Generally speaking the gospel reading for today has often been used to talk about the dangers of anger, divorce and lust. While these topics are pretty sexy to talk about not doing (!) I think to read Jesus’ message here as primarily a set of prohibitions would be to miss the point. Additionally, I’ve come to agree with most contemporary psychologists that anger and lust are among several basic affects that we share with all other mammals and constitutionally active from birth. So if anger and lust are in some way essential to our survival, I think for our reading of the text today it’s important to dig a little deeper.
Arguably the Sermon on the Mount is Christianity’s most iconic set of teachings. Which is interesting I think because it was not delivered in some great lecture hall or presented in front of a theological counsel. It happened on a hillside and was spoken to a crowd of everyday folks who were there because they had been affected by Jesus and wanted more.
The opening part of the Sermon has been called the beatitudes where Christ addresses those listening in a way that probably no one in authority ever had before. He acknowledges not their failures but their suffering and identifies their pain. He celebrates the struggle of their existence. He exalts them, saying that they are the salt and the light of the earth, obfuscating the existent class structure. Now, I was raised in a church where it was said that Christians and only Christians were the salt and the light of the world. This author however doesn’t indicate whether the people on that hillside had prayed the sinner’s prayer or confessed John 3:16. None of those people were denominationally, religiously, or culturally speaking, Christians. They were however most likely Jewish and more generally, folks who had been so affected by the person of Jesus that they came to that hillside because they wanted more. They had jobs and families and responsibilities and put their lives on hold to find the place where he was, to be near him, to hear him speak.
After communicating his belief in them, as if to further empower them, he calls them to a higher focus, to follow after and fulfill the teachings of the law. This idea was not new to them in that their Judaism dictated that to be right with God was to remain faithful by obeying the scriptures and following the Law.
In today’s gospel reading, taken from the later part of the Sermon, Christ essentially delivers a midrash. Midrash is the Jewish method of contextualizing the ancient scriptures, sometimes filling in narrative gaps, in order to make the message accessible and meaningful to those hearing it in their time and place. Through the practice of midrash God’s Word becomes a dynamic combination of what the reader brings from their life, a life in it’s essential essence no different than any human being, the life of the particular scripture being interpreted, and divine inspiration throughout. But this approach to reading and using the scriptures depends on the idea that God is somehow still alive and active and that the person engaging the scriptures can in some way take part in the creative act of speaking God’s word.
Christ here becomes the reader/interpreter and references scriptures that would have been familiar for the Jewish hearers – prohibitions against murder, adultery, divorce and swearing by oaths, and reforms the messages to introduce a radically different focus on the value of human dignity and relationship. He does this, by the way, first declaring the importance of knowing and following their ancient scriptures and insists that he has no intention of disregarding them. He even asserts that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”. Now what was bizarre for those listening was not that he was holding them to a high standard. They were already inundated with the expectation that they in everything pursue purity and righteousness. The Pharisees were the social class that was the exemplary of this idea. They were the elect whose place in the social hierarchy was gained through privilege and elite religious training, aesthetic practices and rigid adherence to their beliefs. The orthodoxy of the Pharisees was seen as enlightened, an enlightenment that separated them from common Jews.
Christ’s admonishment to be more righteousness than the Pharisees is heard as if to say that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, one had to become more righteous than the most righteous suggesting not that this is possible. Instead Christ insists that God’s presence and work in the world is not contingent on human achievement – especially when striving for an absurd type of perfect produces and sustains patterns of dehumanization.
The folks on that hillside lived their lives daily believing that they were existentially less-than those holy others. Christ here attempts to make clear that religiously sanctioned hierarchy is a symptom of the human inclination to marginalize. This was a quality of their Jewish culture just as it is a quality of American culture today. Whether it is in how we avoid any awareness of the humanity of the person making our iPhones on the other side of the world or the humanity of that person on the other side of our current political divide. I believe it is especially present today in how we relate to those who vote in a dirt bag sexual predator for president and find ourselves too enlightened to empathize with how anyone could possibly vote for a dirt bag sexual predator for president. When a person is elevated over another, one of them is always dehumanized; whether the one who’s value has been stripped or the one who’s humanity has been distorted through privilege.
I don’t know what to do about this. I really don’t. But I believe, I have to believe that God can effect change in our hearts – in the way we live, in the way we see ourselves, and in the way we see each other. My sense is that to change we have to experience God’s presence, we have to experience God’s blessing. But we cannot bless or experience blessing when we dehumanize.
So if you come to this place and you are barely surviving, blessed are you for you have been victimized or have suffered great loss, and the harm is still with you.
If you come to this place to see familiar faces and sit in familiar chairs and are seeking familiar experiences, blessed are you for you do need to know safety.
If you are here and your mind struggles to be here, now, in this present moment, blessed are you for you have the opportunity to face that which triggers you.
If you are here and your heart struggles to believe you will be ok, blessed are you for you have been lied to and can hold your liars accountable.
If you are here because you hear in your body a beckoning from this building, from this table, from these icons, from the light of these candles, from this cross, blessed are you for you are listening, and curious, and hopeful.
If you are here because you are angry with the state of our government, blessed are you for you are paying attention and anger and fear are protective and animating emotions.
If you are here because you believe your life carries the signature of that creative spark that sent the universe aflame with life, blessed are you for you are not yet done creating.
If you are here because other churches start at an inconvenient time on Sunday mornings, blessed are you for finding a church that more conveniently fits your schedule.
If you are here because you see the suffering of the poor, the hungry, the broken down, the disenfranchised, the minimized and marginalized in your work place, in your schools, in your neighborhood, on your streets, in your home, if you are here because you see the blindness of the rich, the confusion of the privileged, the complacency of the elected, the paranoia and fear induced ignorance of those with power, blessed are you for you want to be in this world and are ready to be the change you want to see.
Whatever is happening for you that that gets in the way or may distract you from God’s presence I pray you have the compassion and the desire to grieve it, bless it, cut it out if need be. Do whatever it takes to remember, God is with you and is embodied in you and through you, embodied in your world.