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The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached

A perceptive visitor to the Rockefeller Center in New York City is surely reminded of the impact the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached has had on the world. On the first floor of the building one finds an extensive series of murals depicting man's technological progress in the mastery of nature. Huge, muscular and tawny, he pries with the lever, hammers with the mallet on a chisel and turns the great wheels of industry and commerce. Amid these many representations of mankind's glorious achievements stands one mural which at first glance seems out of place. It is a representation of Christ teaching on the Mount. A heroic figure in white, with his hands outstretched in blessing, he addresses a multitude of people of every race, class and condition-the poor, sick, maimed, the rich-who are standing or sitting on the slopes and at the foot of the mountain. Some are listening intently, others are conversing with their companions or looking away in other directions, paying no attention.

Alongside the mural is this legend: "Man's ultimate destiny depends not on whether he can learn new lessons, or makes new discoveries and conquests but on his acceptance of the lesson taught to him close on to two thousand years ago." I find that an arresting statement. It's because I find the Sermon on the Mount the most arresting part of the New Testament.

Those of you who have been to the Holy Land know how moving an experience it is to be in Bethlehem-where Jesus was born; in Nazareth-where he lived as a boy well into manhood; in the Garden of Gethsemane-where he wrestled through to victory; on Calvary-where he died that we might live.

Pilgrims to the Holy Land especially recall that one of the high points of their pilgrimage is a visit to the Mount where tradition has it that Jesus preached a sermon to his disciples. A church building-appropriately named the Church of the Beatitudes-has been erected there to commemorate that sermon. The Holy Land is the place where Christianity began. But strictly speaking, Christianity began in a very special way-in the life and teachings of One who lived in that Holy Land.

The Sermon on the Mount is the most familiar collected sayings from Jesus and is recorded in chapters five, six and seven of St. Matthew's Gospel. It is the Magna Carta of the Christian Faith. Revealing a divine ideal, it is the charter of the Christian life and the most priceless deposit of religious insight known to man. The sermon could be called 'The Proposal of Jesus' as he came 'to seek and to save those who are lost.' However, many question whether we have the courage today to follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. I ask: "If we don't begin there, where else do we start?" What does it mean to take Jesus literally at his insistence that true discipleship begins with these teachings? First, let's look at the setting.

Jesus has just begun to choose his disciples. He summons Peter and Andrew, James and John. They promptly obey, leave their nets, their boats and even their father, and follow Jesus. They were practical men called from a practical process of making a living now set about on a strange and uncharted mission. "Follow me", he said. Follow him they did! Never one to demand blind faith, Jesus took them apart and began to teach them the meaning of discipleship. He begins, according to Matthew's Gospel, with what we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount. They must have been thunderstruck at its austere demands-even as we are today.

The sermon begins with a series of revolutionary statements which we know as the Beatitudes: goals or ideals for one who would fulfill the requirements of citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Each beatitude is a challenge. They take the accepted standards of that day-and ours-and turn them upside down. Then, the Teacher launched into a careful extension of the law from deed to motive. Murder is evil, as the law says, but so also are the anger and hate which lead to it. Adultery is evil, but so also is the lustful spirit which causes it. Love of neighbor is good, but to love one's enemy is better.

Jesus warns them of the perils they will face. "Enter by the narrow gate: for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."

He gives them the test of good people: "You will know them by their fruits." He urges them to be on guard against the constant temptations of Christians-lip-service: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven."

Jesus concludes the sermon with the parable of two men, two foundations and two houses, driving home the point that these are teachings to be taken seriously. These teachings are the guides to daily life. The witness of the disciples would be the choices they made and the life they lived in faithfulness to these teachings.

Daily, you and I find ourselves face-to-face with eternal choices. Those choices begin in childhood and never end until life ends. Do we choose the easy way, the pleasure and profit for the moment? Are we willing to look ahead and sacrifice momentary gain for the greater good? The challenge of the Beatitudes is "Will you be happy in the world's way or in Christ's way?" Jesus is saying, "If you set your heart and spend your energies to obtain the things the world values, you will get them-but that's all you will ever get."

So, Jesus proposes the inauguration of a new age, a new reign of God. The disciples were startled, if not bewildered, as Jesus began his teaching. These teachings cut across the ethic of their day. The translation read in today's Gospel lesson uses the word 'happy' instead of 'blessed'. To so do gives the Beatitudes a whole new meaning yet raises some troubling questions. Happy are the poor? Happy are the sad? Happy are the humble? Happy are those who hunger and thirst? Happy are the merciful? Happy are the persecuted? How can that be? Happiness has to do with being rich and famous. Happiness means being well-fed and feeling good. Happiness is getting your own way. Happiness is playing it safe and compromising.

We all want to be happy. So much so that many philosophers over the centuries have held that happiness is the summum bonum, that is, the highest good in life. Our founding fathers, in the Declaration of Independence, asserted that we have certain inalienable rights, among them " . . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." We crave happiness; we demand it as our right; we pursue it with all our energy. Most of us may not admit that this is so, but is there any goal in life which we desire to reach unless it does bring happiness, contentment and inner peace?

Where is happiness in poverty? How does one find happiness in sorrow and grief? How can a person who suffers or is persecuted find happiness? The Beatitudes are not so much a recipe for happiness or blessedness as they are a description of the Christian life.

In The Power of One, James Merrell suggests that the Beatitudes may be more instructive when inverted or read "backwards". By so doing the Beatitudes are given an entirely new meaning:

"The way to Heaven is through poverty . . . the way to consolation is through genuine sorrow . . . the way to earthly possessions is through a gentle spirit that is neither stingy nor possessive . . . the way to satisfaction is through a hungering and thirsting for justice . . . the way to mercy is through mercy . . . the way to God is through the open, unobstructed, pure heart . . . the way to a full relationship with God is through the active practice of peace . . . the way to God's realm or Kingdom is through the struggle for right that leads through conflict, pain, and even death itself."

If we take the Beatitudes from this perspective they become something other than a recipe for reward. They are instead, more like a road map for life. They tell us not so much how we might arrive at our destination but rather present us with a commanding view of the landscape whereupon our lives are lived.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the Sermon on the Mount is that God's favor seems to be granted to those whom society regards as the ones left out or left behind, namely the poor, the meek, the mourners, the merciful, those who hunger for justice, the peacemakers, and those mistreated in a cause for justice.

The real question raised by the Beatitudes is how do we secure happiness and how is it retained? The world offers a thousand formulas but in the Beatitudes we have Jesus' answer to the question-his guide for true abiding happiness.

Ponder Jesus' words and it becomes increasingly plain that in Jesus' estimation true happiness depends more on the inner person than on the outward circumstance. Happiness, we are inclined to think, depends upon the possession of material goods-a new car, a better house, a larger income or the means to satisfy all our desires. No doubt these things could bring us joy-at least for a while. God wants us to enjoy the fruits of his creation but these things do not guarantee happiness.

Most of us have known people who have money, business success, envied positions in society-all the things for which the world seems to be striving with such feverish haste and anxiety-everything except one thing-happiness. Towards the end of his life, Sir Cecil Rhodes, the empire builder of South Africa, was congratulated by a reporter on his success. "You ought to be a happy man," said the reporter. Cecil Rhodes replied, "Happy? Good Lord, no!" He went on to say that he spent all his life amassing a fortune, only to find that he now had to spend it all, half on doctors to keep him out of his grave, and the other half on lawyers to keep him out of jail.

The answer, to be sure, was touched with humor and hyperbole but it points the proverbial truth that worldly achievement and wealth do not insure happiness. In fact, many discover their lofty monuments turning to dust even before they die.

So, where does Christianity begin? In loyalty to Jesus Christ as the revelation of God's will for our lives; in belief in his teachings; in commitment to him as our Lord and our leader. And, in fellowship with those who still follow him to the mountaintop to hear the sermon on the mount, and then down into the valley to meet the challenge of daily human needs. As we do this, we shall discover the secret of real happiness: to be used of God rather than to use God; to comfort rather than to see comfort; to give love rather than to ask for love.

The Beatitudes need a new emphasis in a day when the cult of happiness has displaced the divine gospel of happiness. Christ came to save us, not to satisfy us. His saving Gospel teaches that by forgetting self we find who we are, by giving we receive. When we move from the Kingdom of self to the Kingdom of God we find what that little company of disciples assembled on the mountainside to hear Jesus outline, in the greatest sermon ever preached, the meaning of the Kingdom. You will find, as millions of others have, good reason to share his faith.