Image: Dohee Kwon (detail).
Epiphany 6, Year A
Sirach 15:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
The Sermon on the Mount is both inspiring and disturbing. With a gesture toward Moses at Mount Sinai, Jesus interprets Torah for a Galilean people fragmented and hurting. In the Spirit, Jesus addresses us.
Beatitude is presented in images of non-grasping, non-competitive co-existence. Blessings flow to and from those engaged in faithful and hopeful work – works of mourning, peacemaking and solidarity. We imagine interesting and interested people – salt of the earth and light of the world – artists and activists, spiritual guardians and siblings, comrades.
Today’s reading centres on authenticity as integration of word and deed, behaviour and desire; integration of habits and rituals, public and private identities. A perjorative utterance (raca/reca/idiot/fool/nobody/nothing!), Jesus says, reveals a disrespectful heart. Murder and adultery are powered by unchecked anger, objectifying lust. Long-winded, sanctimonious speeches mask insecurity and immaturity.
Authenticity, or integrity, unmasks …
The Greek word “hypocrite” refers to a masked performer. Not to denigrate the noble art of acting (artistic performance entails real courage and honesty), but to emphasise a major theme of the Sermon: authentic faith, authentic faithfulness builds consistency, dependable virtue, safe community, right relationship; authentic faithfulness embodies the wisdom of Sophia herself (freedom “to keep the commandments”), the very wisdom of Jesus who builds a house/church upon the rock of divine love for the world.
The fulfilment of Torah – as law, story, covenant – is seen in respectful subject-to-subject relations, nonviolence, embodied wisdom. Grace perfects human nature, we hear Jesus say, in and through vulnerability, honesty, creative resistance, flesh-and-blood commitment.
The crowds are astonished, we read in Matthew 7, because Jesus teaches with authority, unlike those who merely recite words or put on a good show.
The authenticity of Jesus – firmly rooted in Torah – is born of genuine experience in life, love, Spirit … Do we recognise it? In his story as the story of divine-human co-operation? Do we recognise it in us – in our own stories of building and rebuilding, making and remaking – learning and adapting, forgiving and forging new styles, new identities?
Do we recognise it in the challenges we face to integrate community news and arts, community gardening and ministry with Cana Communities? Do we recognise it in the challenges we face to integrate pastoral care and confidentiality, Bible study and prophetic witness? There are challenges, too, in terms of integrating ministries with older and younger people (including children), long-standing members, newcomers, visitors, and so on.
I think, too, of an urgent need to integrate various aspects of our post-modern or post-secular age: ecological and economic wisdom, Aboriginal and Abrahamic wisdom, scientific and moral wisdom … In 1989, feminist author Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” as a way to help explain the oppression of African-American women. Crenshaw’s term is now at the forefront of international conversations about race, gender, sexual identity, queer hermeneutics, justice and policing.
The Sermon prefigures modern psychology and sociology by many centuries. It addresses us as capable, spiritual, soulful creatures (“it is in your power to be faithful”) – and calls us beyond egocentric desires – into and beyond cultural crises. It’s not easy to find the words for this.
Poetry helps, certainly. The Sermon pulls us in … to unite/integrate, awaken, strengthen …
Poet Jericho Brown writes: “Because of my evangelical past, I have always been attracted to work that manages to say what may be thought unsayable, poems that make clear the vulnerability of the poet to his or her work. I am not interested in poems that fear what I think of as a necessary mixture of the sacred and the profane. My dedication to risk allows me to write work that, I hope, fuses an imitation of modernist fragments with fairy tale, fable, and sermon.”
Brown’s most recent book is called The Tradition (2019). I’m struck by one poem in particular called “The Trees”. The Sermon on the Mount is a sermon among the trees – among the trees where lilies and birds are revered teachers.
In my front yard live three crape myrtles, crying trees
We once called them, not the shadiest but soothing
During a break from work in the heat, their cool sweat
Falling into us. I don’t want to make more of it.
I’d like to let these spindly things be
Since my gift for transformation here proves
Useless now that I know everyone moves the same
Whether moving in tears or moving
To punch my face. A crape myrtle is
A crape myrtle. Three is a family. It is winter. They are bare.
It’s not that I love them
Every day. It’s that I love them anyway.
Authentic faithfulness attends to life. Authentic faithfulness practises a certain “letting be” – “the freer the one allows the other to be, the more fully and truly they are revealed to each other” (Fergus Kerr OP). Authentic faithfulness understands the human condition – a state of mourning, longing; with propensity for violence. Authentic faithfulness sees connection, respects “family”, vulnerability. Authentic faithfulness confesses inconstancy – yet yields, again and again, to love.
Praise love! Praise and obey … “love them anyway”! Amen.