Preached at the Christian Unity Service of Holy Cross Catholic Church, Durham
The sermon you have just heard is only one-seventh of the real thing. You heard 16 verses, but the real sermon will go for a 109 verses, clear to the end of chapter seven, three chapters from where we are right now. In those three chapters we get a blueprint for topics that matter most to Jesus. In the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity it seems appropriate to pay attention to Homiletics According to Jesus. I could make a semester long class out of that. Or perhaps, even better, we could all make a life long journey out of that. Homiletics According to Jesus.
When we teach preaching — homiletics — in seminary, we tell students that one of the most critical parts of the sermon is the opening move. What the preacher says first will go a long way toward helping people understand what she wants to talk about. So, if we had to choose only one part of Jesus’ sermon to focus on tonight, focusing on his opening move is the right choice. We also tell students that a sermon should be about 15-20 minutes long, not three whole chapters. Apparently, Jesus skipped class that day, but he did hear the lecture on opening moves. And this is how he moves.
The first thing Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount is divide the people. Divide the people, and this sets the tone for everything that will follow.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. By implication, if you are not poor, spiritually or otherwise, you’re over there. The rest of you, you’re over here.
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Are you in mourning? Anybody out there mourning? If you are, over here. If you’re happy, over there.
- Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Enrollment in meekness seminars should be spiking about now. Hmmmm. Not meek, over there.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
You’re starting to get the picture, right? Jesus is neatly dividing the crowd before he really gets into his sermon. When he lays out his categories, we who hear his words, make some mental calculations to figure out where we belong. With the first blessing, many of us may consider siding with the poor in spirit. I can be poor, especially if it’s only in spirit. In the second announcement, most of us hope we’re with the mourners because we like comfort. By the time Jesus gets to the third label — the meek — sign me up. Inherit the earth — I’m all in. That’s even better than winning last week’s powerball lottery, which by the way was won by people who are the opposite of meek. I want to be meek.
But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? One does not aspire to meekness, for in aspiring one forsakes being meek. None of these conditions described by Jesus can be accomplished by our ambitious pursuit, even persecution for the sake of righteousness. As soon as one seeks out persecution, that person is no longer righteous. The pursuit negates the achievement.
In the first few centuries of the early church when the same people who hunted down Jesus and killed him were hunting down people living into Jesus’ teachings and killing them, being killed took an interesting twist. Dying for the faith, made you famous. Why, I bet we could all name a famous martyr (Stephen, Peter, Perpetua and Felicity — maybe only the feminist scholars know those last two). I bet you thought radical extremists invented suicide bombing. Not so. They did take it to a different level by dying in such a way that others died with them — others who might not have wanted to die. But they did not invent the notion of dying for the faith. Christian martyrs have been doing it for millennia. The first few centuries of Christianity produced too many martyrs to name. It also produced wannabe martyrs, people who tried to die for the faith, kind of like a suicide bomber without the bomb. Like the suicide bombers, the wannabee martyrs do not appropriately represent their faith. So, they are not persecuted for righteousness sake. They are over there.
Tertuallian of Carthage, who died early in the third century, but not as a martyr, had this to say to these wannabe martyrs: He called it, “the motive of glory,” and said, “For inordinate ambition among [people] as well as a certain morbidity of mind have already set at naught all the cruel and torturing contests mentioned above. …Surely it is from vanity that they descend to the wild beasts in the very arena, and think themselves more handsome because of the bites and scars.”
Ambitious martyrs. These are not the ones Jesus is referencing when he says: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account.” To pursue persecution is not to be blessed. Jesus wouldn’t set us up for that. Instead what Jesus knows, firsthand by the way, is that living a life of compassion and hospitality, non-violence and generosity, a life of loving God and your neighbor, can get you in trouble in a world controlled by might and money, a world controlled by those who do not hunger and thirst for righteousness. It shouldn’t be this way, but history has shown over and over again that it is.
Matthew’s Gospel has an interesting way of capturing the meaning of Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus starts the revival circuit by blessing people the world ignores — poor, mourners, meek, hungry. Later on, way over in chapter 25, Jesus will tell an interesting story based on where sheep and goats like to spend the night. Sheep like to stay in the pasture; goats like to go in the barn. Every shepherd knows this, but the sheep and the goats don’t think too much about it. They just do what they do — the sheep thing or the goat thing — kind of like the people who “did it to the least of these.” They just do what they do — the caring thing or the ignoring thing — and they don’t think too much about it.
Jesus spends his life showing people what we can do to live more fully, to love more completely, to know God more intimately. Turns out it’s less about a checklist of more scripture, longer prayers, or even extra social justice events, and more about just doing what we do. If our posture toward the world reflects the posture of Jesus — merciful, peaceful, pure, humble — then we’re blessed. It’s that simple.
We need Jesus to tell us this simple news because we won’t hear it anywhere else, we won’t hear it in the places where we live and move and have our being. In those places we are very likely to be reviled and persecuted on account of Jesus, the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before us.
How can someone who’s meek be such a threat to those in power? When we live our lives in the shadow of the cross, when we just do what we do, we’re bound to find out. We can’t really try out for the opportunity to be reviled and persecuted; who wants to play for that team anyway? Just do what you do, and when revilement, persecution, and evil utterances appear, Jesus tells us at the beginning of his sermon, the first move — God will side with us. The ones the world of might and money would never pick to be on their team will be picked by God. Such reassurance frees us up to play with abandon, to live without paying attention to what others think about how we live. To live the way God would have us live because that’s just who we are.
Turns out, Jesus is not dividing folks at the beginning of his sermon after all. He’s uniting them. He’s laying out a strategy for navigating all that will follow, not just in the next two and a half chapters of this sermon, but a strategy for all that will follow from a life of following him. And someday, after having lived our lives in the shadow of the cross, doing what we do, we will know. We’ll know we are the blessed. The poor, the meek, the merciful; the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the pure in heart, the peacemakers. The blessed. Just doing what we do. Thanks be to God for the blessing. Amen.