Rev. Dr. Amy Butler is pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City – a large, historic, influential church, where my friend, Amy, preaches powerful sermons from an elevated pulpit in a grand gothic sanctuary. Except for just a week ago, when she decided that instead of preaching one of her own sermons, she would preach a sermon from Jesus. She climbed into the pulpit and “preached” the whole of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, reading all of Matthew 5-7, including our passage this morning.
After the service, Pastor Amy was gathered for coffeehour with members of the congregation, where a few people came up to her to talk about the sermon – three chapters, Matthew 5-7, no breaks, just the red letters, no words of Amy, just the words of Jesus. And one person said, “You know, I really didn’t like some of what you said today.” (1)
If we’re listening closely to Jesus, we’ll all say the same from time to time. If we take him seriously, we’ll find that his gospel imposes on every one of us. It’s uncomfortable. Demanding. It’s always out beyond us, giving us the freedom to move ahead and follow, or just keep our feet planted and stay where we are.
Pastor Amy joked that Jesus probably had plenty of people come up to him at coffeehour after his sermon that day. Picture Jesus standing there with a cup of tea and a mini muffin, when someone walks up: “I was with you for a while there when you were talking about salt and light, and earlier when you were telling me that I am blessed. But then you started in on this series of teachings about righteousness – anger and adultery, divorce and swearing. I checked out for a minute there. What was it you said?”
Clarence Jordan, the founder of the Koinonia Community and pioneering Christian leader used to say that Jesus seems to always be asking us whether we are going to be his followers, or just his admirers.
That’s one way of understanding the choice before the crowd that day. They are gathered because they’ve heard about Jesus – his magnificent exploits, his compassionate healing, and the possibility that it might make a difference in their lives. There’s so much to admire about what he’s done. There’s so much reassuring about what he has to say – all this talk that they are the blessed of the Lord, empowering words about being salt and light and a city on the hill, a promise about the care of God and a call to make a bouquet of lilies of the field. But that’s not all he says. There’s also the charge to love your enemies; caution about what happens to hypocrites; warnings against religious leaders; and these teachings that deal with broken relationships and ratchet up the social ethic for the kingdom of heaven and the church that will form after him. All of it forces the crowd to decide what they will do with the hard parts. Will they just admire the view on the mount, or will they follow him from there?
It’s not a new choice. In Deuteronomy, God addresses God’s people and says: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… choose life…” We have the freedom to choose. We always have. As much as we’d like to exchange such imposing freedom for fate – as though things will be what they will be; as though I have no responsibility for my life or for this world God so loves – this choice before the Israelites is the choice before the crowd that day and any crowd that gathers to listen to the message made urgent in the person of Jesus Christ before them: Will you choose life or death?
This choice undergirds God’s gift of the Law to Israel. To understand Jesus’ challenging, imposing teachings in Matthew 5:21 and following, we have to remember what he says in v. 17-20. “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill.”
Jesus does not come to abolish the law or refute the law. He actually intensifies it. He’s not saying “You’ve heard this, but that’s wrong, do this instead…” More than that he’s saying, “You know the law, but that’s just the baseline. Now I want more.” It’s a call to follow him higher – to a higher righteousness than even the Pharisees. And it starts with how we love one another; how we live in community. This love cannot be overlooked or simply admired. As Eugene Peterson has translated Matthew 5:”Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom.”
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, because the Law is about how we love our neighbor.
One of the best explanations I ever heard of the function of God’s Law was shared by the professor and preacher, David Lose, who relayed a story about his friend Frank, who was about eight years old when he started arguing with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving and, soon enough, Frank had his younger sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop it. In response, Frank – as he described – reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!” (2)
The Law is the gift of God to care for God’s children; to ensure our wholeness and well-being. And with the Law God says, “You can’t raise your hand against one another or put your boot on someone’s neck. You can’t hoard everything. You can’t discriminate and exclude. You can’t violate and exploit. You can’t cast aside and treat as less. She is my daughter and he is my son.”
As Dorothy Day use to say to colleagues in her Catholic Worker Movement, “If each of us could just remember that we are all created in the image of God then we would naturally want to love even more.” (3)
And Jesus does not come to abolish this. He comes to ensure that it can’t be trivialized or reduced to sentimentality or set apart from the reality of his Kingdom.
It would be easy, you see, to say, “I have not murdered, and therefore I have kept the Law.” So Jesus intensifies the expectation, to remind us we are responsible not only for not murdering, but for our working to ensure our neighbor’s wholeness and well-being, as promised by God.
You have heard it said, “Follow these laws and commandments” but I say to you, “It’s much more than that.”
You have heard it said, “Don’t murder anybody” but I say to you “Be reconciled with one another. It’s not enough simply to avoid killing another. Consider what you are doing to improve their life, and the life you share.”
You have heard it said, “Don’t divorce, and for heaven’s sake, don’t commit adultery” but I say to you, “Treat the women and men in your life as human beings, not as objects to exploit for pleasure or to put aside simply out of a matter of convenience or the latest temptation.”
You have heard it said, “Don’t swear falsely” but I say to you, “Come and embody a love that is unconditionally truthful and does not stutter in the face of challenges to that truth.”
Later in Matthew Jesus will remind us of the greatest commandments, on which all these laws hang: love the lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Anger, adultery, marriage, false oaths – these might seem to be secondary concerns to this overarching call to love our God and love our neighbors. Unless they aren’t secondary at all. Unless it’s in every level of relationship that we have the chance to reflect our love for one another and thereby our love for God and God’s love for the world. For it is in such daily, foundational acts that we decide if we will stay on the mount, or follow in this way of higher righteousness to which Jesus calls us.
In the late 1930s, when much of Europe was already beginning to fold before the Nazis Germany, there was a small French town full of Christians disturbed by what was happening. In the town of Le Chambon, a village of only about 5,000 people in rural France, a church decided to do something. André and Magda Trocmé, ministers at that local church, mobilized their small community to act as a rescue route for Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They used coded letters to one another to relay Jewish refugees from house to house. When they knew a raid was coming, they moved Jews out onto their outlying farms where the Nazis were less likely to go. They provided food, clothing, shelter, false identification, and even education and places for worship to the Jewish people. All of this, understand, was illegal. One of the Jews who survived the Holocaust with the aid of these villagers recalls that “Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents…” And they did all of this at great cost and great risk to themselves, their friends, and their families.
When asked in the decades following the war why they did this, the people of Le Chambon were confused. They did not understand the question. “What choice did we have?” they said. Their faith compelled them and they saw no other choice. If they refused to harbor the Jews, they would no longer be Christians. To deny their neighbors was to deny the way of Jesus. (4)
You have heard it said, “Don’t break the law” but I say to you “The Law is broken any time you forget the image of God in a neighbor; any time you put yourself ahead of another.”
That’s why this choosing life ultimately means choosing risk, choosing cost, choosing sacrifice. If you’re looking for an easier spiritual path, they are out there. They will promise everything and demand nothing. They will seek your best life, with little thought to what is best for your neighbor. But if you want to change the world, if you want to embody the kingdom, if you want to choose the life of Christ, you have to follow Jesus to this higher ground.
It’s a path that leads from one mount to another – from the rolling landscape of this sermon, to Calvary’s mountain, where only the true followers are found, gathered by the words of Jesus later in the gospel story: “If you want to be my disciple, you must take up your cross.”
Jesus surveys the crowd as he preaches this sermon, and that’s what he sees. I don’t think he sees admirers who will taper off to the side to smell the lilies of the field. He doesn’t imagine us as those who will fall short or never make it. He looks out and sees people who can follow him all the way to Calvary. He sees those able to receive the gift he wants to give to this world. He sees the kingdom, in us. He can see us taking it on in our lives with one another, living it out and watching it stretch to make room for all God’s people. He sees us liberated to choose life, recognizing that we find our lives when we are prepared to give them away.
Earlier I mentioned Clarence Jordan, who asks us if we are prepared to follow Jesus.
Jordan was the founder of the Koinonia Community, an interracial farm in Georgia that in many ways was on the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement and still is. Jordan, his wife Florence, and another couple, started the farm in the early 1940s as what they called “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God,” based on the early church’s vision of sharing in each other’s lives and resources, valuing the image of God in all people. All of this in South Georgia in the 1940s.
The Baptist theologian James McLendon has relayed a story about Jordan, and how sometime in the early 1950s, Clarence was talking with his brother Robert, a lawyer who would go on to serve as a state senator in Georgia and a justice on the state supreme court. Clarence wanted his lawyer brother to represent Koinonia Farm legally. Robert replied,
“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job or my house, everything I’ve got.”
“We might lose everything, too, Bob,” replied Clarence. Koinonia had been under the threat of violence, drive by shootings into the houses, a firebombing of their roadside vegetable stand.
“It’s different for you,” said his brother.
“Why is it different?” Clarence asked him. “I remember you and I walked down the aisle of the Baptist church on the same Sunday when we were boys, and the preacher asked me the same question he asked you, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ and I said, Yes. What did you say?”
“I follow Jesus. But up to a point,” Robert said.
“Could that point by any chance be—the cross?” said Clarence.
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, bot not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified,” Robert told him.
“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple,” Clarence said. “You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”
“Well now,” his brother said, “if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”
“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church?’” (5)
On that mount Jesus looks out at all those admiring him, and believes among them are the ones who will follow him as the path moves higher.
He looks out and thinks he has a church. Does he?
- Amy Butler, “The Sermon on the Mount is Counter Cultural,” Baptist News Global
- David Lose from a blog post on “In the Meantime” (Feb 6, 2017)
- Dorothy Day qtd. by Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, 275.
- Thanks to Wes Spears-Newsome whose recent sermon “Salt Life” (Greenwood Forrest Baptist Church) told me this story. More of the story of Le Chambon at the Holocaust Memorial Museum website:https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007518
- As told by Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on Matthew in the Brazos Theological series, p. 57