way. To explore our surroundings and to consider the things we are told for ourselves. In fact, as children, we were able to wonder in a way that defeats me now. Playing imaginatively with young children, rules and objectives become fluid. The scientific part of my mind finds it enormously frustrating, but it is achieving the bigger objectives of play and discovery, it is a skill I wish I still had.
Through thousands of years of study our understanding of scripture has evolved, we have been enlightened us as to context and meaning. Our understanding of society develops as we make breakthroughs in our understanding of psychology and as philosophical and political thought develop. We mature as a society… And yet, as a child we can wonder at the meaning behind the rules, we can get beyond targets assumed outcomes. When we are playful we become creative and free ourselves from ticks in boxes.
Oluwademilde is to be the newborn member of the Church today. The name Oluwademilde means ‘crowned by the Lord’, a suitable name for a baptism, as Oluwademilde is crowned as a part of Christ’s church. We have each been crowned, to take authority over our lives, to take responsibility for ourselves and those around us. Not by trying to achieve somebody else’s goals. God gives us guidance, but we are expected to take responsibility for discerning it in our lives. We are expected to challenge ourselves to go beyond simply being satisfied with not having committed a murder this week. We know that, trying to live the life Jesus call us to, we are bound to fail, we are going to stumble, but then there is that other part of Oluwademilde’s baptism, we all promise to support Oluwademilde in his Christian life, to help him to live up to the crown upon his head.
So as we stand as witnesses to Oluwademilde’s baptism, let us remember that we too are crowned to take responsibility for our lives and to live the life laid out in the declarations of this service. And, as we commit to support Oluwademilde in his Christian life, we should also remember that we are all committing ourselves to support one another in our Christian lives. We remember that we are not alone, we are part of a community seeking together to grow into the maturity we find in God's Kingdom.