June 15, 2011
Experiments in the Kingdom of Love: Taking the Sermon on the Mount Seriously
In response to the recent release of Mark Scandrette's remarkable Practicing the Way of Jesus, we at Strangely Dim are trying our hands at "experiments in the kingdom of love" built around five categories of primal need, alluded to in the Lord's Prayer:
Good experiments, according to Mark, are based on the real, lived experience of the disciples in question and stretch them into uncomfortable (yet ultimately transformative) realms of experience. My first experiment has been seven days of daily reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5--7). I chose this experiment for a whole variety of reasons, principally because a verse from the Sermon on the Mount was the first part of the Bible I ever memorized:
I memorized that a looooooong time ago, when I was an angst-ridden college student, and the memory of it has survived all the high-falutin theology and low-brow culture I've crammed into my brain since. A person could do worse than to remind himself those words of Jesus every day or so, but it's been a loooooong time since I went to the trouble of doing just that.
Beyond this nostalgic motivation, the Sermon on the Mount is the subject of another Likewise book I'm really excited about--Jamie Arpin-Ricci's Cost of Community, releasing this winter. Jamie wrestles with the sermon from the vantage point of his urban monastic community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with guiding insights from the life and teachings of Francis of Assisi. Jamie's a deep soul doing good work, and I could do worse than emulate him in my ongoing faith formation.
The sermon is also the high point of Jesus' teachings in the Gospel of Matthew, which is the subject of yet another Likewise book releasing this winter. This second volume in the Resonate series is written by Matt Woodley, whom I came to admire as I edited his Folly of Prayer. He's a great, wise writer, and the sermon is a focal point of his latest work.
As if all that weren't enough, I've been reading Eric Metaxas's massive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which includes a pivotal moment in 1934, during the rise of the Nazis and the apostatization of the German Church, when Bonhoeffer wrote the following to his brother Karl-Friedrich:
All this to say, a week in the Sermon on the Mount seemed appropriate, to say the least.
Over the past seven days I've read the Sermon in various translations, from the archaic to the folksy/contemporary, from the Roman Catholic to the flaming fundamentalist. At the suggestion of my friend Mark I "read" it aurally, using the audio feature provided by the You Version. A few things have jumped out to me as I've simmered in the sermon.
For example, Jesus talks about reward a lot. The poor in spirit and the righteous persecuted "get" the kingdom of heaven; the meek "get" the earth; the pure in heart "get" to see God; those who are persecuted for Jesus' sake "get" the reward of the prophets. And on and on and on.
Reward isn't the only topic, of course; there's also judgment--against the angry and spiteful, the lecherous and lustful, the cold and the calculating. There's a way of reading the Sermon on the Mount that is decidedly "do this, don't do that." In this way I suppose it recalls another sermon on another mount--Moses' reiteration of the Law to the people of Israel from Sinai in Deuteronomy 28--30, where he sets before his people life and death, and encourages them to choose life. Jesus is doing something similar, but ironically, he's encouraging people not to choose life but rather to choose him: we are blessed when we suffer persecution in his name, and we are wise to sacrifice our bodies in an effort to protect our fidelity to him.
If everyone practiced the lifestyle outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, the world would be a better place. But what if everyone practiced it except for one person? How handily could Hitler have trampled over a world of the meek waiting to inherit the earth? Arguably, as I'm learning from Bonhoeffer's story, a collective, steadfast turning of the other cheek in the face of evil merely allows evil to continue unchecked. We may be storing up treasures in heaven, but we're capitulating to evil on earth.
And yet the great justice movements of the past century have been characterized by exactly this turning of the cheek, this refusal to repay evil for evil. I don't know fully what to make of it, but I note that Jesus' sermon is directed not to all the onlookers, who nevertheless heard every word and marveled at it, but rather to the disciples--called out ones whose resoluteness in the face of suffering and persecution by the powers that be would gradually convert the world.
It could be that the world can only learn to distinguish good from evil, to choose life over death, by watching evil and good in action. "Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matthew 7:17). There are any number of people, it seems, willing to play the part of the bad tree; playing the good tree, it turns out, is harder than it looks, and its rewards are generally deferred far beyond our preferred timeline. But as Bonhoeffer put it as he held out against the rise of the Nazis, "here alone lies the force that can blow all of this idiocy sky-high."
Anyway, these are the thoughts that have gone through my brain as I've undertaken this experiment, as I've read and reread the Sermon on the Mount. There's something undeniably appealing about blowing all the idiocy of the world sky-high. So here's to the audacious aspiration to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. No seven-day experiment can accomplish that, but as a lifelong commitment, it's something that on my more self-confident days I'm willing to undertake.