Epiphany 7A Sermon (2014)

7th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Matthew 5:38-48;
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

THE MOST IMPORTANT PASSAGE IN THE BIBLE

I’d like to offer a bold proposal this morning. Indispensable, of course, to the Christian faith is the story of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection on Easter. But my proposal today is that the most important teaching of Jesus — that which helps us live as Easter people — is the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7 in Matthew’s Gospel. And the eleven verses we just heard, which are the heart and soul of the Sermon on the Mount, is my nomination for the most important passage in the Bible. It makes most clear what is absolutely unique and essential to the Christian faith, namely, that God is perfect love and we are to live in that Way of love.

That’s my proposal, and I’d like to develop it briefly in three ways — that it helps us understand three things:

  1. Who God most truly is;
  2. Who Christ is and why his kingdom message went to the cross; and
  3. Who God is making us to be as disciples, following in the way of the cross.

Part One: who God truly is. Friday and Saturday I was on retreat with our confirmation students, and our topic was Martin Luther and the Reformation. We watched the excellent movie about Luther (2003) and learned how much he helped us understand who God truly is — that God in Jesus is a God of love and forgiveness, not an angry God seeking to punish. But Luther also came up a bit short of the perfection I think our Gospel Reading today relates to us, and so today’s passage was a center of our learning time. We learned that God is perfect in being able to love absolutely everyone, because God is able to even love enemies. And in so doing, God shows us the way of nonviolence. We cannot seek to harm or kill those we love, including our enemies.

There’s plenty more that can be said here, but who God is becomes most clear in seeing Jesus and the Way of the cross, the second part of my proposal today. Jesus came to launch in the world God’s reign of Love. But that means meeting resistance to our kingdoms based on what we talked about last week, “good violence” — namely, our fervent belief as human beings that the only way to stop bad violence is with good violence. And I’d like to make this point by sharing from our All-Church Bible study book, that we just started this week, Brian McLaren‘s The Secret Message of Jesus. McLaren very much uses the Sermon on the Mount as a central passage, devoting two full chapters to it, and having it in the background throughout. You will recognize the influence of today’s Gospel Reading behind his description of the Way of the Cross. McLaren writes:

The story is familiar: the religious and political-military powers collaborate and negotiate and reach an elegant final solution: Jesus will be crucified as a rebel. He will be nailed to a Roman cross — the visible symbol of the power of the Roman principality and power, the instrument of torture and execution that is the end of all who stand up against Rome. They crush him and his movement. And it appears that Jesus has failed.

This is the scandal of the message of Jesus. The kingdom of God does fail. It is weak. It is crushed. When its message of love, peace, justice, and truth meets the principalities and powers of government and religion armed with spears and swords and crosses, they unleash their hate, force, manipulation, and propaganda. Like those defenseless students standing before tanks and machine guns in Tiananmen Square, the resistance movement known as the kingdom of God is crushed.

But what is the alternative? We really must consider this question. Could the kingdom of God come with bigger weapons, sharper swords, more clever political organizing? Could the kingdom of God be a matter of what is we’ve called [good] violence? Or would that methodology corrupt the kingdom of God so it would stop being “of God” at all and instead become just another earthly … principality or power? …

What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form — as a kingdom “not of this world” — is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms…? … What if our only hope lies in this impossible paradox: the only way the kingdom of God can be strong in a truly liberating way is through a scandalous, non[violent] kind of weakness; the only way it can be powerful is through astonishing vulnerability; the only way it can live is by dying; the only way it can succeed is by failing? [end of edited McLaren quote (1)]

Part Three of my proposal: Who God is making us to be as disciples, following in the way of the cross. Again, I’d like to borrow from McLaren, who gives us an inspiring vision of being “secret agents” in God’s kingdom. It’s a vision that reminds me of a group of people I hold dearly as their pastor. McLaren writes:

So how do you become a secret agent of the kingdom of God? For example, let’s say you own a company that manufactures computers. … You seek to lead your company in such a way that your employees and clients can get a taste of God’s kingdom in the fairness, diligence, integrity, teamwork, respect, pride, and fun they experience at your company.

Or let’s say you’re a soccer mom. … What if you … organized a project at your elementary school to raise money for an orphanage in Burundi, a project that not only helped orphans but taught your child and her classmates that they have neighbors whose lives are very different from their own — and that we are all bound together as neighbors in God’s kingdom? …

Maybe you’re a lawyer. You can seek justice and serve your clients as an agent of God’s kingdom. Maybe you’re a receptionist. You can make your office a hospitable place and welcome people in a way that makes them feel that God’s kingdom is real and present. Maybe you’re a state governor or corporate consultant or rock star or police officer or military officer. All of these jobs can become vocations if you engage in them as an agent of God’s kingdom.

Maybe you think you have the most boring, degrading, and unfulfilling job in the world. What would happen if you saw your job as one component — large or small, enjoyable or depressing — of your larger, deeper, grander calling as a participant in the kingdom of God? Would it change your attitude?

Consider this true story about a man I … met. Carter is about seventy-five years old, African-American, and a taxi driver in Washington, D.C…. He’s been driving a taxi for years. … Back in 1994, Carter served as taxi driver for a man from Malawi, Africa. Because Carter wasn’t “just a taxi driver” but instead was “a taxi driver in the kingdom of God,” he treated his guest with special respect as only a taxi driver in the kingdom of God can. The guest introduced Carter to some other Malawian friends, and soon Carter the taxi driver was invited to visit Malawi, which he did, in 1998.

There, Carter saw poverty he had never before imagined. He prayed, “Lord, help me bring some joy to this village.” And God answered his prayer. First, Carter realized that there was no road in the village — just a narrow path, rutted and muddy. (This is the kind of thing a taxi driver would notice. If I had been there, I would have noticed they needed a library.) With a proper road, people could get around better, and elderly and sick people could be transported to the hospital. He had brought some money, so he offered to pay for gas and oil and drivers if the people of the village would do the work. Soon Carter’s generous spirit — the spirit of the kingdom of God — became contagious, and someone provided a grader and then more and more people volunteered to help. Three days later, they had built a proper road a mile and a quarter long.

A year or so later, he returned to the village. A young man had been falsely accused of stealing and was stuck in jail. Since Carter seeks the kingdom and justice of God wherever he goes, he got involved, and soon the young man was set free. On this same visit, Carter met a boy who needed medical care that was available only in a distant city. Carter made it possible for the boy to get treatment on a regular basis by finding and convincing — who else? — a driver to take him.

The next year, he went back again and this time helped some young men improve their farming. (Carter is not an agriculturalist, but he used money he had saved from his job as a taxi driver for the kingdom of God to buy them some additional seeds.) He made connections and got twenty-six soccer balls donated to the children of the village, because in the kingdom of God, fun and play are important things. Carter knew this. He even helped them get uniforms, because in the kingdom of God, dignity and pride are also important things.

On another trip, Carter the taxi driver’s generosity inspired a shopkeeper in the village to donate money to help some sick children get treatment for ringworm. Soon a Bible school was launched, and it grew from seventeen to eighty-five students quickly. No wonder — when you see signs of the kingdom of God coming to your village, you would want to learn all you can about it!

Roads, rides, seeds, ringworm medicine, soccer balls and uniforms, a Bible school — these are all signs of the kingdom of God in that little village. Carter told me, “I don’t do any of this myself. God is doing it through me.”

Carter is a taxi driver in Washington, D.C. He’s also a secret agent in the kingdom of God. There are thousands of Carters out there, millions. [end of edited McLaren quote (2)]

I know. I’m privileged to be pastor to many of these secret agents at Prince of Peace, Portage, MI. Amen!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 23, 2014

1. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, pp. 68-70.

2. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, pp. 86-89.

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