I hung a BC comic strip on the door of my study at my last call, in Minnesota. When we moved, I accidentally ripped it in half, and without thinking I just threw it away. Now I can’t find it online, but I remember that it said, “ser-mon: An inspired message directed mainly at those who are not in attendance.” It’s been informing how I preach ever since I first read it, laughed out loud, and then winced.
There is, within all of us, a tendency to preach and receive sermons around each other rather than to each other. On the one hand, that’s a good thing – it shows we understand that when we gather as people of faith to hear and speak God’s Word, we’re not just playing around. On the other hand, however, it shows us the limits of our faith communities. Take a minute and see if this might have something to do with the way we practice our faith:
This is satire, of course, but satire is always based in truth, and this is no exception. All of us, I’d say, have fallen prey to this kind of religious behavior: listening for the words, but hearing the wrong thing; distracted by the shortcomings of the people around us and our own prejudices; dare I say it, sitting in the back… What happens is you get a jumbled mess of bad theology mixed with thoughts of violence against your neighbor and, on the whole, a deep desire to go see something more flashy, more entertaining, more enjoyable. Provided you aren’t the one getting stoned, of course.
Our gospel reading for today is taken from the Sermon on the Mount. Our epistle reading from 1st Corinthians is a continuation of the readings we’ve been studying over these past few weeks. Neither one of them were “inspired messages directed mainly at those who are not in attendance.” Jesus was preaching right at his listeners: both those blessed to be in the crowds that day on the mountain and we who are blessed to hear his preaching 2,000 years later. Paul directed his words at one particular group of believers struggling with faith in a far distant time and place, but his message is as true today as it was in his own time. Both Jesus and Paul were addressing the same question to their listeners: what, or who, is the center of your life? Another way of asking it is, “Why are you here?”
Paul knew the people of Corinth had problems. Earlier in the letter he spelled it out for the Corinthians, saying, “Look, it doesn’t matter whether I baptized you or Crispus or Apollos or Peter or whomever. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, strong or weak, wise or foolish. In fact, some of you were chosen precisely because you’re poor, weak and foolish, so that people would see that it’s God’s foolishness that matters, God’s weakness that is changing the world.” In our reading for today, he builds on that argument. Paul says, “So long as you’re still trying to establish a pecking order, you haven’t grasped the full message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is nothing – Apollos is nothing – God is everything. Saying you belong to Paul or Apollos is like saying Paul or Apollos are the ones who make the wheat grow. We just planted and watered: God gives the growth.” The Corinthians focused and centered their lives on their status, their wealth, their strength, their wisdom: Paul wanted them to see that God is the source and center of their life together, and every quarrel and quibble takes them away from the One who is at work in their foolish, weak community.
Jesus also preached to a broken, self-centered community. Our reading today is only part of the sermon Jesus preached, and it is not a fluffy sheep, cute bunnies, lollipops and gumballs kind of sermon. Jesus preached a heartbreaker on that mountain in Galilee. He had to, you see. You know how sometimes you build your entire reason for feeling okay on being a basically good person, but then you do or say something awful and the façade you’ve constructed comes crashing down around you? Much of what Jesus said was designed to tear down that fake reality. “You think you’re good because you don’t cheat on your wife? I’m telling you that you commit adultery every time you notice a good-looking woman on the street and wonder, just for a second, what it would be like to be with her. You think you’re good because you haven’t killed anyone? I’m telling you that anger and insults are a kind of violence, too, and every time it happens you condemn yourself to the fires of hell.” It’s not that Jesus enjoyed tearing people down like this: it’s just that until they let go of the fake reality they built around themselves to say “we’re okay,” Jesus couldn’t get about showing them the true reality he and the Father and the Holy Spirit intended for them to have, the reality in which they really were okay. They focused and centered their lives on doing the minimum, on not screwing up too badly, on doing just enough right that they don’t get in trouble but don’t miss all the fun: Jesus was showing them that a life focused and centered like that can only end in death and damnation – but a life focused and centered on God is a life redeemed and set free from the Law and its never-ending demands.
So – good thing Jesus and Paul got those people straightened out, right? [wipes brow, laughs nervously]. Who’s up for a potluck?
God’s Word, whether it’s the Word you read in scripture, the Word you hear preached or the Word become flesh in Jesus, is a word spoken to you, for you. Paul raised a question to his church in Corinth, but it’s a question God’s Word calls you to answer as well: upon whom are you focused? Jesus destroyed the false security of his listeners in Nazareth, and he shatters your false security as well: in whom are you centered? It’s not safe and it’s not comfortable to answer these questions, but God isn’t necessarily concerned about your safety or your comfort on this question. God is concerned with being the focus and center of your life, so much so that God’s willing to risk pissing you off when your focus slips and your center becomes uncentered. So God asks you the uncomfortable questions.
Where’s your center?
Where’s your focus?
Why are you here?
And God won’t let you have a moment’s peace until you’ve answered them for yourself in a way that gives you life as God has always intended. Worse yet, it will happen again. Your focus will drift. Your center will shift. You’ll forget who you are and start to build that façade of your own security again, and God will have to bring it all crashing down. God will pin you down, yank that security blanket right out of your clutching hands and replace it with the truth in all its uncomfortable holiness: you are first and foremost a child of God, beloved by Jesus, sustained by the Holy Spirit, and nothing else can ever give you more hope, more strength or more life.
And then, the marvelous freedom: to live as that child of God among your brothers and sisters. When your life is centered and focused on fulfilling the Law, everything is a demand and nothing comes without a price. When God re-centers and re-focuses your life as it was meant to be centered, everything is an opportunity and all life is a gift. When your life is centered and focused on status, or strength, or belonging to the “right” group, everything is a popularity contest and every action is fraught with peril. When God’s Word gets hold of you and re-centers your life as it was meant to be centered, you become your brother or sister’s keeper – you won’t despise people around you for their weakness, nor will you regard them for their strength. Or, as one of my seminary professors said this week, “Jesus calls us to envision life in God's kingdom as constituted not by obeying laws but rather by holding the welfare of our neighbors close to our hearts while trusting that they are doing the same for us.” 
Last summer, a few of us had the opportunity to be in Chicago for an ELCA Town Hall Forum with Bishop Mark Hanson. Pastor Jay Gamelin of Jacob’s Porch at Ohio State asked a great question, and Bishop Hanson gave a great answer:
Did you notice what Bishop Hanson never said in that whole video? He never once mentioned the name “Martin Luther.” I think Brother Martin would be happy about that, and Paul as well. Our focus and center is not Luther, or Paul. It isn’t Iowa State or Iowa or America. It isn’t status updates or tweets or who’s the foursquare mayor, and it sure as heck isn’t the campus pastor. Our focus and center, quite simply, is God – the living, present God who comes into this world for you. Why are you here? You’re here because, all evidence to the contrary sometimes, God is here, for you, calling you back to your center and giving your eyes focus to see the world as God sees it. Blessed are you whose lives are centered in God – may you live free to serve this week, focused on the world God loves and the children God has called you to serve. Amen.