Sermon at Irvington Friends Meeting June 9 2013
Reading: Matthew 5:13-47
Last week Brent Bill read the first part of Matthew 5, and told us that the Beatitudes are something that we should feel uncomfortable with, they are something that should challenge us — but we have made ourselves comfortable with them. Basically, we have a bad habit of making Jesus safe, and ignoring, or explaining away what he has said. Jesus was not crucified because he said a lot of nice things — Jesus said dangerous things that shook the very fabric of society. The sermon on the mount is very much the challenging message of Jesus.
One thing that really draws me to the Religious society of Friends is that Friends have a history of taking Jesus seriously. We don’t try to explain away the Sermon on the Mount — we actually assume that he meant these hard things. For us, Christianity implies some rather extreme differences. George Fox spoke of this when he spoke of there being an ocean of Darkness and an Ocean of light. Jesus speaks of this throughout his ministry when he speaks of the kingdom of Heaven, or Kingdom of God — and contrasts it with the kingdom of this world.
One of the hardest sayings is that the “Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” One common way of interpreting this is that the kingdom of heaven will come soon. This implies that whenever Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of heaven — he is talking about what will be — not calling us to change. Another interpretation, one which Friends embraced, is that the Kingdom of Heaven is close enough that we can reach out and embrace it. We have the option of living in the Kingdom of heaven. This matter of interpretation really colors what the Sermon on the mount means. If we are to embrace the kingdom of heaven here, then the sermon on the mount has some rather life changing consequences. One might say that embracing the sermon on the mount is embracing the very testimonies that we claim, those of Peace, Truthfulness and Simplicity.
Jesus calls us to be light and salt. We are to enlighten a dark world, we are to bring flavor to a bland world. Like it or not — while we embrace this kingdom of heaven, we still walk in the worldly kingdom. We have to live according to the standards of heaven — but we live in a place where these customs are strange. We are salt and we are light because we live and show the world a better way. We live in hope that the Light will shine in the darkness.
Jesus goes on to state: “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” This must have been very difficult to hear, because it sounded like Jesus was claiming greater authority than the Torah. He made new pronouncements of God’s law. Actually, if we believe that Jesus was God in the flesh, Jesus spoke with God’s authority. This is a new understanding of the Law. The old understanding was one of the kingdoms of this Earth. The law was understood as rules — and mostly rules of things that should not be done.
In the new kingdom, these rules should become un-necessary. If we do not nurse grudges, or lose control of our temper, or practice hatred — there is no need to avoid murdering. The attitudes that lead to murder have been taken care of. If we practice truthfulness, oaths become unnecessary. Notice that Jesus tells the crowd not to swear any oaths, but instead to speak honestly. The very practice of swearing oaths assumes that there is more than one standard of truthfulness — in the kingdom of heaven, Truth it its own standard.
For me, the central message of the sermon on the mount is the very essence of simplicity. We did not read the whole thing today, but later in the Sermon, Jesus tells the crowd that no person can serve two masters. We live in two kingdoms, but we can only be loyal citizens of one of these kingdoms. We either live according to the customs of one or the other.
I appreciate the traditional Christian cardinal virtues and seven deadly sins. This division can really show the nature of the two kingdoms. The kingdoms of this world focus on sin. Our worldly way of thinking is that we must control sin, make rules about how far is too far. We don’t regulate wrath, but we limit it by forbidding murder. We don’t forbid greed or envy, but we limit them by forbidding theft and fraud.
The seven cardinal virtues is a completely different focus — Faith, Hope, Love, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage. This is not a focus on controlling sin, but on virtue. The Kingdom of Heaven replaces wrath with love, and greed with temperance, and envy with justice. Living by the standards of light, our righteousness goes beyond rules — beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees, to use the words of the sermon. Our approach is radically different.
This call is not easy. Jesus goes so far as setting money against the Kingdom of heaven – saying that a person can serve God or money. We live in a culture where money consumes a bigger part of our mental and emotional energy than God, so this call is very counter-cultural. We live in a world that divides enemies and allies. We live in a world that wishes harm on those named enemy, and condemns those who would show any kindness — yet, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Jesus tells us to stand against the wisdom, and even the morality of our world.
I love the Sermon on the Mount — I love the Words and teachings of Jesus — I believe that Jesus taught us how we, as citizens of heaven should live. I love this message, because I see salvation in it. This is the light that could change the world — if this catches on, the whole world is transformed.
I am also very afraid. Changing the world is a task that is far beyond my ability. My habits have been shaped by the world I live in. I am trained to react to fear, and to evil in the way of the world. Sin is so much easier to understand than virtue. It is easier to ask how much I can get away with, without breaking the rules than it is to live as a citizen of heaven.
I am so very afraid because this change is different than my culture. I see what it means to live differently. Jesus taught this new way, and he died as an enemy to both empire, and the religious authorities. The disciples and so many in the first sets of Christians died the same way. When Friends challenged Religion as a political tool in civil war era England, many were imprisoned because they took Jesus literally. How can your love your enemies when at war? I am afraid, because the world taught me to put my faith in money — and Jesus tells me that possessions cannot be trusted. I was even taught to swear allegiance to both an earthly and heavenly master — that there is no disparity, even though Jesus said we cannot serve two masters. I’m afraid, because Jesus tells me everything I learned from my worldly culture is wrong.
We are to be light — showing the world this better way. Jesus calls us to challenge culture, to be better than the world around us — to be better than we have been, better even than we are. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand, waiting for us to embrace it. With God’s help, lets embrace the simple virtue of God’s kingdom. Let us learn the language of heaven — let us speak the language of Justice and the language of Love.
Queries for consideration:
- What does it mean to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven?
- How do we change our heart, so that the impulse to sin is gone?
- Who do we serve, the kingdoms of this world or the Kingdom of heaven?