In January I was able to attend the annual Pastor’s Week at AMBS, the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. The topic this year was preaching, and the presenter was the homiletics professor at Princeton Seminary, Dr. Cleophus LaRue – a preacher himself, but also an experienced teacher of preachers and the art of sermon giving. At one point in his sharing, he made a reference to a time when someone asked him, ‘Dr. LaRue, how many points should a good sermon have?’ To which he answered – “Well, at least one.”
For the last number of weeks our sermons have been about a sermon – a block of Jesus’ teachings that spans three chapters in the book of Matthew, The Sermon on the Mount. It is the part of scripture most often referenced by the early church, throughout its first three centuries, and for Anabaptists is considered to be something of a canon within the canon, a part of scripture through which we understand all the rest of scripture. A Christian manifesto. A summary of discipleship 101.
It’s hard to say how many points Jesus makes in the sermon. It seems to be divided up more into themes, or certain categories, which is basically how we have divided the topics from week to week. Last week Dustin Miller spoke on piety and prayer, or, as he put it, how what we do can make us more of who we are meant to be. Other chunks of the sermon speak to economy, fulfilling scripture by going beyond traditional righteousness with transforming initiatives, and the beatitudes, which challenge our assumptions about what it means to be blessed, or happy.
This is the final Sunday before we begin the season of Lent, and chapter seven that was read today include the final words of the sermon. Wrap up time. How does this great sermon that has had so much influence in the church bring it all home?
The Sermon on the Mount is not organized into points one, two, and three,but there is some pretty good indication that there is a main point that is being communicated. A meta-point. A point that serves as a summary of all that is being communication. That one line that preachers try and get in there such that if you don’t remember anything else from the sermon, at least you’ll remember that one thing. Before looking at what this might be, I would ask the question: If you were to summarize the message of the Sermon on the Mount in one statement, what would it be? What is a sentence that summarizes the whole thing? Maybe we could get in table groups and pick out main words from the sermon and try and make a sentence together, put all those sentences on the wall and decide which parts we want to use. For those who weren’t there, this is what we worked at last Sunday for the first of our congregational visioning sessions, working at a single vision statement for Cincinnati Mennonite over the next five years.
Well, fortunately, it looks like this work has already been done for us, that the Sermon on the Mount offers its own suggestion for its main point. What is it?
One clue is the way that this particular statement relates with what comes before it. We may recall back in chapter five, verse 17, after giving the beatitudes, Jesus says, “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The purpose of Jesus’ ministry, the purpose of the discipleship community, is to fulfill scripture, to achieve its purpose, to bring about the vision of which it speaks. What follows are examples of how this might be done – these transforming initiatives of being reconciled to each other, of doing soul work of our inner thoughts and desires, of turning the cheek of dignity when your humanity is degraded, of having habits of stealth prayer and giving, of accumulating spiritual and relational wealth which is of greater value than material wealth. Fulfilling the purpose of the law and the prophets.
Then, after saying all this, after giving all these examples, metaphors, illustrations, you have heard it saids, but I say to yous, Jesus says, in chapter seven, verse twelve, “In everything do to others as you would have then do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” That’s the Sermon in a nutshell, that’s the point; the extreme Cliff Notes version of not only this sermon, but the entire Hebrew Bible – the law and the prophets. We know this as the Golden Rule: In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you. Jesus goes on to say “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Now if there’s one thing I know about people who give sermons and make points, it’s that they have this strong tendency to try and say something original. And this can be a good thing. We like to hear familiar things communicated in unfamiliar ways, to get a fresh perspective on an old truth, to see it in a new light. This is what sparks our imaginations and feeds our souls.
So you’d expect that for the main point of his main sermon Jesus would break out a real doozy, something no one had ever heard before, something that would make the headlines the next day and get everybody talking. But this Golden Rule would not have been breaking news, would not have been all that fresh a statement. It would have been a case of hearing a familiar idea communicated in a pretty familiar way.
There are different examples in Jewish teaching that preceded Jesus where something very close to this statement shows up. One of the most significant is credited to Rabbi Hillel, roughly a contemporary of Jesus. At one point Hillel was asked by a Gentile to recite all of the Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel responded by saying, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being. That is the whole Torah. The rest in commentary. Go and learn it.” Jesus says, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Torah and the prophets.” Almost identical, except that Hillel puts it in the negative – Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself – and Jesus puts it in the positive – do to others as you would have them do to you. One could go into the differences of putting this in the negative or the positive, but the main idea is the same – the spiritual capacity to count the well being of the other as intimately connected to the well-being of oneself.
To take an even wider perspective, the centrality of this statement shows up in different cultures and different religious traditions throughout the world. I’ve included a bulletin insert that gives thirteen different examples of this from thirteen different traditions. This is a document that we’ve formatted that is used often by the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in town here. It comes originally from a guy by the name of Paul McKenna, written for a workshop called Guidelines for a Golden Rule (2002).
So here we have thirteen traditions, arriving, at a similar place summarizing the goal of human relationships.
They appear alphabetically by tradition and we can note that they appear in both the negative and the positive forms. I’m going to read down these because I find this pretty remarkable.
Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you,
and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.
Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.1
In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you;
for this is the law and the prophets. Jesus, Matthew 7:12
One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct….loving-kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. Confucius, Analeeta 15.23
This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to
you. Mahabharata 5:1517
Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others
what you wish for yourself. The Prophet Muhammad, 13th of the 40 Hadiths of Nawawi
One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated. Mahavira, Sutrakritanga
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it. Hillel, Talmud, Shabbath 31a
We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive. Chief Dan George
I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all. Guru Granth Sahib, pg. 1299
Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. Lao Tzu, T’ai Shang Kan Wing P’ien, 213-218
We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Unitarian principle
Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.
So what’s my point? (Because I’m supposed to have one.) One of my points, I believe, is that when Jesus summarizes his teaching, he chooses to use an idea and a statement that people are already familiar with. He’s saying, in effect, What I’m telling you is something that you really already know. You already know all this stuff, and not only you, but this is something that has permeated throughout human consciousness. We hold this in common. We share this awareness among us as a human community, and it is the summary of so much of our common wisdom. You may not know that you know it, but you do. If you have ears to listen, if you really pay attention to what you know within yourself, you will find that you already know this.
The answer to the question of healthy human living has already been given, broadcast in all languages around the planet. We’ve already been shown the answer key in the back of the book.
So why is this so difficult? Jesus feels compelled to follow up “Do to others as you would have them do to you” with a statement about how ridiculously hard this is. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” We’ve all found it already, yet, paradoxically, there are few who find it.
Jesus’ main point, The Golden Rule, doesn’t come right at the end of the sermon. It’s close, but he still has more to say. The final punchline speaks to how we might come to know, beyond mere intellectual assent or passive acceptance; how me might come to more fully know what we already know. The punchline to this sermon is that we are actually supposed to do these things that have been taught. I think it’s kind of funny. Jesus has been talking about the merciful, the meek, and the peacemakers being blessed. About doing the kind of soul work that aligns our desires with those of God. About not worrying about money. About returning good for evil. And then says that we are actually supposed to try these things out – to put these things into practice. We can’t know what we know, until we involve our thoughts, our words, and our actions, until we form habits of discipleship. Until we allow ourselves to be transformed by these slightly ridiculous, at times counter-intuitive difficult teachings.
So the sermon ends by saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Not everyone who claims to be doing something in the name of Jesus, or who slaps a Christian bumper sticker on their car, is living the kingdom. Jesus is more concerned about people doing the will of God than he is about labels and categories of religion. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall.”
I think the heading for this last section should be Just do it. Long before Nike used the slogan for an incredibly successful marketing campaign to sell shoes, Jesus gives his own version of Just do it for how we grow up in our faith, how we come to more fully know what we already know.
Last week right before our visioning conversations, Rachel Smith came over to me and said something that every preacher loves to hear: that not only did she remember something about a previous sermon, but that it actually affected the way she chose to respond in a certain situation. I believe this was the part in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek, giving the other garment, and going the second mile. It’s a great story and I’ve asked her to share it as a way of closing out this series. So we’ll take this as a testimony about what might happen when we put these teachings of Jesus into practice……