Today’s Gospel reading in the lectionary is perfect for Commencement Weekend. It’s all about money and our priorities. We get to caution Kathryn and Catherine about not selling out, not getting caught up in the materialism game, not worrying about the things other people worry about. What are we going to wear? What are we going to eat? How are those loans going to get paid off? What about health insurance?
Of course, those other people may well be us. And here’s the rub, or better said perhaps, one of the rubs of this passage. It’s not just about Kathryn and Catherine. They actually may know better than most of us here about how there are more things in life than our bank accounts, our pension funds, or what the neighbors or in-laws think about our car or house. They have not yet had to confront issues like raising a family, getting the pipes replaced in the basement, or cashing in your 401k because your job can be done a lot cheaper in Malaysia.
In this passage Jesus seems so unaware of things like health insurance or plumbers, but those are very real issues in our lives. So what do we do with these words of Jesus? Do we, at best, relegate them to some kind of ideal that is beyond the reach of anybody but Jesus. Or, at worst, do we dismiss them as words of a dreamer who never had to deal with sick children or a landlord who wants the rent by Friday, or else?
Or maybe what most of us do is find some middle ground where we realize Jesus is on to something here and we will try to do the best with it we can.
And to make matters worse, the Sermon on the Mount, from where this passage is taken, offers us other seemingly over idealistic ways of living. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Forgive rather than seek revenge. Seek the blessings of meekness and a pure heart. Give up on retaliation. Pay attention to the log in your eye rather than the splinter in someone else’s.
It’s all that stuff and more, and then there is the money thing. As my kids used to say, “Is Jesus on crack, or what?”
I don’t believe that Jesus would have said stuff like this if he didn’t think it was possible for us to live this way. So maybe we are being invited by the Sermon on the Mount to start looking at what Jesus says here in a different way.
What if we, instead of looking at all these things going on in the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus piling up one impossible thing after another, began to see them as a whole, as all connected to one another? For example, maybe it’s easier to love our enemy if we aren’t so worried about what we are going to eat or wear. Or maybe Jesus is saying it’s easier to not worry about what we are going to eat or wear when our minds are focused on issues like forgiveness and reconciliation.
When we treat others the way we want to be treated, maybe the helps us deal with issues like lust and greed. Or we understand mercy a little better. Or maybe when we understand mercy a little better we will better be able to treat others the way we want to be treated. And do people make peace because they are meek, or does being meek make someone more peaceful?
As crazy as it sounds, the Sermon on the Mount might seem less idealistic and more relevant to every day life if we swallowed the whole thing instead of trying to figure out how we bite off a piece of it here and there.
Taking the Sermon on the Mount as one piece, swallowing the whole thing, means for Jesus, I think, changing our orientation. It’s hard to imagine how we live so unconcerned about what we are going to wear and what we are going to eat, or how we are going to live in forgiveness and reconciliation when our focus is on the people around us. But when our focus is on God, maybe we discover there are all kinds of possibilities we never considered before, and those possibilities begin to pile up on each other.
And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus puts a great emphasis on our relationship with God. When you give alms don’t do it to be noticed by others, but by God. When you pray, don’t be concerned about what others hear, but what God hears. When our attention is turned to God, maybe we won’t get so angry about what others have done to us. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, maybe that will get us praying more, and when we are praying more maybe our hunger and thirst for righteousness increases.
Jesus says we can trust God, he really believed that. Maybe that’s why he was able to forgive his enemies, rather than come down off that cross and destroy them. And maybe it works the other way around. Because he was able to forgive those who hurt him, maybe he was more able to trust in God and stay on that cross.
When you look at Jesus’ life and ministry, the way he lived and what he taught, you realize he wasn’t suggesting a few changes around the edges of our lives. He was looking for a complete make over, not a cosmetic one.
Have you seen those home make over shows on TV? I love HGTV. But I was reading an article about the dark side of some of those kinds of shows, especially the knock offs. There was this story about a local TV station in Los Angeles that would do a surprise make over of somebody’s kitchen or bedroom or some other room in the house. The couple would go out of town for a weekend and be surprised when they got back by the living room their kids or neighbors had redone.
The problem for one of these couples, though, was that it cost them twice as much to repair the damage that had been done to their bedroom than the cost of what was in reality a cosmetic make over. It looked good on TV, especially when they first walked into the room and everybody was crying and hugging but the next day they began to notice the damage done by quick paint job, cheap lumber, and duct tape. And they weren’t the only ones that happened to.
Jesus isn’t looking for cosmetic repairs in our lives. He’s looking for the foundation work to get done, with new walls and wiring and lighting, so we really can be the light of the world, and the house that stands firm when the floods come. (Sermon on the Mount stuff).
And all these things he talks about in the Sermon on the Mount, that seem so hard to grab hold of, are what makes for a real make over. They are the walls and ceilings, and plumbing. They are the floors, the studs, the wiring, and the paint, that all are needed to make the others work. A great chandelier doesn’t have much to offer without wiring. But if there is nothing for the wiring to turn on, that’s not any better. These things all work together, just like these things Jesus is saying in the Sermon on the Mount work together.
This is hard stuff in the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t worry about what we are going to eat or what we are going to wear? Don’t worry about retirement or paying for the kids tuition? Don’t worry when the plant closes down or the unemployment insurance runs out? Jesus suggests there is always going to be stuff to worry about, there are always going to be hard things. But is loving your enemy any harder than looking for a new job? And isn’t loving your enemy an easier and better way to live while looking for that new job?
Jesus said the key to all of this is seeking first the Kingdom of God. Sure there are bills to pay, and people who have treated us unfairly. But are those the things that we want to set the agenda for our lives? Or do we want the things of God to set the agenda for our lives?
We can live in all kinds of ways. And none of it is easy. But Jesus suggests that all these things in the Sermon on the Mount, as hard as they seem, may not seem quite so hard when we consider some of the other hard alternatives we so often choose. Revenge, materialism, concern about what other people are thinking, getting our own way, going it alone without God or anyone else. This is what I call the ‘grr’ life style. And it has it’s own way of making life hard. And these things have their own ways of reinforcing each other as the things in the Sermon on the Mount do.
Commencement speakers always leave the graduates a challenge, so I guess I need to do that this morning. But not just for Catherine and Kathryn, but all of us. Let’s take all of this stuff in the Sermon on the Mount and swallow it hook, line, and sinker. We’ve swallowed plenty of other stuff in our 22 years of living, or our forty 44 years of living, or our 88 years of living. Why do we make what Jesus says sound so crazy, when we are crazy enough to believe the alternative makes more sense?