Thank you for inviting me to Open Mike Sunday at St.
Thomas’. I say this because I’m not used to preaching, having last done
it more years ago than I care to remember. In my last sermon, I
expressed a young adult’s frustration with the apparent hypocrisy of his
elders. My effort had no discernible effect on my audience.
Nevertheless, when I accepted Martha’s invitation to be here today, I
took it on faith that the Holy Spirit would somehow point me in a useful
Being a well-trained Episcopalian, my first preparatory step was to
examine the lectionary readings for today, which, as a heavy computer
user, I did at the Web site known as
I’ve learned that the lessons for any particular week sometimes seem
to address a particular theme. Other times, they seem unrelated,
apparently chosen with random abandon. Sometimes, like those for this
morning, the readings actually seem contradictory.
Today’s lessons, in one way or another, all address discipleship—how
are we to follow the God of Israel? How are we to follow Christ Jesus?
What, in fact, is our relationship to the divine?
Much of what we read today is straightforward and comforting,
Deuteronomy tells us to put God’s words in our hearts, and Paul, writing
to the Romans, tells us that “a person is justified by faith apart from
works prescribed by the law.” Familiar stuff, particularly Paul’s
discussion of justification by faith, the redemption that is the gift of
God’s grace, rather than a reward for our righteousness. “[A]ll have
sinned,” he says, “and fall short of the glory of God.” We are saved not
by our works, but by our faith.
This message is not exactly what we see in Deuteronomy,
however, where God offers a blessing “if you obey the commandments of
the LORD your God” and a curse “if you do not obey the commandments of
the LORD your God.” We can perhaps dismiss this Old Testament warning as
something nullified by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ—Paul is
telling us, after all, that we now have a new way to relate to God. The
gospel passage, however, presents serious problems.
Matthew has Jesus, that other great figure of Christianity, seemingly
contradicting not only Paul, but even himself. He calls the man wise who
hears and acts on his message, and he calls the man foolish who hears
but does not so act. But this teaching comes immediately after Jesus
suggests that sincerity is not enough to earn a place in the kingdom.
Even those doing powerful works in Jesus’ name may be rejected as not
doing God’s will.
I think that, with some effort, we can extract a deeper and perhaps
even coherent meaning from this morning’s gospel. Jesus’ building
analogy is actually a variation on a rabbinical story of the time that
contrasted building an adobe house on a stone foundation, rather than
the reverse. If Jesus is actually alluding to this story, then he may be
expressing a concern for planning, for thinking things through, for
building on a firm foundation, as it were, for apostolic action. Perhaps
this kind of deliberate discipleship is being contrasted to knee-jerk
self-righteousness, or even to the use of Jesus’ name as a mere magical
Today’s gospel comes near the end of what my friend and retired
professor, the Rev. Peter Bercovitz, calls the “so-called
sermon on the so-called mount.” He means by this that this “sermon”
in Matthew is a literary device used by the evangelist to present
sayings of Jesus first circulated as oral tradition separated for
precise knowledge of the original context. (Luke has Jesus saying many
of the same things on a plain, by the way.) This matters because, even
if Matthew accurately presents what Jesus said, it is reasonable to
believe that that is not all he said. We are therefore challenged
to provide context—Peter calls it a “frame”—for each saying, and we can
only look to the New Testament as a whole for such context.
Paul ... is comforting and
reassuring. Jesus, by contrast, seems demanding and
So, what are we to make of Paul’s message when considered next to the
Jesus saying in Matthew? Paul, admitting that we are all sinners in need
of redemption and incapable of earning it, is comforting and reassuring.
Jesus, by contrast, seems demanding and unforgiving. Do we earn
salvation? Do we simply accept it? Is the truth more complicated?
I’m not going to try to untangle this paradox, but a solution to the
problem presented by today’s readings is surely possible. What I want to
do instead is to suggest that the seeming contradictions and lack of
historicity in the New Testament belie the claim, often made by the
so-called conservatives in recent Anglican controversies, that there is
some unambiguous “plain meaning” we can extract from scripture without
benefit of theological or scholarly resources. The conservatives, or, as
I prefer to call them, the neo-Puritans, are interested in establishing,
say, the unequivocal sinfulness of homosexuality. These Calvinists among
us may even be right about homosexuality, but they are assuredly wrong
in insisting on the existence of some “plain meaning” of often very
controversial passages. I might also add that they conveniently ignore
the “plain meaning” of many passages that are unacceptable to
contemporary sensibilities, despite the fact that they are fond of
accusing others of surrendering to the “secular culture.”
The Good Book, Harvard Divinity School professor, the Rev. Peter
J. Gomes, traces faith in the most straightforward reading of biblical
texts to the Protestant Reformation. He calls this approach to reading
the Bible literalism. The Protestant reformers wanted to wrest
authority for scriptural interpretation from the Church, so they argued
for putting the text into the hands of ordinary believers, a program
that had only recently become practical. This, however, raised the
prospect that each Christian could extract a different meaning from the
Bible, potentially leading to ecclesiastical chaos. By arguing that the
meaning of the text is straightforward to the point of being incapable
of misinterpretation, the Protestants denied the traditional role of the
church while seemingly protecting correct belief.
Any historian or linguist—and most modern theologians—would
immediately see the literalist approach to scripture as naïve and
misguided. The biblical text, after all, has made a long and uncertain
journey to reach us, and, in any case, meaning is not carried in words
like water in a bucket. Moreover, the scholarly conclusions of a
Professor Bercovitz are almost certainly true, yet not immediately
obvious to the casual reader.
Gomes points out that simply asserting the reliability of untutored
interpretation does not make it true. Also, by equating meaning with
truth, this approach impoverishes the text by dismissing the importance
of literary devices such as symbolism, thereby obscuring, rather than
explicating the text. Investing the English text of the Bible with such
a power to communicate God’s intent is to invoke magic of the sort that
some think Jesus is speaking against in the passage in Matthew.
So what ideas do I want you to take home
with you today?
|| God loves you and offers you
redemption through his son Jesus Christ.
|| Everything else is complicated.
||Read your Bible, and keep coming to
||Be wary of simple answers.