Scripture Lesson: Matthew 5:38-48
Sermon: Love – Jesus Style
In her masterpiece, Beloved, writer Toni Morrison declares, “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.” The Sermon on the Mount is really a manifesto of love. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. It is an exposition of love applied in real time. It is a collection of the teachings of Jesus that show what it means to live in God’s reality and to be guided fully and completely by love.
The Sermon on the Mount is not about half way love, thin love. Love when it is convenient. Love when it feels good. Love when it is easy. Love when it doesn’t cost anything. No. The Sermon on the Mount is about real love, not fake love, not artificial love, not the illusion of love. It’s about true love.
The way of love expressed in the Sermon on the Mount was wildly radical in Jesus’ time and in the context of the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. So we can’t just say, Well that was o.k. for those people back then but now things are different. Even in the first century the Sermon on the Mount was a complete reversal of the general value system of the day. Jesus is rejecting the use of violence in any form. He is rejecting the assumption that wealth is a sign of Divine favor. He is talking about repenting and changing behavior. Turning to a new way of life, thinking, and being that is not based on violence, greed, or the degradation of others.
Jesus was laying the foundation for a beautiful life for his followers and for the world. Freedom from consumerism, self centeredness, hostility, guilt, anger, anxiety, and self pity. A joyous celebration of community and solidarity and Creation. But make no mistake. It was subversive and it was not considered reasonable.
Note that the Sermon on the Mount completely endorses pacifism. No use of violence. In any circumstance. There was nothing reasonable about that in the first century or, it seems, in this century where churches employ armed guards for security on Sunday morning. Pacifism was considered wildly radical and impractical then and now.
But why would you need violence? If you love your enemy, you no longer have an enemy. The enemy no longer exists if you love the person. The enemy becomes a friend or at least an acquaintance or a fellow human being in the human family. So no need for violence when you no longer have enemies. But that kind of transformation is challenging. As Professor David Galston observes, “To try to understand my enemy is to accept that the force of love demands both my personal growth and the annihilation of my prejudices.” [Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, p. 109] You see, it is radical and life changing, this Sermon on the Mount.
And, that is how people thought of the church back in the first century. Wildly radical. Life changing. Unreasonable. Subversive. And people were drawn to this alternative reality because it offered a new way of life. They wanted something else. A new way to deal with the troubles of life and the injustices that create human suffering. And people found a life-giving alternative in the teachings of Jesus and the community that formed around those teachings.
The Sermon on the Mount may seem like common sense, it may seem natural for the few people like Katharine Conover who spoke last week in church having spent her life living by these teachings. But to those who have not made that commitment, the Sermon on Mount still seems way out.
I am wondering what things would be like if everyone who joined the church for the past 2,000 years memorized the Sermon on the Mount, as Katharine did. What kind of church and world would we have if all the people who self identify as Christian could recite those chapters of Matthew? I think we would have a much different church to start with and I think we would have a much different world. I don’t think we would have the violent society we have created and are living in today. I don’t think we would have the wars that we have today. I don’t think we would have the strangling greed that is sucking the life out of our country and world today. I don’t think we would have the environmental cataclysm that is ravaging Earth today.
If Christians memorized the Sermon on the Mount, or even read it, learned it, and just aspired to live by it, I think we would have a very different world than we do today.
But the church, overall, has neglected the moral and ethical imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount. The church with rare exceptions doesn’t insist that people memorize the Sermon on the Mount. The church, except in some small groups, does not emphasize these teachings. If anything, the church has held them up as pie in the sky, impossible ideals. For another time and place. Maybe back in the first century or in the great beyond. But not for here and now. Jesus meant them for here and now.
There are very few Christians like Katharine Conover who have memorized the Sermon on the Mount and tried to use it as a practical guide for living. And the church as an institution has largely ignored it. And we are all suffering because of it.
When we look at the world around us today, some scholars praise all the progress that has been made – in nutrition, fighting disease, access to creature comforts, etc. [Example: Yuval Harari] They say there are so many fewer threats and dangers than in ages past. I guess they don’t know it takes just one person to start a nuclear war. . . And these scholars point to continuing scientific development that is making human life better.
But all of the facts and figures defending the progress humanity is making ignore the moral failings and suffering that surround us. Anxiety and fear are growing among us. Many people feel that the overall quality of human life is diminishing. People are scared and worried. There may be more material prosperity today but that does not mean there is more happiness and peace in the world. It may actually mean the opposite because people feel they have to protect and defend their assets.
It’s one thing to be afraid of a plague or something you really can’t do anything about. It’s different to be afraid of violence, crime, guns, nuclear violence, and environmental catastrophe which are all things that we have in large measure brought on ourselves and that we can do something about.
We have immense powers of communication but is this helping us? We can send messages instantly anywhere in the world on our electronic devices but our day to day connections with others and with the world itself are weak. People feel lonely, isolated, and alienated. All of these messages that we are sending electronically have the potential to bring people together, to create common bonds, to increase understanding, to help people work together. But these messages, as we know, can also create division, and fear, and hostility. Words have power.
In her acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Toni Morrison emphasized the power of words. She said: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence. It must be rejected, altered, and exposed. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language ― all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”
Unfortunately, sadly, in betrayal of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, much of this oppressive language can be found in the church today or it is endorsed by the church.
Given the perils were are facing, people are seeking alternatives. We are seeking to get out of the rat race. We are seeking a different way of being in the world. We are looking to build our lives on a different value system.
And, here, in the church, we have what we are looking for. It is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. We are given a template for a different reality where people do not shoot each other at Walmart, or at school, or at the synagogue. Where people do not denigrate the value of life, human or otherwise. Where people solve their differences with words not weapons.
The Sermon on the Mount is wisdom teaching of Jesus that is teaching about a new lifestyle. It is the very lifestyle that many of us are looking for. The point is to integrate these teachings into our times, our lives, and our challenges. We could say that to be Christian is to bring these ancient wisdom teachings into our context and apply them.
What we are looking for is all in those three precious chapters from Matthew. There we find the wisdom to end gun violence. There is the wisdom to end greed. There is the wisdom to end global climate change. There is the wisdom to end domestic violence and war. There is the wisdom to end the inhumane treatment of immigrants and inmates in prisons and jails. There is the wisdom to end racism and sexism and oppression based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Any problem you can think of that is facing us and causing suffering in our society could be transformed if those who self identity as Christians would learn and seek to apply the Sermon on the Mount. If every elected official that identifies as Christian read the Sermon on the Mount regularly I believe we would have a government that is working, actually taking action, in the interests of all the residents of this country and for the good of the world.
The Sermon on the Mount is exactly what was needed in the first century and it is just what is needed now.
Toni Morrison’s most recent book is Mouth Full of Blood published in 2019. It is a collection of meditations, essays, and speeches written over 4 decades. In this book, one reviewer says, Morrison interrogates the world around us. [https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1117374/a-mouth-full-of-blood/9781784742850.html] Morrison tells us: “Our past is bleak. Our future dim. But I am not reasonable. A reasonable man adjusts to his environment. An unreasonable man does not. All progress, therefore, depends on the unreasonable man. I prefer not to adjust to my environment. I refuse the prison of ‘I’ and choose the open spaces of ‘we.'”
The progress we are desperately seeking has been laid out for us in the unreasonable, subversive teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. May that be our foundation for creating a new reality of love. Real love. Not thin love, which is no love at all. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.