A Higher Righteousness

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On September 27 we considered the words of the sermon as found in Matthew 5:13-20.   The other reading was from Ezekiel 34. 

 

Sermon on the Mount, Carl Bloch, 1877

Sermon on the Mount, Carl Bloch, 1877

When Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, he offers his followers and the crowds what we have come to call the Beatitudes. A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that these statements – blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy; and so on – are not necessarily imperatives that true believers have to do in order to get God to like us a little better, but rather they are the ground rules for life in the kingdom that Jesus announces and inaugurates. Jesus does not try to talk anyone into mourning or being meek or trying to become pure in heart, he merely states that the people who are those things will receive the blessing of God.

In the passage that we have heard this morning, Jesus continues to address the same group of people, and here he ‘ups the ante’ a little bit. Not only are these folk bound to participate in the deep blessing of God, but those who are poor in spirit, persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and who hunger and thirst for what is right are in fact the means by which the world is sustained and transformed.

“You are the salt of the earth”, Jesus says. “You are the light of the world.”

Great. What does that mean?

salt

This is salt.

Well, first, let’s notice the fact that once again, these statements are declarative, not imperative. That is, Jesus is not saying, “Keep on trying, and you’ll be the salt of the earth in no time”, or “you really ought to be the light of the world.” No, instead, he looks at the rag-tag group of followers and says, “You are salt. You are light.”

Another thing we of which we ought to take note is that these metaphors that Jesus uses refer to things that were abundantly available anyone in the culture. One of Jesus’ contemporaries, a naturalist named Pliny the Elder, wrote in his book Natural History that “nothing is more useful than salt and sunshine.” Every home – whether the poorest hovel or the largest compound – would have access to some quantity of both seasoning and light.

Salt was prized for a number of reasons. Obviously, it’s an additive that enhances the taste of our food. Salt makes good food taste better. And if you’ve ever had or seen beef jerky or baccala, you know that salt is an excellent preservative. Mixing salt with meat or fish or other foods is a way to keep them pure and nutritious for a long time.

And light, of course, is a precondition for life. Without the sun, we would not exist. Light is used to point to or display beauty, to warn of danger, to signal distress or to announce a welcome. Light not only makes life better, it makes life possible.

So these first disciples of Jesus are, in their essence, salt and light. They are not becoming those things, they are not being told to be saltier or brighter – they are given that identity.

This is perhaps, salt-ish.

This is perhaps, salt-ish.

While the followers of Jesus are told that they are given this identity of being salt and light in the world, Jesus goes on to indicate that it’s possible to abandon that identity. He talks about salt losing its saltiness. If you were paying attention in high school science class, you learned that sodium chloride is a stable compound. That is to say that it is literally impossible for salt to not be salt. But in the time and place where Jesus was living, a time and place that lacked refineries and purification plants, what usually passed for salt was a white powder that had been gathered from somewhere like the shores of the Dead Sea. While this powder contained sodium chloride, it also had other minerals and elements in it. If it was left out in the rain, the salt, being more water soluble, would wash out, and you’d be left with something worthless – merely roadside dust. This, as Jesus indicates, is useful only in the compost pile or for filling in potholes.

Even more ridiculous than allowing salt to lose its flavor is the idea of going through all the trouble to light a lamp and then cover it up with a basket or a blanket. The purpose of the lamp is to allow you to see and be seen; it’s ridiculous to suppose that one would choose to have light and then not use it.

matchstrikeThe last thing that I’d like to point out about salt and light is that they are most noticed and most valuable when they appear in situations where they have been absent. Think about it: why do you add salt to food? Because it doesn’t taste like salt. If the vegetable soup was already salty, you wouldn’t need it. But you add it to the soup that is salt-lacking, and it makes it better. Similarly, nobody needs a flashlight to see around this room right now. But I can tell you that there are plenty of afternoons where I’m sitting in my study as the sun goes down and when I come out into the sanctuary, I can’t see my hand in front of my face. Then, I’m very grateful for the flashlight on my phone.

So you, beloved, like the disciples, are salt and light. I mention this specifically for the sake of the people in the room who are younger than I am. When we accept the identity that Jesus gives to us, that makes us fundamentally different than the world that surrounds us. This can be an uncomfortable position – following Jesus means making choices that are different, at times, than those of our friends. We’ll be talking about some of those choices in the weeks to come when we look at the ways that Jesus calls us to live in relationship with each other, but this morning I simply want to point out that just as light and salt are most noticeable in the darkness and the blandness, so too followers of Jesus are often starkly contrasted to those with whom we work, study, and play.

After laying out these terms of identity for the disciples, Jesus goes on to correct a misperception that some may have had and then to issue his first genuine directive of the entire sermon.

BlessedA couple of weeks ago we talked about the fact that in giving this moral and ethical teaching on a mountain, Matthew wanted his readers to be mindful of the ways that Jesus compares with Moses when it comes to expressing the revealed Word of God. Jesus himself states near the very outset of the sermon, “Look, you may have heard that I’m soft on the Law of Moses, or that I don’t care about it. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I am here to make sure that the intentions of God as revealed through the Law and the prophets actually come to light.”

Jesus then goes on to mention that the righteousness to which he calls his followers is to surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were a group of religious leaders who made it a point to know the Law of God. Further, they wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Law, and that everyone knew that they were following the Law. These men determined that the Old Testament contained 248 positive commands (such as “honor your father and mother”) and 365 negative prohibitions (such as “thou shalt not murder”). By their understanding, righteousness was measured by one’s ability to keep the commands and avoid the prohibitions.

It’s easy to see why in some ways this is very attractive. I mean, look at the way that we love our statistics. Consider the world of baseball, where it’s now possible to analyze statistics so thoroughly that one writer can say authoritatively that Pedro Alvarez’ glaring defensive weaknesses have been offset by his prowess at the plate. Statisticians using an index called “wins against replacement” (the WAR ratio) have concluded that in the past month or so, Pedro has brought in more runs with his bat than he has let score with his glove.[1] Look at how many indicators there are for batting average, for on base percentage, for caught stealing, RBI, ERA, OPS – you name it.

There’s something in me that wishes I could look up from my devotional and say, “Well, there are 248 positives and 365 negatives, and so far this year, I’m getting about a 69% success rate. Not perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the average in the Presbytery, so I think that I’m a keeper.” Isn’t it tempting to want to measure your own righteousness by looking at someone you think is a little less righteous than you are? To say, “I know, I’m not exactly Pope Francis here, but come on, we all know I’m better than so and so…”

But Jesus isn’t interested in the equations like that, is he? His followers are called to outdo the Pharisees, not in terms of having a lower “sinning percentage” than they do, but by allowing the intentions of God to transform them from the inside out. Jesus tells his followers that as they allow the power and Word of God to take hold in their inner beings and motivations and thoughts and prayers, that they will live into their identity as agents of God life-giving, life-celebrating love and justice SO THAT the creation will be preserved and the darkness dispelled. Our righteousness is not measured by the number of religious acts that we are able to show off to each other, but by our willingness to accept our identity as those who are poor in spirit, meek, humble, and so on.

There is an ancient Jewish legend that says that the very existence of the universe depends on thirty-six people known as lamed vovniks. In the book of Genesis, God announces his intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and says that he will relent if enough righteous people can be found there. They are not, of course, and those towns are destroyed, but a legend has emerged from that story indicating that at any given time, there are three dozen people scattered across the face of the earth, and that number is high enough to prevent God from simply wiping the whole slate clean and starting again.

The lamed vovniks do not know who they are themselves, or the special role that they play in the preservation of life. They are humble servants, tirelessly working to dry tears, show compassion, and shoulder the burdens of those who suffer. Like the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness, they have felt of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence. They have recognized the power of God in their lives – the pillars of cloud and of fire – that guides and protects them.

The Lamed Vovniks are not powerless in this wicked world. Rather, they use the gifts and talents that they possess to lift all those around them. They help to save us all.[2]

Let me be clear – this idea of the lamed vovnik is not found in the Bible…but what if each one of us lived in such a way that reflected a suspicion that the world depends on us to be humble, meek, pure in heart, single-minded, and so on? What if we thought that there was one or two lamed vovs in the room this morning? How would we act, and how might we treat each other, and how might we treat the strangers we encounter, if we believed that somehow the survival of the universe depends on our willingness to accept the righteousness of Jesus and to live as salt and light in a place that is willing to be bland and dark far too often?

You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Remember that about yourselves and each other, and live like the world needs you to live. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/pirates/2015/08/25/Adam-Bittner-Both-sides-of-the-Pedro-Alvarez-debate-are-missing-the-point/stories/201508250172

[2] For more about “The Legend of the Thirty Six”, visit http://www.lamed-vav.com/the-legend

Going Over the Ground Rules

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On September 13 we celebrated two baptisms as we considered the words of the Beatitudes as found in Matthew 5:1-12.  The other reading was I Corinthians 1:18-25.  

“Uncle Phil, tell me about the day I was born.”

“Um, sure. It was a snowy day, and I think that the power was out for a while, but we weren’t worried because we knew that your mom and dad would keep you safe.”

“Uncle Paul, will you tell me about the day I was born?”

“You bet! Your mom and dad had been praying for a long time that you would make it out safely, and when that storm picked up, well, I was glad that you stayed inside for a couple of hours longer. When you finally did decide to make an appearance, the storm was over and everything was so quiet. We just sat in the room and held you while the candles burned. It was a wonderful day.”

Two authorities, each telling the same truth, right? And yet, in the telling, we see and hear meaning that is slightly different. The information may be largely the same, but the added details and inflection really communicate meaning, don’t they?

Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-82

Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-82

Last week, I announced my intention to try to preach through the Sermon on the Mount, which is considered by many, including myself, to be the greatest example of ethical teaching ever written. And when we started, we considered Luke’s introduction to the sermon, which he calls “the Sermon on the Plain”. That makes sense for Luke’s audience, which has just read about Jesus’ descent from the mountaintop following a night of prayer and the naming of the twelve apostles. Now, says Luke, it’s time to learn.

When Matthew frames the story, however, he’s not only thinking about the participants in the story, but those who are reading his account. And so he agrees with Luke that the sermon took place above sea level, but since Matthew is writing to a crowd that is primarily of Jewish origin, he knows that when a man of faith goes up a mountain and reveals truth, well, it imparts a little different message. In the scripture you just heard, Jesus and his followers climb the mountain, and then Jesus sits. The disciples and the crowd gather around him, and then he speaks. From the mountain. The symbolism is powerful: Jesus is the new Moses, and here we are about to receive the definitive interpretation of the Law of God. Just as Moses led the people to the mountain in Sinai, and they gathered around it waiting to hear the commandments, now Jesus leads the people up the mountain and reveals to them what it means to live those commandments out.

He further reinforces this by his introduction to the sermon itself. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” he begins. The word that begins the sermon is makarioi, and in general Greek writing of the day, it meant “happy” or “lucky”. Although the Gospel of Matthew is written in Greek, Jesus, though, was probably speaking Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament). When he started a sermon by saying “Blessed are the ones”, I am certain that the Jewish hearers of that message would have recognized the beginning of Psalm 1, which we heard as our Call to Worship: “Blessed is the one who…”

BlessedIn this beginning, Jesus is clearly introducing a new understanding of what it means to be makarioi or ashré in Hebrew. But what does it mean to us? In our language? Today?

I stayed in Africa for a month with my friend Dan and his family. They had a gardener and watchman, whose name was Mikhael. I interacted with this man a dozen times a day, and I was entranced by his use of the word “congratulations”. I would come home from the market and smile and say, “Mikhael, these eggs were half price today!”, and he would say, “Congratulations!” Ariel would come in and announce that we were having chicken for dinner, and Mikhael would beam, “Congratulations!” Dan would mention that he was expecting a visitor soon and ask Mikhael to please be on the lookout, and the Malawian would salute and smile and offer a very crisp, “Congratulations, sir!”

I came to understand that when Mikhael used the word “congratulations”, he was essentially saying, “good for you”, or “that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be”; that’s what should be happening now.

I think that is the essence of what Jesus is saying when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” “Congratulations to those who are…” or “Good for you when you are…” Like Psalm 1, the meaning is not one of “happiness” or being overjoyed, but rather being found in the exact right spot at the right time, following Jesus and walking with God.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with these descriptions of what right living looks like as Jesus pronounces his blessing on those who are his first followers. As he does so, he gives them a sense of what is to come and where this path of discipleship will lead them.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on the beatitudes, he noticed that there is a progression here – that they flow from one to the next.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Jesus. When you have left your vocation, your family, and your identity behind to follow a new rabbi, you are, in fact, poor.

Blessed are those who mourn… And wouldn’t mourning be a logical response? We grieve what is lost – and when we lose the core of who we have been as we walk towards that which we are becoming, it would seem as though mourning is a typical reaction.

Blessed are the meek… that is to say, when we have left all that we know and said goodbye to who we have been, then meekness is a logical result because we will tread very carefully in uncharted waters.

When a person has emptied him or herself of many of the core elements of their identity, and through a time of grief has begun to learn an entirely new way of life, there must be a yearning to fill up what is empty. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right” is a way of saying that those who are faithful will desire to be filled with the stuff that truly makes for life.

When the followers of Christ come together in a community, they will find it to be one shaped by mercy. As each disciple realizes that she or he is learning an entirely new way of being, she or he will be bound to extend grace to her or his fellow-learners and to take on the pain of others.

Furthermore, these people will be pure-hearted, as with single-minded devotion they pursue the best that God offers, and will not be distracted by that which is less than Godly.

As they do this, the followers of Christ will discover that they have in fact become partners with Jesus in offering themselves for the world. Our English translation says “blessed are the peace-makers”, but there is a richness to the original that suggests someone who not only makes for peace, but who cultivates and enjoys and spreads peace.

After the followers of Jesus have experienced these eight steps of identity formation, they will discover that they have taken part in a new community. Verses 3 – 10 all refer to “those who” are found in these places. When we get to verses 11 and 12, however, there is a shift. Verse 11 begins by saying something like, “Congratulations when you find that you are persecuted and maligned…”

Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “…they who renounce possessions, fortune, rights, righteousness, honor, and force for the sake of following Christ, will be distinguished from the world. The world will be offended at them, and so the disciples will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake…It is important to note that Jesus gives his blessing not merely to suffering incurred directly for the confession of his name, but to suffering in any just cause.”[1] When people who follow Jesus and are shaped by Jesus wind up living like Jesus, they should not be surprised that the first fellowship that they share is the fellowship of the cross. The blessing that Jesus attains is the blessing that he offers to his followers.

In a nutshell, that’s how the Sermon on the Mount begins: the beatitudes announce God’s good words in the lives of those who follow the call and journey into the unknown with Jesus. And I have two comments to make in response to these beatitudes.

First, we have to be realistic and admit that by most objective measures, this is sheer nonsense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent with a young person offering counsel as to how to respond to a certain situation in a way that would please God only to have a parent step in and say, “Well, no offense, Rev., but Jr., pay absolutely no attention to what Pastor Dave is saying here. That man is full of pie in the sky.” And I would add, frankly, that this applies to the two young boys we’ll be baptizing this morning. Sure, we all smile and nod as the scripture is being read, but are you really going to invest yourselves in the next decade or decade and a half teaching Colton or Liam to renounce themselves, to be hungry for only that which Jesus can provide, and to seek the paths of mercy and peace?

You’ve got to be crazy, Dave! I know. I’m an idiot so much of the time. The kind of life to which the beatitudes call us is contrary to our experience, counter-cultural, and, to be honest, un-American.

It is, however, the only way of life to which Jesus calls us. And note with me, please, that these statements are not advice. There are no imperatives here. Jesus is not saying, “Try to be a little more poor in spirit. Work on being a peace-maker.” These are simple statements of truth: if, because you have left something less in order to hold onto Christ, and find yourself to be poor in spirit, grieving, merciful, and so on, then you are to be congratulated or blessed. You have it right, and are walking in a place that is consistent with God’s purposes for the universe.

In a way, the beatitudes are like ground rules. That is, they reflect what is, not what ought to be or what could me. Take a look, for instance, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. A key feature of that baseball stadium is the ivy-covered outfield wall that is separated from the bleachers by a wire screen. If you want to play ball at Wrigley, you need to know these things:20110918g-wrigleyIvyWall20

  • When a baseball hits top or face of screen in front of bleacher wall and bounces back on playing field, that ball is considered in play.
  • Yet if the same baseball hits top of screen and drops between screen and wall OR bounces into the bleachers, then it’s a home run.
  • When a baseball sticks in screen in front of bleachers, or gets stuck in the vines on the bleacher wall, the batter is awarded a two-base hit.
  • But if the baseball hits the vines and then comes out of them, it’s in play and nothing is assumed.

As arbitrary as they might be considered on certain days, those are the ground rules at Wrigley Field. It’s the Cubs’ ballpark, and they establish the rules by which both teams play. You might have a different idea as to what should happen if a ball gets stuck in the mesh or lost in the vines, but it’s not your call to make.

The Beatitudes by James Tissot, c. 1890

The Beatitudes by James Tissot, c. 1890

In the same way, these conditions that Jesus outlines for faithful living: being poor in spirit, humble, hungry for what is right, and so on – they are not really up for discussion. Jesus of Nazareth, the pre-existing Son of God who created the cosmos and everything in it, gets to set the ground rules. He’s not asking me to be merciful. He’s simply saying that people who show mercy will receive it. He’s not talking me into being a person who honors peace; he’s simply saying that a condition of life in the universe is ultimately consistent with peace.

But Jesus, we say, how do we live into that reality? How do we become people who follow you into these places? The instructions for living into that reality are contained in the passages that we’ll read in the weeks to come. For today, let us simply accept his declaration as true. The starting point – the ground rules – indicate that everything we know about blessedness or happiness comes from God, and that the most popular ways of achieving what the world calls “happiness” or “fulfillment” are not the best. Let us acknowledge that we are called to trust Christ and to point others – even little guys like Colton and Liam – in a Christ-ward direction so that they, and we, can sit at his feet as he explains, and demonstrates, and asks us to live like him.

Thanks be to God for that set of ground rules. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (McMillan Paperback 1961), p. 127

We Have A Problem

The church in Crafton Heights began our Fall 2015 worship series with an introduction to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.  Our scriptures for the day included Luke 6:12-19 and Isaiah 30:8-11.  

 

Hungry?

Hungry?

Do you like Olive Garden? Lots and lots of people do. This chain boasts more than 800 restaurants, 96,000 employees, and nearly $4 billion in annual sales.[1] I bet that you have been there more than once. In corporate publications, the restaurant’s mission is clear: “Olive Garden remains committed to its purpose of Hospitaliano! – providing 100% guest delight through a genuine Italian dining experience.” And the leadership of the corporation has gone to great lengths to achieve that mission: they send their chefs on tours of Italy and have even begun a series of building improvements to ensure that the restaurants resemble an authentic Tuscan farmhouse.

pastaThere’s only one problem with all of this: the people who eat at Olive Garden don’t actually like genuine Italian food. For instance, when the menu introduced gnocchi, a pasta staple in Italy since the Roman Empire, American customers wouldn’t touch the stuff until it was rechristened “Italian Dumplings” and hidden in chicken soup. From what I understand, most Italians enjoy their pasta with a very firm, al dente texture. Olive Garden, on the other hand, finds that it sells much more pasta when it is cooked much longer and ends up very soft. Chefs from the restaurant headquarters took a tour of Northern Italy and fell in love with a torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic, and herbs, but every time they tested their creation in the USA, it was deemed “not cravable”.[2] People don’t order pesto because it is too green and too oily.

People don’t go to Olive Garden because it’s authentic. In fact, the President of the corporation said in an interview with Wall Street Journal, “We don’t use the word ‘authentic’” to describe the dining experience. They prefer to say it is “Italian inspired.” One diner simply said, “It’s always the same every time and it always tastes good.”

Fair enough. But I wouldn’t take any Italian friends there for a little taste of home.

AmericanGraceI bring this up because a few years ago I read a book that really challenged the way that I see the church. In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a team of sociologists demonstrated that how more often than not, churches, synagogues, and mosques are shaped by the preconceived political and social views of those who attend, rather than the dictates of the scriptures on which those faiths are based. In other words, more and more people are attending worship, not to be strengthened, corrected, or advised, but rather to have their own opinions and ideologies confirmed or blessed by the religious establishment.

Earlier this week Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, KY, was jailed because she refused to issue marriage licenses. If you don’t know anything about this, well, congratulations. You’ll have to tell me how you avoided hearing about this. At any rate, Ms. Davis could not do fulfill the terms of her employment and distribute these licenses, she said, because her Christian faith prevented her from doing anything to acknowledge gay marriage. She has been criticized by some on the left who have said, “For a person who has been divorced three times and married four times, she appears to be rather selective in terms of which of Jesus’ teachings she feels obliged to take literally.” And I have wondered wondered how those who support her on this particular issue might feel if she were to deny people gun or hunting licenses if she were a Quaker and her religious beliefs made her a pacifist.

Time after time, the church has proven Isaiah right: we come in here saying that we want to hear a word from the Lord, but in actuality, we’d just as soon God kept his opinions to himself more of the time. “Don’t tell us what we need to hear…tell us what we want to hear.”

We have a problem – an Olive Garden problem. Don’t give us Italian food – give us food that we like. Don’t give us Jesus – give us something Jesus-ish.

Jesus Chooses the Twelve, by James Tissot

Jesus Chooses the Twelve, by James Tissot

The Gospel reading for this morning comes at a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. Luke has recorded the miraculous birth and wondrous childhood of Jesus. We have watched as he heard the call of God during his baptism and went through a time of discernment in the wilderness. After that, he developed as an itinerant Rabbi, teacher, and wonder-working healer. He has engaged crowds and invited people to join him, and he has had conflict with the religious establishment, but he is to this point essentially a lone voice calling people back to God.

In the passage we’ve just heard, Jesus spends the entire night in prayer and then comes down from the mountain with an apparently new game plan: he calls twelve of his followers to himself and charges them to become not only disciples (“followers”), but apostles (“those who are sent”). In doing so, he names his intent not only to come and work wonders himself, but to invest himself in a group of people so that they might not only follow him, but launch a movement and grow the church.

And look with me, please, at the first thing that Jesus does after his time in prayer leads him to name Simon, whom he called Peter, Andrew, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot as his apostles: Jesus marches these twelve men down from the top of the mountain and begins to teach them how to be like him.

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

We have here in Luke the beginning of what we traditionally call “The Sermon on the Mount.” This teaching of Jesus, especially as we find it in the gospel of Matthew, is often called the single greatest compendium of ethical instruction ever offered.

Thomas Jefferson, who was at best a marginal believer, said that the Sermon on the Mount is the “most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.”

For centuries, people have loved the Sermon on the Mount. We quote snippets of it from time to time to remember who we are and who we are supposed to be… “Judge not, that ye be not judged…”, or “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden”, or “turn the other cheek…” You know this stuff, right? We love the Sermon on the Mount.

Like many sermons, however, we just don’t pay attention to it. Contemporary theologian John Stott has put it this way: “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed.”[3]

It seems as though the church has an Olive Garden problem. That is to say, we really love the idea of Jesus. We like to sing to him and sing about him. We want to tell our children about him, and love to demonstrate to others how much Jesus likes us and we like him – check out our bumper stickers, our tattoos, our bookshelves, or our jewelry. Jesus is great!

It’s just that we are a little bit happier when Jesus stays in the manger, or own the bookshelf, or on that really beautiful painting we picked up down at Family Christian Bookstore.

We don’t want Jesus going through our browser history, do we? Are we excited about the idea of Jesus looking through the apps on our phones, or listening to the ways that we talk to or about our spouses? And who wants Jesus tagging along on those trips to the Mall or Amazon.com? We don’t need him pawing through our checkbooks or bank statements, do we?

Yet aren’t those that the kinds of thing that Jesus seems to insist on doing, especially in the Sermon on the Mount?

Here’s what I would like to do: I would like to commit a good part of the coming year to reading through the Sermon on the Mount slowly and deliberately during our worship time. Although I started this morning using the text from Luke, from here on out, we’ll go with the longer, more familiar, version as it is found in Matthew. I hope that I am courageous enough to allow the words of Jesus to intrude into my life as I do this. I hope that you are committed enough – to Jesus and to me – to keep me honest as we try to listen to Christ – the what he actually said, not to what we hoped he would say.

Last week, we talked about the fact that we are called to have a vital connection with Christ – I used the image that is often found in scripture that he is the head and we are the body. If that is true, then we are obliged to take this vast section of his teachings seriously.

In the weeks to come we will seek to listen to words that were first spoken by a first-century Palestinian Rabbi to a barely-literate assembly of fishermen, farmers, shop-keepers, tax collectors and shady characters, many of whom suffered from physical or mental illness. And as we listen to those words spoken by that man, we will ask God to allow us to hear them as people who are ourselves called by that man in the tradition of the apostles. May we come and hear not merely our own thoughts and opinions, but the gift of God’s word for this time, this place, and these people.

[1] http://www.olivegarden.com/about-us/news-and-media

[2] http://www.eater.com/2011/12/21/6628039/the-olive-garden-has-no-choice-but-to-overcook-pasta

[3] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP, 1973) p. 15.