The beginning of this series on the Sermon on the Mount just so happens to fall on the weekend that includes the day of honoring the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Almost exactly one year ago, Bethel College, a little Mennonite liberal arts school in south central Kansas, broadcast a speech that King gave at the college 50 years prior. The speech was thought to have been lost, with no known recording in existence, but the college put out the word and an alumnus responded, saying that he had kept a tape of the speech packed away in his farm house. The recording was professionally restored, and Bethel made national news by recovering and broadcasting this lost speech of MLK. It was available for public listening through the Bethel website for a limited time after that.
The speech was made to the student body and faculty in 1960, so this is after the Montgomery bus boycott, but before The March on Washington and “I have a dream.” In general, King spoke to overcoming segregation, but the main theme that comes out at the end of the speech was his talk about being maladjusted to society. Speaking at a college setting, my guess is that he was using this terminology because of a common goal of colleges to produce well adjusted citizens who can find their place in society. But King talked about being maladjusted and his refusal to adjust to cultural norms that went against human dignity and justice. An NPR article about the discovery of the speech included this quote from King: “I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry.” He was maladjusted, and saw this as a virtue. Necessary for the survival of the spirit, and, perhaps, even the species.
I suppose one way of thinking about the Sermon on the Mount is that it is something like a Handbook for the Maladjusted – a reference guide for those who refuse to adapt to cultural norms in areas of conflict, sexuality, truthfulness, charity, prayer, economics, and judgmentalism. The simple name for this is Christian discipleship, which is really a new norm for what it means to be human.
So for these next number of Sundays, all the way up through March 6, we’ll be dwelling on the Sermon on the Mount, eventually reading through all of it in worship. We’re getting started today and them we’ll have a break from it next week, with the Coming of Age service. The Sunday after that Laura Brenneman, a Bible professor at Bluffton University, will be preaching and one of her texts will be the same one we have this morning, Matthew 5:1-12, which is the lectionary reading for that morning, and then we’ll proceed to work our way through the sermon.
Before getting into these opening verses of Jesus’ sermon, the passage that we call the Beattitudes, I want to give a little more introduction to the Sermon on the Mount in general, this long speech of Jesus which spans from the beginning of Matthew 5 to the end of Matthew 7.
This block of text is the longest sermon, speech, monologue given by Jesus that we have recorded in the gospels. If you happen to have one of those Bibles that has the words of Jesus printed in red, then the Sermon on the Mount is a sea of red ink, which is not such a good thing if you’re an accountant, but a good thing here. It spans three chapters in Matthew and it is uninterrupted by any inquiring disciple or other listener in the crowd.
Along with this, the Sermon on the Mount was the part of scripture most often referred to in the writings of the first three centuries of the church (Kissinger, Sermon on the Mount, p. 6). For the people of the Way, as they called themselves, who came to be called Christians, little Christs, this was the text that was used to teach people how to be disciples. It was Christianity 101.
The book of Matthew ends with The Great Commission in which Jesus tells his followers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” The way that these followers made disciples, the main text that was used for teaching people to obey everything that Jesus had commanded them, was the Sermon on the Mount. An early catechism, of sorts. In order to fulfill the Great Commission you’ve got to have The Sermon on the Mount. Imagine how different Christian evangelism would look if, rather than passing out tracts on the street corner about whether people will go to heaven or hell when they die, we would be passing out tracts that said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Love your enemies and pray for those who harm you. Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” It’s quite a different emphasis.
One of the earliest church writings that we have that is not included in the New Testament is called the Didache, which means, the Teaching. It’s believed to be late first century, early second century. It looks like it could have been designed itself as a catechesis. This is how it starts (and you’ll have to excuse the fact that I have a translation of it that is something like King James language):
“There are two paths, one of life and one of death, and the difference is great between the two paths. Now the path of life is this – first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, thy neighbor as thyself, and all things that thou wouldest not should be done unto thee, do not thou unto another. And the doctrine of these maxims is as follows: Bless them that curse you, and pray for your enemies. Fast on behalf of those that persecute you; for what thank is there if you love them that love you? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? But do ye love them that hate you, and ye will not have an enemy.”
This latter bit sounds very much like parts of the Sermon on the Mount and what follows in the Didache continues to share common language with what we read in Matthew 5-7.
So the material in the Sermon on the Mount was the most often cited part of scripture for the first three centuries of the church and we recall that it was soon after that that the church became a state approved, and then eventually a state mandated religion, and then….. you don’t hear so much from the Sermon on the Mount for quite a while. Kind of hard to build an empire when all the people are being taught to love their enemies. It doesn’t fit with those kind of aspirations. It’s coming from a completely different place, and the church has known that at different points in its history, and we’re trying to recover that and internalize that again.
Just a couple more bits about introducing the Sermon on the Mount. It takes its name from that very first verse in chapter five. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak.” The sermon, on the mount.
And Matthew is pretty strategic about how he structures his gospel. He’s writing to a largely Jewish audience, who value Torah, those first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. And so Matthew structures his gospel with five big blocks of teaching by Jesus, each followed by a block of actions and healings, and encounters. And this first block takes place on a mountain, and it was from a mountain that the original Torah was given to Moses, and so we are being invited to think of these teachings as Torah, as divine teaching. As a gift from God to the people of God, to be received with gratitude and obeyed with joy.
Now we get into these opening lines of speech. When Jesus speaks here, he just dives right into it, giving a series of sayings about what it means to be blessed.
The first words that come out of Jesus mouth: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
The word blessed is a fairly religious term for us, and this phrasing can make these sayings carry a certain pious air about them. Blessed. But the word also means simply fortunate, or happy. Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God. You walk into Joseph Beth bookstore and you go to the self-help section and there are plenty of books about what it means to be a happy person. And some of them can be useful. Happiness is one of those things that we most desire. To have joy and to have meaning and to have a lightness about the way we live and think and feel. And the beatitudes are Jesus’ way of speaking to this desire – this persistent question of what makes for the good life. This is how he opens this sermon. An invitation to the good life.
And, in Jesus’ way, of course, they are counterintuitive to all of our basic assumptions.
You’re fortunate if you mourn, because you will know comfort.
You’re fortunate when you are meek, because the whole planet is yours.
If you want to be happy, you should hunger and thirst, for justice, righteousness, because you’ll be filled.
If you want to be happy, be merciful, because mercy has a way of coming right back at you.
Just to get a sense of how counterintuitive these sayings are, we can think of their opposites, which sound a whole lot more like what we’re used to:
Instead of blessed are the poor in spirit: Blessed are the confident, the ambitious, for theirs is the kingdom.
Instead of blessed are the meek: Blessed are the strong, for they will inherit the earth. Actually, considering the fortunes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Instead of blessed are the meek I think one could make a pretty good argument for “Blessed are the geeks, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Instead of blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Blessed are those who have full bellies and unshakeable faith, for they are fully content and satisfied.
Instead of blessed are the merciful, Blessed are the merciless, those who refuse to compromise, for they will win the argument.
Instead of blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the warmakers, for they will be hailed as heroes and patriots.
Now that sounds more like what we’re used to.
But that’s not what is being taught here.
Jesus puts these beatitudes in a future tense. Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God. All of these sayings will come to be. We already know something about how Jesus messed with expectations about the coming of the kingdom of God by teaching that the Kingdom of God has already come near, is already present. So these sayings carry this dual sense of time as something that will come to pass in the future, but something that will come to be also in the present. Peacemakers will be called children of God. It will happen. It’s a prophesy about what will come to pass. A promise that we perhaps can’t see now in its fullest sense, but which is already true is some real way. The merciful will receive mercy. When humanity lives under the new order, adopts this new operating system, these things will take place. And the church is to be that new humanity.
These are not easy teachings. Nothing within the sermon on the Mount is. They require conversion. And the hard part about it is that we’re not quite sure what we’re being converted to.
Maybe the beatitudes don’t so much show us a roadmap of the new way, but are more intended to get us completely disoriented from the path we thought was so clear. Blessed are the poor in spirit. What? What in the world can that mean? Happy are those who mourn. Really? Things must be a whole lot different that what I previously imagined.
There is a different promise after each beatitude, and the last one comes full circle with the first. The first says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And the last says, “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus ends on this super cheery note of promising that becoming disoriented from our previous ways will bring with it persecutions, hardships. When we get out of step with the marching orders, we’re going to feel some consequences.
I don’t think any of us are particularly fond of the idea of persecution or having all kinds of evil uttered against us falsely as Jesus goes on to say. Maybe things are different in our tolerant, pluralistic society, or, maybe not.
We do recall that for Jesus, John the Baptist, the first disciples, many of the early Christians, and the early Anabaptists, like those ancient prophets, the persecution, the false accusations, were very real, even costing them their lives. And we do remember, especially this weekend, the life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose refusal to adjust his words and actions to the powerful forces that he was upsetting also cost him his life.
I suppose if there’s any fine print in the Sermon on the Mount, this might be it. Warning: actually doing these things can get you in trouble.
So we ponder, we listen, we open ourselves to conversion even if we can barely imagine it. We dare to allow these teachings of what makes for the good life to make their way into our spirits, our minds, our bones.
We had some times of silence during Advent and we thought we’d continue that into the new year, so after every sermon in this series we are going to have a few minutes of silence before we recite together some version of the Lord’s prayer, this time the traditional version. I want to end this by offering five new beatitudes in the spirit of those that Jesus offered, perhaps also being disorienting, or, hopefully reorienting for where we are now. Then we’ll have some silence.
+ Blessed are those who are in pain, for you will be able to feel in a numb culture.
+ Blessed are those who have lost retirement savings in the great recession, for you will learn to depend on others.
+ Blessed are the homeless, for you will be given many homes.
+ Blessed are the confused, for your ears will remain open.
+ Blessed are the maladjusted, for yours is the kingdom of heaven, the beloved community.