Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon: Fulfilling Our Purpose

Matthew 5:33-48
Fulfilling Our Purpose
James Sledge                                                                                       February 19, 2017

What are some of the groups or organizations you belong to? I’ve never been a big “joiner,” but over the years I’ve been a member in good standing with a number of groups. I once was a member of the AWSA or American Water Ski Association. I’m a member of alumni associations at two universities and one seminary, and the AARP has sent me multiple invitations to become a member, but I always throw them away.
What does it mean to be a member of a group or organization? Why join the AARP or Water Ski Association or Chamber of Commerce or a club at school? Why are you a member of the groups you belong to?
Reasons for joining groups and organizations vary. I had to join the AWSA in order to enter waterski tournaments. I didn’t really ask to join the alumni associations, and the AARP promises me discounts on products and services along with various other benefits.
I’m not a member of the Smithsonian, though I could become one for $26.00. But I did recently have the chance to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. You can’t really see it all in a day, but it is a remarkable experience.
The history portion is designed so that you start at the very bottom floor, well below ground, moving through dark exhibits about slave ships and the early slave trade. As you continue you, you move up through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow and segregation, the Civil Rights movement, ending at the inauguration of our first African American president.
As I worked my way through sections focused on the Civil Rights movement with exhibits on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Riders, and the March on Washington, the term “member” was largely absent. There were certainly organizations that one could join that supported the movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) or the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), but the big moments of the Civil Rights Movement weren’t about membership. They were about active participation.
I’m not sure how it was that the Church came to use the term “member” to speak of the participants in a local community of faith. After all, we already had a perfectly good word: “disciple.” It’s the word used for the first followers of Jesus and the word Jesus uses when he commands those disciples to begin building the Church. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
The Church’s job, according to Jesus, is to make disciples, something that happens by baptism and by obedience, by learning to obey the commands Jesus gives us. And the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first big discipleship lesson.

“Turn the other (cheek)… Give to everyone who begs from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If you’ve been around churches for long, you’ve likely heard these commands, but surely Jesus doesn’t actually expect us to obey them.
When I was studying today’s gospel, I came across a story of a New Testament professor who was listening to his voicemail and found this message from his ten year old daughter. “Dad, I’m the lector at church Sunday, and I have that passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ You know that passage, right? Do the other Gospels have that same passage? Is it different in the other Gospels? Could you let me know, because … no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.”[1]
Ten year olds may say that out loud, but most adult church folks won’t, even if we might think it. Fortunately we have more subtle, sophisticated ways of working around Jesus’ commands, of explaining what he really means so we don’t have to take him literally.
But what if Jesus does mean it literally? What if these are precisely the commands that Jesus expects disciples to obey? 
I think the problem with Jesus’ commands may be less about how hard, even impossible they sound and more about the way we hear them. By that I mean that we hear them the way we hear just about any other sort of advice, instruction, or teaching that we encounter. We weigh what impact they might have on us, whether they seem likely to help us get something we want or feel better or whatever it is we may be seeking. And by such measures, Jesus’ commands, as that ten year old says, are just wrong.
The quote on the front of the bulletin says, “The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus at his ornery best: offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one giving it.”[2] We imagine that we can evaluate what Jesus says the way we evaluate all the other information we encounter, but that simply won’t work. As the Apostle Paul writes to his congregations, the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, is “foolishness” by human or worldly standards. Only when we get caught up in the transformative power of Christ, what the Bible calls “salvation,” do Jesus’ commands begin to sound life giving.
At the very end of our reading is what may sound like the most impossible of Jesus’ commands. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Thanks, Jesus. Aren’t we already under enough pressure to perform and be more productive? Doesn’t our culture already do plenty to make us feel like we’re not quite good enough?
Jesus can be demanding, but I don’t think he’s saying what we may first think. This is another one of those place where something gets lost in translation. “Perfect” is not so much a bad translation as an incomplete one. Some of you may be familiar with the philosophical term “telos” which refers to something’s final purpose or end, and “telos” is related to the word translated “perfect.” It also means “ complete” or “mature,” and Jesus is talking about becoming what we are meant to be, about fulfilling our purpose.
Jesus says that to participate in the movement he is starting, a movement that reveals God’s hoped for future, we need to live toward our God-created purpose, becoming those who bear God’s image and reveal it to the world. And Jesus shows us what that looks like. He lives it for us when he does not strike back at those who strike him, when he gives to everyone who asks of him, when he prays on the cross for his own executioners.
 Jesus’ commands are not figurative or spiritual. He really does call us to reject violence, to help whenever we have the chance, to seek the good of all, even our enemies. He really does expect us to learn how to relate to the world as God does, in generosity, tender mercy, and steadfast love. But this not another “To do” list heaped on us who already feel overwhelmed by the demands of the world. Rather it is a gracious invitation to discover an entirely new way of living, one that fits who we truly are in our deepest essence. It is an invitation to the joyous, abundant life that begins by choosing to walk with Jesus as he reveals to us the meaning of being fully and completely human, of being true children of God.

[1] Greg Carey in Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) Kindle Locations 13775-13777.
[2] Jason Byassee in Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) Kindle Locations 13692-13693.

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