Today we continue reading from the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus teaches his followers shortly after beginning his public ministry. The Gospel according to Matthew, the 5th chapter.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the reign of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the reign of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the reign of heaven.
I’ve been asked a few times what I will miss most about being pastor here at Holy Trinity. The list to choose from is long. I’ll miss worship on Sunday mornings, the feeling of community as we gather around Word and Sacrament, and especially the strong hymn singing I hear behind me from my spot in the front row. I’ll miss connecting with each of you after worship and the wide variety of conversation topics we’ve covered in the narthex and Community Room, from commiserating about a Twins baseball game to hearing about a serious health concern. Thank you for sharing your lives with me. I’ll miss the people I have had the privilege of working with on a daily basis—Pastor Ingrid, David, Ann, Meghan, Vicki, Nolan—and the laughter, the prayerful reflection, and the creative planning we have shared while sitting around that old, green, office workroom table. In fact, I’ll miss that table itself and how it seems to magically produce cookies, doughnuts, and other treats on an almost daily basis—though my cholesterol may be better off now. I’ll miss spending time with the youth, including thoughtful confirmation discussion and winter retreats and summer trips and listening to the kids talk in the back of the van when they didn’t think I could hear them. I could hear you guys. I’ll miss the stories I hear in the neighborhood when people find out I’m a pastor here and they tell me how they have been touched by Holy Trinity’s ministry. There are many things I’ll miss.
But as I’ve thought long and hard about the question, I think what I’ll miss most about being a pastor here is how this community of faith has consistently—week after week and even day by day—helped to orient me toward the needs of others. That has really been a great gift. As people of faith, we are set free by the good news of God’s grace to serve others and all of creation, but we need each other to do it. We need reminders from one another about what we’re to be about. We need the support and encouragement from one another to persist in faithful service. You are a community that persists in the search for justice, inclusion, and peace for all of God’s children, without exception. And I am grateful.
You’ve challenged me to grow in my own awareness and understanding of matters of social and environmental justice. You’ve influenced my preaching and teaching through the conversations we’ve had at Bible studies or dialogue events. And your faithfulness in this way has been with love—for God, for one another, for our neighbors beyond these four walls, and for me. Even as I prepare to leave this congregation, I have been touched by your support and love for me and my family. Thank you. Kristen and I will always treasure what we have shared together with you these past nine years.
I find it especially appropriate that we have been reading from the Sermon on the Mount these past few weeks in worship because it is such an important description of the kind of community that Jesus forms among his followers. It even serves as a kind of mission statement for congregations like ours. (The lectionary often has a way of providing what I need to hear.) In this crucial chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has called his followers together. Before anything else he blessed them, each one of them, no matter the circumstances of their lives. Some were mourning, some were meek, some were hungry and longed for justice. They may have felt insignificant, but Jesus said that in God’s eyes they were indeed blessed. They were valued and deeply loved. This is a message that I hope you, too, have heard weekly as you’ve come to worship in this place. You are loved. You are a treasured child of God, each one of you. You are set free from any messages the world gives you that you do not measure up because in Christ God says that you are enough.
With divine love and grace, Jesus blessed his followers. Then, like Moses, he went up the mountain. He invited them to come up the mountain with him away from the rest of the crowd to teach them about what that blessing will mean for them. He reminded them that God had a purpose for them, a dream for what they would be and do in the world, not only for their sakes for their neighbors, too. He reminded them to keep the commandments of God, even exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Now, despite the criticisms we hear in the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees were good and well-intentioned people. We shouldn’t make caricatures out of them. They did their best to follow God’s commands, and it wasn’t just so that they could puff themselves up and assert their superiority over others. That’s not their motivation. We need to understand the context in which they lived. Their primary question was how they could remain as God’s faithful people even when living in exile or occupied by a foreign power. How do you keep your spiritual identity in the context of a powerful empire? This was a valid, very real concern. So they studied and discussed and debated with one another faithfully in order to preserve their identity as God’s people.
This was the right question for them to be asking, it seems to me. Let’s give them some credit. In fact, I think it is wise for us to ask the question of ourselves, too.
No, as God’s church today in this society, we do not live in exile or under foreign occupation, but we do live with the influence of a whole host of powers. How do we live as God’s faithful people in the face of consumerism, nationalism, and militarism? How do we follow Christ when institutional racism is in the air we breathe, when a fear of other cultures and religions is broadcasted every day, when misogyny seeks to silence women’s voices? In such a context, we need to turn to God’s word for us and study, discuss, and debate with one another faithfully. Not every word of scripture is relevant for our day and age, but God has intentions for this world God loves so much. God’s commands are a gift for us, helping us to follow the path that leads toward life for all people, without exception. At root of these commandments is love of God and love of neighbor. That’s our guiding principle in our discernment of God’s call to us today.
Jesus calls us to reclaim the intention of God’s commands for us, as the prophets taught it: to love God and to love our neighbors. Where the scribes and Pharisees may have gone wrong is that they stopped with just trying to preserve personal holiness, but Jesus asks us to go beyond that. There may be a natural tendency in all of us to try to remain faithful and righteous without disrupting those powers that exist around us and seek to influence daily life. We might try to keep to ourselves and just work on our personal piety. However, the reign of God cannot avoid being subversive. The light of Christ cannot be hid under a bushel basket but is intended to be visible to all. It’s going to catch the attention of others, and Jesus is honest with his followers about that from the very beginning.
I have seen you exceed the scribes and Pharisees in this way by publically proclaiming and living the gospel in a way that makes a difference in the lives of others. You do not hide your light under a bushel. You make it visible for all to see.
There’s an Old Testament scholar I like a lot by the name of Walter Brueggemann. You may have heard me quote him once or twice. In a sermon at Central Lutheran years ago, he described the gospel message in a way that has stuck with me ever since. The gospel, he said, the treasure of the Church, which is meant to be visible to all and shared with the world is
–forgiveness in order to start again in a society that never forgives and keeps score forever;
–generosity that overwhelms our lack in a society based in scarcity and getting more for ourselves;
–hospitality that welcomes us in a society that is inhospitable to all but our own kind;
–justice that protects the vulnerable in a social system that is deathly in its injustice.
It is the old, old story, he said, of God’s self-giving graciousness to us and to all creatures. That is the treasure!
And then he went on. Brueggemann said, “this is the truth about the gospel: there is not any single person—not old or young, not rich or poor, not gay or straight, not conservative or liberal–not anyone who does not eagerly hope for the news of God’s reconciling, liberating love. Not one!”
This is why I am grateful you, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. And though I’m leaving, I won’t really miss it because you will continue to share this treasure with the world. You are a congregation of disciples—along with many throughout Christ’s church on earth—committed to proclaiming God’s liberating love, without excluding anyone. Thanks be to God for you and for God’s ongoing, life-giving mission for the world. Amen.