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. 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.
There’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”. 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.
I 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.
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.
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.”
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.
 The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP, 1973) p. 15.