Lectionary Texts: 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, February 19, 2017
- At The End of the Sermon on the Mount
We are finally nearing the end of this season of Epiphany—the season in which we are called and claimed and shaped into someone that we never thought we could be. As part of that, we’ve spent four weeks reading passages that are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, touted as the greatest sermon of all time, although I WILL tell you that it is not for the faint of heart. The full sermon would never be over in time for you to run to your favorite lunch place or watch a televised sporting event. And its contents would offend many people today who like to leave feeling good about themselves. So, perhaps you should be glad that you live in the time that you do. Because we only get small samplings of it—the Beatitudes, the call for us to be the salt of the earth and the light to the world, and, last week, that list of sins that Jesus sort of reinterpreted for us. And today…one more Sunday…and we get the hardest lesson of all. Someone wrote that “if you’re not poor in spirit at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, you certainly will be by the end.”
But, really, I don’t think that Jesus ever intended to berate us or make us feel bad about ourselves. Jesus wasn’t trying to chastise us; Jesus was trying to change us. Jesus was taking what was accepted in that society and reframing it. Jesus was reminding us that even though we are part of the society in which we live, even though we are expected to adhere to its rules and its norms, even though we still need to pay attention to the world around us, when it’s all said and done, we are Kingdom people. So Jesus was telling us what that meant. We are called to be something different.
So at the end of today’s Gospel reading, we’re told to be perfect. Sure, that’s easy! Not a problem! Truthfully, I’ve always been a little bit of a perfectionist and I know it drives most people crazy. You know when you take those personality tests? I always come out with the one that thinks things should be right and I always sort of disclose that under my breath. I know that’s annoying to, according to Meyers Briggs, approximately 98% of the population that is not like me. But, understand, Jesus is not calling us to align ourselves perfectly with the world. No, Jesus is calling us to align ourselves perfectly with God and God’s vision for the world. And that means not a static position but an openness to go somewhere else. That’s what this whole sermon is about—to be perfect as God is perfect.
So, we started with the Beatitudes. We moved to the reminder that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And then Jesus starts reframing assumptions that we’ve always had. And, now, we’re being asked to go beyond those norms, go beyond the rules that we know so well. So where do we land?
- Where Do We Land?
Where we land is here—with Jesus telling the disciples to turn the other cheek, not seek revenge, give more than what is required by law, give to all who ask things of you, lend without limits, love enemies, pray for persecutors, and welcome the stranger. Well, sure…that’s easy! Right? But, see, once again Jesus reframes the things that are the norms of society.
For instance, the law allowed the notion of lex talionis, or fair retaliation. (We know it as “an eye for an eye.” It’s the assumption on which a lot of our justice system is based.) If someone practiced wrong against you, you would be authorized to fairly and legally retaliate but only to the extent of your loss. (i.e, “an eye for an eye”.) As harsh as that may sound to us, the whole point was that that was the MOST you could do. It laid out a limitation. You know, it’s interesting because “Just War Theory” that often sort of gives us permission to go to war was not a rule of war. It was the rules of limitations for war.
So, like that, this is saying that you could not retaliate against someone who had injured your eye by murdering them and get away with it. But Jesus takes that accepted and acceptable way of thinking and remodels it completely. If someone had injured your eye, the only thing acceptable is to walk away, to not seek revenge. Essentially, retaliation and anger are not Scriptural. Rather, we are called to overcome evil with good—to pray for those who harm us, to love those who threaten us, to welcome those we do not know.
Now, I don’t think Jesus expected us to just close our eyes to the threatening of weak and vulnerable members of our society. We ARE called to speak out, to do something. But maybe it will give us pause to ask if there’s another way to handle something.
Once again, we are asked to give more than what is asked, more than what is expected within the bounds of “acceptable” societal standards. “Are you kidding me?” you’re probably asking at this point. Don’t you think Jesus’ first century hearers were asking the same question? Jesus’ words compel his hearers to love their neighbor—ALL their neighbors—the ones they did not know, the ones they mistrusted, the ones who did not practice their faith, the Samaritans, the Babylonians, the Egyptians.
For us, the message is the same. We are called to love our neighbors—ALL our neighbors—the ones we do not know, the ones we mistrust, the ones who do not practice our faith, the drunk driver who hit our mailbox, the ones who broke in to our home and stole our great grandmother’s ring, those who are on the “other” side of whatever political aisle you reside, gang members, terrorists, ISIS, North Korea, and those persons who, because of a misguided sense of who God is and what God is calling them to do, flew planes into the World Trade Center years ago and killed so many of our neighbors. It is not easy. I’m pretty clear Jesus never promised that it would be. That’s the whole point. We are called to be different.
III. Going Toward Perfection
The Greek word teleios is often used for this type of faith. It means to be “perfect”. (That’s also a notion that we United Methodists hold so dear as we pursue that elusive Wesleyan notion of “going onto perfection”.) It does not mean perfect the way we think. It does not mean without blemish; it means a maturity such that one gets it, a desire to be what God calls us to be—something completely different than what is “acceptable” or even “normal” in our society. Now don’t get me wrong, Scriptural words are nothing if they are not relevant for today’s hearers. We are called to a faithful reading of them in light of our own experience, reason, and historical tradition. We are not in this alone. Our lives and our faith are shaped by the wisdom and influence of others. But if we don’t at least try to get it, why are we here at all?
This passage tells us to do some of the most difficult things imaginable. They are things that don’t make sense. They are things that sometimes get people hurt. They are things that sometime get people killed. (Hmmm! You kind of have to think about that one, don’t you? Remember that Cross thing?) The truth is that the Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than a radical call for resistance—peaceful, non-violent resistance against the ways of the world, against the powers that we have allowed to become “acceptable”, against those things that we have allowed to sneak into our very lives and move between who we are and who we really are. If you want to put this passage into a nutshell, perhaps the writer’s words might say, “Grow up. You are bigger than that. God is bigger than that. You are kingdom people. Live like it. Be perfect. (or, for goodness sakes, at least try!).” St. Augustine said to congregants while presiding at the Eucharist: “Receive who you are. Become what you’ve received.”
- So How Do We Align Ourselves With God?
So, how do we align ourselves with God? You would have to be living in a bubble right now to not realize how polarized our world, our society, and our nation are. So what does God want us to do? Thomas Merton once said that “your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.” In other words, if you desire God, then you are shaped by God, which means that you go beyond where you are now, beyond where the world has placed you.
In one of his sermons, Thomas Long tells the story of a student of his that went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a pizza to be delivered to their home when they got there. As they headed for the phone, though, a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. So the father reach into the pockets of his sweat pants and pulled out two handfuls of coins, “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.” The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went on his way.
Well, it only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?” The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”
OK, another one. (This one is probably even harder.) Some of you have probably seen or read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It begins with the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who has just been released from nineteen years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. As he reenters society, no one will house him or give him work because of his criminal record — that is until he stumbles into the bishop’s house. Much to Valjean’s bewilderment, the bishop treats him with kindness and hospitality. Seizing the moment, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver plates and, then, flees into the night.
The bishop’s reaction to Valjean’s treachery is not what we might expect. Instead of being angry and offering condemnation, the bishop examines his own behavior and finds himself lacking in charity. “I have for a long time wrongfully withheld this silver; it belonged to the poor. Who was this man? A poor man evidently,” he reasons to himself. So when the police arrive with the captured Valjean, the bishop’s silver in his possession, the bishop calmly greets the thief and says, “But I gave you the candlesticks also … why did you not take them along with the plates?” The police, surprised and confused, reluctantly let the thief go.
- Why Is This So Difficult?
OK, I don’t know how many of us could do that. For me personally, my perfectionist tendencies would kick in and I would go for justice. The problem is that my view of justice is not God’s. Think about it. How many of us have really gotten what we deserve in life? Thanks be to God! See, God hasn’t given us what we deserve or very few of us would probably be here. God gives us more than we deserve. It’s called grace.
But, given the opportunity, very few of us easily pass that along. There is no doubt that the things that we are being asked to do in this Scripture—turn the other cheek, not to seek revenge, loving our enemies—are probably the most difficult thing that God asks us to do. I mean, “follow me”—OK, I’ll go; “do this in remembrance of me”—at least once a month; even “go forth and make disciples”—OK, so I’ll just get over my shyness. But this…what is it that stands in our way?
Remember that Jesus also said “love your neighbor as yourself”. (And then, here, the implication is that our neighbor is unlimited). All I can surmise is that perhaps we do not love ourselves enough. If we loved ourselves the way that God loves us, we could do nothing less than love our neighbor—ALL our neighbors. So, think about what it is that stands in your way of loving your neighbor and yourself without limits. That’s what it means to be perfectly aligned with God.
- Perfect Alignment
So, our language of the church has seemed to have lapsed into church growth and church decline and how many people are here and how many young persons are here. What would church be like if our language mirrored this Scripture, if we talked more about loving our neighbor, perhaps loving our enemies; if we talked more about God’s grace; if we tried harder to perfectly align ourselves with God? What would happen if we took that on? What would happen if the way that people described your church went something like: “They are different. They are aligned with the vision of God.”
The story of grace is God’s story. It IS the good news that we are called to share. It does not mean being good or moral or righteous in the ways of this world. It means living into that vision that God holds not just for us as individuals but for us as part of God’s larger Creation. It’s beyond where we are. In one of his poems Robert Browning wrote the line, “Ah, but one’s reach should exceed one’s grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We can’t just be good. We have to push beyond.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the gift of baptizing two young persons at this altar on a Wednesday night in front of more than fifty other young people. As we went through the liturgy, I did a lot more talking of it than I usually do. I explained what baptism was and why we only do it once. And when I got to the questions that we ask, I asked them more in this way: (The questions are on page 40 in your hymnal)
- Will you go toward what is good and away from what is not, away from what is harmful to you? And are you sorry for the times that you have not done that?
- Do you accept the freedom and the power and the grace that God gives you to do just that?
- Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and realize that you are in union with everyone else in the world—all ages, all nations, all races? In other words, we are family. If you look upon others as your family, your actions toward them cannot help but change.
See, the words that are said at our baptism echo this Scripture. Will you be different? Will you align yourself with God? And yet, if there is hope in Jesus’ words, it may reside in that final, most difficult command: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. The word that Jesus uses for perfect has teleological resonances, literally: its root word is telos. The perfection for which we aim is a goal, an end, a completion. It’s bigger than us; it resides outside of us. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer. And with God’s grace, it will be.
 Thomas Long, “Surprise Party”, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2168, accessed 21 July, 2009.