Off-Road Adventure

Sermon May 21, 2023 Skaneateles First Presbyterian Church

I grew up on a dairy farm in Massachusetts, just north of Boston. I’ve talked about that before. A memory has popped up recently of driving our herd of seventy-two cows through the streets from Chelsea to Stoneham. Probably the last cattle drive in Massachusetts. I was a good Jewish boy. I was also an American cowboy. I was in love with America. American comic books, the Boston Braves, and America itself. But Christianity - which was all around me - was a mystery for years.

I first heard the gospel in my twenties. Matthew’s gospel knocked me over: they’re all Jewish! It's like the next chapter of the Bible I was familiar with. God appears again, this time not a voice in a burning bush, but as a little boy, Jesus, who grows into a man.

And Jesus is teaching the Law is not just about eating kosher! In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was teaching what the Law really was about, and that it’s not just for Jews, it’s for everybody. It’s the way to the kingdom of God. Jesus is clear.

But the Sermon on the Mount is hard to get your head around. Everything is upside down. Poor in spirit? Meek? Don’t hit back? No revenge? Forgive everybody for everything? The tight gate to the road? The road to life itself all constricted and narrow and hard to find? Jesus made Christianity sound like an off-road adventure, an extreme sport you needed a BMX or motorcycle to handle. But I was intrigued enough to hang with it and ask questions.

In our reading from Acts we see the disciples. They’d heard the Sermon on the Mount, they’d hung out with Jesus for three years, They’d seen him crucified. Now, Jesus has risen alive from the tomb and for forty days or so has been with them, still teaching as best as they can understand. He’s instructed them to stay in Jerusalem for now, because in a few days it will be Pentecost, and they will get the promised gift. They will be baptized in power by the Holy Spirit. You’d think that would be enough.

But the disciples showed what was really on their minds. Forget waiting and this Holy Spirit thing. They asked Jesus, Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Are the Romans going to be thrown out? Will we be in charge? What’s God’s plan and strategy?

Jesus sets them straight. It is not for you to know about dates or times. This is controlled by the Father. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will bear witness for me in Jerusalem, and all throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the farthest corners of the earth.

The disciples were naturally curious to understand more about God, but they asked the wrong question. The disciples wanted to understand God’s plan, to be certain about what would happen to them and their country. They wanted God’s plan revealed to them. They needed to know! Like us, they wanted certainty and clarity.

Jesus gently explained, No. Sorry. Not only do you not need to know, you can’t know. The Father is a mystery and that’s the way it’s going to stay. But here’s what’s going to happen. As my disciples, you will receive power from above, and you are going to use that power to teach to the whole world as I am teaching you. And that is what you need to know and all you can know about God.

That was it. Jesus’ theology lesson. “Listen up. Not your job to understand God. I’m teaching you how to live, how to align yourself with God’s will, how to go with God’s flow. And, by the way, the information I’m transmitting comes direct from God.”

The disciples got the message -finally - and returned to Jerusalem where, our readings tell us, all together, as one, they were constantly at prayer. Jesus gave the disciples clear direction. Stop trying to figure out God’s nature and God’s plan. You don’t need to know God’s strategic plan. It’s enough to know God has a purpose. A purpose for the universe, for the world, for all of mankind and for you. You couldn’t handle what it is even if you could comprehend it. But you’ve got a job to do and instructions on how to do it.

The teaching of what to do comes from Jesus. The power to actually do comes from above. The power is by the grace of God. Jesus is the way. The route. And the travel guide. What did Jesus tell us to do? What is this way?

Jesus taught by action, and by brief to-the-point words and by unforgettable parables. But on at least one occasion Jesus laid it all out. He gave that long and memorable talk recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. When we read the Sermon on the Mount, we love the ideas, the general sentiment, but do we really “get it?” Do we really understand that Jesus is describing the way, the specific instructions for arriving at the kingdom of heaven?

If we open ourselves up and hear the Sermon on the Mount as an instruction manual, we can see where and how each one of us fails, everybody falls short. That’s not surprising. Jesus said, “Narrow is the gate and constricted is the road that leads to life, and those who find them are few.”

Jesus also said all things are possible with God. And our Psalm today ends with the reminder that God gives power and strength to his people. When I think about the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, I see this set of careful instructions as the way, the gate, the road. And I ask, “Am I actually on it?” “Have I lost the way?” Think about this off-road adventure along with me, please.

Am I merciful and forgiving? I can be; I can respect and forgive a “bad decision” - especially if it’s on a topic that doesn’t impact me directly like water rights out West. But put a speed bump on my fire lane? Not so much.

I can see God’s hand and power in many things; our lake always pierces my heart with a sense of wonder. But build an apartment building on my old family farm in Stoneham? Nope, not so much.

Give when asked, lend when needed. I can be generous to many charities and causes, but the homeless man panhandling at the exit ramp? That’s not so easy. I can restrain myself from murdering that hateful person, but Jesus tells us don’t nurse a grudge, don’t even get angry. Don’t even libel, that’s murder of the soul. Whoa … that’s beyond me.

You get the drift. If the Sermon on the Mount is our roadmap to the Kingdom of God, we all have trouble following the GPS. We all fall short of that transformed heart that lives the will of God. That narrow gate should worry us.

Here's a clue on how to find the gate and stay on the road: Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. Heaven will not shut out she who sincerely wants in. Our second reading reminds us to “humble (ourselves) under the mighty hand of God. …the God of all grace … will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever.” God’s there, God’s got this.

Always remember what Jesus said in our Gospel today, that everything he taught us came from God, and he prayed, [God] protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Jesus prayed that we may see and understand that we are not separate people, we are all one, the same mysteriously interconnected person. May we grow to know this, and may our acts reflect this. May we constantly sense the whole and single body of which we are a part. May we come to fully understand Paul in Corinthians pointing out if the body were all eye, where the hearing? If we are all heart, where the thinking. Every organ is different and critical — but we are one.

Not homogenized, not of the same opinion, skin tone, history, skills, or personal values. Not defined by the labels Jew or Greek, male or female, red or blue. All doing our bit for the will of God. We are all one.

In our gospel we hear Jesus last talk, saying:

“Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”

The Sermon on the Mount is plain-spoken direction to the glorious kingdom. We don’t know where the kingdom is, but we know the way. Jesus passed on clear directions. “I am the way.” Trust the shepherd guiding us. Jesus didn’t say few get to heaven. He said few find the road. But Jesus gave us the map.

The Law of Moses is a narrow gate leading to the road, the road of life. This difficult road is the conversion of our heart, conversion of our heart to follow the meaning and intention of the law as further explained to us in that Sermon on the Mount 2,000 years ago. It is not easy to do. It is a journey on the road.

The glorious part of this journey is the road itself. The destination is the way of life. The way toward the kingdom of God here on earth, as it is in heaven.

Shalom, Shalom.