Feb. 16 sermon of the Rev. E. Bevan Stanley, rector of St. Michael’s Church, Litchfield

Moses said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life . . .” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.

Moses offers us a choice: life or death, blessing or curse. “Choose life!” he exhorts. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses giving his last lecture. He has come to the end of  his life and wants to summarize all the lessons taught by God in the forty years since the Israelites left Egypt. Most of his audience was not present when God rescued the Israelites from Pharoah. They were not there when Moses came down from the fires and darkness of Sinai with the stone tablets of the Law. Moses is summarizing all of the lessons of forty years in the wilderness. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.” All we have to do is observe God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances. All you have to do is . . . It’s not so easy to do all those things in the Law. Most of us don’t even know what they are.

Then Jesus comes along and makes it simple. All you have to know is that there are two commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor. I don’t have to keep killing sheep and goats. I don’t have to go to the temple three times a year. This sounds like a much better deal. Then we get these sayings from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He is taking the law and making it much harder. Most of us manage to avoid murdering people, but now Jesus says we can’t even be angry at them. Most of us avoid adultery, but Jesus says we should not objectify another. The Law says we should keep the oaths we make. Jesus says that every word we utter should be trustworthy whether it is an oath or not. He is not modifying the Law to make it easier to live with. He is raising the bar so that the keeping it will bring us life. And as Jesus will demonstrate later, what brings life often feels like dying.

Last week we heard him say that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Last week’s reading ended with him saying that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Now he tells what it takes for our righteousness to be greater. We not only have to do the right things, we have to think and feel the right things. We not only have to refrain from killing people, we have to not want to kill them.

If we see these sayings of Jesus as a new set of do’s and don’ts, this will not seem like good news. It’s just plain too hard. But maybe Jesus is not giving us a new law, but a new teaching. Maybe this is part of the blessings with which he started the sermon. Here is Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor:

“What if the beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try and meet to be blessed. What if these are not virtues we should aspire to but what if Jesus saying blessed are the meek is not instructive– what if it’s performative? …meaning the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself. Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?”[1]

Jesus’ re-interpretation of the commandments is not just an add-on, it is a whole new way of thinking about them. Let’s start with the last one about not swearing oaths. I went to a Quaker high school and a little of that wonderful tradition rubbed off on me. One thing that makes the Society of Friends different many other Christians is that they take this scripture literally. They will not take an oath. When called to testify in court, at least in Pennsylvania, they are allowed to “affirm” what they say rather than to take an oath on the Bible. What is all this fuss about oaths? Jesus says that a person’s word should be sufficient on its own. If you need to add an oath, it means that your word by itself is not trustworthy. If your word is trustworthy, then no oath is going to make it more so. “Anything more comes from evil,” he says. Only evil will create the need for oaths. Be true, transparent, and trustworthy and life is a lot simpler. Make your words and your thoughts match. Make your insides and your outsides match. Have integrity. The other examples he gives are the same, make your thoughts as peaceful as your actions. Think of people as persons not bodies.

If we live our lives in this simple way, we will be blessed, we will be a blessing to others, and we will live in a world of blessing.

Now a disclaimer. I shouldn’t be preaching this sermon. My life is not so integrated much of the time. I’m working on it. But I have had glimpses of what this life can be like. In the meantime, as I work on myself, I find I have growing compassion for everyone else. For we all are not as good as we should be in our choices and actions. And we are all made far better than we know by a God who loves us and never makes junk. If Pastor Bolz-Weber is right, and this Sermon on the Mount is not about more rules but about pronouncing a blessing, then our judgment of ourselves and others vanishes. Here is a story from the Desert Fathers of the fourth century Egypt.

A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abba Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent the Abba a message, saying, ‘Come, the community is waiting for you.’ So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet the Abbot and said: ‘What is this, Father?’ The Abbot replied: ‘My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another! They, hearing, this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him.

This is the kind of world Jesus is pointing to. We will not be concerned about another’s sins while we are still working on our own. We are not going to be angry at someone while we are still working on our own frailties. We will not see another’s outside without understanding there is an inside that we cannot see. We will find our best selves and best blessings within the commitments to which God has called us. There will be little joy in fleeing from them. We will not artificially prop up our words with oaths. Our word will have to be as true or as untrustworthy as we are.

We will choose life and blessing for ourselves and for our world.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, ”Some Modern Beatitudes—A Sermon for All Saints Sunday” November 6, 2014, from her blog Sarcastic Lutheran.