01/29/17 – The Sermon on the Mount: Teachings of a Jewish Mystic (Part 1)

Although over the last several years, I have preached at many congregations throughout this diocese and beyond, I had never preached to the same congregation more than 2 or 3 Sundays in a row until now. It’s a wonderful challenge and it also gives me the opportunity to do something that I have never done before, and that is a Sermon Series. And the lectionary invites me to do this as we will be reading through one of the most (if not the most) influential sermons or speeches ever delivered: that is, the Sermon on the Mount. I plan to preach on the Sermon on the Mount the next two Sundays so it will be a kind of trilogy. I also want to do something that I’ve done only once before at St. Paul’s and that is invite you to respond to the sermon briefly with a question or comment, if you feel so led at the end.

Let’s begin by opening our Bibles to Matthew 5:1, which reads “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” In Matthew, mountains are full of significance: they are where heaven and earth kiss and it was upon a mountain that Moses received the Torah. Matthew seeks to portray Jesus as a kind of new Moses, not to replace Moses but to correctly interpret and fulfill Moses’s teachings. So Matthew has Jesus, like Moses, teaching the law to the people from a mountain; and Jesus sits down, which was customary for rabbis to do while teaching and commenting on the Torah.

He then begins his sermon with a kind of poem or Psalm known as the Beatitudes. And that name comes from the Latin word beatus, which means “blessed.” However, Matthew was originally written in Greek and the Greek word used for “blessed” is actually makarios, which translates more literally to “happy.” So Jesus actually says, “Happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, happy are the meek, etc.” This is partly why the famous pastor of positive thinking Robert Schuller (of the former Crystal Cathedral) called them the “Be-Happy Attitudes.” Although I fully support positive-thinking and actually really appreciate Bob Schuller, this understanding is just barely skimming the surface of the immense and profound meaning of these words of Jesus. And it is also important to know that Jesus is not preaching a Prosperity Gospel here, a Gospel that promises that if only you had more faith and could think more positively, then you would acquire perfect health and immense wealth. That is not the Gospel of Jesus; that, in fact, is a dangerous heresy. The Beatitudes are attitudes that help us be, attitudes that help us be present to the fullness of being human, present to the God who is working through our humanity, in the midst of all of our messiness, limitations, insecurities, and fears; the God whose strength is made perfect in our weakness, whose wisdom is made manifest in our foolish stuttering (as Paul says), whose perfection shines through in our imperfections. Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad because God is working through you, even when and especially when things seem to be very messy.”

After inviting us to find our true happiness in this God who manifests his power and love in the midst of our messiness, Jesus continues his sermon in verse 13, saying, “You are the salt of the earth.” Now what does salt do? First, salt preserves food by preventing decay. Second, salt functions as a seasoning: we pour salt on our food not only to keep it from spoiling, but to bring out the food’s true flavor. Salt doesn’t just make food taste salty. It can also make food taste like it’s supposed to taste, unleashing upon our taste buds the hidden and dormant flavors of the dish. It is both of these ways that God’s people function as salt in the earth: preventing decay and bringing out the best in other people and in the world. They bring out the world’s true flavor, which God intended when he first called creation not just “good” but “very good.” I have personally found that some of my closest friends are those who bring out the best in me, or who bring out flavors and aspects of me that I didn’t even know were there. God’s people bring out the best in the world by nonviolently subverting structures that oppress people and desecrate the planet. God’s people are “Subversive Agents of Love and Transformation,” which happens to be an acronym for SALT, not too unlike my acronym for SAINTs.

In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Anglican evangelical author John Stott urges us Anglicans to be this kind of Salt of the earth (“Subversive Agents of Love and Transformation”). He also sounds a clarion call to the many evangelicals who seem to have lost sight of their radical roots in Anglican evangelicals like William Wilberforce, Hannah More and the Clapham Saints (who worked to abolish the slave trade in England in the 18th and 19th centuries). John Stott writes about “revolutionaries of Jesus” who are “dedicated activists…committed…to spread his revolution of love, joy and peace. And,” he explains, “this peaceful revolution is more radical than any program of violence, both because its standards are incorruptible and because it changes people as well as structures.”[1] This is the kind of evangelical Christianity I can get behind. Stott then says, “We cannot opt out of seeking to create better social structures, which guarantee justice in legislation and law enforcement, the freedom and dignity of the individual, civil rights for minorities and the abolition of social and racial discrimination. We should neither despise these things nor avoid our responsibility for them. They are part of God’s purpose for his people. Whenever Christians are conscientious citizens, they are acting like salt in the community.”[2]

After explaining that God’s people are the salt of the earth who prevent decay and bring out the best in the world, Jesus then says in verse 14: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” German theologian Helmut Thelieke points out that “salt and light have one thing in common: they give and expend themselves—and thus are the opposite of any and every kind of self-centered religiosity.”[3] In this way, salt and light function as symbols similar to the Lambs of God in Scripture, who halt violence and protect victims by giving of themselves. And that’s what God’s people are called to be: Salt, Light, and Lambs of God who are willing to give of themselves and put their own well-being at risk in order to help others who are in need. By doing so, they let God’s love and light shine through them, not for their own glory, but for the glory of God. A major message throughout the Sermon on the Mount (and throughout all the Gospels for that matter) is that if we seek God’s glory, we stand upon a sure foundation, but if we seek our own glory, our house will come crashing down. And Jesus knows how tempting it is for people, especially religious people like us, to seek our own glory and to feel good about ourselves for going to church and being pious. I know I can fall into that trap.

But Jesus and Isaiah point out very clearly that the kind of religion and religious practice that God wants from us must involve feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and liberating the oppressed. As the book of James says, “The kind of religion God finds useful is one that cares for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). But then, what does that imply about our Sunday morning worship? Is this useless to God?

Jesus answers this question as the sermon continues in verse 17, when he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus wanted to be very clear that he was not abolishing the many rituals, rules and teachings of his Jewish religion. He was pointing to the purpose of those rules and rituals, which is to let God transform us and accomplish his good will for the world through us. Likewise, our liturgies and traditions and texts must be respected, even down to the tiniest detail, because we believe the Holy Spirit is transforming us through them not in order to make us into pious religious people but in order to make us into SALT and Light and SAINTS and Lambs of God in the world.

God’s people are called to a righteousness that must exceed the religious piety of those who perform acts of devotion for their own glory. They are called to recognize their profound need for God and for one another. They come to church not to be religious but in order to be fed and nourished and transformed by the rituals, the teachings and the fellowship because they are so hungry and thirsty and desperately want to be the change they hope to see in the world. They gather in a place like this because they know they are messy and imperfect and afraid and that they need a God whose strength is made perfect in their weakness. They understand what Leonard Cohen meant when he said, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” They understand that God’s perfect love and light shine through their cracks and messy imperfections so that they themselves can be the light and the salt of the earth in a world full of darkness, degradation and decay; so that they can bring out the best in one another and so that the whole world may see the good works the Holy Spirit is doing among them and give glory, not to them, but to their Father in heaven. And we are God’s people. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth and as we continue to read the Sermon on the Mount these next couple weeks, we will see that our job description as God’s people will actually get much more difficult and demanding, if not impossible. So stay tuned…

[1] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7): Christian Counter-Culture (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 1978), 64.

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7): Christian Counter-Culture (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 1978), 67.

[3] Thielicke, Life Can Begin Again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount by Helmut Thielicke 1956, translated by John W. Doberstein, Fortress Press, 1963, p. 55, quoted in Stott, 64.