To Whom Was He Speaking?

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most written about speech in history.  Scholars debate the finer points of what Jesus said, as you might assume, but there has been plenty of ink and pixels spent simply discussing the context and setting in which Jesus gave this sermon.  It is helpful, of course, to know something about life in first century Palestine.  It is helpful to know that agriculture was the prevailing occupation, that land ownership was difficult for many, and that the Law had been heavily interpreted by the leaders of 2nd Temple Judaism.  It is equally helpful, though often impossible to really know, to think about to whom Jesus was actually speaking.  This is one of the main sources of controversy around the Sermon on Mount.  To whom was Jesus speaking?

It has been a few weeks since we heard Matthew set the scene for this sermon.  If you’ll recall, Jesus has been surrounded by large crowds who have been drawn to his ministry of healing.  As chapter five opens, Matthew tells us that “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:…”  Most scholars read this to say that Jesus and his disciples took leave of the large crowd in order that Jesus might lay the foundation for the work ahead.  As his popularity grew, Jesus thought it important to take a moment, before things got way out of control, to make clear what this kingdom he was proclaiming was all about.  Some scholars find this reading to be difficult.  The idea that Jesus could be surrounded by such a large crowd and somehow find some space away from them seems hard to believe.  In their mind, it is more likely that Jesus did attempt to step away from the crowd with his disciples, but the crowd, at least the closest few hundred folks, were able to eavesdrop on the conversation.

I’ve probably been in the minority camp for most of my years of Biblical study, but that seems to be changing.   For some reason this morning, as I read the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses, I found myself really struggling to believe that the crowd could have heard all of this difficult teaching and stuck around.  I turned to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and found chapter 8 opening with these words, “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him…”  I just can’t imagine the Sermon on the Mount as a church growth technique.  It seems impossible that the crowd would have heard Jesus say, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” or “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and not have at least considered turning around and walking away.  As we prepare to hear more difficult teaching from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, to whom is it now speaking?  How do these hard words ring in the ears of the faithful?  The waffling?  Those on the margins?  How do we take these words and make them real in our context?

Preaching Pithiness

I’ve noted this interesting tidbit before, but according to a recent study by the good people at Microsoft, the smartphone age has brought with it a decline in the average attention span of an adult to less than that of the common goldfish.  Since the year 2000, our ability to focus on any single item has dropped from a measly 12 seconds to a minuscule 8 seconds.  For those who can’t focus long enough to do the math, that’s a 33% decline in 15 years!  The outside world has continuously been adjusting as well as adjusting to this decline.  We see it everywhere.  Billboards that were once static are now digital and ever changing.  Our television screens are full of information crawling across the bottom, cluttering up the corners, and sometimes filling a third of the screen.

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This bit of trivia came to mind for me this morning as I re-read the lessons appointed for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany and realized that from beginning to end, the preacher is dealing with one pithy soundbite after another.  As I tried to find a chunk of scripture to focus on, I felt my mind jumping back and forth, here and there, up and down.  I began to wonder what it will sound like to the average Christian on Sunday morning?  Will it just be a series of sound bytes that one can take or leave at one’s pleasure, or is there something of a cohesiveness to all the lessons?  More practically, though I am not preaching this week, I’m wondering how one would go about preaching pithiness?

There are probably several ways to deal with this conundrum.  Despite my mind’s inability to track with a single passage, there are several sections of these lessons that deserve some deep mining.  The section dealing with the harvest and leaving gleanings for the poor would be a fascinating study in 21st century America.  The admonition against hate and reproach could be studied under a microscope.  Paul’s play on wisdom and foolishness could take 45 minutes to unpack, as would each of the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses.  The other option would be to hopscotch one’s way through the lessons.  Perhaps there is a theme – holiness or love – that could serve as a thread that is pulled through a pithy quote or two from each lesson.

No matter which path the preacher chooses, the battle is uphill but not waged alone.  As the Psalmist reminds us in yet another series of decent one-liners that is thread together into a prayer, it is ultimately God’s work to teach us the Law of love.  As preachers, our task is to do the work of study, to be prepared, and then to get out of the way and let the Spirit to its work through our words in the hearts of the faithful.  Best wishes this week, dear friends.  I’ll be praying for you eight seconds at a time.

A call to perfection

The following statement may not be true of everyone on the planet, but I think it is true of most: human beings like to know the standard by which they will be judged.  Whether it is a math test, marital vows, or a job description, it is helpful to know what constitutes good work and what sort of actions would bring about the need for remediation.

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Sometimes, those standards are easy: get more than 70% of the answers right, and you’ll be OK.  Other times, it can be more elusive: what exactly does it mean to “honor” someone?  Sometimes, the bar is set very low.  I once heard the story of a boss who told an employee on their first day of work, “All I really need you to do is show up to work on time.”  By lunchtime, the new employee had decided that was just too much to handle.  Other times, the bar is incredibly high.  I remember during my final year of seminary when VTS was in search for its next Dean and President, we joked that the job description had them looking for Jesus Christ with PhD.

The latter is the case in both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for the Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany.  In the passage from Matthew, we hear the final third of Jesus’ six anti-theses of the Law.  Through the homiletical device of “You have heard it said… but I say…” Jesus took the Law and dug down to its foundation, inviting his disciples to a much higher standard.  In fact, by the end of the these six injunctions that Jesus comes right out and tells us the standard by which we will be judged, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word that gets translated as “perfect” is the Greek word “telos” which means something different than our modern idea of perfect.  Instead, it is more like the completeness of something, the goal, the reason for its existence.  When Jesus invites his disciples to live into their telos just as God the Father is telos, he is, I think, hearkening back to the words that God spoke to Moses in the lesson from Leviticus.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  The “you” there is plural, meaning the people of Israel and not just Moses himself.  Here’s where living in the south really comes in handy.  God says, “All y’all shall be be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Our telos is holiness, sacredness, set apart for God.  It would be easy to feel like this is yet another impossible standard to live up to, but the reality is that we have help.  God’s telos is perfect relationship.  We have been created in that image such that God living into God’s telos will help us to live into ours.  God is always searching us out, always inviting us into deeper relationship, always willing to forgive our sins so that we might once again be made holy.  It is God’s very nature to invite us back in so that we might live into our telos.  The bar might feel high, but thanks be to God we know what the expectations are and have God’s help in living up to them.

Show your work – a sermon

Unlike some Episcopal priests I know, I have always enjoyed math.  For the most part, it comes naturally to me, though I’ve often had some help along the way.  Coming of age in the mid-1990s, I found myself reaping the benefits of the Texas Instruments graphing calculator.  In high school, I had a TI-83, the swankiest model available at the time.  It could do algebra, trigonometry, and graph parabolic functions.  Of course, the favorite feature for me and my friends was that you could program it to play Tetris.  In preparation for studying engineering at Pitt, I upgraded to the TI-92 for use in my calculus courses.  College calculus was the first time that math didn’t just make sense to me, and so I used my TI-92 as a crutch through Calc 1.   Why they let me use it, I have no idea, but it made it all the more difficult when I got to Calc 2 and the professor uttered words that struck terror into my soul.  “Show your work.”

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No longer was it sufficient to have the right answer, which my TI-92 could so easily provide, now I had to show the stuff below the surface.  My professor had a good point, even if I didn’t like it very much.  The key to math isn’t getting the right answer, but learning the process by which every right answer will come.  One’s motivation shouldn’t be an A on the exam, but the reward of having learned the concept inside and out, and that can only be proved by showing your work.  The same is true in the life of faith: it isn’t about doing the right things so you can get to heaven when you die.  Instead, it is about what is happening on the inside, the unspoken motivations, the work of holiness.

Last Sunday, Jesus invited his disciples to show their work, and just like when I heard it from my calculus professor, I really wish Jesus had never said it.  “I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now mind you, the scribes and the Pharisees were the professional interpreters of the Law.  They were the ones who defined the right answer.  How far is too far to walk on the Sabbath?  Ask a Pharisee.  Do I wash this pot or that spoon first to keep kosher?  Ask a scribe.  These men were the holders of all that was right and holy, and Jesus was so bold as to say that we should be more righteous than that.  How could anyone possibly live up to that standard, we could reasonably ask.  Jesus answers my concern with six of his own interpretations of the Law that at their core teach the profound truth that having the right answer, living the right way, isn’t really enough, it is about knowing what underlies that right action that really matters.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.”  Jesus was not one for subtlety, but rather he jumps right into the deep end on this line of teaching.  One of the Big 10, “thou shalt not murder” is as well known a law as any of the other Commandments.  It is also one of the easier ones to keep.  Most human beings are not predisposed to taking the life of another human being in anger.  It would be fairly easy to feel morally superior for having not murdered anyone, but Jesus pushes it further, “show your work.”  “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to the same judgment,” Jesus says.  It is a lot harder to hold oneself as smugly self-righteous if the bar is now “being angry.”  Who hasn’t felt anger toward a brother or a sister, be they actual siblings or figurative ones?  If you insult your brother or sister, literally in the Greek it says, “if you call your brother an idiot,” you can be brought up on charges.  If you say “you fool,” you’ll go to hell.  I am liable to the fires of hell thanks to my ride into work on Thursday morning, but I’m sure y’all are better Christians than I am.

Notice what Jesus is doing there, he’s not abolishing the law, but taking it to its core.  The commandment “thou shalt not murder,” isn’t about killing someone in anger, it is about the destruction of relationships.  If we are really honest with ourselves, a whole lot more damage is done on a daily basis by those who harbor anger, who hang on to resentment, and who look down on their sisters and brothers than any murderer can accomplish.  God cares deeply about our relationships, and in order to make them life giving and fulfilling, we are called to show love and compassion rather than anger and contempt.  In fact, God cares so much about our relationships, that in verses 23 and 24 Jesus says he would rather we spend time tending to our broken relationships than come to church.  Jesus is serious about us showing our work, checking our motivations, and examining our hearts in this relationship stuff.

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Another perfectly reasonable commandment from God that Jesus takes deep to its roots.  “But I say that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  It isn’t enough to simply not have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, but it is about how we treat our neighbor.  God did not create human beings to be used by others simply to satisfy the desires of the flesh.  In fact, the way we treat one another is so important that God would rather us injure ourselves before we harm someone else.

The same is true for divorce.  In Jesus’ day and time, women could be divorced by their husbands for any number of ridiculous reasons including burning a loaf of bread.[1] Jesus is clear, just because there is legal precedent for something, doesn’t make it right.  People aren’t disposable; we can’t just throw them away when they no longer meet our needs.  Show your work, check your motivations, and know that these life-long relationships matter deeply to God.

Finally, Jesus turns his attention to the swearing of oaths.  “But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Here again, Jesus cuts down deep to the fundamental meaning of the commandment not to bear false witness by asking us to consider why an oath is necessary at all.  It seems to me there are two possible reasons.  On the one hand, we swear oaths because the stakes are too high not to.  In a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth because the ramifications of lying are so very profound.  When an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the Republic.  On the other hand, and more, I think, to Jesus’ point is the need to swear an oath because one can no longer be taken at their word.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  If I have promised to love my neighbor, and later I am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole of the Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

Jesus invites his disciples, and by extension each of us, to show our work when it comes to developing fruitful relationships.  It isn’t enough to sit comfortably and say, “Well, I haven’t committed murder or adultery” when inside our hearts there exists a cesspool of anger and lust.  It isn’t enough to simply fulfill the letter of the Law, but as followers of Jesus, we are invited to go deeper, to check our motivations, and to work to make our inner-lives match our outer-lives.  Of course, this ethical standard is so high as to be impossible, and Jesus knows that, but it is the work that matters.  By constantly examining our own hearts and our deepest motivations, we learn, slowly but surely, the core concepts of holiness, and in so doing, we find ourselves coming ever closer to the heart of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

Life is all about choices

There is an inherent flaw in the version of Christianity that is focused entirely on grace.  Well, there are probably multiple inherent flaws in it, but the one I am thinking of this morning comes out of Sunday’s Old Testament lesson in which Moses is clear that even for God’s chosen people, those whom God had rescued from slavery in Egypt and to whom God had promised a land of prosperity through their ancestor Abraham, life was still about choices.

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Despite the hard line often taken by strongly reformed traditions on whichever sin they’ve decided God cares more about than anything else, in a theological worldview that is only concerned with the grace of God, there is actually little, if any, room for consequences.  The same sort of theology that created sola gratis underlies Your Best Life Now.  It assumes that because one has been washed clean in the blood, there is no room for sin, even though everybody knows that can’t possibly be true.

Moses lays before the Hebrews a choice between life and death, blessing and curses, and God continues to do the same for each of us; especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.  As committed disciples, the assumption shouldn’t be that we can “sin boldly” or “go on sinning” as people have been trying to argue from the very beginning (see James, the Letter of and Romans, the Letter to), but instead that we are called to live by an even higher standard.  Our lives are testimony of the Gospel of Christ, and when we make bad choices, we bring curses upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.  Alternatively, when we choose love: of neighbor, of creation, of enemy, we bring blessing upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.

Grace forgives us our sins, but it doesn’t excuse our bad behavior.  As Lent rapidly approaches, it might behoove us to give some thought to how our lives reflect the Gospel of love.  The benefit of grace is that we have one more opportunity, in a long life of opportunities, to repent of our misdeeds, to acknowledge the times we have chosen curses over blessings, and to once again choose blessing and life.

Keeping one’s word

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Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.  These seem like simple words from Jesus.  As his disciples, as it is for all women and men, our word should be sufficient.  I can think of only only two reasons why the swearing of an oath would be necessary.  The first is because the stakes are too high.  Think about it, in a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth, under penalty of law, because the ramifications of lying are so very powerful.  Or, when an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the the Republic.  I’ve done a lot of this kind of promising of late.  Whether it was my signature on a Letter of Agreement here at Christ Church or the joint signatures of my wife and I on the 30 year note for our house: the need to be absolutely sure we mean what we say is strong.

The other need for an oath comes when the person can no longer be taken at their word.  This is the more insidious reason, and the one I’m sure Jesus was addressing in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  So, then, if I have promised to love my neighbor, and am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

We live in times that are full of untruths and half-truths.  Our news sources are more and more reliant on “inside sources” and in a culture where sales and clicks drive everything we do, stories are often brought to press that might not be fully vetted at the time.  Worse yet, according to the Pew Research Center nearly 20% of Americans use Social Media as their primary news source.  Anyone who has spent any time on Social Media can tell you that Facebook is probably the worst possible way to get accurate information.  The changing world is creating millions of people who think they are well informed, but are filled with half-truths or worse.  In this climate, yes meaning yes and no meaning no becomes harder and harder to live up to.

So, what do we do as followers of Jesus?  We do our homework.  We engage those with whom we disagree.  And above all, when we aren’t sure our yes really means yes or our no really means no, we have to get comfortable living in ambiguity.  “I don’t know,” must be an acceptable answer.  For, unless we are avoiding an issue about which we actually do know something, often times “I don’t know” is the most truthful things we can say about something.  As an added bonus, saying “I don’t know” is an exercise in humility, a topic about which Jesus will have plenty to say later in this sermon.

In a day and age when truth is relative and lies seem the norm, there is great power in the keeping of one’s word.

Facebook is for Murderers

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If we are really honest with ourselves, every disciple of Jesus subscribes to a smorgasbord theology of holy Scripture.   That is, we pick and choose what we like, and leave behind that which we don’t.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, accuse the other of this all the time.  The right says that the left chooses to ignore Scripture’s moral code.  The left says the right forgets about the love stuff.  The truth of the matter is that both are true.  None of us is perfect, and so all of us fall short of the ideal of living out God’s will in every facet of our lives.  This is playing out with blatant obviousness when one reads Jesus’ difficult words in Sunday’s third installment of the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Compare these words with what you see on your social media news feed and it quickly becomes clear that there has been a whole lot of murdering by anger and insult of late.  This is not me be all judgey either.  This is something of a confession of my own behavior, even as I see many of my sisters and brothers doing the same thing.  There is something all together too safe and too easy about hurling insults on social media.  Yet, if we were taking Jesus’ words seriously, we would take pause.

Is what I’m about to say true?  Is it up-building?  Is it judgmental or angry or insulting?  Because if it is, I probably shouldn’t say it.  Is it something that I would say to my brother or sister’s face?  Because if it isn’t, I probably shouldn’t post it.  Maybe we should all take a breath, re-read this section of Matthew 5, and slow down a bit.  The world is already a pretty angry and hate-filled place, perhaps we shouldn’t add to it.  These words from Jesus are difficult to swallow, and I’m sure we’d all rather leave them on the buffet, but the truth of the matter is that we don’t get to choose what we want to leave behind.  The commandment to love is a call to moral impeccability.  We can’t accomplish it on our own, but through  Christ, perhaps we have a chance to stop being murders on social media.