“Listening to Jesus”

February 20, 2011


Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Matthew 5:38-48


I caught a little bit of Prairie Home Companion last night while I was in the car—and it seems as though last week in the Lutheran Church in Lake Wobegone they read the New Testament lesson that we just heard this morning. Garrison Keillor suggested they were having some problems with those words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect.” Not so sure about that. But, Keillor added, Jesus was up on the Mount when he said that. We’re down here on the plain where we have to make sense of all those words and find ways to live them out.

Well, it was a quiet week here in Iowa City, too. And last Thursday morning I was walking down Clinton St. I was across the street from the Old Capitol Mall—I still call it that. The University has renamed it the UCC, the University Capitol Center. I’m unclear as to whether or not there’s some kind of trademark violation in that, but it makes me uneasy. And it leads to people showing up here looking for various events that are being held, they tell me, at the UCC. At least this suggests that people finally seem to know who and where we are.

Anyway, I was walking down Clinton St. and the city workers were busy taking from the trees the lights that had illuminated the darkness and gladdened our hearts for the past three months. It was mid-February and, thankfully, it was also over 60 degrees outside.

I guess it was time.

You know how seasons change, how life changes, how what once seemed so right now seems dated or out of place or inappropriate. In Rockwood Hall the lone left-over poinsettia is a limp remnant of Christmas joy. Our December celebration of the light of God shining in the darkness gives way to longer hours of daylight with each new week. The star and the Advent candles have been packed away.

As the scriptures are read in worship we encounter the adult Jesus. And, yes, he speaks to us from the Mount—we’ve been hearing parts of that great sermon each Sunday for the past month. He speaks to us of the past and the present. As we listen down here on the plain we start to raise our own questions even as his words question us.

Jesus speaks to us: “But I say to you…”

How should we listen?

How should we listen when he makes difficult and challenging statements such as:

Turn the other cheek.

Go the extra mile.

Love your enemies.

Be perfect.

If you weren’t squirming at least a little bit during that reading from the Gospel of Matthew, then you probably weren’t listening very closely.

How should we listen?

There are those who would explain these statements away into insignificance. You know, scholars tell us that it was considered extremely offensive in the ancient world to be slapped by the back of the right hand, which is most likely what happens if someone strikes you on the right cheek. By turning the other cheek, you make it almost impossible to be slapped in that way again. So, really, you’re just protecting yourself. The words of Jesus become a bit of historical trivia. It’s safe to listen to Jesus, but don’t expect his words to have much significance for our lives today.

In a similar manner, others suggest that we not take Jesus too seriously. They tell us that these are ancient words spoken to ancient people that have little to do with our modern situation. In a terrorist haunted world, we can’t be turning the other cheek all the time. In a dog-eat-dog world, we can’t be expected to love our enemies. And we know the psychological damage that the relentless pursuit of perfection can cause. While we might admire the spiritual teachings of Jesus, we have to take his words with a grain of salt. You know how Jesus resorts to hyperbole and exaggeration for effect. An easy literalism will only lead to misunderstanding.

There are those who would counter and say that a literal approach is just what we need. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Love your enemies. Such tactics would never work unless....well, unless you are willing follow, say, two of the towering leaders of the 20th century—Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. King was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of non-violence. And both men looked to the non-violent Jesus for inspiration. Following the words of Jesus can lead us into a deeper and more productive resistance to evil than we might think possible.

This is not advice for the powerful to give to the powerless. History—and recent events in Egypt—and Wisconsin—have shown us that this non-violent action is a strategy for the powerless that grows out of powerlessness. Within twenty years after the occupying Roman government had destroyed Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus still remembered his life and his words of love, his way of genuine resistance that overcomes evil with good.

So we might listen and hear in the words of Jesus a challenge and a call to a new way of life. We confess that we don’t live as he calls us to live—but what if we did? What might happen if even occasionally we did love our enemies or were honest in our speech or gave without the expectation of something in return? We might not become perfect—but we’d certainly be better people than we are. And who knows—the world might be a better place as well.

Or we can listen and hear Jesus setting the bar so impossibly high that we recognize that we can never make the mark, never follow in his way. Some would say that’s just the point of the Sermon on the Mount. As we listen, we realize that we are simply unable to live as Jesus calls us to live. Consequently we are thrown onto the mercy of the God who is our only hope. With the awareness that we are not perfect as God is perfect, we welcome with gladness the grace of God into our lives. Only by seeing the impossible can we also see the new possibility that comes into the world and into our lives in Jesus.

When you listen to Jesus, what do you hear? Insignificance? A figurative, spiritual suggestion? A literal command? A challenge? An impossibility? Perhaps we need to listen in many different ways because when Jesus speaks he often means many different things at once.

So, let me suggest one more way to listen.

Let us listen in order to hear that God is doing something new.

Let us listen so that we can hear that God continues to work in our lives and in our world.

“You have heard it said…but I say to you…”

You know how seasons change, how life changes, how what once seemed so right now seems dated or out of place or inappropriate. As the hymn says: “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.” Jesus lived in his time and recognized what was good and valuable in the traditions of his culture. At the same time, Jesus was always out ahead of his time and his disciples, and Jesus is always out ahead of his church, calling us beyond the ways that were acceptable in the past.

An eye for an eye was a humane approach to punishment. It was a novel way of thinking about revenge. It put a limit on what might be demanded by one who had been wronged: not two eyes for an eye; not two teeth for one. It was a better way. It put a restraint on the very human desire to violently strike back at an enemy. By the time of Jesus, this law was expanded and allowed for monetary payment instead of the taking of an eye.

Yet for Jesus, even this did not go far enough in showing men and women the way of love that is the way of God. Jesus challenges his followers to renounce their right to retaliation.

Jesus calls us beyond the good of the past into the good that God is creating today.

Jesus calls us beyond the love of the past into the love that God is creating today.

Listen. As Jesus speaks, we hear not only commands for a new way of living at one time in the distant past but also—and more importantly for us—a model of how the Spirit of Christ continues to work in the world—releasing us from old strictures, expanding the territory of love, defining the moral life in new and sometimes startling ways.

In this way the living Christ speaks to us today:

You have heard it said, “subdue the earth…” but I say to you, be stewards of the earth, your home.

You have heard it said, “do not seek vengeance…” but I say to you, bring justice to your courts and recognize the value of each person.

You have heard it said, “marriage is between a man and a woman…” but I say to you, love makes a family.

Instead of offering a new law or new rules to follow, in these opening words of his ministry Jesus tells us that God’s ongoing work of creation will continue to bring new possibilities and new life when human ways have become brittle, worn out, exclusive, and lacking in love.

Such new formulations do not simply negate tradition. They open up and expand the tradition to an ever increasing number of people and for an ever increasing amount of good.

Here at the Congregational UCC—the real UCC—we’ve been listening to Jesus in this way for some time now. In our church covenant, the agreement that we make with each other, we promise to “walk together in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known.” I love those words: “known and to be made known.” The way of Jesus Christ is an open path and will always be an open path. We discover that path as we walk the way together.

As we choose to follow in the new ways that God opens to us, we will discover a surprising result. “You will be perfect,” Jesus says, “as God is perfect.”

The translation in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that we read this morning—and usually read in worship—misses the implication of the Greek with its flat command: “Be perfect.” Along with all the Lutherans in Lake Wobegone, we all know there’s not much chance of that.

But Jesus calls us, calls this congregation, calls the whole church into the future: you shall be perfect. That is, as we live in love we will share in God’s nature. The New Testament scholar, Douglas Hare, says that with these words Jesus gives a strong invitation to participate in God’s perfection by imitating the divine behavior. This call is modeled on those words from Leviticus that we heard this morning: “You shall be holy.” We who are made in the image of God are open to imitate God’s love. Jesus invites us to the on-going, and yes, difficult, task of being all-embracing in our lives in imitation of God, whose love embraces all.

The holiday lights of Iowa City have come down.

Still the light shines from our steeple. Still the brilliant light shines through these windows. Still the dove over the front door sends out its shining message of peace.

We keep the lights on all year long.

From this place, the light of Christ continues to shine in new ways for our time.

In each new day, God is doing something new in your life, in this congregation, and in our world. The old ways are changing—the old ways are always changing—and as followers of Christ we are called to keep up, to announce to the world the newness of God, and to let our light shine.