“A Shocking Sermon”

February 19, 2017


Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28

Matthew 7: 24-29


“When Jesus finished these sayings, the crowd was astonished at his teaching…”

Actually, the Greek word for their response suggests an even stronger reaction: they were so amazed as to be practically overwhelmed.

Hearing Jesus, the crowd hardly knows what to do next.

They had heard the difficult teachings that we’ve heard on recent Sundays:

Your righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.

If salt has lost its taste, how can it be restored?

Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’ Anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Don’t worry about tomorrow.

Those sayings alone are overwhelming.

But they also heard:

If you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment.

Love your enemies and pray for those who curse you.

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases.

Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth.

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

Enter through the narrow gate.


What are we to do with all of this?

I once heard someone say, “Christianity isn’t complex, it’s just hard.” That seems to be a good way of describing the direct but difficult words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s been said of this congregation that we live out of a belief that “Christianity is demanding and out of  a desire to understand its demands and to be encouraged and supported in responding to them.”

Christianity is a demanding way of life. It requires much and gives even more. A liberal, open-hearted Christianity calls for the best in us as individuals and as a congregation.

So how will we respond to the difficult teachings of Jesus? Having heard this shocking sermon, what will we do next?

We might turn to others who have lived lives of inspiring, if challenging, faithfulness.

A couple of weeks ago a member who occasionally gives me suggestions for sermons found me in my study, sat down, and said: “What would Bonhoeffer do? You should preach about that.”

His suggestion proposed a new twist on the old question: “What would Jesus do?” That’s the question first posed by the Congregational minister and Christian Socialist, Charles Sheldon, in a series of sermon stories delivered in the late nineteenth century.

It was the uncertain and, let’s face it, now unstable political climate in our country that led the member of this congregation to wonder what Bonhoeffer would do.

Of course, we know what Bonhoeffer did.

A German Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent a year studying and teaching at Union Theological Seminary and working in an African American congregation in the early 1930’s. He spent  the rest of the decade in Germany, becoming active in the resistance to Hitler, and leading an underground seminary, since the German government had banned him from teaching openly in universities.

In 1937 Bonhoeffer published The Cost of Discipleship, which includes a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. His reflection on the text we heard this morning are as disturbing today as they were eighty years ago: “Jesus does not allow his hearers to go away and make of his sayings what they will, picking and choosing from them whatever they find helpful, and testing them to see if they work….This word which sets us at once to work and obedience, is the rock on which to build our house. The only proper response to this word…is to do it.”

In 1939 Bonhoeffer returned to Union Seminary as a guest lecturer and quickly realized he had taken the wrong action. He wrote to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

What would Bonhoeffer do? He got on the last steamship leaving the United States for Germany. He became active in the plot to kill Hitler.

And for this he was executed in April of 1945. His brother and two of his brothers-in-law shared similar fates.

What Bonhoeffer did was to follow the call of Christ as he understood that call for himself in his time. His story continues to inspire and to trouble Christians and non-Christians alike.

But Bonhoeffer’s life is not our lives.

Bonhoeffer’s times are not our times.

Even if we could know what Bonhoeffer would do, that might not be what we should do. So I was reluctant to pursue this sermon suggestion because of those disconnections.

But others have been thinking about Bonhoeffer recently as well as members of our congregation.

This past week David Brooks—not exactly a radical leftist—asked: “How should one resist the Trump administration?” Just four weeks into a new presidency and Brooks was talking resistance!

He said that if the threat is authoritarianism, an administration that would slowly erode democratic rights and take vengeance on Congress, the judiciary, and journalists, well, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is just the model we need. Bonhoeffer condemned the government, descried and worked against the persecution of Jews, and actively sought to overthrow Hitler.

But, Brooks added, we’re not at a Bonhoeffer moment. This, of course, was before the president declared journalists to be the enemy of the American people.

Situations change so rapidly.

Still, we might appreciate Brooks’ suggestion that the threat is not authoritarianism but instead “a combination of incompetence and anarchy.” And we are not in a “Bonhoeffer moment,” Brooks said, but something more like a “Gerald Ford” moment.

I don’t say this often, but David Brooks might be right. What we need now are decent, modest people who believe in the institutions of government and can bind the nation’s wounds and restore normalcy and competence.[i] Maybe instead of brave heroics, what we need now are lives of grace, actions that are just, kind, and humble—as we heard the prophet Micah urge a few weeks ago. Maybe, as Bonhoeffer himself suggested, “It will be the task of our generation, not to ‘seek great things,’ but to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos, and to realize that it is the only thing we can carry as a ‘prize’ from the burning building.”[ii]

And decent and modest and courageous people like are showing up in surprising places. As one person said last week, “We can celebrate the vitality of the institutions of a free society that are pushing back against a president offering the country a remarkable combination of authoritarian inclinations and ineptitude. The courts, civil servants, citizens — collectively and individually — and, yes, an unfettered media have all checked the president and forced inconvenient facts into the sunlight.[iii]

So the real question is not “What would Bonhoeffer do.”

Nor is the question: “What would Jesus do?”

There are two important questions: “What will I do?” and “What will we do?”

Like the ancient Hebrew people, like the early followers of Jesus, we, too, are called this day to follow what we have heard, as best as we are able and so to bring blessing and not curse into the world, to increase goodness among people.

Jesus calls us not only to hear but also to act upon what he says. What we will do specifically will be discovered as we listen to the word of Christ in our specific circumstances.

Let me give you one recent example:

You might have heard last week that in response to growing deportations around the country, churches are exploring again what it means to offer sanctuary.

Seth Kaper-Dale, the pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey, says: "Sanctuary works." In 2012, the church offered sanctuary to nine Indonesian immigrants who were set for deportation. Almost a year later, they reached an agreement with ICE allowing them to stay for now. Kaper-Dale adds: “I can tell you from our own experience that all nine people who lived here have kept their families together, have been able to raise their children, have been able to go back to their jobs. Is sanctuary brutally hard? Yes. But it is a tool that we will use, if we're forced by a brutal regime to use it.”

Sanctuary church advocates insist history is on their side. You might remember John Fife, the former minister of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., which helped spark the sanctuary church movement of the 1980s and '90s to help migrants from Central America get asylum.

“That movement,” Fife says, “changed the public perception of the issue, and resulted in the government changing its policy.” It also resulted in the arrest and conviction of Fife and other activists. Sanctuary churches today say they're prepared to continue that work, too.

Again, not every church is called to the same task. Not every church will be a sanctuary church. It is but one example of how faithful people have responded to the word of Christ in their specific circumstances.

What we will do?

The Sermon on the Mount is filled with problems. Often when I’m preaching a series of sermons from one book of the Bible or a long section of a book, I’ll encourage you to read through the whole thing on your own. You know: last summer I told you read Paul’s brief but powerful letter to the Galatians—and the long but powerful book of Jeremiah. Did anybody do that?

But I didn’t suggest reading the Sermon on the Mount. Are we supposed to take all of this literally? Are we expected to live out all of the demanding words of Jesus that might not seem relevant for our time? Should we instead see this more as difficult words that we can never live up to—showing us our failings, our sin? Or is this an aspirational sermon—keep trying even if you’ll never make it?

Certainly after reading this sermon we are shocked.

What will we do?

At the end of this sermon Jesus gives tells a parable about two men—one wise and one foolish—and their building projects. It seems pretty straightforward: the wise man built on a rock; the foolish man built on the sand in a dry riverbed. The rains came—one house stood and one house fell.

But here’s the thing with this and all parables. The meaning is never as straightforward as it seems. This isn’t an allegory—we shouldn’t try to discover what the rock, the house, the sand, the rain, and so on “mean.” Instead, after the sermon is over, this parable keeps asking us about what we are doing and what we are failing to do. This parable keeps asking us where God’s grace is sustaining us and where we are being swept away.

This parable, then, might be one of the most important parts of the Sermon on the Mount. As much as the rest of the sermon, this parable comes to us in our uncertain days and keeps questioning our actions even as it constantly calls us to action.

No wonder those who heard it were astonished, even overwhelmed.

We certainly are.

And even so, we called daily to act in our time and in our place out of what we have heard from Jesus in this shocking sermon.