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?

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.


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.

You are Holy – a sermon

You can listen to Sunday’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

I have a theory about the proliferation of megachurches.  I can’t substantiate it unless I take on a PhD dissertation in sociology, but based on the conversations I’ve had over the years, I’ve come to believe that megachurches succeed because of two things.  First and foremost, they are built upon leaders who are charismatic preachers.  This shouldn’t be a shock, since survey after survey of church members tells us that the number one thing we want our pastors to be is a good preacher.  What may come as a surprise is the second key to success: rules.  Megachurches tend to be conservative and tend to have very clear statements of faith.  There is no question about what Willow Creek or Saddleback Church thinks about the Bible or the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.  For me, this rule thing comes as a surprise because the Boomers, Gen Xers, and the up-and-coming millenials are all known for their distrust in rules.  Look at the way parenting and teaching have changed over the past 50 years, and it becomes clear that we just don’t like people telling us what to do.  Except, it seems, when it comes to our faith.  When it comes down to whether or not I can be sure I’m going to heaven when I die, many of us want a proper checklist of very specific things that I need to do.  Believe in the inerrancy of Scripture?  Done.  Subscribe to the Penal Substitution theory of atonement.  I don’t know what that means, but OK.  Don’t drink, dance, smoke, or have sex outside of the bounds of marriage between a man and woman.  I might have to swallow hard and cross my fingers, but I’ll try.  Give 10% to the church? Make it 2, and you’ve got a deal.  Now, punch my get into heaven free card.  Thank you very much.  Megachurches thrive on rules precisely because of their single charismatic leader.  One person can decide how the game will be played.  Meanwhile, the squishy denominations like the Lutherans, the Methodist, and our dear Episcopal Church often leave room for people to ask questions and to float around in ambiguity for a while.

Of course, that’s not to say that our beloved squishy churches don’t have rules.  It might seem like it sometimes, but in reality, we have all sorts of rules: and I’m not talking about my somewhat unhealthy love for Robert’s Rules of Order or the Rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer.  Our rules are lived out in our creeds: We believe, that is to say, we put our trust in or we turn our hearts over to God the Father Almighty, who created heaven and earth… and Jesus Christ, his only Son… and the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.  The rules come through our Baptismal Covenant, which Keith alluded to last week.  We promise, with God’s help, to continue in the traditions of the Church, to repent when we fall into sin, to share the Good News of God in Christ, to strive for justice and peace, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

That last rule is perhaps the most important.  At the very least it is number two.  When Jesus is asked by the teacher of law what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to Love the Lord with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love his neighbor as himself.  It is probably the most often quoted piece of scripture in the world, but did you notice that we heard it this morning, not from the lips of our Lord, but from the giant book of rules called Leviticus.  I won’t ask you to raise your hands to say if you’ve ever actually made it through the entire book of Leviticus, but it is probably fair to say that most of us haven’t actually read it all.  We know the highlights because they get trotted out every time a religious leader discusses homosexuality: Leviticus has some very clear things to say about that, as it does about the official dish of South Alabama, fried shrimp, and the wearing of cotton-poly blended shirts.  Leviticus is the butt of many a religious joke and Facebook meme.  We know lots about Leviticus, but we know very little of Leviticus.  A problem that is made worse by our lectionary, which is just as afraid of it as the rest of us are.  In the Revised Common Lectionary, the book of Leviticus is guaranteed to be read only once in the three year cycle.  On Epiphany 7, Year A, we hear Leviticus chapter 19, verses 1-2 and 9-18.  We skip the parts about how to properly consume an animal sacrifice and stop short of the laws on cross-breeding animals.  Some congregations will have the chance to read from Leviticus later on in Year A.  If they’ve chosen Old Testament Track 2, sometime in early fall, they’ll hear Leviticus chapter 19, verses 1-2 and 15-18, which you’ll notice is just a shortened version of what we heard this morning.  Despite my theory on megachurches, the RCL must be convinced we want nothing to do with rules.

But thanks be to God we get something from Leviticus once every three years, and double thanks that it is this great passage from chapter 19.  Talk about setting the bar high for the life of faith, this lesson from Leviticus issues a serious challenge to those who think that the moral life is only about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.  We’ll come back to the love your neighbor piece in a minute, but let’s start at the beginning.  The LORD begins this set of regulations with these words, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”  Can we go back to that 10% thing?  I’d be happy to reconsider that.  Be holy!?!  Are you kidding me?  The truth of the matter is that God isn’t kidding.  You can be holy because God himself is holy, a word which doesn’t really mean what we think it means.  To be holy in the ancient sense meant to be set apart, or to be other.  God is so completely other that any attempt we make to describe him in human terms falls short of who God is.  As people made in the image of God, we are likewise called to be set apart, and the closer we get to God the more other we will become.  Those rules I mentioned before from our Baptismal Covenant, they are rules that help us to be fully who God created us to be: holy.

The Levitical rules go on to define how a group of holy people ought to live in community.  It probably doesn’t describe how anyone actually lived ever, but it is the ideal.  If we were able to become truly holy, this is how we would live.  We would care for the poor.  The example of gleaning, leaving the edges of your field unharvested, is foreign to most of us [whose last name isn’t Little or Ochs], but the underlying message is clear.  How can you take the gifts and talents that God has given you and use them for the good of the wider community?  What are the fruits of your vocation that you can leave open for the needy?  For some, it means making sure that some of you business expertise is put to use by on a not-for-profit board of directors.  For others, it might mean doing pro bono work: a doctor seeing patients at the local migrant labor clinic or a lawyer giving their time to legal aid.  Still others might offer their hobby as a means to empower a stranger as in a pilot who gives of her time and expense to fly patients to their appointments through Angel Flights, or the woodworker who makes a beautiful piece of furniture for a charity’s live auction.  Each of us has some God given ability that we can glean for the good of the community around us.

As we all know happens in Leviticus, the rules go on and on.  Rules about honesty.  Rules against thievery.  Rules about fraud.  Rules about how we treat the disabled. Rules about how justice is rendered.  And each rule ends with a refrain that reminds us of that high bar.  “I am the LORD.”  These rules aren’t meant to feel oppressive.  We aren’t called to throw up our hands in frustration.  Instead, the law reminds us to call upon the help of the LORD.  Or, as our Baptismal Covenant says it, “I will with God’s help.”

Which brings us back to that most important rule.  The one that we find in that Baptismal Covenant.  The one that Jesus says is in the top two. The one that we find first in Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  As Jesus reminds us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in the Hebrew, the idea of a neighbor isn’t limited to the people who live in your immediate surroundings, but rather it is the people with whom you cross paths in life: family, friends, coworkers, employees, grocery store clerks, pest control specialists, you name it, they are your neighbor and the call from God in Leviticus, from Jesus in the Gospels, and from the Church in her covenants is to love them as we love ourselves, and to care for their well being the way we care about our own.

Leviticus is a tough book, so tough that we generally avoid dealing with all its rules, but rules are important, dear friends.  Rules are important because they help set us apart, bring us closer to God, and make us holy.  May God give us the strength to love, even when it is difficult; to care, even when it is burdensome; and to live into his dream, even when we can’t see it for ourselves.  Amen.

Retributive Justice

Thousands of years of hindsight make it easy to smugly look back on the Torah and think, “thank God we’re not like them.”  This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is nearly impossible to not read through the lens of Ghandi saying, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  As more and more states do away for capital punishment for violent offenders, we start to feel better and better about living in American in the 21st century, assuming that retributive justice only further exacerbates the cycle of violence.  I’m thankful for the folks over at Luther Seminary who in their weekly Sermon Brainwave Podcast discussed this very topic.

While we get all self-satisfied with our place in history, assured of just how much smarter we are they those silly ancients, we assume that the law of “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth” was intended to create a system of revenge.  Instead, at least according to Rolf Jacobson (I think that’s his voice on the podcast), the intent behind these rules was actually to limit the cycle of violence.  This was accomplished in two ways.  First, it put a limit on what sort of retribution was allowed.  If you poke out my eye, I’m not allowed to kill you.  If you break my nose, I can’t permanently maim you.  The response to violence could only meet and never exceed the violence initially acted upon a victim.  Secondly, there was (and it should be noted, continues to be) a real fear that too much mercy – a world without corporal consequences for violence – would mean that violent criminals could not be stopped.

I know that there are studies that suggest that this is not the case, and it is abundantly clear that Jesus was not worried about too much mercy, but to assume that these ancient Jews were too stupid to understand what we smart moderns do is foolish and dangerous.  The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ attempt to turn the upside-down world right-side-up.  He did it not by eliminating the Torah, but by expanding it to its logical conclusions.  As we prepare to preach on it for the third straight week, preachers would do well to remember that we’ve still not figured out the mind of God, and remain just as flawed and just as confused as were the Hebrews in the Sinai Desert and the Disciples who followed Jesus.

The Practicality of Faith

One of the critiques that I hear about my sermons is that they are not as practical as they could be.  This is a fair critique.  My preaching style is open ended.  I like to take the congregation down a path on the journey of faith and invite them to consider how it might apply to the specifics of their own lives.  I choose to do this, in part, because by the time I’ve preached at 7:30, 9, and 10:45, posted the sermon on the Saint Paul’s website and here on my blog, I’ve reached a very wide variety of people.  To offer a practical suggestion as to how a 30 something parent of young children might apply the call to love one’s neighbor will mean that I’m missing out on a myriad of ways in which teenagers, single 30 somethings or retiring boomers might accomplish the same call.

Still, I find it to be a fair critique and from time to time, I try to offer very specific ways in which the reader or listener might be able to live out the call of God as heard through the exposition of scripture.  This week, while I will probably preach the Sermon on the Mount’s bit about “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” I’m drawn to think about the practicality of faith for the 21st century Christian trying to live out the love your neighbor intent of this Sunday’s passage from Leviticus.

How do we take the very contextual call to leave the edges of our fields unharvested and bring it forward 2,500 – 5,000 years?  What are the fruit of our vocations that we can leave open for the needy?  For some, it means making sure that some sort of time is given to non-profit board work; a specific example being a CPA serving as treasurer of a non-profit board.  For others, it means doing pro bono work in their field of expertise; for example, a doctor seeing patients in the local migrant farmer clinic.  Still others might offer their hobby as a means to empower the stranger: the pilot who uses her time and expense to help patients get to appointments through Angel Flights.

In order for the life of faith to make any sense in the world, it has to be practically lived.  It has to move from concept to reality.  It has to shape the experiences of everyday.  The Leviticus lesson this week invites us to think very specifically about how our faith might impact the most vulnerable of our neighbors.  How do you live out the practicality of faith?