Epiphany 7A Sermon (Lent 2015)

2nd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Matthew 5:17-48;
Micah 6:6-8; Rom. 13:8-10


Children’s Sermon

I’m going to teach you a Bible verse today. It’s an important one in our family. We have it painted on our living room wall. Let’s learn it.

God says,
Do Justice
Love Kindness
Walk Humbly with God
Micah 6:8


It’s a red letter day for scripture readings today. If I had to choose one verse in the Bible from which to teach the Christian faith, it might be Micah 6:8. And if I had to choose one chapter from which to teach the Christian faith, especially with the issues that face us in the 21st Century, I would choose Matthew 5.

In the 20th Century, Mahatma Gandhi led a spiritual and political revolution from this chapter of the Bible. It was the chapter he focused on as a Hindu disciple of Jesus. And when Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer published one of the few books he was able to publish, before being martyred by Hitler and the Nazis, he chose discipleship as his theme and Matthew 5 as his lead Scripture passage.

I consider Bonhoeffer’s strategy to be of highest importance for Lutherans. It signals a shift in understanding our faith from the traditions of the 16th Century Reformation. Luther and subsequent Lutherans chose Romans 3 as the crucial passage and even ended up downplaying Matthew 5. With the new breakthroughs in biblical scholarship over the past 30 years, both those moves are being shown to be in error. Romans 3 is important, but a lack of knowledge of Judaism in the 16th Century has led to misinterpretations. And the Protestant movement especially did a butcher job on Matthew 5. The dominant reading of this chapter among Lutherans, until Bonhoeffer came along, is that it is undoable:

“Exceed the righteousness of Pharisees? Put away your anger? Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? What was Jesus thinking? That’s works righteousness. Impossible.”

So Lutherans for centuries now have said that Jesus was only saying these things to put us on our knees to pray for the grace of God’s forgiveness. Because no one can actually do these things.

People like Bonhoeffer and Gandhi are helping us contemporary Lutherans to finally change our tune on this, reviving the crucial importance of Matthew 5. Not only can we do these things, but that’s exactly what grace means: namely, God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, gives us the power to do them. Not only that, but it is essential to our ultimate salvation as creatures made in God’s image. It is nothing less than the Way to a New Aliveness. If we human beings resist this grace of being able to love like God loves, if we continue to turn aside and ignore being made in God’s image to love, then the powers of sin and death will continue to destroy us. I believe with all my heart, from head to toes, that what we are talking about is that important. Our very survival may depend on it. Our salvation turns on it. God’s grace is the power to live according to Matthew 5. We finally get to be the human beings God created us to be!

And here’s a crazy twist: as we learn what it means to be human, we finally learn who God truly is. One of the things I believe about Matthew 5 is that it gives one of the clearest statements about the need to experience God anew. We human beings evolved with a default experience of the gods that is false. We typically worship gods who are idols. And I’m not just talking about ancient peoples; I’m talking about us. We worship all kinds of false gods. (1) There’s the Capitalist god that has an invisible hand to make our economy turn out OK as long as we give our full allegiance to it. There’s the U.S. national God that says everything our country does is part of a larger plan to bring freedom to the world — our particular brand of freedom. (2)

And even if we don’t fall prey to those cultural false gods that favors our side as Americans, there’s still the false gods we learned growing up in the church. For example: there’s the god who saves only believers in Jesus. Or the god to whom we pray to make things turn out OK for us. It’s that latter god who’s perhaps the hardest to let go of. We talked about it a couple weeks ago when we talked about Jesus’ healing. We talked about the true God as one who doesn’t play favorites. Learning what this means is the most difficult thing of all — the thing that runs up against the default experience of God that we human beings evolved with, a false god who does play favorites. Since the dawn of humanity, the gods haven’t simply been the gods. They have been, in some fashion or another, our gods. In fact, that’s precisely why they are “false.” They are our gods in the sense that they come from us. They are a projection of how we relate to one another — which is why there is always some element of taking sides, of being in or out. Our cultural identities are forged over against the identities of others, and so our cultural gods will always have an element of playing sides.

Last week, with the Beatitudes we punctured the first half of that traditional equation. The most popular human version of the gods on our side have favored the rich and successful. God proves to be on your side when you are blessed with wealth and honor and success. It’s the false god severely questioned in the Old Testament book of Job and by the Hebrew prophets. In the Beatitudes, Jesus begins his entire teaching ministry with an absolute blasting, a lampooning, of this false god who’s on the side of the rich and successful. Jesus gives us the inverse: Blessed are the poor, the mourning, the gentle and nonviolent, the peacemakers, etc.

But here’s the crucial thing to realize: if Jesus’ sermon ended there, we might end up with simply an opposite version of the same false god who plays favorites, who takes sides. We might end up with a god who is now on the side of the marginalized and the suffering over against the rich and successful. We end up with a god who turns the tables alright. But we must also see that it is simply an opposite version of the same kind of god who takes sides.

There’s another big problem with this new god on the side of the oppressed, the suffering. Jesus moves us out of our traditional comfort zone of siding with the winners, but we eventually ask: Why doesn’t this god do something more dramatic to stop the oppression? Why do so many billions of people across this globe continue to suffer horribly at the hands of a few million people who control way too much of this world’s riches? What kind of god is it who apparently is on the side of the oppressed but apparently does so little to stop it?

Before we answer this crucial question, we need to emphasize that the God of Israel — the God of the Hebrew prophets and of a Crucified Messiah — has definitely proclaimed God to be present in and with the oppressed. When Jesus and the prophets speak of striving for God’s justice, it means striving to care for those who have the least. When we speak of God’s justice, we must be clear about that focus on caring for the least in God’s family.

But — and this is an important “but” — it does not mean that God is now on the side of the oppressed over against the oppressor. Like a good parent, God does not take sides in an ultimate way, favoring the ultimate fate of one group of children over another group. God does not play favorites. God’s justice that compels us to work on behalf of the least of God’s family is precisely about making sure that all of God’s children have what they need. It’s about not taking sides. It’s about a loving parent seeking to ensure that all of her children have what they need to thrive and flourish. This cannot happen if God acts like we human beings generally end up acting — namely, by forming sides and using force and violence to bring change. The only way left to a God who is perfectly loving and nonviolent is to suffer our usual way of violence in God’s own self, showing its futility, and unleashing a new power of love in the world — a love that reaches across all boundaries, even to one’s enemies.

This is the perfect love of God that Jesus ends Matthew 5 with. Lest we think after the Beatitudes that God has simply switched sides, taking the side of the oppressed and suffering in the world, Jesus ends this part of the sermon making the true nature of God most clear: “for God,” says Jesus, “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45).

It couldn’t be more clear. Any version of god we experience who in any way takes ultimate sides of one group against another is not the true God. Yes, we can and must be for the oppressed and suffering in this world in order to hunger and thirst for God’s brand of justice. But it is not toward the goal of leaving any other new group on the outside looking in. It is precisely because God wants all the children of God’s family to flourish. And so in Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection he shows us nothing less than a new Way to Aliveness.

It began as a tiny mustard seed, but over two thousand years I believe it has finally begun to blossom into a much bigger bush. With Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, and many, many others, we are finally beginning to see this new way played out on larger stages in history. We are seeing in Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, a movement that refuses to use violence in the face of the deadly evil of racism. This is ultimately because he experienced and followed the true God in Jesus Christ. And so he led this movement for the benefit of all God’s people, including the white people who acted to hurt him and kill him. The sinful power of racism diminishes us all, threatens us all.

Well, there are still many unanswered questions, but we still have three weeks to go with Jesus’ most important sermon. Stay tuned, as they say.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 1, 2015

1. When I use the term false gods or idols, I’m talking about, using Twelve Step terminology, Higher Powers which are not the Higher Power. In A.A., one’s Higher Power might simply be that of the group itself. It is a real Higher Power that truly can provide healing. But the word God, with a capital “G,” has come to mean the Higher Power which is the source or ground of all powers.

2. In referring to these cultural powers of our nations economics and military-protected freedom, I’m not saying they are neither real nor good. Think again in terms of Higher Powers that do provide some good benefits. One might even argue that the U.S. Higher Powers are demonstrably better in many ways than many other cultural powers. But I am saying that, for followers of Jesus the Messiah, they still fall far short of the Higher Power which Jesus came to reveal to us.

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