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Today we hear the first of four consecutive installments from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first public act of ministry. Unlike the water jars at Cana in John and the healing of the demonic in Mark, Matthew chooses to show Jesus’ first day on the job as this sermon that starts with the beatitudes. Of this passage, Karoline Lewis, Scripture scholar at Luther Seminary in St. Paul says:
“Before we get too far into the ‘what’ of the Sermon on the Mount, it is important to ask about the why—why a sermon, why teaching, why here and now, and why first to the disciples? Answering these questions will direct this first attempt at a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount toward how it might have been experienced by Jesus’ first disciples. Then, you are not just preaching about the Sermon on the Mount, but letting it preach itself. This is one of the oft-unnamed difficulties of this portion of Matthew’s Gospel—you are preaching a sermon on a sermon. The first thing the preacher should do is consider how to let the sermon preach itself rather than explain its potency away.”
As someone who likes to talk way too much, I might be one of those people who could explain away the potency of the sermon of Jesus. Admittedly, the scourge of my worst sermons would be the art of the over-explanation. The sermon does speak for itself. Better, I think to focus for a moment on its timeliness for God’s people 2020 years ago, and its timeliness for those of us sitting here today. As we see the dramatic turn away from a diverse and civil democracy unfold before us in ways that we might not have imagined, as we are faced with images of families separated at airports by religious selection and exclusion, and as we see many protections unraveling, the sermon on the mount evokes the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written from prison at the height of the Third Reich.
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward people. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”
Yes, this is a thinly veiled critique of the events in Europe of the 1930s and early 40s. But it is equally an exhortation to get back to basics, to approach, in an uncomplicated, unrelenting fashion, the events of the day through the lens of discipleship. It is, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, that simple, that straightforward. As Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell people of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
By this standard, the people of every calling part means that the Sermon on the Mount, the Blessed are the poor, the Blessed are those who hunger for justice, the exhortations of this sermon of Jesus, are meant to be heard by everyone in the world. It is the work of the church, not to build bigger and better churches. It is the work of the church to enable and insist upon a bigger and better understanding of what it means to be the people in God in service to others, to selflessly be willing to sacrifice to lift up the other. To be decent and caring human beings who recognize the sacredness of every life.
Perhaps by now you have all heard this story, but it bears repeating today. It was a hot August day in 1963 when Martin Luther King rose to address the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC. Martin was tired, and his speech was sounding cynical, angry and hopeless. He had been doing fruitless battle with the Kennedy administration on civil rights, and there had been some significant leaps backwards in the work of equality. Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer, was a good friend of Martin’s. When he was feeling depressed, he would call her on the phone and ask her to sing him a song. She could talk to him like no other person in his life could. She had heard him preach an “I have a dream” sermon in a church in Detroit a couple of months earlier. From the dais where she sat, you can hear her shouting, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” And what follows is the off-script sermon that he had delivered once before, the only part of the entire Washington speech that people remember today.
The Sermon on the Mount is at the very least, the “I have a dream” speech of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. It is a call to hope and an exhortation to action. It is a blueprint for the way life as a human being on this planet should be. It is the very definition of who we are and what we are about as God’s people.
As a congregation, we move into 2017 together at a time that could very well be the most challenging that we have seen in a long time. On Monday morning, the basement of this church will be filled with people whose lives could be shattered by the actions taken in Washington this weekend.
Today we hold our annual meeting. We’ll vote on a vestry and a budget. We’ll discuss plans for the coming year, and we’ll have a meal together. We have work to do. We have a commitment to constantly be examining and renewing our worship. We live together in an old building that needs our stewardship and attention. We strive to support the ministry of this church and our partners in the best ways possible. But this community, and all communities like it would be nothing without the voices of one another saying, “Tell them about the dream”. The Sermon on the Mount need not be over-explained or rewritten. But it needs to be understood, and it needs to live as the instruction manual for who we are, what we are, as a church, as a people of God. In loving and caring, honest, and open communication with one another, we talk about the dream. In straightforward and fearless interaction with the political realities around us, we exhort the dream. And Despite our failings and imperfections, we commit as individuals and communities to live the dream. The dream is embodied in the poor being raised up, the grieving lifted to joy, and all lives devoted to the making of peace.
We have work to do. We have always had work to do actually. We have a sermon to put into action.
Mahalia Jackson had an amazing voice. I knew it well as a child, because the Mahalia Jackson Christmas album from 1962 was my father’s favorite. It was often played on our very first stereo that dad brought home from his part-time job at J.J Newberry’s. He plugged in the stereo console and took the LP out of its packaging, saying, “Sit down and listen to this.” And listen we did, over and over again. Mahalia was a force of nature in the music industry, who was once dubbed by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. as the most powerful woman in music. She had a voice that could have sung anything. She mentored Della Reese and she engineered Aretha Franklin’s first recording contract. But she, Mahalia, only ever sang Gospel.
She was once asked why, with such an amazing voice, she only sang Gospel, and she said, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free”, adding, “It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues. But with Gospel, you’ve got hope.”
Blessed are we who have hope. Blessed are we who are empowered to bring hope. Blessed are we when we encourage hope in one another. Even when darkness falls, the sermon of Jesus tells us that we must bring light. It is what we do. It is who we are.