Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Troubles With "The Sermon"

It happens so often. "It" is the serendipity of seemingly coincidental things lining up in ways that I have to take notice.

Two weeks ago, the Beautitudes from Matthew 5 made an appearance in the lectionary and in a prayer of blessing at the inaugaration of Donald Trump. I found and posted a satirical "Trumpian" paraphrase of the Beautitudes on my blog for Jan. 29.

Since then, I keep running across references to the Beautitudes everywhere, on facebook, in conversations, and in material for a High School Sunday School class.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is a core scripture for our Anabpatist/Mennonite churches. The "Begin Anew" discipleship ciriculum (Mennonite Church Canda and USA), says:
"The Sermon on the Mount is our Lord's specific instruction on how spiritually mature, spirit-filled persons can meet the practical challenges of life. Reading it carefully and often will help you develop a Christ-centered point of view."

Hmmm. While I don't disagree, my experiences with the "Sermon" causes me to have trouble with this simple assertion. While it is powerful and formative, I also find it confusing and open to misinterpretation.

For one thing, we tend to equate the whole sermon with the Beautitudes. We often stop reading after these 12 verses. This, however, is only an introduction. It's the poetic "hook" that is supposed to invite a deeper examination of the whole sermon. Too often the list of "blessed are" ends up functioning as a list of virtues to aspire to. That never quite works. Poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, the hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers...Yes, some of these things are virtues, but there is also an odd picture here of the Christian as a sort of wimpy, quiet, hard-done-by character. A helpful thought I ran across this week (in the Believer's Church Bible Commentary, Matthew. Richard B. Gardner) is that these are not commands, or virtues to strive toward as much as they are promises. God is promising to help those who are hurting, hungering, spirit-starved, feeling voiceless, refusing to fight...

That promise and encouragement is a great launch into what Matthew does now with the rest of this sermon. In this sermon, Jesus is portrayed, not as rejecting Jewish law, but affirming it and encouraging deeper engagement. Instead of just following rules, the people are pushed to understand the why of them and apply the principles to their particular contexts. Jesus sets the bar very high. It's not good enough to follow the rule, you have to know why it's there in the first place and apply some critical thinking and action to how you live your life.

And here is my second trouble with the sermon. My experience with this scripture is one of "pick and choose." The verses 33-37 concerning oaths, and the 38-43 eye for an eye, and 44-48 love your enemies were always favourites in the Sunday school lessons and sermons I sat through. But I heard very little of the "concerning adultery" and "concerning divorce" paragraphs. Where is the critical think-through for the hard stuff?

I think we've missed something.

The teachings of Jesus, collected and presented by Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount, are all about relationships. Jesus is not trying to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, to make the "blessed ares" come true. The way to do that is to follow, not the law, but the purpose for the law-which is right relationships. Look at what he does in 5:21-26. He pushes people to deal with their anger long before it ever gets to the boiling over point of murder. The law only dealt with murder, Jesus deals with the feelings and attitudes behind it. This is about working toward right relationships. It's about doing more than following a rule.

He goes on to apply the same principle of "deal with it while the problem is small" when he talks about adultery. If the people would rein in unhealthy thoughts and desires and deal with them before they act on them, individuals and families and whole communities might be spared the terrible pain and shame of betrayal and break-up.

Then there is the divorce bit. This is a piece that is often unhelpfully quoted and misinterpreted. What if we looked at it through the lens of relationships and context? Here is a reality check. Sometimes we try to deal with our anger well-it doesn't always work. Sometimes our desires and lusts get the better of us and we trespass. Sometimes things do not work out and an ending is the only way. Divorce is lawful here.

Here again, Jesus is about justice.The law allowed for divorce, but it terrible for the woman-putting her into a hopeless situation, so Jesus does the "it was said...but I say..." In his time, if a man divorced his wife, she had no means to survive, economically she was destitute. She would have to find another man to attach to, and it is easy to imagine that these situations often did not end well for her. Jesus' prohibition is about protecting the vulnerable and not forcing her into a situation of no good choices. (Note: all the instructions are for the man, the one who has the power here.) In our context, where men and women are more equal, I think Jesus would have told both of them to treat the other well, to be fair, to protect their children. Sometimes, even though we might try to get at issues before they balloon, we fail. Divorce here is the "better to lose one of your members" reality. When the reality of failure in relationship happens (any relationship, not only marriage. Membership in community might be another one.) there is sometimes no way to "fix"it, but there is always a way to pay attention to justice.

The Sermon on the Mount is not easy to understand, but it is a great thought provoker. It is a good tool for teaching us to think beyond the black and white, beyond the "shalt nots" and to think about God's intentions. God intends us to work at improving relationships in spite of the fact that we will sometimes fail. God promises that the blessings will come.

I'm going to keep on working with the Sermon on the Mount for the next couple of Sundays, keeping my eyes and ears open for the serendipity, the ways this message is alive and informing the context in which we live and follow Jesus.

Extra: For an interesting take on the US election and how the church might think about being an "agent of change" go to There's a great video here that has an inspiring interview with a Baptist pastor. I like his take on what makes a people "great".

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