Friday, February 4, 2011

Where's the Evidence?

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Micah 6:1-8, I Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12

I wonder why Jesus went up that mountain.

Because it was there? If that means for the thrill of it, I don’t think so. This wasn’t Mount Rainier. It wasn’t Mount Greylock. It wasn’t even Pine Cobble. I may be wrong, but I think we’re talking Stone Hill.

Was it to purposely thin the ranks? When he saw the crowds, did he judge that it was time to cull out the sensation-seekers, the circus crowd, the gawkers and the hawkers? Is Jesus asking, “Let’s see who’s willing to exert themselves?”

Perhaps he needed some critical distance. If what he saw was a crowd that would engulf him, how could he address them? “Maybe,” said someone at the Sweetwood eucharist last Monday, “up that mountain was a natural amphitheater where he could be seen and heard.”

Once there, he sat down (the ancient posture for preaching and teaching, one that levels speaker and audience, unlike a pulpit) and “his disciples came to him.” When he spoke, he “taught them.” The disciples appear to be his audience.

But wait: what became of that crowd? He’s talking to them, too, above the heads of that team of leaders.

This reminds me of the President giving the State of the Union address. There, fanned out in front of him, were modern equivalents of former fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots (some of them not necessarily former). The President appeared to be talking to them, but we too were his audience. At times, President Obama utilized his up-close audience, like that moment when he looked out across the chamber at all those mixed couples practicing bipartisan cohabitation and, speaking at the same moment to them and to us, said something to the effect that we need Congress to exert more than experimental seating plans in order to truly work together for the nation’s good.

I believe simultaneous communication not unlike that is going on in this Gospel. Jesus has arrayed in front of him his cabinet, his joint chiefs, and while he teaches them he speaks also to the crowds.

I’ll use Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” to help us listen in.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are— no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment when care flows from a full heart, you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

And in each case, at each teaching, he’s able to point to his disciples as evidence of what he means. Now, what follows is not by Eugene Peterson. I’ll take the rap for this. I’m imagining Jesus presenting his disciples as evidence of what he means. Scattered among the Beatitudes I hear asides like these.

“I’m sending these little ones into the world like lambs among wolves, to heal the sick and feed the hungry and raise the dead—they live at the end of the rope where it has to be less of them and more of God.”

“Each of these salty souls has left what is familiar: parents, home, career. You know them: it’s a small world around the Sea of Galilee, these are your neighbors, though they’re not at the corner tavern so much these days. How do they look to you? They’ve had to let go of a lot, but ask them how they balance their losses and their gains.”

“Radically equal, leveled by love, these agents of mine are learning to set a table for all, poor and rich, influential and marginal, female and male, old and young. And God is the menu. Soon they’ll show you! How many are you? Four thousand? Five thousand? Keep your eyes on these twelve…”

Mountains were known as holy places, front lines of encounter with God. Jesus has gone up this one to shape a new culture, one that appreciates how things are not always as they seem, how in fact God sets our expectations upside-down and inside-out, causes us to reconsider old assumptions and see with fresh eyes evidence that is all around us.

In that first century, God’s evidence included twelve disciples who may have thought they were the inner audience as God’s own anointed servant Jesus addresses the state of the union between the earthly and the heavenly. But they are actually Jesus’s Exhibit A, imperfect incarnations, examples, evidence of his meaning before a much wider audience.

In this twenty-first century, we the baptized are just as needed if the world is to see evidence of what Jesus means.

On the mountainside, a metaphor of the Church’s calling: to be gathered at the feet of Jesus, listening; and simultaneously to be proof to the world, letting his Word become flesh in us, allowing ourselves to be recognizable evidence of what he means.