I went to college at a place called Grinnell,
a beautiful, bucolic school sitting on 120 acres of a rural Iowa town
pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
In fact, to the North and to the East you could cross the roads
that marked its boundaries and find yourself in cornfields
and maybe imagine your self in your very own
Field of Dreams movie set.
It was a wonderful place to study.
Not really a great place to get out and party,
as many college kids really need to do, too,
but somehow we made do.
Once I was in an Economics class one spring
and it was suddenly beautiful outside.
The snow from the previous weeks had melted
and the sun was out and the squirrels were frolicking
and no one, no one,
wanted to be in the classroom for class.
And the professor, bless his heart,
didn’t want to be inside either.
So he suggested that we find a comfortable spot, outside
under a tree or something,
where we could have class for the day.
And we did. Twenty five or so of us took a square of grass
and circled around the professor to discuss the lessons of the day.
And I’m not sure if it was the freedom of that setting
or the transition from winter to spring
and the fresh smell of new grass
or the obscurity of the lesson
we were ostensibly supposed to be debating
Whatever it was,
suffice it to say that we got nothing done that afternoon.
Every proposition the professor made—
students would raise their hand
and make contradictory comments.
or you could tell they weren’t listening.
Every effort to explain, another student would crack a joke
or point off to some kids playing ultimate down the hill.
It was maddening.
Finally, after about 15 minutes of effort,
the professor gave up and dismissed us
and we never tried that little experiment again.
We were never able to get serious, and to focus
and instead wasted a wonderful opportunity to learn
and to grow and to stretch ourselves a little bit.
* * *
So, I never really had the chance to have a productive outside class.
The opportunity was squandered, as it sometimes is
by distracted youth or distracted adults
enjoying a measure of triviality when confronted
by serious, weighty, complex things.
I don’t want to draw too strong a connection here,
but it isn’t too far a stretch to imagine Jesus,
here in this stretch of fascinating, challenging words
that we call the Sermon on the Mount,
its not too far a stretch to see Jesus in a teaching mode.
The text tells us as much, when Jesus climbs the mount
and takes the posture of a traditional teacher, sitting down
with his students—the disciples and the crowds
gathered around him.
And this collection of sayings of Jesus have always come across to me
more as the careful lecture notes of an attentive student
missing the bullets or the marginalia
but moving from point to point with surgical precision
of the teacher’s main arguments.
I don’t think the student here or the class assembled
were nearly as flippant as we were at Grinnell that sunny afternoon.
There is clear attention to the detail and the arguments being presented.
But there is also a clear back and forth going on:
Jesus, having given an introduction to the blessings of God’s realm
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
Blessed are the Meek
Blessed are those who strive after righteousness, justice…
You can almost see the hands going up
and the questions being asked of the students…
What do you mean, these people are blessed?
How are they blessed?
And the notes continuing: you are salt of the earth, be salty.
Don’t lose your use and be tossed underfoot…
keep your light bright…
And the hands going up again:
What? What does that mean?
And what about all those people who say
that you’re teaching people to ignore the Law of Moses?
You don’t follow the Sabbath?
You are clearly unconcerned with the Law, isn’t that so, Jesus?
And the lecture notes continue:
Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it!
Woe to anyone who doesn’t fulfill to the letter the law!
* * *
There is a give and take quality of the interaction going on here
that we sometimes miss if we think that this is just a monologue.
Jesus is engaging people who do not treat these matters as SPORT at all
but who are deadly serious about them,
who are concerned to get every little external detail just right
because they are convinced that THAT is how they are
made right with God.
What you ate mattered, because the LAW proscribes
certain things to eat and certain ways to eat them
and certain people you could eat them with.
Who you talked to mattered, because the LAW had a cleanliness code
that rendered you unclean if you breached it
and if you were unclean, you couldn’t offer sacrifices
or pray properly
or gather with others. You would be outcast.
And that’s no fun.
Nor is it very safe.
These were serious matters.
And they were all about following the right sorts of behavior.
Doing the right things, to the letter of the law.
And I believe this was rooted in a healthy impulse to WANT
to be good people
to yearn for God’s favor
to seek to make the world the kind of world
that God would want to redeem.
* * *
So what happens when this impulse meets Jesus,
teaching on the hillside,
imploring his listeners to be salt, to be light,
to bear God’s love into the world….?
Well, we have a bit of a nasty confrontation:
You have heard it said…Jesus begins
do not murder.
But I say to you anyone who is ANGRY is liable to judgment
any who says YOU FOOL will burn
In fact, anyone who knows anyone who has a beef with you
go and be reconciled BEFORE you even try to
burn that ritual offering
lest you find it an empty gesture.
You have heard it said…Jesus goes on
don’t sleep with a married person.
But I say to you: don’t even lust after another person!
And this system of divorce we allow,
do you think that frees you from responsibility!
Truly, you’re causing one another to burn,
better to cut off an eye or a hand,
than to do that!
You have heard it said…don’t swear falsely!
But I say to you: don’t swear at all!
either by heaven
or by earth
or by Jerusalem
or by the hair on your head
Say yes and no, and be truthful….
* * *
Sometimes its hard to get the sense of what is going on
when you read someone else’s class notes.
But Jesus is trying to explain what it means
to say that he is not trying to abolish the law but fulfill it,
and he does this by looking at hallmark examples of the law
divorce and adultery
and turning it back on those who speak of honoring the law
by merely doing the external deeds it proscribes.
Its not enough not to murder.
The point of that proscription is as much the wrath behind it.
Its not enough not to commit adultery,
but to be concerned about the lustful heart
that can lead us to ruin relationships
Its not enough not to swear falsely
but watch out about thinking we can swear at all
on things we really cannot control.
In all of these things, Jesus is taking the outward compliance with the law
and turning our attention INWARD.
It is really an intensification of things:
the law is not just a set of external actions
but a question of where your heart is when you do them.
Time and time again, Jesus is going to make this distinction:
its not enough to be concerned about BEHAVIOR
when the real question is as much about INTENT
* * *
Jesus is saying these things to challenge those who believe
that their purity of behavior is going to set them up well with God.
But given Jesus’ response, we’re all in trouble, I think:
Who among us hasn’t been ANGRY before?
I’ve violated that five times this past week, maybe more.
Who doesn’t have someone who is ANGRY at us?
Cut anyone off in traffic lately?
Brag a little too loudly at that Mizzou victory to your
Who hasn’t promised something that just really can’t happen?
Who has promised vows to someone
only to see them not turn out the way we had hoped,
We’re all in trouble, if that were the point.
But I don’t think that was the point, other than for us to realize
that for all our striving,
all our efforts,
all of our attention towards right living
we all fall short somehow.
No matter how intense we work to conform our external behavior
however you understand what God might we calling us to do
We fall short.
We fall short.
We fall short.
So maybe, instead of pointing at others and worrying about
the splinter in their eye
we might ponder with humility the ways
we can be salt,
we can be light just a little bit better.
* * *
Someone asked me this week if we’ve rationalized away these teachings
We may not have come to a place where we permit murder
but anger is commonplace, is it not?
We seem to not care so much about lust anymore
just turn on the television, right?
and we all, myself included, see that sometimes
a married couple no longer ought be married.
But I think we do well not to look so closely at these teachings
with the same sort of eye that Jesus’ original contenders did:
Jesus is not pushing a legalism, but a conversion of the heart
where we see our brokenness
and strive for better action, more love, greater grace
one step at a time…
Where we all recognize that we’re in need of the grace and forgiveness
we find in our Lord and Savior.
Where we are urged to start looking at the world through the eyes of love,
the eyes of our savior.
* * *
One example might be found in our current culture war,
now raging in churches and courtrooms and now legislative halls.
Micah Murray wrote a blog entry last year
entitled “Perhaps Love Bakes a Cake.”[i]
The particular matter he’s talking about is the question of marriage
and who should be able to marry and have the rights of marriage
access to hospital rooms
and sacred decisions at the end of life
shared benefits on tax forms and in courtrooms
and at schools and health care plans
and on and on.
This question will be before us soon, here in Kansas and Missouri.
And Murray noted that one dust-up of this question
is particularly strong with people who deeply disagree
with the expansion of marriage to same-sex couples.
Should a police officer or government clerk who disagrees
be required to serve a same-sex couple?
What about a movie-theatre owner,
who doesn’t want to sell a ticket to a gay couple,
or an innkeeper, or a baker, asked to bake a wedding cake?
Should any public business be allowed to not serve someone
because of the private moral judgment of the employee?
Hard questions for our society.
But Murray argues for a different Christian lens to use
when we as people of faith ponder these questions.
Here’s what he says:
What’s been conspicuously absent
in all this talk of the Bible and Christian Values and pleasing God
is any mention of Jesus…
Christianity is a religion of love and of grace.
Whenever morality becomes elevated above love
we have veered away from the meaning of the faith.
Perhaps the most Christian thing of all
is to love God and love our neighbors.
Perhaps Love is patient and kind
and keeps no record of wrongs.
Perhaps Love covers a multitude of sins.
Perhaps Love doesn’t demand that everyone
live up to our standards.
Perhaps Love gives with no strings attached.
Perhaps Love meets people where they are
and cares about them as people instead of issues.
Perhaps Love bakes a cake.
* * *
Jesus is warning us, here in the sermon on the mount,
that our preoccupation with the external adherence to the law
misses the point that God is concerned about our heart too.
None of us quite live up to the external demands of God’s law.
But Love, love guides us and directs us and empowers us
to discern which laws give life and which take it away.
And, more importantly, love provides us a HOW
a WAY we’re supposed to go about our lives
making sense of the difficult choices before us.
Love enables us to speak truth to power
and to stand on the side of the oppressed and the hurting.
Love enables us to see that being RIGHT doesn’t matter
what matters is God’s field, as Paul says in Corinthians,
God’s family, God’s kingdom.
Love tells us that we fulfill the LAW
when we love God and love neighbor.
Jesus, he refused to follow the LETTER of the law all the time.
He taught on the Sabbath. He ate with outcasts.
He challenged the structure of the day.
But he never budged on the intent of the law: love God.
Love self. Love neighbor.
This Jesus: he is intense.
He demands an end to our preoccupation
with OTHER’S righteousness and a deep concern
about where OUR heart is.
He demands that we stand on the side of LOVE
so that God’s LOVE may be felt by those who can’t feel it yet.
My prayer is that we ponder these tough teachings of Jesus
and find simple ways to rest our heart in God’s grace
so that despite our imperfections, our failings, our faltering
we might still be agents of THIS LOVE for others.
May it be so. Amen.