Sermon #1 in a New Series on
The Sermon on the Mount . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
—Matthew 5:3

I went to Ireland about ten years ago and rented a car. They threw in a navigation device for free, which was very handy. But there was a problem. It spoke to me using the metric system. Now, mind you, I’ve lived for a good eight years in places that use the metric system. But I couldn’t deal with hearing about it in my native tongue. In English, I use miles and feet, not kilometers and meters. So I switched the language to German. I can handle the metric system in German.

I think many of you must have a similar feeling about right now with me standing up here in a place where you’re used to seeing someone else. If you could access the preferences right now, you’d probably want to get your beloved pastor back. Or maybe even adjust the time to get the new settled pastor here much sooner. But I hope that after the shock of change has worn off, we can settle in to a meaningful interim. We may be between settled ministers, but the United Church of Huntsville is no less a church during this period than it was before or will be after. I pray that we’ll learn to appreciate and trust one another so that, together, we can can discover both our strengths and the areas where we might want to consider change.
I hope to get to know everybody personally during my time here. But I know that most people’s contact with me will still be during the worship service—in particular, the Sunday sermon. And so I’m thankful that I’m going to be able to adapt the appointed lectionary readings so that we get to hear about the Sermon on the Mount between now and Easter. And I say this for two reasons.

  1. First, the Sermon on the Mount is the longest uninterrupted speech by Jesus anywhere in the Bible. It contains the core of his teachings. If there’s such a thing as a Christian Manifesto, it’s found in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7. It’s the one place where we can bookmark our Bibles, so we can turn to it whenever we have a question about what Jesus would actually say or do in a particular situation. The Apostle Paul talks a lot about the theology of what my seminary professors used to call the Christ event. But the gospels tell us about that event as it’s happening. And the Sermon on the Mount is where the rubber actually hits the road. It’s where even those who don’t have faith—or don’t yet have faith—can still participate in what’s come to be called Christianity (though I might revise my view of what Christianity is by the end of the sermon).
  2. Which brings me to the second reason I’m glad I get to talk about the Sermon on the Mount as we kick off the interim (notice I just used a football reference on Super Bowl Sunday!) the official start of the interim: We are in a place and a time where the Name of Jesus Christ is being used to justify a lot of what’s going on. I think all of us—myself included—need to step back and ask ourselves what we’re being told is Christian is, in fact Christian. We can look for clarification to the Law of God as we find it in the first five books of the Bible. We can look to what Paul says in his letters. We might even look at the strange words of the Revelation to John if we want to interpret current events in the light of Christ.
Or we can listen to the actual words of Christ, and allow them to shine on what we’re hearing about Christianity in the Year of Our Lord 2017. If we can find scripture to support us when we don’t want to bake a cake for a gay wedding, but can’t seem to find anything that encourages us to allow an Iranian infant into the country for heart surgery that’s only available in the United States, then it might be possible that we’re reading the Bible wrong.

So let’s take a look at what Jesus might have to say about what he actually wants his followers to stand for. We’ll find that in Matthew 5-7. And if the Sermon on the Mount is the Christian Manifesto, then its preamble is the opening section of blessings. For my seventh birthday, my sister gave me a children’s Bible. It was the same as any other King James Bible on the inside, but the outside cover was a picture of Jesus and the little children. And in the back there were several colorful pages containing what this Bible called Spiritual Memory Gems, namely the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. As a kid I’d heard of the former. But I didn’t know about the latter. I called them the Beautitudes. And the statement being made by placing them together was, of course, lost on me.

But they shouldn’t be lost on me as an adult. The Ten Commandments are the way the Hebrew Bible tells us God introduced God’s law to God’s people. The Beatitudes are the way the Christian scriptures tell us that the Son of God introduced his interpretation of God’s Law to his followers. But (as Eddie reminded us last week) the Beatitudes are not commandments. They’re simply statements of fact. They give us a look at the mind of God.

And what we see is alien to us. We pronounce people blessèd when they’re healthy and happy and have nice homes or new cars or big bank accounts or good jobs. We think of the powerful and the popular and the influential as being blessèd.

A flight into Egypt
But if we want to call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we need to change our way of thinking. Nowhere in Jesus’ pronouncements does he ever call wealth or power or even health a blessing. He could have. It was certainly the way most people thought of blessings even then. But he didn’t. In fact, in another place where he pronounces nearly the exact same blessings as he does in the Sermon on the Mount—in Luke 6, called the Sermon on the Plain (that’s plain, as in even ground, not an airplane)—Jesus makes sure that we don’t misunderstand, by following his blessings with a set of woes: woe to the rich, woe to the satisfied, woe to the happy, woe to the popular.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re not looking at Luke this morning, we’re looking at Matthew. Matthew’s the only gospel that contains the whole Sermon on the Mount, and it begins with a slightly different beatitude than Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Whereas Luke simply says, “Blessèd are the poor,” Matthew says, “Blessèd are the poor in spirit.” Thus, In Luke’s first beatitude, Jesus talks about God’s love for the poor. In Matthew’s, he talks about God’s love for the humble. But don’t worry. Matthew’s not watering down something Jesus really said. As we look at the rest of this sermon, there will be no doubt that Matthew’s Jesus is no less a revolutionary than Luke’s.

Once again, this isn’t a commandment to be poor. But it probably is a commandment to change the way we look the least among us. Christianity has seldom lived up to the Beatitudes. But it truly has traditionally at least made it a public policy to agree with the Beatitudes—to affirm that God’s values are not necessarily our values, and to encourage people to see the least among us as rôle models.

But the Beatitudes have been under attack for a while now. 
  • On the one hand, there are those who say that statements like the Beatitudes encourage an other-worldly pie-in-the-sky religion. We need not work for justice in this world if we promise the downtrodden a better life in the next.
  • And on the other hand, there are those who reject the whole idea that people of faith might ever be called to suffer. They promote a gospel of prosperity. God wants us to be rich and popular, we’re told. Suffering is for those who don’t have enough faith, or who haven’t yet learned the secrets of the gospel.
I think both these viewpoints miss the mark. 
  • First of all, just because people have made Christianity other-worldly doesn’t mean that Christianity is other-worldly. Nowhere in the Bible are we told to expect another world where these promises will come true. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are references to the renewal of this world—and that renewal includes peace and justice and righteousness not as impossible goals that will only be realized by sanctified spirits somewhere up in the clouds, but by flesh-and-blood creatures on an earth that has come to realize shalom—that is, God’s fullness.
  • The way the prosperity gospel misses the mark is quite obvious: Can we really measure a person’s faith by how much they own or how healthy they are? Jesus—and we pretty much have to hold him up as our example—had nothing and suffered much. It’s he who said that a disciple isn’t above his or her teacher; it’s enough that we be like our teacher.
Which leaves us with the Beatitudes.

It looks to me (and I acknowledge I need new glasses, so take this with a grain of salt) that our culture has finally decided not just to glorify the opposite of what the Beatitudes bless, but to openly and mockingly reject the Beatitudes.

This is bad enough. But it’s happened not only with little opposition from Christianity, but with the help of Christians. When such a large segment of the Christian church consciously rejects the preamble to the Christian manifesto (and we’ll get to the rest of it over the next few weeks—but spoiler alert: it does not get better) then I wonder if we need to begin finally to draw a line between Christians and followers of Jesus the Christ.

I can be a follower of Jesus and not be poor. But can I be a follower of Jesus and mock the poor and the downtrodden? Can I be a follower of Jesus and knowingly reject his teachings?

That question cannot be answered until I know his teachings. And so between now and Easter, I’m asking you to explore those core teachings with me. What are Jesus’ values? And what should my values be if I want to follow Jesus? Maybe that’s something Christians have asked through the ages. But a new question has arisen—new for me, at least—and that is, Can there be a difference between being a Christian and following Jesus? I want the answer to be No. But the world around me is telling me that I’d better be prepared for a Yes.

—©2017 Sam L. Greening, Jr.