Sunday, June 01, 2008

Sermon, Proper 4A, Matthew 7:21-29

In today's gospel we heard the end of the Sermon on the Mount. When I say, "the Sermon on the Mount," what do you think of? I am betting that most of you would say, "Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful." But that's only the beginning of the Sermon. In actuality, the Sermon on the Mount covers three chapters, five through seven, and it is more than some far off religious ideal.

Within those lofty idealized goals are some very specific ways to embody these words in our lives. Jesus wasn't preaching holy words that we hear on Sunday and ignore the rest of the week. He was preaching daily actions that we are called to live out in ways that put a human face on God.

And that's the key -- to live out in our daily actions the commandments of Jesus. Jesus lays out a narrow way here and says that only those who do the will of his Father, and by implication the will of Jesus, will enter the kingdom of heaven. He expands this a bit by saying everyone who hears his words and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.

I was reading through the Sermon looking for some examples. In all honesty, there is enough in there for me to preach a whole long series; there's also enough in there to keep us busy living into this call of Jesus. But here are a few that caught my attention right away.

First, gifts and offerings to God are secondary to human reconciliation. This reminds me of John's first Epistle: If you don't love your brothers and sisters whom you see, how can you love God whom you haven't seen?

We were meant to live in community. Sometimes that can be a difficult thing. We don't always have to like each other, but we need to be able to respect the dignity of other people. Sometimes our bonds of affection are stretched to the breaking point. But we should be able to say, "Because God loves you, I will remain in communion with you." And we need to be able to recognize when we have caused offense and work towards reconciliation.

Second, do not repay violence with violence. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is advocating pure pacifism. Now, I'm not sure I can personally go there, especially where the life and well-being of my daughter are concerned. But going back to our baptismal covenant, we are called to respect the dignity of every human being. How is it possible to respect someone by offering them violence? For by repaying violence with violence, we are ourselves participating in evil.

This is not to say we simply lie down and let people take advantage of us and abuse us. Far too often a battered woman has been wrongfully advised to stay with a man because she needs to turn the other cheek. Not so. She has the right to self-protection and has the right to look for some good. Think of this as spiritual judo. Judo wasn't developed to attack people, but to peaceably defend yourself. Let the other person use all their negative energy, while you look for a way to turn that to good.

Third, Avoid the downward spiral of violence. This is closely tied to the one I just mentioned, but this goes deeper. A violent response to a violent action begets another violent response. We are not called to bomb our enemies into oblivion.

How might our current situation in Iraq have been different if, instead of invading that country and killing thousands of civilians, we dropped packages of food and medicine and sent humanitarian aide? How might we be perceived if, instead of posturing with, "If you aren't with us, you're with the terrorists," President Bush had said, "If you aren't with the terrorists, you're with us."

There has been a lot of squawking recently over Barak Obama's statement that he would enter into negotiations with our enemies. As if this was a bad thing. I think it was Yitzhak Rabin who, when attacked for saying he would negotiate with Israel's enemies, said, "Who else should I negotiate with?" We need to look for a better way.

And finally, apply your critical judgments of others to yourself first. It's relatively easy to look down on someone who doesn't meet your expectations or live up to your standards. But we need to examine ourselves first.

Do we complain about people who litter and yet neglect to clean up after ourselves? Do we complain about the lack of financial support in the parish and yet we ourselves neglect to tithe? Do we label others as apostate because of their stance on inclusivity and yet we refuse to share communion with those who hold that different opinion, thereby neglecting our mandate to seek and serve Christ in all persons? Are our sins explained away, while others are held accountable for theirs?

It's easy to lift up the Bible as a set of rules to be followed. And it's easy to proclaim which rules the Really True Christians are to follow. It's easy to prophesy in a loud voice and drive out demons you find personally upsetting. What's not so easy is to emboby these words of Christ into our everyday actions. What's not so easy is to allow God to live through you so that other people can put a human face on God.

We are not called to simply worship God on Sundays and hear about all the good ideas Jesus had. We are called to act on those words, to embody them and live them out in thought, word and deed. And by acting on them, we will live upon a rock that can't be shaken.


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