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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 02/20/2011

I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me, but here in week four of five straight weeks of the Sermon on the Mount, I start to wonder if I have anything left to say that I haven’t already said about this; from week to week as you have perhaps noticed, the themes are similar.  One thing that does seem indisputable though as we linger with this sermon for a few weeks, is that Jesus must have meant what he said because he does keep hammering away at the same things.  His repetition of themes makes it harder to explain it away and if anything Jesus gets more direct and more challenging in this week’s part of the sermon with turn the other cheek, give to everyone who begs from you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Many of us might have done OK last week when murder and adultery were the items on the morality checklist.  This week however, with these items, maybe not so good.

This is where we’re ready to say it just doesn’t work; Jesus is wrong.  Turn the other cheek and you’re just going to get hit again.  Give to everyone who begs from you and you’re just going to be a sucker for every deadbeat out there.  Maybe I can try to understand my enemies or our enemies but I can’t promise to love them and quite honestly they’re not near the top of my list of people to pray for.

At this point we’re ready to say “All this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stuff sounds good, but a lot of it just isn’t practical in the world we live in.”  We want to make a distinction between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world and say, no disrespect to Jesus, that to survive in this world, other strategies are needed.  And yet…despite our resistance to hear this as useful practical advice, there is ample evidence that this ethic of Jesus does work.  Witness what has taken place recently in Egypt.  It’s an event that still hasn’t played itself out and it wasn’t entirely without incident, but a corrupt and oppressive leader has been removed in the face of non-violent protests.  Even when provoked, the protesters resisted the temptation to lash back and ultimately were successful.

That situation is till evolving but there are others, others that are further along.  In my lifetime, I think the two most dramatic large scale social changes that have taken place involve the Civil Rights movement in this country and the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  Martin Luther King often noted that it was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that inspired what he called “dignified social action,” and he stuck to those principles. Keep in mind that this was at a time when other Black leaders were more impatient, advocating more violent tactics in response to injustice, lynching, bombings and other attacks.  But King remained true to his convictions, because they were the convictions of Jesus, and enormous change has resulted.
I was in the Soviet Union in 1985 and in many parts of Eastern Europe a couple of years after that and I would have told you then that there was no way that system was going to change anytime soon it seemed so entrenched and immovable and powerful.  But it did; it did change and it didn’t involve massive armed uprising against the governments in those countries; it all happened with remarkably little violence.  It seemed impossible, but what wasn’t apparent to me as I visited those countries was activity that was going on behind the scenes.  Things were going on and churches were involved and I recently came across an article that talked about some of this involvement.

One church where things were happening was St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany which was part of Communist East Germany.  It’s a church that was built in the year 1165, Bach was the organist there for awhile during the 1500’s so there’s a lot of history.  In communist East Germany atheism became the norm but churches like St. Nikolai were allowed to remain open, but they were watched.  They were classified as “free space” though which meant that things that couldn’t be discussed in public could be discussed in the churches.

In 1980 the Rev. Christian Fuhrer became the pastor at St. Nikolai and not long after that he began holding Monday evening prayer services where the worshipers prayed for peace and for change.  One of the things they would do every week as part of the service was to recite the Beatitudes the verses we heard a few weeks ago, the beginning verses of the Sermon on the Mount.  This prayer service started small, but over time, more and more people began to show up, young people, Christians, non-Christians, people just looking for a place of refuge.  The numbers increased into the hundreds, even thousands and what they would do on some Monday evenings following the prayers was to march through the streets of the city holding candles. 

By October, 1989 though, the level of protest in East Germany was making the government nervous so there was a crackdown.  In various places protesters were beaten and arrested in an effort to keep people in line.  In response to this even more people came to St. Nikolai; the Monday prayer service at St. Nikolai was filled to overflowing and as they left the church to walk through the streets the worshipers were joined by even more people so many that 70,000 people were involved.  Armed soldiers looked on as the people walked through the streets carrying candles, but the soldiers did nothing because the marchers weren’t doing anything illegal.  As an East German official said, “We were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer.” 

Rev. Fuhrer said, “In church people had learned to turn fear into courage, to overcome fear and to have hope.  It was our turn,” he said, “to apply the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.”  A month after this, the Berlin wall came down.  “If any event ever merited the description of miracle, that was it,” Rev. Fuhrer said.  “It’s a revolution that succeeded, a revolution that grew out of the church.”  Indeed it is a pretty amazing story.

There is evidence that the ethic of Jesus works and that’s what I’m here to say this morning.  I’m not here to make absolute statements that apply to every situation because in an imperfect, broken, sinful world it would seem that some wars have had to be fought for an ultimate greater good.  In those cases though, the end may be God pleasing, but the means is not; I would say that God grieves the fact that things reach the point of violent conflict because inevitably violence begets violence.  But we sometimes talk about the fact that while God’s kingdom is not here in fullness, we do get glimpses.  We do get glimpses that witness to another way, another possibility.  The examples I have noted are more than glimpses.

Jesus does provide us with a challenging ethic that sometimes seems to run contrary to our best instincts.  But by the power of Christ (which is the power of God), by the power of Christ active in that ethic, it does work and not just in some make believe world.  As we hear portions of this sermon over the course of these five weeks we do better to think about the ways that it works rather than being dismissive because it doesn’t always work.  Despite the challenge it presents, it is an ethic of the possible not the impossible.

The Leviticus text does connect to this and other parts of Jesus’ sermon ending as it does with “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  You know that when Jesus was asked about the commandments he identified “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind” as the two commandments and much of what he says in the Sermon on the Mount is about “love your neighbor” and with Jesus you always have to be careful when he starts to talk about the neighbor, you have to be careful about where you draw the neighborhood boundary lines. 

In Luke when Jesus was asked, “And who is my neighbor?” he didn’t answer directly but instead told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Here in Matthew he’s more direct as we find that the neighborhood includes enemies and beggars and those who persecute you.  In Leviticus care for those in the neighborhood is the path to holiness.  For Jesus, it’s the path to perfection.  By the grace of God we’re on the path, and along the way, with eyes and hearts opened, we see that it is possible.  By the grace and power of God, the way of Jesus does work.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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