Sunday, January 25, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "The Mountaintop"

Matthew 6:7-15

7 “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 9 Pray like this: 

 Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name. 10 Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. 11 Give us the bread we need for today. 12 Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. 13 And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. 

 14 “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins." (Common English Bible)

“The Mountaintop,” Matthew 6:7-15

“As One Having Authority: Sermons that Changed the World,” Week Two

The words are about as desperate as they sound out of context as in context: “Help!  Help!  I’ll become a monk!”

They are the words that a law student uttered as he was riding home on horseback in the midst of a thunderstorm when a bolt of lightning struck the ground right next to him.  Unlike most of us who probably have bargained with God at some point in the throes of shock and fear, the law student kept his word and became an Augustinian monk.  His father was furious—to him, it was as though his errant son was taking his highly-regarded legal education and setting it on fire—but there was no stopping this young chap.

And thus was created Martin Luther, the religious teacher and reformer and forefather of Protestant Christianity, rather than Martin Luther, the ambulance-chasing lawyer (or whatever the equivalent of ambulances were back then…stretcher-bearer chaser?  Say that ten times fast).

All because he saw as an authentic prayer what we might have seen merely as an utterance of panic.  Where we might have seen only a want to survive, Luther saw the genuine article, a spiritual calling.  And that is what prayer can do.  It is, truthfully, what it should do.  It should pave the way for those higher callings we are meant to engage in, those high callings to social justice and care and compassion that we talked about last week.  Prayer fuels all of that, and so it is appropriate that we turn today to a sermon whose core is all about prayer: the Sermon on the Mount.

This is a new sermon series to go along with the new year, and it will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the church season of Lent.  For a while now, I have wanted to talk to all of you about the meaning and significance of preaching, and this series allows me to do exactly that.  The title for this series comes from the assembled crowd’s reaction to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew says that they were astounded that He taught them as “one having authority,” rather than one of their temple authorities.  So…how do we teach one another as one having authority?  That’s what we’ll be working on together, and each week for the next five weeks, we will be talking about one of the many significant sermons that are given in the New Testament: the Sermon on the Mount, Peter’s Pentecost sermon, Stephen’s farewell speech before his martyrdom, and Paul’s address to the Areopagus.  We began this series by looking at Jesus’s first sermon in His ministry as documented by Luke in his Gospel, and it was appropriate that we did so on the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day because this resounding call for justice from Isaiah 61 that Jesus preaches on was King’s message as well, and today, we move, as I said, to the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew holds as Jesus’s inaugural sermon rather than the sermon on Isaiah 61 in the Nazareth synagogue which Luke documents.

Nevertheless, whichever one came first, the chicken sermon or the egg sermon (so to speak), both messages were profoundly important for setting the tone for everything else that was to follow in Jesus’s earthly ministry.  They both encapsulate, in their own ways, what this whole Christianity thing is all about—or, at least, what it was meant to be about and should still be about.

Now, first things first—does it matter at all where Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount?

Absolutely, it does.  It evokes the image of Moses, ascending Mount Sinai to receive the law (beginning with the Ten Commandments) from God, and so in turn does Jesus ascend to interpret the law that Moses once received.  Not only that, though, but as Father Albert, my favorite Bible professor from seminary taught, the Sermon on the Mount itself is shaped like a mountain—perfectly symmetrical from a beginning-and-end perspective, with each end (chapter 5 and chapter 7 of Matthew) climbing to a particular point as the sermon’s peak.  And that peak is this passage wherein Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, atop the mountain.

This mountaintop, ultimately, is all about trying to get closer to God.  It is why the primeval ancients built the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11; since they believed that God lived in the skies (personally, I believe God lives in maple syrup, but nobody else seems to subscribe to that extremely well-grounded hypothesis), then they would try to reach the skies themselves and thus be close to God and be like gods themselves.  That didn’t turn out so well for them.

The same sort of thing, in fact, happens while Moses is up on Sinai, which is what—as I just said—Jesus is emulating here.  When Moses comes down from the mountaintop with the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (or the Fifteen Commandments, if you believe Mel Brooks in his “History of the World, Part I”), he discovers that the Israelites have taken to worshipping the golden calf, because that puts God (or rather, their idol of a god) closer to them and in their midst, and Moses smashes the tablets in fury.  This doesn’t turn out so well, either.

But hey, third time’s a charm, right?  Except that the Lord’s Prayer isn’t really a third time, it’s a first time, a first attempt; there isn’t anything else quite like it.  It’s unique, a one-off.  Certainly, there are other prayers and identical sentiments expressed elsewhere at varying points within Scripture, but only here are they encapsulated so simply and so elegantly and, ultimately, so accessibly into a single prayer that it can be learned and recited even as a young child.

And really, that is what prayer is for, in the end.  It is to be accessible to us, and for us to begin to pick up on as early as possible, because it is what fuels everything else.  All the other stuff I talked about last week: working for equality for all people, striving for social justice, performing individual acts of charity and goodness, all of those, ALL of them, are fueled ultimately by prayer, by an act of us trying to bring ourselves closer to God as a spiritual practice.  Prayer enables all of that.

It does this because prayer, at its core form, though it often comes down, as Christian writer Anne Lamott says, to either “Please, please please,” or “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” prayer at its core form is an expression of faith in a being mightier and greater and far more encompassing than our little feeble selves could ever be.  It is the reversal of the sentiment behind the creation of the Tower of Babel, or of the golden calf at Sinai: it is the ultimate concession that we are not gods, that we will never be as God is, and for us to see and recognize and appreciate God’s movement in our lives, we need to be able to pray to God about it first.

That is something that I have, if I am completely honest with you, often struggled with.  Prayer sometimes feels like it saps energy from me rather than giving me energy, and as a result, I end up slowly chiseling away at my own stores of faith.  It is a terrible condition to have when your job means that you are (understandably) expected to pray on command at family dinners and the like, and when I do find myself in a moment when I do not know how to pray or what to pray for, I have to remember that Jesus already taught me how to pray and what to pray for.

So I try to make whatever prayer I am saying within the same contours of the Lord’s Prayer.

And it seems to work, if I simply try to ask God for the things Jesus instructs us to ask God for, the things that Jesus says it is okay to ask God for.  My mom just posted this article to her Facebook page this morning, so this is a late insert, but what the hell: apparently, 1 of 4 Americans think that God will have a direct hand in determining who wins the Super Bowl.  I guess what is reassuring is that the other 3 of 4 folks don’t, but still.  I get that we all want the Seahawks to go back-to-back here, but “give us this day another Super Bowl title” isn’t exactly a faithful translation of Matthew 6:11.

But if this is what we expect of God and of divine intervention by God, maybe we get the prayer we deserve.  I know I just self-flagellated publicly over my own prayer shortcomings, so I am a proud hypocrite here, but I feel this every time I hear a Christian—even a pastor—pray a prayer that sounds like, “Father, we just want to just say to you, Father, just that you, Father, just, just, just.”  It’s such an insidious thing that the perennially funny Christian writer Jon Acuff satirized it on his humor blog, “Stuff Christians Like.”

Me, I honestly kind of want to put my fingers in my ears when I hear that particular prayer.  That’s not a prayer, that’s what Jesus calls babbling on and on.

So maybe we get the prayer we deserve.  But we shouldn’t.  Or, rather, we shouldn’t settle for that.  Because God sent Jesus with a message of how to pray as we ought, to pray a prayer worthy of our faith., of a faith that, like these sermons, can still change the world.

So let us settle for that instead.  Let us settle for praying as Jesus taught us.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Because in the end, there truly is nothing less than that.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 25, 2015

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