Preached on February 19, 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
This is our fourth and final week with the Sermon on the Mount. And this just may be the most challenging section. It’s difficult when we take four weeks, looking only at a bit at a time and some of you may have messed a week or two. But the Sermon on the Mount is a single sermon given to Jesus’ disciples, the twelve, although there may have been others listening, he was speaking to those twelve whom he had chosen.
It’s his first discourse; it’s sort of an introduction or a kick-off to his ministry. He sets the stage for what is to come in the remainder of Matthew’s gospel which will conclude with the Great Commission. (Yes, it’s okay to skip to the end and see what happens, where it’s going.) It’s a discourse about his message and ministry and who he has come for. It’s also instruction on what it will mean to be his disciple. And as a whole sermon, it hangs together.
It’s about Life and Law and the Least of these. Above all, though, it’s about Love and Reconciliation.
Let’s start with a little recap.
Jesus started with the Beatitudes – blessed are those whom the world rejects, or are forgotten, or appear to be anything but blessed, and blessed are those who are already living the kingdom; those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who are persecuted; those who are peacemakers, merciful, pure in heart, or hunger after righteousness. These are the people he has come to be with.
Next, he switches to Blessed are you (who would be his disciples) when you are persecuted and so forth. Jesus calls the disciples into community. God makes disciples to be salt of the earth and light for the world. You are what the world needs, Jesus says. We hear an invitation to participate in Jesus’ mission and to be Christ in the world.
Then Jesus begins to talk about the Law, Torah. He has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it; to complete it. He continues, using a series of antitheses, he reinterprets the law for their context, showing how the Law must always serve Life. And today, we hear him continue with the antitheses.
Do not resist an evil-doer, he says. I don’t know about you, but especially in these times, that doesn’t set well. I struggle with it. Didn’t we just hear in the reading from Leviticus, Reprove your neighbor or you incur guilt on yourself?
Not an eye for an eye, but turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to those who beg or borrow. Not vengeance, but reconciliation. Ok, I can go there. So maybe it’s recognizing that pushing back against someone who does evil doesn’t change them, they just dig in their heels so to speak, and the evil continues. How do we resist evil, then? That’s a question worth pondering. It is too big a question to address in a sermon or even a class, but one worth considering – probably all your life.
To quote Dr. Martin Luther King,
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[i]
Love your enemies; pray for your tormentors. Be perfect. Really? Be perfect like God is perfect? Well, maybe perfect is an imperfect translation. The word is telos which has to do with completion, a determined end or goal, an intended purpose. So maybe it’s more like “Be whole, be the person God created you to be.” One commentary suggests it is more like persistence. “Persist because your heavenly Father persists.”
Persist toward the goal set out in the Beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon. Persist in God’s vision of the kingdom, the fullness of blessings for all people. Persist in seeking reconciliation, in serving life; persist in loving. Persist in seeking the kingdom of heaven.
So you see, it really does hang together. The Sermon on the Mount is about Life and Law and the Least of these; Above all it’s about Love and Reconciliation and the kingdom of heaven.
We are part of something much bigger than ourselves. We are but a moment in a very long story.
I’d like to close with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do however virtuous can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love.[ii]
May we persist in seeking to love, in seeking the kingdom of heaven. And may we be saved by hope, faith, and love.