You may have heard the story from a Benedictine monastery whose primary rule was hospitality, to treat each guest as though they were Jesus. One day, a brother came to the abbot and confessed, “Father, some days, when I see yet another stranger walking up the path, I say, ‘Jesus Christ, is that you again?’” I have to say that there are times when I’ve felt exactly the same way, particularly around the 15th of the month when we begin handing out $10 vouchers for gas and food. It is such a drop in the bucket of need, and when I find myself getting judge-y, I try to remember, “Jesus Christ, is that you again?”
So it was that this week, when I was wrestling with this challenging part of the Sermon on the Mount, that I heard the first line of our next hymn in a new way, “O Jesus, I have promised to serve you to the end!” What have I done? Promised never to get angry? Never to swear? Never to let a slight go unforgiven or unapologized for? I might as well cut off my arm or gouge out my eye, if this is the standard I’ve promised to live by!
The Rev. Amy Butler, who’s now pastor of NY City’s Riverside Church, once decided not to preach on the Sermon on the Mount, but rather just to preach it. She read the whole thing–2 chapters as we’ve arranged Matthew’s gospel–in the place of the sermon. During coffee hour afterward, a number of people came up to her and told her they really didn’t like “her” sermon. She might have said, “Tell that to Jesus,” though I don’t think she did. But these are hard words to hear, let alone live by, aren’t they? They sound impossibly archaic–”old-fashioned” hardly describes it–puritanical, even ruthless.
I think back to President Jimmy Carter’s confession that he had looked upon a woman with “lust in his heart,” and then think of the released videotape of our current president talking to a reporter about not only his thoughts but his actions toward women, and the gap seems as wide as the one between Jesus’ time and our own. With the divorce rate in our society somewhere between 40 and 50% now, how are we to hear Jesus’ prohibition against divorce or against divorced people re-marrying? It seems to me that if we were to take all of these words literally, we could well end up with a congregation full of various body parts and stumps, which none of us could see, because we’d all had to gouge out our eyes. “O Jesus, I have promised to serve you to the end….”
“See,” God says to the people of Israel, about to cross over into the Promised Land, “I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity….I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants my live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days…”
Choose life. Each moment is an opportunity for decision-making, [Bruce Epperly, adventurous lectionary, 2/1/17] though perhaps not so starkly put as “life and death, blessings and curses.” “Many paths are available to us, some leading to abundance and beauty,” as Bruce Epperly says, “others to scarcity and ugliness. Our choices are not just for ourselves. They shape our relationship to God and the world beyond us, including our future.”
In his “Sermon on the Mount,” which is really just how Matthew has chosen to arrange these teachings, Jesus is speaking to his community, whose very existence really did depend upon their living together in relationships of honesty and integrity. Since the ideal marriage partner was a first cousin, for example, you can imagine how divorce and adultery would tear apart a family-based society, let alone the fact that a man could simply write a writ of divorce against his wife, leaving her without resources or options. “You have heard it said….but I say to you…” Jesus was not discarding the tradition of his ancestors in faith, but rather going deeper into the heart of those teachings, reaffirming the spirit intended within them, recognizing that our thoughts and intentions can have as much power as our actions.
Professor Karoline Lewis cites a poem by Marilyn Maciel, which says in part, “if words could be seen/ as they floated out/ of our mouths/ would we feel no/ shame/ as they passed beyond/ our lips? If we were to string/ our words/ on a communal clothesline/ would we feel proud/ as our thoughts/ flapped in the /breeze?” [workingpreacher.org, 2/12/17]
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is God’s footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
We certainly don’t have any control over what we hear in the streets or in the media, but we can make the decision that we will not contribute to the coarseness or meanness that is so rampant. And as we consider the numerous issues of social and environmental justice facing us, we would do well to examine our own intentions and attitudes before we engage in behaviors that might simply add to the divisions and hatred and prejudice that are already tearing us apart. The new Secretary of Education–no matter what you thought of her nomination– ought to be allowed into a public school to do her job.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo Baggins to Gandalf the Wizard in JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. He was referring to the pitched battle of the forces of Mordor against the forces of “men” and elves, a battle that to all appearances, looked doomed and dreadful to Frodo. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo . “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
“See I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God.”
“Our nation,” says the Rev. James Alexander Forbes Jr,
has a right to expect faith communities to provide vision, vitality, meaning, purpose, responsibility toward each other, respect and care for our planet, as well as accountability and trust in God who is creator of us all. Lukewarm and lackluster religion will not be able to address the demands of these troubling times of polarization, destabilization, and lightning speed change. What is needed now is deeply rooted faith, firmly held convictions, and conscientious and courageous discipleship among the adherents of all our faith-based institutions. There can be no question but that we are called to help save the soul of our nation. Do we have the strength of character and moral and spiritual influence to tilt our nation toward justice, peace, compassion, and ecological responsibility? [Odyssey Network Scripture, 2/12/17]
“O Jesus, I have promised to serve you to the end…” There is no doubt the bar is set high here in the Sermon on the Mount, and I for one cannot promise perfection or unfailing success in serving God or the One who gave his life so totally in that service. What I can strive for is not to offer “lukewarm or lackluster religion” in that service. I have now added to my morning affirmations :”With all that I am and all that I have, I seek to serve you, O God.”
Life and death, blessing and curse. Those are the choices before us. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community writes,
Speaking the truth and acting on behalf of what is right will take all of us, at the deepest levels.
Preachers should preach ever more prophetically, teachers should teach formation and not just information, writers should write ever more honestly, lawyers should fight courageously for those who need their help, reporters should report the facts ever more diligently and speak the truth to power regardless of what the powers think about that, artists should make art that nurtures people and makes them think and inspires them to action. People who know climate change should fight on climate change, people working for living wages and economic justice should keep organizing, people working for human rights, voting rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, refugee rights, and LGBTQ rights should keep defending and advocating. We all should serve those around us. We all should watch for people being left out and alone. [SoJo.net, 2/10/17]
With all that we have and all that we are, let us seek to serve the God of Love and Life. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark