Sermon on the Mount
Martha Stortz—November 18, 2007
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Lafayette CA
- Pentecost 33
- Luke 7:21-29
Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself—but it does rhyme.” With that he signals the key to understanding the past. History isn’t an echo chamber: that would be repeating itself. But there’s definitely a pattern at work. Circumstances change, technology grinds ever forward, but human nature is always the same. We are, as the hymn put it, “the pattern in the seed.”
We know this on a more modest scale; we see patterns in our own, more personal histories. These histories aren’t multi-volume works, the stuff of docu-dramas and epics, but we’ve all been in situations or relationships where something catches us short. We can only say: “Wait a minute: this feels really really familiar.” It’s that odd feeling of having been here, something Yogi Berra put in his own inimitable way: “It’s deja vu all over again.” Deja vu all over again: Patterns are the reason there are historians and therapists in the world. On a grand scale or one more intimate, history has a lot to teach us—if only we can catch the rhyme.
Scripture is like history, full of rhymes—and I don’t mean couplets like Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. You catch the rhyme between something in the Old Testament, say Moses and the burning bush and the way the Lord identifies the Lord-self: “Tell Pharaoh ‘I AM’ sent you…..” and then you hear something Jesus in the gospel of John where Jesus basically says something similar and with far less fanfare: “I AM the bread of life….I AM the living water….I AM the good shepherd….” Catch the rhyme? And suddenly it’s deja vu all over again. Oh, the scenery is different, and the characters may change, but there’s a pattern you begin to notice.
I want to catch a couple of rhymes, one between the first and last words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and another, between Jesus’ first sermon and his last one, that Great Judgment of Matthew 25. There’s a pattern between these two homilies. Together, they trace an arc of discipleship. If we consider ourselves disciples, it’s important to pay attention. So as we consider the text for today, Jesus’ conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, we need to hear how it rhymes with the way he opened. At the same time, we will need to hear how this first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, rhymes with his last one, the Great Judgment. Finally, I want to suggest how these two sermons give us the map of discipleship we need.
1. So let’s look at this first sermon—and catch the rhyme between the way Jesus began it—and how he ends. Remember how he opens with the word “blessed.” Jesus calls his disciples by blessing, not by command, but by blessing. Then he goes on: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What’s the pattern between these opening words and what Jesus says now, in particular: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven……”
I don’t know if Lafayette is anything like Berkeley, but on The Other Side of the Tunnel, out on The Left Coast, whenever someone finds out I teach theology, they tell me: “Oh, how nice,” and I can hear the smugness creeping into their voice. “I’m not at all religious, but I am a very spiritual person.” It’s the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. This person is clearly “rich in spirit,” more spiritually evolved, more spiritually-savvy, or more cosmically plugged in. And I always leave these encounters feeling un-evolved, spiritually shabby and anxious that maybe my cosmic extension cord has frayed at the edges—in a word, “poor in spirit.” What does it take to enter that spiritual kingdom that these “rich in spirit” already so clearly possess?
And I think that’s part of the rhyme we ought to hear the first words of Jesus’ first sermon, and it’s a rhyme with our own experience. “Blessed are the poor in spirit—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Hunh—the kingdom I thought was so far out of my reach is precisely what I have. The reversal of fortune promised for the “poor in spirit” sets a standing wave pattern for everything that follows. But now the end of this sermon makes different kind of sense: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
For in Matthew’s gospel Jesus doesn’t keep a score card for spiritual savvy-ness. As becomes clear in the reading for today, Matthew’s Jesus is interested in one and only one thing: “doing the will of my Father in heaven.” He goes on: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:24-27)
Well, gosh: if those are the stakes, I think I’ll sign up for “poor in spirit,” thanks very much. Suddenly the boast that one is “spiritual but not religious” seems hollow, even dangerous. I’ll forsake the spirits of the time and throw myself on the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus is the one doing the blessing, and those blessings fuel us for service.
So then: what is the will of my Father in heaven???? We get a big clue in Jesus’ last sermon, but when we catch the rhyme between the last sermon and the first one, we see we’ve already got directions. A seasoned preacher once remarked: “You’ve got one good sermon in you: give it with gusto.” Jesus appears to have been in his class. His last sermon rhymes with his first, and I find a three-fold pattern:
First, I hope you hear the rhyme of the words “Lord,” “Lord” in the Great Judgment. In the text for today, Jesus tells disciples “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” In his last sermon, the same cries appear, now from people at the right and the left hand of Jesus, both crying “Lord!” “Lord!” I don’t think this is an accident. In Matthew’s gospel being a disciple is not about knowing the right way to address Jesus; It’s about knowing the right way to follow him. What’s that right way?
The answer to that question leads to the second rhyme I want to notice: Matthew’s Jesus is not interested in being spiritually savvy or cosmically plugged in—but in doing the will of the Father. That will is clearly spelled out in the Great Judgment: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, companioning the dying. This rhymes with a lot of what is going on in the beatitudes, as we look at the victims of the world’s ways, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the persecuted—and those who help them, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for being in solidarity with the oppressed.
Now a lot of people read the beatitudes as entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven: and they think, am I poor enough? How can I be a disciple if my income is over $75,000??? How can I be a disciple if I haven’t lost anyone close to me? And if you have to be meek, then Type A personalities will never get in to the kingdom. And so on.
The beatitudes are not entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven, prerequisites for disciples—or anything of the sort. They state with devastatingly simplicity how the world actually works. They describe; they don’t’ prescribe. With them Jesus offers his own way of showing how the world is organized—and it’s radically different. You remember all the categories: there are two kinds of people in the world—and look at how we catalogue them: Republicans and Democrats; First World and Third World; Rich and Poor; Men and Women. Even the joke: there are two kinds of people in the world. The people who think there are two kinds of people in the world—and everyone else! Jesus is saying: there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who suffer—and those who help them. This is the only kind of organization that matters. If you’ve been blessed: materially, physically, spiritually—great! Give thanks to God—and be a blessing to others!!! That’s what it all about.
But isn’t there more to the rhyme than that? For we will all be there: hurting. Our fortunes can change overnight, our health vanish, our loved ones disappear. And the beatitudes promise that when—not if—but when that happens, we will be cared for. We will be noticed, we will be companioned, we will be cared for. Isn’t that part of the rhyme too? It’s all over Jesus’ first sermon: “Look at the birds of the air…, consider the lilies of the field….” (Matthew 6:25-33) And look at how that care comes: food, clothing, shelter, compassion.
And that’s the third rhyme I want to hear: the pattern of promised reversal that echoes throughout Jesus’ ministry. Jesus sets the rhyme in his first sermon. The spiritually shabby inherit the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn—they will be comforted. The merciful not only give—but receive mercy. The meek—inherit the earth. And to the religious Jew of the first century would have heard immediately in this the story of Moses, who was according to Numbers 12:3 “ very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” Moses doesn’t even get into the promised land, though he pulls out all the stops to get God’s chosen people there. But now Moses is among the crowd that inherits the earth. Oh! The situations of all will be reversed.
So it is in the text for today, Jesus’ parting shot in his first sermon: the people who merely talk the talk and flash their spiritual credentials and show off their pietude; they are not entering the kingdom of heaven. They belong to the kingdom of ME, not the kingdom of God. Their castles are built on sand, and the first earthquake will rattle their foundations to dust. They may talk the talk, but they don’t walk the talk. They walk with spiritual swagger.
Matthew’s Jesus wants everyone to walk the walk, follow along the journey of discipleship. And so it is in the last sermon: the hungry get food, the thirsty get something to drink, the naked get clothed—and on and on, a foretaste of the reversals Jesus outlined in his beatitudes.
3. I want to close by noticing two things that change between Jesus’ first sermon and his last one. We’ve looked at everything that rhymes, and it’s been like a marvelous Dr. Seuss story, The Cat in the Hat, now what do you think of that?!!
Until someone introduces a word that isn’t in the rhyming pattern of cats and hats and thises and thats. A word that has no apparent rhyme: a word like “mirror,” or “triage” or “accordion player.” It’s very hard to find something rhyme with those words. There are two important dissonances between Jesus’ first sermon and his last one—and they are worth attending to.
First, the one who blessed in the first sermon—and that is Jesus himself -- has become in this last sermon the one who is blessed: the blesser becomes himself blessed. Jesus reveals that he is the one who suffered. Repetition renders his message more powerful: “I was hungry…, I was thirsty…, I was a stranger…, I was naked…, I was sick…. Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-37, 40). All of the beatitudes have also pointed to him, because he has taken on all of the world’s woes, he has been in solidarity with us all. The one who blesses in the first sermon has by the end of his public ministry become the one blessed!
And a second thing has changed as well: the disciples have—almost unawares! —done the blessing. They ask with amazement: “When was it that we saw you…” (Matthew 25:37, 38, 39). Unknowingly, disciples have been caught up into the kingdom. Those who were blessed in Jesus’ first sermon have—almost without knowing it!—become the blessing for others. And have blessed the One who blessed them. Blessed disciples become a blessing for others.
And that’s the greatest reversal of all. If we follow Jesus, we will become like him. That’s what the journey of discipleship is like….
If you’re like me, you want maps, travel times, and the names of all the rest stops in between. I mapquest everything: maps for me are mind-candy, but sometimes I get so buried in them, I forget to look at the countryside. I’m trying so hard to get somewhere I miss the journey. Not so with discipleship, as Jesus makes clear in words he repeats over and over again to the disciples: “Follow me.” Interesting, those words are not : “Here’s directions!” but “Follow me.” Jesus is the way; he is himself the directions, the only direction we need. If we keep our eyes fixed on him, we’ll get where we need to go. And he launches it all with the beatitudes, with the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the pure in heart. So come along. We’ll get where we’re going if we just keep him in front of us. We’ll do what we need to do by doing what he does.
Now here’s a final, fairly ridiculous analogy—but one that’s right on target. Think of baby elephants being led around by their moms, trunks entwined around the tail of the huge beast in front of them. We, who can see around that giant butt?! You can’t see where you’re going at all. But baby pachyderms seem sublimely happy, not knowing precisely where they’re going, because they know —and are fully aware—of whom they follow. It’s an earthy image—but absolutely on target.
So I leave you with that: the arc of discipleship between Jesus’ first sermon and his last.Do what he does.
Keep him in front of you.