|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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Perhaps you have heard me say this before, but I have a particular fondness for the sermon on the mount.
I realize that they did not have tape recorders then to validate this as a single sermon, but I like to believe that the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Matthew’s gospel effectively embody Jesus teachings.
In these chapters we can find where Jesus places his values, what his priorities are.
For example, I think it is extremely important to know that the first four words out of his mouth in this long sermon are “Blessed are the poor.” I know lots of so-called Christians who probably do not want to HEAR that. Poor people just get in their way.
But I suspect that those who were listening to Jesus WERE poor people. The rich did not need him. Or THOUGHT they did not need him. In fact, JESUS got in their way!
But toward the end of the sermon, we encounter words that may anticipate Christians of our time. Maybe you. Maybe me. Because there will always be those who wish to claim the label of Christian, but fall short. Every organization has its joiners.
A joiner is a person who meets the minimum requirement for membership in order to be able to claim to BE a member.
And in the twenty-first verse of the seventh chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, we hear Jesus say, “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.”
It sounds like Jesus wants a bit more than lip service. We may be able to recite the Lord’s Prayer, but I think Jesus wants something more. We may be able to recite the Apostle’s creed, but I think Jesus wants something more. We may even sing our favorite hymns with gusto, but still, I think Jesus wants something more.
And Jesus even tells us what that “something more” is: “the will of my Father in heaven.”
Now that can be difficult. I suspect that at some time or another, we have all troubled ourselves over what God’s will is. I certainly have. And what does it mean to DO God’s will? And how do we know if we ARE doing it?
Next weekend the Missouri Annual Conference will be in session. We will be voting on issues, and each of us will be hoping, individually, that we are doing God’s will. And we will further hope that our collective decision-making, whatever it may be, will be God’s will.
But Jesus continues, “On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?”
And we need to wonder, “Isn’t this what we are supposed to do? Prophesy? Cast out demons? Do deeds of power? What can be wrong with that?”
And to understand what Jesus is driving at, we need to back up to what he said about almsgiving and prayer and fasting in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The issue there was not with the presence or absence of these practices, but with HOW they were carried out. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
In other words, Jesus is questioning the motives of many who say, “Did we not do all these things in your name?”
Perhaps you have heard this hypothetical question posed to pastors to test our ethics: If a person has won an enormous sum of money from gambling, and wishes to give it to the church, do you accept it?
Actually, that is not the pastor’s decision to make; but a more important question might be posed to the gambler: Why are you doing this? Is it to the glory of God or to draw attention to yourself?
And Jesus has an answer for many of those who would say to him, “Lord, Lord, did we not do all these things in your name?”
“Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
Now, this may sound a bit harsh, but we need to back up to the fifteenth verse to see where Jesus is coming from. He proclaims “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
And I think there are three levels of behaviors to which Jesus is responding when he tells us “not everyone will enter the kingdom.”
The first level is that of lip-service behavior. We may claim to be believers, but we do not DO anything about it.
At the second level, we may perform the necessary deeds, but our hearts are not in it. Our motivations are suspect.
And at the third level, not only are our motivations suspect, but they are downright evil. You may be familiar with some television evangelists who might fit in this category, folks who, in the name of God, take advantage of others.
Now, this is pretty negative stuff; but fortunately, the sermon on the mount does not end on this note. It concludes, rather, on a very positive image.
Jesus tells us, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.”
But when Jesus talks about “these words of mine,” he’s not talking about just a to-do list. He’s also talking about an attitude, or attitudes. He’s talking not only about the things we do, but also about how we APPROACH the things we do.
For example, he tells us “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And then he tells us how. He does not add anything new to the practice of piety, but he tells us how. And he tells us how to keep our priorities straight: “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things--the material concerns of our lives--will be given to you as well.”
When I read about the wise man who built his house on rock, the first word that comes to mind is foundation, like the hymns in our hymnal, “How Firm a Foundation,” or “The Church’s One Foundation.”
Many of us know that what might appear to be a terrific house isn’t worth much if it sits on a poor foundation.
Well, Jesus describes this house built on rock: “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”
I’m also reminded of families, built on strong foundations. There will always be difficult times to deal with; but we can weather them if the foundation is solid.
But Jesus is talking about the foundation of our faith, a faith that can weather the rain, and the floods, and the winds. And again, I think that such a foundation is to be discovered less in the things that we do than in our reasons for doing them.
Part of the reason for the sermon on the mount, I believe, is that Jesus wants to move us to a deeper understanding of the mind and will of God, the core of what faith and belief are all about.
When Jesus tells us that he has come to fulfill the law, he assumes that we are already following it. But he is concerned that we understand the SPIRIT of the law that undergirds it, its reason for being.
When he speaks of practicing our piety, he assumes that we are already doing that; but he is concerned that we do it for GOD and not to impress others.
So he really is making a summation statement in the twenty-first verse when he says that a person eligible to enter the kingdom of heaven is “one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
But there is the other possibility.
“...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.”
I suppose we might also talk of building a house on a flood plain, or in the path of frequent tornados or hurricanes, or on the mountain of a live volcano. Those are the kinds of acts that almost tempt destruction.
But to build a house on sand is like building a house with NO foundation. It might even be like building a house with no blueprints, with no overall plan of action.
And how does this fit into the sermon on the mount? Remember, I said that Jesus was probably assuming that we were following the law, and that we were practicing acts of piety. But is that all?
Is it possible that we do these things without any deep understanding of WHY we do them? Because if that is the case, our acts become merely mechanical.
I am reminded of the first verse of the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Does God hear the music of our actions or a noisy gong?
“The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall!”
So--do we throw out all our religious practices to which we so devoutly adhere? No, I think that they are good and necessary. But I think that Jesus would have us build them on a foundation.
He told us that there were really only two great commandments, both of which could be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, so his listeners should already have known them: love God and love your neighbor.
The problem then--and now--is that we get caught up in our practices and forget the foundation on which our faith should be built. We go through the motions, and we forget the reasons why.
Sometimes, when the practices take precedence over the foundations, good Christians forget who or what they should be worshipping. Sometimes they worship the building that is their church.
Or they worship the social life with their friends who are members of the church.
In some parts of the church there is a worship of numbers. And bishops and district superintendents want to see bigger numbers. And pastors and congregations enter into a tacit competition with one another to see who is the largest and/or the fastest-growing.
And if you think I’m kidding, the United Methodist News Service even publishes news items about this. By the way, the largest two or three United Methodist Churches in the country are now in Dallas and Houston. And if you don’t have at least ten thousand members, you’re not even in the race.
“Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
You see, their scribes could tell them what was in the scriptures. And they could tell them what all the bits and pieces of scripture meant. They could tell them what was in the law, and they could tell how to go about practicing the law.
But Jesus moved them in a different direction. He gave them a look at the will of God.
And I am reminded of the story of Mary and Martha. Mary is listening to Jesus teach instead of helping Martha. This upsets Martha, who insists that Jesus tell Mary to help her. and Jesus answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”
I think that in the conclusion to the sermon on the mount, Jesus saw religious people distracted by many things, and having lost sight of the ONE thing that was important. The house founded on rock. The will of God.
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