Dear Working Preacher,
Some texts seem too difficult to preach. Not difficult for us as interpreters, but rather too difficult for people to hear and to bear. This is one definitely of those texts.
I mean, here we are, at the pinnacle of the Sermon on the Mount (no pun intended), listening as Jesus commands his disciples — then and now, I presume — to do some of the most difficult things imaginable: turn the other cheek, don’t retaliate, love your enemies, pray for those who attack you. I know this is what we’re supposed to do. I also know that it’s really, really hard for most of us to imagine, let alone carry out in any kind of consistent way. And then there’s that last verse, the kicker: “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.”
Good night, but what’s an honest, hardworking preacher to do? Duck and run? As tempting as that is, I actually think we should start right there, with the hardest of a slew of hard verses: “Be perfect.” When we hear that command, most of us hear an injunction to a kind of moral perfectionism. But that’s not actually what the original language implies. “Perfect,” in this case, stems from telos, the Greek word for “goal,” “end,” or “purpose.” The sense of the word is more about becoming what was intended, accomplishing one’s God-given purpose in the same way that God constantly reflects God’s own nature and purpose. Eugene Peterson’s The Message gets closer to the mark, I think, when he translates it, “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”
Does that let us off the hook with all the other things? Certainly not. But it does help us get to the root of the issue. We can only do these other things — repaying evil with good, forgiving and praying for those who harm us — to the degree that we can live into our God-given identity as blessed and beloved children. You can’t give what you don’t have, and so only those who have experienced love can in turn share it with others.
Which is why it matters who’s saying these things in the first place. It’s Jesus — Jesus, the one who not only talked the talk of love but walked the walk, treading steadfastly to Jerusalem, enduring the shame and humiliation of the cross, embracing death itself…all so that we might know, experience, and trust just how much God loves us and thereby — and only thereby! — have abundant life. This Jesus not only commands, he also understands, understands just how hard it is for us to love rather than hate, to forgive rather than begrudge, to embrace rather than protect, to share rather than hoard, to heal rather than wound, especially when we ourselves walk so much of our lives wounded and hurt.
So what difference might it make, Working Preacher, if we took this interpretive tack with this passage: urging our people to live into their God-given identity as the blessed and beloved children of God who, really knowing and believing and feeling they are loved, might then be able to love others as children of the kingdom? Will it be easy? Of course not. So many things get in the way. Past disappointments or hurts that still haunt us. Old grudges and wounds that are a long time healing. Painful memories that are slow to fade.
Given this, I wonder if you’d be willing to venture another zany idea? For instance, I’ve been wondering what it might be like, after naming some of the things we’ve just talked about, to give people an opportunity to think about just what it is that gets in their way of being the kind of people God created them to be. Further, what would it be like to invite our people to write down just one thing they believe is holding them back from living into their God-given identity. You could print up pieces of paper ahead of time that say something like, “Believing I am God’s beloved child, I know that I am called to share God’s love with others. But I find it hard because….” Or perhaps simpler is better, and you could just ask them to write down one thing — one fear, one memory, one hurt, one resentment — that keeps them from embracing and becoming the person God wishes them to be. People could put these into the offering plates and bring these challenges along with their gifts up to God’s altar. In a sense, we’d be giving God not only some of our treasure but also some of our tragedy, trusting God to receive and redeem both.
Or perhaps we should remember what Augustine said to his congregants while presiding at the Lord’s Supper: “Receive who you are. Become what you’ve received.” In this case, our people could bring their confessions with them as they come to communion and leave them at the table. Either way, the idea would be to symbolize our honest confession and, trusting that God loves us, leave it behind. No one will read these confessions, which may make it easier for folks to make them. But God will see them, and we may feel a little less burdened having confessed our limitations and been enfolded again in God’s love. And, who knows, perhaps in this way we’ll actually leave finding it easier to love, forgive, and help others.
I’ve wondered, too, about whether when people turn in their confessions they might pick up another card or piece of paper that simply says, “You are God’s beloved child. Be what you have been called.” They could carry it with them throughout the week, pulling it out when it seems particularly hard to follow Jesus in the way of love. Or maybe it’s just enough after to have you bless them, or have them turn to one another and bless each other, perhaps saying, borrowing from Peterson, “You are kingdom people, blessed and beloved by God and called to be salt and light in the world. Go, be who you are!”
I don’t know, but I do know that we need to keep trying to find ways to send these powerful stories — stories of blessing and love, forgiveness and new creation — out with our people, and I think these kinds of simple actions can help us do that. I honestly don’t know what will work — or even if it’s a matter of finding any one thing that works — but I do value your creativity and faithfulness and I trust that between all of us we’ll keep coming up with ways to send people out not just hearing, but feeling, tasting, and living this story we’ve been told. Our efforts may not be perfect, but I trust the Holy Spirit to do might things with them anyway! Thanks for your partnership.
Yours in Christ,