Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Sermon on the Mount

Our lectionary readings this week are Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12. You can read them here.

Over the next few weeks, our Gospel readings all come from the inaugural sermon of Jesus' ministry according to Matthew's Gospel: The Sermon on the Mount, that rich block of teaching that makes up chapters 5-7. We will be experiencing all of chapter 5 and a chunk of chapter 6 over the next few weeks, giving us a rare opportunity to immerse ourselves in this sermon over a period of time, to hear how Jesus' words are still words that hold power for us.

I have a couple of good clergy friends who are preaching the next few weeks under a sermon series title that's something like "The Greatest Sermon Ever." I can hardly dispute this--the Sermon on the Mount is amazing. But I didn't want to use this title to frame our next few weeks, because I don't think what Jesus was trying to do here was preach a great sermon (though it was) that would be forever immortalized (though it has been) and make him famous and beloved (which it did...though, as is true for most who preach prophetically, that beloved thing didn't really last and didn't fully sink in til after he was long gone from this earth and was no longer ruffling the people's feathers on a weekly basis). I think Jesus' intention here was in shaping a community. He gives this sermon just after calling the disciples and going out among the people healing for the first time; these people are now following him around, and Jesus sees that they are ripe for the harvest (to swipe a metaphor he will use elsewhere). Speaking to them, having their total focus on the mountain as they are isolated away from everyday life, is a prime opportunity for Jesus to begin to reshape their imaginations and worldviews and perspectives and priorities--to begin to paint a picture for them of what their new Life Together in community might look like.

This week, we get only the opening lines of Jesus' sermon--those oft-quoted lines of the Beatitudes (a title that comes from the Latin word for "blessed" which shows up so many times in this passage). Jesus begins not with a clear to-do (or not-to-do) list like the 10 commandments, as God did when God began to shape the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. Jesus begins with words that read more like a poem, or a riddle--setting an early precendent for the way he will teach mostly not with clear cut mandates, but with parables that invite the people to engage themselves in the interpretation.
What is the significance of Jesus' choice to begin by speaking about blessedness?
What does it mean to be blessed?
How can we use this poetic introduction as a lens through which to encounter and interpret the rest of Jesus' sermon? We often read and study the beatitudes in isolation from the rest of Matthew 5-7...but they are very clearly linked to this larger text. How can making the connection help us live into them?
As we prepare for these weeks of spending time with Jesus' sermon and figuring out what it might mean for our Life Together as the people of God and as Broadneck Baptist Church, this week I would encourage you to take 20 or 30 minutes and read Matthew 5-7 straight through without stopping, to get the feel of the sermon from start to finish. What kind of impact does it make on you? And how would the sermon have felt different if it had begun, say, with verse 13 rather than with this declaration of blessing?
Food for thought, as usual, as we begin this most interesting journey together. May we allow ourselves and our life together to be shaped anew by Jesus' words to us in the coming weeks.

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