Sunday, February 28, 2016

Footsteps of Jesus on the Mountain: Teaching the Kingdom (Matthew 5:38-48)

38 [Jesus said] “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

Through these Sundays in Lent, we are retracing the footsteps of Jesus, taking a spiritual journey to the places where some of the most important aspects of his ministry took place.  We are walking where Jesus walked so we may walk as he did.

Last week we were in the town of Capernaum, where we remembered the healing ministry of Jesus.  Today, we’re still in the region around the Sea of Galilee, and we’re moving less than two miles, from the town of Capernaum, to the top of the Mount of Beatitudes.  Let us pray.

Sunset from the Mount of Beatitudes
The Mount of Beatitudes – lovely spot.  Overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and about halfway up the mountain, the contours of the earth come together in a natural Amphitheatre. It’s the site where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, which had at least 5000 men, plus numerous women and children, in attendance.  It’s the same multitude Jesus would feed by multiplying five loaves and two fish.

Jesus came preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God.  He spoke about the kingdom of God more than any other topic, and his most developed and thorough teaching on the subject is the Sermon on the Mount.

Maybe you’re aware that there’s a political campaign happening right now.  Part of what is happening – or should be happening, anyway – is that the candidates are telling us who they are and what they stand for.  Telling us what’s important to them, their plan, their vision for the future.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ stump speech.  It is his party platform, his magnum opus.  When folks are new to the faith, or curious about what Jesus stands for, one of the first places I refer them to is the fifth and sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, where we find ourselves today.  If you want to know what’s important to Jesus, and how people will live in God’s kingdom, start here.

Where is the kingdom of God?  It’s easy enough to think of it as “up” – “up there,” and “up ahead.”  Some lofty place, some idealized, utopian dream of a place, “heaven” in the grandest sense of the word.  “Up ahead” in that it’s further down the road, we haven’t reached it yet, still on our way there.

But Jesus also taught us the kingdom of God not just a future hope, but a present reality.  He taught us that the kingdom of God is all around us, it is among us, it is even within us.  The good news he came to proclaim is that we need not wait until we die to get into heaven, but that heaven comes to earth and gets into us right here, right now, enabling us to live as God’s people in the world.

Growing up in the city of Niagara Falls, our house was only about three miles from the famous waterfall for which the city is named.  Every summer, we were treated to an international parade of visitors through our fair city; you could go to restaurants and parks and hotels and stores, and see people on vacation from all over the world.  I used to like to guess where people were from; once you knew something about the manners or customs or clothing of different places around the world, it wasn’t that hard.

As I’ve travelled outside the U.S., I’ve discovered that Americans are just as easy to pick out in a foreign country.  Something about our shoes and clothes.  Even when we buy clothes there and try to blend in – just the way we talk gives us away.  Simply put, we’re embarrassingly loud – even if you don’t see a group of Americans at a distance, you will most certainly hear us!

And that got me thinking: is there anything so distinctive about us as Christians that people would be able to recognize us right away?  Anything in how we live, how we speak, how we treat one another, how we behave, that would give us away as citizens of the kingdom of God?

Friends, even as we live in this world, in this country, we do so, first and foremost, as citizens of the kingdom of God.  We are, as Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas put it in their book of the same title, Resident Aliens, permanent residents of this land, but our citizenship is in the kingdom of God.  We belong, first and foremost to God, and as such our role is not so much to change government or change society, but to live our lives in ways that model the love of Christ.  Rather than trying to convince others or change them or impose our beliefs or views or ethics on them, Jesus wants us to ground our lives, distinctively, in his life, death, and resurrection.

That looks like not returning evil for evil.  It looks like overcoming evil with good.  Resisting hate with love.  Not hitting back when we’ve been hit, but turning the other cheek.  To overcome violence with acts of peace.  Living as citizens of the kingdom of God looks like being generous with what we have, going the extra mile with people, loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, praying for those who persecute you.

Those are Christian principles; kingdom of God principles.  I’ve heard a lot of our presidential candidates bragging about their Christian faith.  At least a few of them are at least two Corinthians short of a Bible, and for their espoused great love of the Bible, they don’t seem to be versed in its actual content.  I don’t see them advocating anything that looks remotely like what Jesus is talking about in this Sermon on the Mount.

But we say, “A person’s faith is private.  It’s between them and God.”  Friends, while our faith is deeply personal, it is never private.  “The assumption that being a Christian is solely a matter of a personal relationship with God has no basis in Scripture or Christian tradition.

“Read the gospels. When Jesus’ called people to be his disciples, he was inviting them into a process of training by which their lives would be reoriented around his vision of the Kingdom of God becoming a reality in this world through their actions.

“Being a Christian is about the way the Spirit of God is at work to shape our lives around observable behaviors that demonstrate a growing consistency with the way, words, and will of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

“In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his followers to a radically different way of living, to observable behaviors that demonstrate a life that is constantly growing in love for God and love for others” (Jim Harnish).

Our world can be a harsh place to practice mercy and love and forgiveness, but how we live, how we speak, how we behave, so distinctively shaped by the grace of Jesus, should give us away as citizens of the kingdom of God.  Friends, we’re not called to look like the world around us.  We’re called to stand out.

One of my favorite places in the state is Grandfather Mountain.  Next time you’re up there, you may notice, in places where there is neither soil nor a crack in the rock, on top of this windy mountain, a small purple flower grows.  It stands out because it doesn’t look like it belongs there.

Its seeds have been blown by the wind into high, tiny crevasses in the rock, and the plants have adapted to their harsh surroundings, and the result is that beauty blooms in the midst of a very hard place.  But there’s more.  Over time, the plant itself can crack the rock in which it grows; it just takes time and persistence.

These teachings of Jesus – turning the other cheek, refusing to return evil with more evil, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us – are like seeds of the kingdom of God, blown by the winds of the Holy Spirit into difficult places.

We bloom where we’re planted.  Given enough time and persistence, the kingdom of God takes root, and when it does, we find it shattering all the old systems of fear, and hate, and violence – all destructive patterns and forces are cracked, and the life-giving sunshine of God’s delight is allowed in.  The kingdom of God bursts into bloom all around us, within us, through us.

When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, you won’t find any political party incorporating its principles into their platform.  That’s ok.  As Christians, you and I are called to bloom where we’re planted.  May we live as ambassadors of the kingdom of God, on a mission of love and grace and forgiveness, in the middle of a harsh and unforgiving world.

God, we see people around us acting in certain ways all the time.  We see it on the news, we see it in our politics, sometimes we even see it in our church.  It’s hard not to jump in sometimes.

And yet, we know better.  You’ve called us to do better than that, to be better than that.  Help us to live as the people you want us to be.  Help our words and our behavior to look more like we’ve taken our cue from you rather than the world around us.  Help us to take the high road, to act with integrity, love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness, even when everyone around us isn’t.

God, we thank you for the awesome fullness of your kingdom that is yet-to-come, and we thank you that your kingdom is right here and right now.  We’re citizens of your kingdom – now help us act like it.  All this we pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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