St. Paul’s & St. Stephens – Epiphany 6 – 2/12/23
Perhaps it’s only natural that in our culture the Christian faith is often presented as a means to receive something else that one values other than the Christian faith. You know the pitch: Would you like more peace and less stress in your life? Try Jesus. Feel the need for more happiness (or joy, thriving, money, friends, blessings, or whatever it is that you believe you really must have in order to make your life worth living)? Come to church and we’ll help you get what you really, really want, er, uh need.
Some have labeled this presentation of the faith the Prosperity Gospel. Kate Bowler, in her book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, says the gospel presented as a means, a technique to make your life more fulfilling and livable is a uniquely American heresy, perverting the Christian gospel from an announcement of what Jesus is doing in the world and making a strategy for getting Jesus to do something for us.
Now when you first hear Jesus’s most famous sermon, his Sermon on the Mount, fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, it appears that Jesus is presenting himself as the answer to all of our problems, the fulfillment of our most ardent wishes and desires. Listen to the beginning of the sermon: Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
Happy are people who are humble,
because they will inherit the earth.
Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
Hope, gladness, inheritance, food. These are blessingsindeed. At last God is delivering on what we want. True, those of us here may not be in the depth of utter hopelessness, or are not grieving the worst of tragedies, and, thank the Lord, none of us are starving, but still, we do have our needs, desires, and hungers, so it’s good to hear that Jesus has come to help us and to make good on God’s promises to give us what we need.
Need a blessing? Come to church, listen to a sermon, you’ll be blessed.
One can imagine that there were lots of people hearing the opening declaration of blessings in the Sermon on the Mount who thought, I’m so glad that religion has moved from judging, criticizing, and burdening us with its boring lists of moral rules and regulations and is now talking about blessing us. Good news!Though we would prefer for our rewards to be handed out right here on earth, it’s good to know that we the harassed and insulted will at least one day have great reward for our pain. Isn’t it great to see a biblical preacher move from talk of requirements to promise of rewards? Good news!
But then the preacher says (and here’s where we begin this Sunday’s Gospel), Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. Wait. We thought you were giving us the good news that you were relieving us of the burdensome demands of the law and the prophets. You know the biblical law, with its laborious lists of correct and bad behavior that covers everything we do in life from the living room to the bedroom to the kitchen and boardroom. You’re not wiping out any of that? You know the prophets like Micah and Isaiah who preached (right here in this congregation the last two Sundays!) about justice and economic righteousness, demanding that we mix our worship with our work and our religion with our politics. You not talking about doing away with that?
We like the opening verses of blessings from the Sermon on the Mount. Those verses are a favorite to be read at funerals with God’s promise of blessing now and in the future. But this morning the church compels us to keep listening to the sermon as the preacher, Jesus, moves from blessing to demand: Repeatedly, preacher Jesus takes an already hard-enough-to-obey biblical command and intensifies, increases, and elevates that command. You’ve heard it said by the Bible that it’s wrong to murder. I tell you, even if you are angry with your brother or sister (and who among us hasn’t been at one time or another?) that’s as bad as murder. What? Everybody knows it’s against God’s will for you to be unfaithful to your promises of marriage. I say to you if you even think about being unfaithful, that’s as bad as committing an act of unfaithfulness. What?
The preacher has warned us that he’s not out to do away with the commands and demands of scripture. With the preacher’s repeated antitheses (You’ve heard it said…But I say to you…) he’s making God’s demands even more demanding! Need a burden? Come to church, listen to preacher Jesus, you’ll get your burden. We come to church hoping to receive blessings–material, spiritual, psychological–only to have the preacher contrast what we thought was biblical faithfulness with a higher righteousness. Most of us think of sin as doing something that you know you shouldn’t do. But here the preacher defines sin as even thinking of doing something. It would be progress for most of us if we get to the point where we do the right thing. But Jesus speaks of goodness not only as action but as attitude, intention.
What are we to do with this sermon?
The longer I sit with this passage of Scripture, the more I see in it — oddly enough — the care and attentiveness of God. God wants us to treat each other well. God cares a lot about our dignity. God doesn’t want us to settle for bare minimums in the communities we create; God wants us to relate in ways that reflect the fullness of divine love, mercy, grace, and generosity.
So for example….. consider Jesus’s instruction not to swear by anything on earth or in heaven, but to simply let our yes be yes, and our no, no. Imagine, Jesus is suggesting, a community in which the default assumption is that people tell each other the truth. People keep their promises. People don’t deceive one another. In such a community, no one needs to say, I swear! in order to earn trust. In God’s beloved community, no one uses language to connive or manipulate others. We remember that the words we say are spoken in the presence of God, and so we speak with care and respect for each other.
Or for example….consider Jesus’s words about divorce, which I know strike us contemporary Christians as particularly jarring. Remember that in Jesus’s day, women whose husbands divorced them were often left to starve in the streets. They had no financial recourse, they would not be welcomed back into their childhood homes, and the social stigma attached to divorce was severe. What if Jesus is saying, It’s not enough to follow the letter of the law, hand your wife a certificate of divorce, and send her packing — as if you have no further obligation to a fellow human being. What about her vulnerability? Her shame? Her future? In other words, in the belovedcommunity Jesus is shaping, we have a responsibility to uphold each other’s dignity as brothers and sisters in Christ — even when our relationships as spouses or partners come to an end. That deeper responsibility cannot be signed away with a piece of paper. It endures no matter what.
I believe we do ourselves a disservice if we read Jesus’s words as condemnation. Jesus isn’t condemning us; he’s reminding us of truths we intuitively know. The way of love is hard. It’s costly. It hurts. But let’s not fool ourselves; there is a place called hell. It’s the place we create for each other every time we choose an easy and austere legalism over an arduous and radical love.
We have to PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT’S IMPORTANT, Jesus says in every way he can think to articulate it. You matter. How you live with each other matters. What you say and do, what you focus on, what you prioritize as my disciples — these things matter! Your choices have life-and-death consequences, so please take your communal lives seriously. Please don’t make faith harder for yourselves and for others by settling for bare minimums. Reconcile with each other. Honor each other. Speak truthfully to each other. Protect each other. Do these things — not to earn God’s blessings, but because you are already so richly blessed.
Okay, I’ll admit it: a transactional version of God is sometimes easier to live with than this one. How much more convenient and comfortable my life would be if I could compartmentalize it! If I could keep my religion private and hidden in its little corner, and forget that there is a seamless continuity between how I treat others, and how I relate to God. Christianity is not a rulebook for my private morality; it is a deeply incarnational, relational way of life that affects every single human encounter I engage in.
You’ve heard it said of old that the point of religion is to get whatever it is you think you need out of God, that you are a frail, miserable sinner who is doing the best you can and of whom not much more can be expected, that Jesus Christ commends a way of life that’s impossible for people like you to follow. But I say unto you…
The will of God is not to shame and overwhelm us. God is not invested in our self-loathing. As Richard Rohr puts it: It is quite helpful to see sin, like addiction, as a destructive disease instead of something for which we’re culpable or punishable and that ‘makes God unhappy.’ If sin indeed makes God ‘unhappy,’ it is because God loves us, desires nothing more than our happiness, and wills the healing of the disease.
What would it be like if the children of God helped each other to succeed in all the ways Jesus’s sermon describes? Imagine what that community would look like! But I say to you, Jesus says, again and again and again. I say to you that so much more is possible than you have yet comprehended. Reach for it. Walk into it. Sustain it. You are loved and you are blessed, right here, right now. There is nothing left for you to earn, but there is everything left for you to share. Be the beloved community you long for. Let us pray……
To be honest, it’s surprising to come to church
hoping to be relieved of some of our burdens
only to have you place demands upon us
that we would never have assumed had we not come to church.
we are bold to ask that you would bless us
with the courage to listen to what you have to say
and then give us the determination to be steadfast
and faithful as your disciples.