Pay attention . . . it is more than you imagine

[Sermon preached on The Sermon on the Mount this past Sunday]

Spending time in the Sermon on the Mount last week there were plenty of times when I was convinced that Jesus did not give a great sermon. It feels a little choppy, Jesus jumps around in his statements and often doesn’t explain what he means. There are massive swings in his thinking. For nearly an entire chapter Jesus basically calls his listeners a bunch of murderers and adulterers who should gouge out their eyes and chop off their hands so that at least the rest of your body can avoid going to hell after which he concludes by commanding that they be perfect just like God is perfect. But then he’s like hey, don’t judge each other, quit being so critical, just do to others what you want done to yourself. And then he swings back coming at his listeners, don’t be fooled by the wide road that will lead to destruction; seek the narrow gate, even though few of you will find it. So start producing something worthwhile or you will cut off the vine and thrown in the fire.

The three chapters containing the Sermon on the Mount include the Beatitudes, the core elements of the historical Mennonite position on pacifism and not swearing oaths. We find the requirement to love your enemy. We are taught the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule and to not judge one another. We are given the images of the lilies of the field, and the wise person who built on the rock. We are told that if we ask, seek, and knock we will be rewarded. This is a tremendously rich and dense section of the Bible and of the Gospels. And because of the extremes I mentioned earlier it can be easy to pick and choose which sections we want to focus on; or to lose sight of what might be the larger message.

So, is there some way of reconciling these extremes; some larger understanding that can make sense of all these components? As I mentioned last week Jesus first orients the listeners away from the law towards places of blessing. This works in two ways, for some it is call to revaluate our understanding of blessing; to dislodge our understanding from simple notions of blessing as affluence and security. For others it is encouragement and strength to know that there can be communion and comfort through difficult situations; that faithfulness requires attendance and attention to these places.

From this place of uncommon blessing Jesus outlines a series of statements that shifts the listener away from legal requirements to a more thorough investment. Yes, you should not murder but if you nurture anger and mock or insult people you are already liable to judgment. Yes, do not commit adultery but if you stay with your spouse but really desire to be with another person there is already a breach of faithfulness. Don’t try to use God, or heaven, or the Bible to legitimize what you are saying just learn integrity and let your yes be yes and your no be no. Sure, it can be hard enough to love your neighbour but how do expect real change to happen if love does not become more expansive; you need to love your enemy.

And on it goes. Jesus is disconnecting appeals to some external authority for validation or approval of our actions. Appeal to the law, or the Bible, or God is not enough. Jesus says later in the sermon that just because you say Lord, Lord does not mean you part of the Kingdom.

Perhaps it can be said that the Sermon on the Mount is trying to teach what the incarnation is. The incarnation is the embodiment, the ongoing enactment of God in life. Jesus is teaching and enacting a way of life which does not need to be validated by another authority.

Understanding the Sermon on the Mount in this way begins to connect us with a network of images and expressions throughout the Bible. It draws on the image of the new covenant in the heart of the people in the Old Testament; it connects to the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost and the fruit of the Spirit in Paul. These are images of the living presence of God among and within us.

Jesus takes us through our murderous anger, our adulterous desires, and our pervasive selfishness so that we can see what is at stake in yielding our lives to this faith. Jesus wants to impress on us, all the areas in which we are affected by life and how we affect others. We cannot simply hide ourselves in the right religious clothing and expressions. Somehow or other we must allow ourselves to be increasingly opened to this faith. To put it simply the first half of the Sermon on the Mount is asking that we learn how to pay attention.

This idea of learning how to pay attention seems simple and self-evident. I imagine most of us feel like we are relatively perceptive people. A few years back the work of Philip Goodchild forced me to reconsider my understanding of attention. Goodchild articulates a distinction between attention and imagination. In our culture it seems that imagination is held as sacred. We are forever talking about the power and wonder of imagination. As a parent of a young child there are endless shows and articles on nurturing imagination. The church loves to herald its theological imagination. While there is of course a place for imagination Goodchild demonstrates how harmful and even violent unchecked or what he calls sovereign imagination can be.

Take the simple experience of having a conversation. How many times have you found that the person talking with you did not appear to actually listen to what you had to say. Rather they seemed to have a response ready-made that did not actually take your comment into account? In that instance the person has withdrawn into their imagination believing it is already superior or more important than what is being said. Goodchild makes the claim that imagination can lead people to project their desires, interests, and values onto a situation whereas paying attention allows the person, the environment, the situation to impact us and be part of our expressions. Most of us know the difference between having a conversation with someone who is really attentive and having a conversation with someone who already has an idea of who we are and what we are saying.

This posture has been a horrible trait in the history of Christian missions. The church believed its theological imagination was sufficient to understand the people we encountered. Much of our thinking and theology in the church still does not believe we actually need our neighbour to be able think and act well. Even current statements consistently position the church as having sufficient or even superior understanding, superior imagination, in relation to other groups.

This form of imagination often comes with good intentions. Most of us with a Western or European background hold a high regard for knowledge that we sometimes associate with the Enlightenment; that period of intellectual and scientific development in the 17th and 18th century. In the last 50 years or so increasing accounts demonstrate how harmful this tradition has been to many people. I am currently reading Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism. This book charts the European attempt to understand, occupy, and then shape the Muslim, Indian, and Asian areas of the world.

When Napoleon attempted to invade Egypt he did so not simply with military forces but with a council of scholars who believed they were experts on Egyptian culture. This group was so confident in their own understanding that they entered Egypt saying, “We are the true Muslims.” Basically saying that whatever is good about your culture we already know and can embody it better than you. Enlightenment Europe tended to trust their own knowledge, their own constructed imagination of what non-Europeans were like more than if they developed that knowledge in ongoing mutual relationship with these communities.

When speaking about the role of Western books produced about the Orient Said says, “It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.” This is a bit of the difference between paying attention and projecting imagination that I want to get at.

Sometimes I suspect that this use of imagination is present in the sort of things many of us find ourselves saying like we just need to love each other or we all worship the same God so we should be able to get along. The intention of course is good. But intention, like imagination, tends to stay locked in our minds. It tends to justify itself because we believe it is good.

But what business is it of mine to speak about the reality of the God of another religion that I know almost nothing about? This of course does not mean that I judge or condemn other faiths and beliefs as inferior. It just means that I want my understanding to emerge in the appropriate context. Furthermore, our faith calls us to vigilance against idolatry. How can I know I am not the one following a false god if I don’t open myself up to other forms, other differences, other expressions and allow them to impact me? And sometimes that desire to just love each other can be way of avoiding or denying hard differences that need to be attended to. Other times it can be a way of silencing valid anger and disruption that are needed for people to understand the severity of a situation.

I hope these examples can make clear that there are real differences in how we understand ourselves and we relate to our neighbours. I think this is part of what Jesus is getting at. Jesus is dismantling a notion of faith, or law, or God’s word that is simply applied to situations without allowing ourselves to become affected in these relationships.

So Jesus calls us to a new level of investment and understanding of how we affect others and how we are affected by others. Then after this difficult sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes vulnerable process Jesus says in Matthew 6:25, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. What follows is the section on considering the birds of the air and flowers of the field. What is it we worry and stress of over? Jesus says don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow is the realm of our imagination. Often it is the realm of fear, of insecurity, of scarcity. We certainly plan for the future but must dismantle those limiting imaginations because they often perpetuate the difficulties and inequalities of the present.

Jesus goes on telling us not to judge, not to try and find the speck in another person’s eye. Do not speculate or project your imagination of what the motives and values of another person are. Pay attention to what is before your eyes. Become aware of the lens you use to see people. You have lived for so long with that log in your eye you may think this is just how the world works. So to notice that log you may need to ask how other people see things.

Build different relationships so your perspective can become broader, seeing more clearly the log that needs to be removed. Heck, ask someone for help. Excuse me, is there something in my eye?

And this is what Jesus follows up. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. If you desire faithfulness, you will need help. You will need to be open to be helped, to be wrong, to be changed. Ask, search, knock. Go out into the world with a persistent and seeking attention. You will learn to know God in this way.

It is after all this that Jesus finally offers up the words, In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. It is only as we have learned to have our lives opened and examined to see how we are affected by others and how we affect others that we can become liberated to love well, to love in fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

So perhaps I was a little bit hard on Jesus’s sermon. But it is not a sermon we are used to hearing. Jesus is pushing us further in understanding our implication in the world. This is a hard and humbling process. But Jesus also goes further in calling for a freedom and liberation than most of us are comfortable with. It is no wonder that these chapters have exerted so much influence on the church. There is something of the infinite here; something calling us to a fullness of life that is different than we can imagine. So instead we must pay attention. Ask, seek, knock; our faith tells of a place where charity and love prevail [this hymn as sung after the sermon]; a place that can only be found and formed in this way.

Amen.

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