The Rev. Neale L. Miller
Sermon for May 28, 2017
Texts: Psalm 46/Matthew 7:21-28
Title: “Every Preacher’s Dream”
Picture the scene in your mind’s eye. Mountains off to our right, green space to our front sloping down to a lake dotted with small fishing boats. There is a substantial crowd, but probably not numbering more than two hundred. On viewing the scene we might reason that the people had gathered to enjoy a picnic, a perception reinforced as vendors of fruit and vegetables are spotted making their way through the crowd. By all appearances an amiably lot, we have no reservations about making our way through the crowd to the center of activity, who in this case is Jesus.
Failing to identify the precise setting in which the people gathered, or the number who gathered, Matthew introduces the Sermon on the Mount with these words, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain…” Your imaginations are given the same latitude to complete the scene as mine had.
Placed at the beginning of his gospel, the fifth through seventh chapters of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount has been referred to as the frontispiece of the gospel, a frontispiece being the illustration one sees upon opening a book, only in this instance the “frontispiece” is a series of lessons that set the tone for the content to follow.
Matthew fixes the inauguration of Jesus’ career as teacher/preacher at the Sermon on the Mount. A begun with a flourish. Jesus’ preaching drew rave notices. Not only that, paralytics, demoniacs and epileptics and others suffering lesser debilities were cured on the spot. Jesus’ resume building, his popularity increasing, Matthew introduces the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount, begun in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel concludes with the verses from chapter seven I read just moments ago. Though Matthew knows much more about what Jesus said and did while he was with us here on earth than can be found in the Sermon on the Mount, that sermon, as I suggested earlier, certainly forms the solid core around which his ministry builds—and an impressive core it is.
Likening the Sermon on the Mount to the U.S Constitution, the governing principles and protocols upon which our government is established, Professor Tom Long describes the Beatitudes with which the Sermon opens as “the preamble to the Constitution.” Long writes, “[The Beatitudes] describe the purpose of every holy law, the foundation of every custom, the aim of every practice of this new society, this colony of the kingdom, the church called and instructed by Jesus.” Though the Beatitudes are certainly the most celebrated part of the sermon, the sermon embraces many, many issues bearing on your life and mine. The sermon celebrates the potential stored up in the human life—“you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world”—but with equal seriousness it addresses the sin to which we succumb—“I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment.” It instructs us how to pray. It gives a succinct summary of the attitude we should maintain toward each other, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The Sermon on the Mount is a beloved and memorable sermon. And why? Because it imparts lessons that are readily applicable to your life or mine. The Sermon on the Mount, of course, is filled with many gems, lessons to which many of us were introduced with our mother’s milk. If you were asked on the spot to recite some biblical precept or teaching there is a very, very good likelihood that you would respond with something drawn from the Sermon on the Mount.
To their credit the original audience to the Sermon on the Mount immediately realized that Jesus had bestowed a special gift on them, offering the response that is every preacher’s dream. Matthew tells us that “the crowds were astounded…for he taught them as one having authority…”
“He taught them as one having authority.” Authority is not easily defined. In making an attempt one might likely face a challenge similar to the one Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart confronted when he was asked to define pornography. Recall Stewart’s famous reply, “I know it when I see.” Authority is like that, isn’t it? We know it when we see it. While it is true that the brightest might gain authority for their brightness, the powerful gain authority for their power, the devious gain authority by their deception, the authority of the kind that Jesus commanded, however, is not easily categorized.
“He taught them as one having authority.” A grateful congregation is liable to offer a variety of responses upon hearing a good sermon, but no tribute matches the one the crowd bestowed on Jesus. “He taught them as one having authority.”
In preparing a sermon people like me are engaged at every step in that task by the challenge to find words and images that will disclose the authority upon which our words rest. The Bible, of course, is the source that mediates God’s authority, but my peers and I who preach are challenged to reveal how scripture speaks to the specific circumstances each of us face in daily life. The challenge is to open the scriptures in such a way that Christ can speak through them, and that is a task that imposes great demands on the preacher.
The preacher may speak from a position of authority, yet not communicate authority. I may stand in one of those elevated pulpits that Tom and Prudence saw in Westminster Cathedral. I may be seminary trained. I may have a gift for communicating. None of that in and of itself renders what I have to say authoritative. Any authority I can claim from the pulpit has nothing to do with me, at least it shouldn’t, on the contrary, the authority I, or one of my peers, may be privileged to expose comes when God’s word is effectively communicate.
“He taught them as one having authority.” Yes, it was the words. Yes, it was the man who spoke them. But beyond the words and the man was the human needs those words addressed. The crowds opened themselves to Jesus’ authority for no other reason that what he said made sense, made sense in a way unmatched by anything they heard from other individuals who claimed the public’s ear.
Often when we hear something that makes sense in a profound way, we are likely to say, “those words really spoke to me,” or “a light went on.” But is it really the words we are talking about? In fact, we are not talking about words at all, we are talking about the authority mediated by words, the words spoken simply confirming what we, by the mystery of God’s grace, already knew [in here] to be true.
The year was 1940 and Britain was bracing itself against the inevitable attack of the Nazis. The British had just suffered the debacle of Dunkirk, hundreds of lives and tons of equipment and supplies lost in a mad dash scramble to evacuate France ahead of the rapidly approaching Germans. The fallout from Dunkirk left newly elected Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, with two options, fight on or capitulate. Should Britain choose the first option she knew she stood alone against an enemy much more powerful than she. If, on the other hand, she chose to capitulate she would place herself at the mercy of a dictator who for all appearances lacked a capacity for mercy.
As the future of Britain hung in the balance, Churchill came under great pressure to make peace with Germany on whatever terms he could. Members of his own Labor Party, even members of his cabinet, pressured him to yield. Churchill, however, stood his ground. Britain must fight on.
Certainly not an impressive man to look at, nor possessing an impressive record to stand on, Churchill was an impulsive, at times abrasive, a man to whom the nation frankly turned more in desperation rather than in confidence. In time, however, Churchill would win the confidence of the nation he served, and that because the man commanded authority.
Few men in the annals of history have ever so decisively impacted history as Churchill did. His commitment to his convictions, his demeanor under extraordinary pressure, and his eloquence, braced the resolve of an entire nation to fight on, even when the odds against survival seemed negligible.
Churchill commanded authority. People believed in him, they trusted him, even to the extent of placing their lives in his hands. You see, his words and deeds confirmed their own convictions about themselves as people and citizens, rallying them to fight on.
“He taught them as one having authority.” Jesus would leave the mountainside to continue his ministry elsewhere, a man of authority whose authority would continue to grow in each new setting.
The church and those who serve through it possess authority, only because we have first been possessed by it. It is only in accepting Jesus’ authority that we can in turn communicate authority. Jesus speaks to that point when in the Gospel of John he declares to some Jews who believed in him “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Or, said another way, “If you respond to my authority, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Free, that is, to speak and live from his authority. The church and those who serve through it possess authority, only because we have first been possessed by it.
The Sermon on the Mount, all good preaching really, is about introducing us, or reintroducing us, to our most authentic selves. It is about using words to make passageways into the chambers of the human heart where God’s Spirit resides. Good preaching connects us with the most vital parts of ourselves, the parts of ourselves that will only be satisfied by the heavenly manna God provides.
As the Sermon on the Mount concludes, the crowd is heard confirming Jesus’ authority, however, Matthew leaves out an important detail. He does not tell us what the people did with what they learned. They heard, they believed, but what did they DO?
While the speaker may command authority, he or she has no control over the response the authority evokes. Authority is only validated when those who accept its claims respond in action consistent with those claims. That, of course, is the very point Jesus seeks to drive home as he closes his sermon, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Hearing and doing are two distinctly separate things.
Different times and different circumstances perhaps but the same principle applies. In the bleak months of 1940 England faced what appeared to be an insurmountable task. Hitler’s Nazi machine would not be stopped. No option other than appeasement really seemed viable. One man chose to ignore what passed for wisdom. In eloquence unsurpassed by any statesman in history, Churchill stood up and challenged his nation to undertake the severe sacrifice defiance of Nazi German was sure to prompt.
It was the voice of authority to which the people responded. But what form did their response take? It wasn’t merely, “Nice speech, Mr. Prime Minister, you inspired us.” No, the people responded to his words by acting. Defying what looked for all purposes like insurmountable odds, and suffering great loss of life and hardship, they rolled up their sleeves and went to work until they prevailed.
“Wonderful sermon, preacher, you spoke with authority.” It’s every preacher’s dream, the affirmation the preacher most covets. But, then, it’s not about the preacher, it’s about the gospel, and the work to which the gospel points.
“Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” The authority of Christ, and those who would gesture to preach from the gospel he gave us, mobilizes. It provokes and summons us to action. Not the hearers, it’s the doers who really grasp what the authority of the Lord means. It is in our actions that the Lord’s authority is confirmed. AMEN.
O God, source of hope, we give thanks for the faithful of every age who preceded us in the faith. A faith passed down from the great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you have called women and men to carry your Word into the world. Even as you inspire our holy fear and awe, fear and awe that forced the children of Israel to flee your presence, you bid us to draw closer and savor the good things you prepare for us. Like our forbears, however, we are afraid to venture beyond our comfort zone. We claim we wish to move closer, but we can’t make our feet move. Refresh us spiritually, O God, that we may overcome the inhibitions and doubts that stall us spiritually.
Assembled as we are to worship in Christ’s name, the brothers and sisters for whom Christ died cry out for our help. May the compassion of the Christ, not be a sentiment foreign to our experience, but one we in the church embrace and act upon as opportunity is presented. You call us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and in all events pursue justice for all.
O God, our God, we raise our plea on behalf of the innocent who are victimized by cowards, most recently in Manchester, England. Cowards try to justify their action in the name of a God they scorn by their actions. Judgment is yours, O God, and we do not know in what form your judgment will issue, but we pray that judgment will fall, a demonstration of power so bold and convincing that all who harbor evil designs against their fellow man will forsake their ways.
Even as we demand judgment, we know that we too are accountable for our sins. May that accountability issue in a resolve to repent our sins and turn our lives around. In your mercy restore us, starting from those places in which we are most broken.
A memorial—a flag, a plaque, a monument—a means of remembering. To memorialize– to show respect, gratitude, and offer thanksgiving. Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember with respect, gratitude, and thanksgiving, all those who have made sacrifices that we might live free.
O God, we thank you for all those who, forsaking the comforts and opportunities of home, responded to a call to serve, were wounded or paid for our freedom with their lives. Brace those who grieve the death of loved ones lost in our nation’s battles, particularly those whose grief is recent, and may your intercession strengthen them in this their time of need.
O God, the times are in your hands. Many are in transition from one challenge to the next. Recent graduates make plans to extend their education in college or graduate school. Other graduates will soon join the workforce. We pray for these and others who face major life transitions. Steadfast and eternal God, we know that we may change, and the world changes, but naught changes thee.
We assemble here, O Lord, a community of friends, by paths bearing their own unique stamps. We are grateful for this community and the shared history we have accumulated. May your hand continue to guide us as each new day opens us to its opportunities and challenges.
Individual prayer concerns have already been expressed. May those for whom we have prayed be assured of your presence. Continue, O God, to watch over the affair of nations, that those who assert power and influence may act to further humane and just principles
For the gift of this moment, and the fellowship and opportunities we enjoy as your sons and daughters living in a free and prosperous land we give thanks even as we pray the prayer…