The Foundation of the Whole

(Psalm 1Matthew 5:1-10)

Billy Collins is one of the preeminent American poets of our time, a distinction reflected in the fact that he was chosen in 2001 as the U.S. Poet Laureate.  He’s also a professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, since poets these days can’t make a living writing poetry, but only by teaching others to do the same.  Some years ago, his experience in the classroom moved him to write this lyric, which he called “Introduction to Poetry”:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Now, you might wonder where I’m going with this; but I intend to focus this year on the teaching of Jesus, beginning this morning with a series on the Sermon on the Mount, and as we embark on this voyage of discovery, Billy Collins has something to tell us.  Granted, the Sermon on the Mount is not poetry, but we need to approach it in something of the same way, because it’s what I would call “poetic theology.”

I’m not the only one to come up with this term—Fuller Seminary professor William Dyrness has used it as the title of one of his books—but I’m going in a bit of a different direction with it than he did.  My point here is about the nature of the text.  Poetry stands in opposition to prose, which is ordinary text, and most theology is quite prosaic indeed.  Consider Paul in the book of Romans, for instance:  he appreciates poetry, but he clearly teaches in prose.  He sets out propositions, he builds up his arguments, he lays out his evidence, and he works through them logically to a conclusion.  His arguments may be complicated, and his reasoning and his use of evidence, founded as they are in a very Jewish way of thinking, may be strange to our modern Western scientific mindset, but it’s all still logical argumentation in the classic sense, building a chain of reasoning from the beginning to the conclusion.  Paul is a prosaic theologian.

Jesus doesn’t do that.  He could have, but he doesn’t.  Instead, he teaches in images and stories, in metaphors and appeals to experience.  Where Paul and others engage in the classic battle of arguments—head to head, strength against strength, and may the best premise win—Jesus turns our own strength against us.  His teaching is intuitive and evocative, slipping around our rational defenses.  Like Paul, he goes after the false assumptions that produce our false beliefs about God, the world, and ourselves, in order to replace them with truth; but where Paul attacks them head-on with logical argument, Jesus subverts them, calling our hearts to witness against us.

This means that we can’t break down the Sermon on the Mount the same way we would one of Paul’s letters, into a series of arguments and commands; to use Billy Collins’ language, we can’t tie it to a chair and beat it with a hose to find out “what it really means.”  If we try that, we end up reducing it to law.  That’s a sad thing, and yet many, many people go on and do it anyway.  For one thing, we’re accustomed to living by law, and so turning these chapters into a series of laws feels normal to us.  For another, it’s efficient; it gives us the feeling that we now understand what it really means, and we can go on to the next thing.  It’s the fast way to study—and to preach through—this text.

But it isn’t the faithful way.  The faithful way is the slow way—to walk inside its room and feel the walls for a light switch, to drop in our questions like mice and watch them find their way out, to live within it for a while, and come to know it from the inside.  It’s to let Jesus set the agenda, and listen carefully; and so that’s what we’re going to do this year, first in the Sermon on the Mount, and then through some of the parables.

Part of listening carefully to the Sermon on the Mount is paying attention to the structure.  It doesn’t flow the way we’re used to from sermons in our own culture, so it might seem like a disjointed jumble of topics, but it’s actually structured quite carefully, in a very Hebrew way.  You might remember last month I talked about the “sandwiches” in Mark; what we have in the Sermon on the Mount is a large-scale version of the same thing.  It’s a type of parallelism which has been given several names, but the one I like best comes from Dr. Kenneth Bailey, who calls it “ring composition.”

We see this kind of thing all over the gospels.  The way it works is in a long text, the first and last sections parallel each other, then the second and the next-to-last, and so on, all the way to the middle.  The emphasis falls on the middle section, as I told you with Mark, but also on the beginning and the end.  What’s at the center of the Sermon on the Mount?  The Lord’s Prayer.  At the end, we have the parable of the wise and foolish builders; here at the beginning, we have the Beatitudes.  As we read the rest of the sermon, we need to see it in the context of the Beatitudes, in the light of the Lord’s Prayer, with the final parable to put the exclamation point on the whole thing.

Since that final parable uses the image of a foundation, of the foundation of a house, to make its point, we might think of the Beatitudes in those terms, as the foundation for the whole Sermon on the Mount—we can only understand anything Jesus says the rest of the way if we understand that he’s building on what he says in these first ten verses.  I know v. 11 begins with “Blessed,” but I think that’s a transition into the next section of the sermon.  For one thing, look at the first and eighth Beatitudes, verses 3 and 10.  They both talk about the kingdom of heaven, which is Matthew’s term for the kingdom of God.  This is another, very simple, form of parallelism, what scholars call an inclusio; think of it like a picture frame.  The Beatitudes are framed by these references to the kingdom of heaven; that tells us that they—and by extension the rest of the sermon—are about the life of the kingdom of heaven, and we need to understand them in that way.

So, all this being said, what does it mean for us as we read the Beatitudes?  For a detailed answer, we’ll need to look at each one in turn, which we’ll do over the next eight weeks; but there’s one thing to say right now which will shape everything else.  The word “blessed” here is not the word that means to pray for a blessing for somebody.  It’s a word which refers to a blessing that is already present.

In other words, do not read these as promises (or bribes):  they don’t say, “If you can just be poor in spirit (whatever that means), you’ll be rewarded with the kingdom of heaven.”  Do not read them as commands (or threats):  they don’t say, “If you don’t go out and get persecuted somehow, you’re going to Hell.”  These are descriptions.  They tell us, and the world, “You’re looking for blessing—you’re looking for happiness—if you want to know what a blessed person looks like, look here.  It’s not who you think.”

Blessing doesn’t come by pursuing it, but only as we pursue other things, because—and here’s the key—it doesn’t come by our own efforts and our own work.  The blessed person is the wholehearted follower of Christ, and we don’t make ourselves that person by our own strength.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of God.  That’s why this isn’t law:  because it’s all grace.  It isn’t earned, it’s a gift.  Let’s pray.
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