How are you? I am blessed.
Who are you? I am blessed.
A couple of weeks ago, we read the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus named us. All of us. He told us that we are blessed. Whether you are grieving or poor or persecuted, you are blessed. Right where you are, as broken, hurting, and needy as you are. God has named and claimed you as God’s own. Blessed you. This blessing doesn’t look exactly like we usually think of blessing. It doesn’t look like worldly privilege – like power or money or fame or any of the other marks of so-called blessing that we might look for in our society. But blessed is who we are. What we have been named.
And now Jesus is moving on to what that blessing looks like when we try to live it out. When we try to live into the name that we have been given. And he starts in a strange place, to our modern ears. He starts with the law.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, the Hebrew people, who had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, gathered their belongings and walked across a dry sea into the wilderness, to freedom. But once they were free, the Hebrew people had to learn how to live together in freedom.This is the story the Old Testament tells: the people’s struggle to live into the blessing they had been given.
It was at the foot of Mt. Sinai that they received a gift from God. That gift came in the form of the law, brought down from the mountain by Moses. After years of living in slavery and oppression, the people of Israel needed instruction; they needed help to learn how to live in freedom. No sooner had they walked out of Egypt than they began to complain to Moses – why have you brought us out here to die! We should have stayed in Egypt! No sooner had God delivered them from slavery than they began melting down their gold and sculpting idols to worship. How quickly we fall into old habits. So God calls the people to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and tells them, “Look, I brought you into freedom, but I know you need some help with what that means. So here’s my promise, your blessing: I am your God and you are my people. That’s a promise, and nothing can change that. Now, here’s what it looks like to be my people.”
And God gave them the law. Now, notice that God did not say, if you follow this law, I will be your God. If you follow this law, you may be my people. The law is a description of what it looks like to be the people of God. What it looks like to be blessed.
I am your God,
therefore you will love your God,
therefore you will not murder,
therefore you will not steal,
therefore you will not bear false witness,
The people of Israel had lived in slavery for 400 years. They needed this law to help them learn how to live in freedom, how to live freely with God and how to live freely with one another.
Of course, as time goes by, and Sinai gets farther away in the distant past, people lose sight of that original intention of the law. They forget that God blessed them first, and then gave the law so that they could learn how to live out that blessing. Instead, they begin to hold the law up as the path to blessing. On the surface, it seems like a minor mistake. So what, right? As long as you’re following the law, the community will be fine. The law tells us how to live with God and with one another, so if we’re following it, it’s all good, right?
Well, no. Jesus says, no, that’s not enough.
You see, what happens when I begin to live as though the law is my blessing? My identity, my name? Sure, I don’t murder my neighbor. That’s good. But why am I not murdering my neighbor? Is it because I love her and want what’s best for her? Or is it because I’m worried about my own salvation? Let me give you an example. When I was a kid, my mom lived in a small town in Tennessee. I mean a really small town. There was one stoplight in town, in front of the Baptist church. It only worked on Sunday morning, and only if it hadn’t been shot out that week. There were two churches in town, and the Southern Baptist church was the liberal one. The other church was what you might call a law-centered church.
The women were not permitted to cut their hair or wear jewelry or makeup or slacks. They didn’t watch television, except when the Tennessee Volunteers were playing, and they didn’t go to movies. Now, in spite of their quirkiness, they were also some of the most amazing people I have ever met. They were wonderful, kind, giving, and, I think, genuinely loving people. But one day, when my mother was talking to one of the women of that church, she was told that all that this woman did, she did so that she could go to heaven. So now I have to ask myself, all the times that she was kind to me, helped me out, gave me her hospitality, was I nothing more to her than a tool of her salvation? Is that what God wants us to be in a community – nothing more to one another than a means to an end? (I don’t really think that’s how she thought of me, for what it’s worth. But the question lingers.)
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says no. Now, I know that this is a hard passage to hear. If you hear only what I read today, it’s hard to imagine that this was not spoken just to tell you how far off the mark you are. I hear it and think, well, what does Jesus want from me? Anger, lust, broken relationships, mistrust, these are all part of life, part of being human. Does Jesus really expect that I or anyone can live up to this checklist of righteousness? And anyway, when did Jesus become a checklist guy?
Well, I want to make sure that if you’re hearing this and thinking you’re the only one who hears it pointing directly at some aspect of your life – You’re not the only one.
And that’s not what’s going on here.
This is part of a bigger set of teachings that Jesus is delivering, and it can’t be taken out of the context of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. And if you will remember the last two weeks of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been describing the Kingdom of God, and naming you as part of it.
The Kingdom of God looks like this, Jesus says: the meek, the poor, the mourners, the oppressed, all those who are usually shunned, in the Kingdom, these people are named blessed.
The Kingdom of God is breaking into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. And you are named and claimed, and called to live Kingdom lives, a life in Christ.
God is always moving us toward reconciliation – reconciliation with God, reconciliation with our neighbors, and reconciliation with ourselves.
The Kingdom of God is in the shape of the cross. Up towards God, and out towards our neighbors. Jesus is calling us to live these cross-shaped, Kingdom lives. Lives where we live as if our names were true, as if we truly were blessed. A life of integrity, an integrated life, a life where who we are and what we do are the same thing; where our exterior actions match our interior intentions. As Christ reached out to us, we are called to reach out to others, not for the sake of our own salvation, but for the sake of our neighbor. We are blessed to be a blessing.
This is a tall order. But it is one that you are equipped for. Jesus has told you that you are the salt of the earth, that you are the light of the world.
What’s more, Jesus has set you free. As the people of Israel were set free, so you are free, knowing that you are already blessed. You are free, knowing that you do not have to spend your days chasing after God’s blessing. You do not have to spend your life proving yourself worthy, feeling guilty for what you have done or ashamed of who you are. You know who you are. You are blessed.
Which means, you are free to start each day as a new creation. You as an individual, and especially you, we, as a community, because we are living cross-shaped lives, cruciform lives, we start each day as a new creation. This new community is not a “new and improved” version of the old community. Rather, it is a reconciled and beloved community. A community where there is no room to treat others as a means to an end. It is a community that is reconciled and set free in Christ.
You are free, therefore you do not need to harbor anger in your heart.
You are free, therefore you do not need to question motives.
You are free, therefore you do not need to look at another person as an object to fulfill your desires, whether that desire is the desire of lust or the desire of blessing.
You are free.
You are free, therefore you do not need to swear oaths to one another. Let our words be ‘yes yes and no no.’ Anything more than this comes from the evil one.
And believe me, trouble and friction will try to enter in here. We here at Peace Lutheran are a community that is trying to learn how to live cruciform lives, lives lived for God and for one another. Temptation will seep in. Anxiety will go up for some reason, and old habits will sneak in, like the Hebrews in the desert, begging to return to Egypt, or melting down their jewelry. Old habits will crop up, and we will forget that we are free, we will forget that we can treat each other as Kingdom people.
We will forget, and we will fail to live cross-shaped lives. We might hold onto anger, or we might fail to trust one another. But God knows that this happens, and Christ has carried all of that to the cross for us. So that we can be free. Christ has carried all of that to the cross for us, so that each time we gather, a new thing begins. We do not have to dwell in the habits and hurts of the past. They do not define us. They are not our identity. They are not our blessing.
We are free. Free to love one another. Free to trust one another,
not just with small things, but with hard things. Free to speak the truth in love. Free to live lives of integrity. I trust your intentions. I trust that you are looking after the best interests of both me and the community. You trust me for the same things.
Jesus is calling us to be a Kingdom community. A community that is reconciling in Christ. We begin each day as a new creation, because of what God has done for us, because of the cross-shaped lives that God has won for us.