38 "You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Feb. 20, 2011
“A Preacher’s Confession”
Rev. Justin Nickel
Beloved of God, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
Allow me if you would, a brief confession. In spite of all the hours in text study with my colleagues, all the Biblical commentaries I have read, to say nothing of the four years in Seminary preparing for this very sort of activity, I do not know how to preach the Sermon on the Mount to you dear people. Feeling like this was perhaps an example of just how green I am as a pastor, I consulted my father who has accrued more than 30 years as a parish pastor (which means, given the three year cycle of the lectionary and the fact that part of these texts come up every year on Ash Wednesday, he would have had roughly 40 chances to preach on this material). His response certainly caught me off guard. Rather than providing me with some helpful tips or insights into the text which I may have missed, he shrugged his shoulders, and with wry smile on his face simply said, “that is ok. I never figured out how to preach it, either.” While that certainly allowed me a certain measure of relief, it did not exactly provide the practical advice for which I was searching. It did, however, give me pause as to why this material is so difficult for preachers first but for everyone who encounters this material, as well.
The trouble, I humbly submit to you, is this: we have no ready made categories for what Jesus is doing here in this extended and wandering monologue in which he comments on divorce, lust, anger, addiction to money, and in the portion that we just read this morning, how one should respond in the face of insult, injury and injustice. What really, is this material? Is it a behavior manual, or a bit of cunning to get at our enemies by pretending that we actually care for them? Some practical advice that will get us noticed by all those whose behavior does not live up to our standards? Seriously, what exactly is Jesus doing here and why is he doing it? One route, and the route that appeals to the old sinner in each of us that wants to be in control, is to read this as ethical advice, as a series of rules which we must, yes must, obey in order to fulfill our obligations as Christians. Simply put, Jesus is doing nothing more than laying before us behavioral guidelines for the way that we must act. In this, it functions in the same way that our national and local laws do; it provides us with a clear set of expectations, like giving to everyone that asks of you, and it expects that we will carry out these duties with diligence. While this might seem a pretty straight-forward way to understand the text, it is immediately problematic. If a life of this sort is what is required of Christians, who would be able to stand and be counted as one? Certainly not me. For while we might be able to, for a brief amount of time, be able to carry out this manifesto’s mandates, there is not a soul living who is been able to sustain this sort of self-possession and generosity. Yes, we can, with a false pomposity and a pride the belies our genuine sinfulness, behave as though we were the sort of people in this text, but that sort of affectation leads only to the worst sort of hypocrisy, the sort which gives some credence to critiques of the Christian church’s own failings down through the ages. So, if we are to be honest about who we are and place up against this text, with its sublime vision of prayers for those whom we despise and boundless generosity of both money and kindness, when we place our own messy and stuttering lives against that picture, how do we do anything but despair? If this is what we are supposed to be, how could that possibly be any sort of good news? Instead, it is not the most condemning word that we can hear? That the gulf between our own behavior and what God asks of us is impossibly deep. What then, are we to do?
Well, perhaps a way forward begins in realizing about whom this text is first speaking. It is my guess that this text is not first about us and all our failings but about the hopelessly generous nature of God’s kingdom. Regardless of that old human inclination to turn everything we encounter into something about us, this is first and foremost a revelation, yes a proclamation, about the nature and character of God. For just as Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, so too, Jesus, here on another mountain, is giving voice to the character and nature of God, and this is one of the central scandals of the text. I mean, really, who does this guy think he is, rewriting the Torah that has been handed down for generations upon generations? If what Jesus is doing is valid, then he has to be the Messiah, either that or first order charlatan. So, Jesus, says, you want to know what God is like? What seems a fairly innocent question actually takes a turn towards the scandalous. God is one who loves enemies, and generously provides food, shelter and all the provisions for this life to those who will vehemently deny his very existence. God is one for whom justice, righteousness is act of gathering sinners near him and not scattering them apart with anger. Yes, if you want to find the God of the Sermon on the Mount, look no further than the one who is preaching it. What does love actually look like? To be fair to this past Monday’s holiday, with its boxes of chocolates and red roses, divine love looks a bit different. Yes, it looks like Christ and his cross. This is what love means from God’s perspective. It looks like suffering for the sake of those who despise you, and not condemning those who will put you to death, but saving them through the offering of your body. Yes, this the absurd vision of the love that Jesus describes and then enacts. In the case of Christ, love means suffering the consequence of humanity’s pride and folly as his own, simply so that even those who abandon, deny and crucify Christ may find a place at God’s table. Yes, for this what it means, what it will cost God, to love God’s enemies.
I can hear your potential question. All good and well pastor, but what about us? Does this text not say something about our own lives? I mean, it does seem as though Jesus is speaking directly to people and about the way they conduct their lives and suggesting that this matters a great deal. I mean, does Jesus not ask us to be perfect, as the Father is perfect? Well no, actually, he does not. This is one place where the English translation lets us down entirely. The greek word that gets translated as “perfect” is telos, which means something like “intended, completed or consummated.” It is not a word that has a hint of moralizing to it. Rather, Jesus is saying something like become who you are as beloved children of God, or be loving children of God, just as you are loved. And this, dearly beloved, is perhaps what one may call the miracle of the text. When we are gripped by the love of God in Christ something indeed happens to us. So enthralling, so all-consuming is this love of Christ that we are given the freedom to love enemies and give generously, to live in community with those people we find offensive or even simply annoying. Do we do this completely, no, no we do not, for we have not yet fully become what we are. For it is so very easy to forget that, before we are anything, before we are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, before we are middle-class or poor, white or Asian, suburbanites or country folk, Democrat or Republican, before any of that, we God’s children. It will only be in God’s Kingdom that this vision of reality is fully realized, but the freedom of that vision is poured out in the present. Yes, in the mean time, there is a freedom that takes hold of you. It is the freedom that poured over you in your baptisms and is the freedom that you will soon take into your body here at the Lord’s table. It is this freedom: your lives have been joined to Christ, and as St. Paul writes, in him you have everything. Having everything, then, let us give away ourselves for the sake of the world that God so dearly loves. For this is what it means to be God’s children, amen.