“A Shocking Sermon”
February 19, 2017
“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:
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.
Those sayings alone are overwhelming.
But they also heard:
If you are angry
with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment.
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.
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
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
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
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
Nor is the question: “What would Jesus
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
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
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
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.
[ii] Letters and Papers from Prison, pg. 297