Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 5:1-12
Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I traveled in a singing group that went from church to church to church camps to church conventions, singing about four or five nights a week and traveling in between. I was one of the singers, but not a featured one by any means. My role was a little more focused on being the chaplain/speaker of the group. And, in some ways, I was like a chaplain to the group, since any group traveling in such close quarters for that amount of time is bound to have relational issues to deal with. For the last two weeks of the summer, our group joined with another traveling group and we had a larger contingent of about 18 of us between singers, instrumentalists, and chaperones.
Well, doubling the size of the group more than doubled the relationship issues. Just deciding where to eat lunch became the kind of thing that would lead to snippy remarks, silent treatments, and rolled eyes. It was kind of low-level ugly until one night the two main antagonists – a student and a chaperone – moved the state of things from ‘cold war’ to ‘hot war.’ They were literally yelling at one another – one of them with curlers dangling in front of her face as she reamed out the other one, who was crying streaks in her newly applied mascara. I was in the other room, reading my Bible, getting ready for what I was going to say that night when another member of the group rushed into the room and said, “Mark, we need you to come and fix this!” And, of course I asked, “Well, what am I supposed to do?” And she answered, “I don’t know. Go read them a Scripture or something!”
So, I walked into the room, witnessed the volume and the body language going back and forth, and I simply walked in between the two screamers and said quietly, “In moments like these, I think it is always helpful to listen to these words from the Gospel according to Matthew.” And as I lowered by eyes to read the Bible, nobody dared to say anything- Good heavens, you can’t argue when someone is reading the Bible at you! Then I read: “And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud” (Matthew 1:14). After reading, I solemnly nodded my head and unctuously took my Bible under my arm and walked away. By the time I got to the door, everyone in the room was laughing and, honestly, that laughter began a long process of finding better ways to address our differences.
I think the part that I liked the most about this event was that long pause of silence as I was walking toward the door. I could almost hear the gears grinding in everyone’s heads as they tried to understand what had just happened. They were expecting one way of hearing the Scriptures; they were met with another. I think that unanticipated moment of hearing the Scriptures differently than we might expect, is at play very often when we read these beginning words of the Sermon on the Mount. The setup and the moment almost prepare us to hear one thing; but the “beatitudes” themselves invite us to hear something else.
Here’s the setup. The Sermon on the Mount is the first extended record of what Jesus preaches or teaches in Matthew’s gospel. We’ve heard Jesus’ conversation with John the Baptist; we’ve heard Jesus’ challenge-and-response dialog with the tempter in the wilderness; we’ve heard that Jesus began preaching by repeating John the Baptist’s words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near”; and we’ve heard his invitation to the fishermen to follow him. But, we have not heard yet what it means to follow him, what is required, what repentance and preparing for the kingdom of heaven is. So now, we expect for Jesus to start laying it out with something like: “If you want to follow me, here is what you have to do.” Adding to that expectation is the way that Matthew has shaped this sermon geographically. Jesus has fled to
When we hear this sermon, we typically ready ourselves to hear a new law regarding what is required to be a disciple of Jesus. I’m not suggesting that we’re all Bible scholars and we come to this text thinking, “Wow, Matthew has portrayed Jesus as the new Moses!” Nor am I suggesting that we approach this sermon like English teachers, parsing the verbs and listening for the ‘second person’ voice of commands. But it does seem that we listen to this sermon with an extreme sense of guilt. If Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” and we are not mourning – in fact, we have lives that are generally rather comfortable – does that mean that we are failing somehow as disciples? Does this sermon suggest that lives that are generally full of joy and comfort are unfaithful? Perhaps we can think of moments and periods in our lives when we would have identified with the words “poor in spirit,” or “meek,” and such, so we wonder if perhaps we were being ‘more spiritual’ during our times of trials than we are when life is going pretty well for us. The words at the beginning of this sermon feel like they are saying something wonderful, but we just don’t see ourselves living in them much of the time. And so we come away associating the call to be a disciple with the feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
But that is because we approach the Sermon on the Mount readied to hear the wrong thing. Jesus does not begin with the imperative voice like Moses did, when God used Moses to say, “You shall not kill.” He does not say, “If you want to be my disciple, you must be ….” This is not a list of requirements for participating in the kingdom of heaven that is at hand. To be sure, Jesus has an imperative voice and he will use it within this Sermon on the Mount. But, this new Moses begins with a very different voice, that we are not expecting.
Jesus begins with reading the “Honor Roll,” describing who is declared honored in this kingdom of heaven that is at hand. And those who are on the Honor Roll in the kingdom of heaven are not those whom 1st century Roman colonial culture typically declares honored. The Honor Roll is not comprised of those who strive the hardest to follow laws and earn their honor. In fact, the Honor Roll of the kingdom of heaven honors those whom most people would call victims, or naïve, or failures, or ignorable. The poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, the persecuted and reviled – these are the list of honorees in the kingdom of heaven. They are the ones on the ‘special guest’ list, who get the royal reception, the ticker tape parade and the ‘black tie’ dinner when they arrive. Unlike the cultural expectations in the 1st century Roman colony; unlike the cultural expectations in the 21st century United States; unlike the expectations of most cultures that begin with the assumption of inadequacy and demand for people to live up to higher standards; the Sermon on the Mount honors those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for right relationships, who are merciful and pure in heart, and even those who are persecuted by the more arrogant powers that our culture honors.
In other words, this new Moses, sitting on the mountain, preaching and teaching what it means to live with the kingdom of heaven at hand, begins by inviting us to look at the world differently. It’s rather upside-down. What we hear is not a command to be in mourning, but a declaration that those who mourn are honored in the kingdom of heaven. That is the reign of heaven that is at hand. That is what we pray for when we say, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is the vision of life that enables us to turn the other cheek, to overcome evil with good, and to love even our enemies. The “beatitudes,” these beginning words of the Sermon on the Mount are not our imperatives that intend to start our journey of discipleship out with guilt. They are an invitation for us to see the world as God sees it, to capture this vision of the kingdom of heaven. That alone is enough to change the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.