Scripture: Matthew 7:1–5, 12, & 24–29
I hope you celebrated Groundhog Day this past week in the only acceptable way: watching Bill Murray’s classic movie by the same name. Let me see a show of hands for those of you who have seen it. I admit I didn’t watch this week, but it really is the only way to celebrate a made up holiday, centered around a rodent, celebrating unreliable weather prediction.
For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog Day, written and directed by Harold Ramis, is about a TV weatherman who has to spend the day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the infamous rodent weather prediction takes place. But then something unpredictable happens, and after he lives that day, he wakes up the next morning and it is Groundhog Day…again. Over and over again, he is forced to live that same day, with the same people, and the same situations, and he is the only one who seems to know that the day is being repeated.
Bill Murray’s character, Phil, is a bit of a jerk, and he spends a lot of the movie trying to figure out who he can manipulate with this knowledge. But then, over time, he is driven into a place of self-reflection. If he were the only variable in the entire universe, what would be important to him? How should he respond? Who is he?
We struggle with self-reflection, don’t we? A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the Hebrew notion of anavah, and seeing ourselves rightly. Discerning the space we take up in the world and whether we need to step up or step back. As humans, we don’t do a good job at self-reflection. At working to see ourselves rightly. Some of us have learned to do it better, but it still doesn’t come naturally. We would rather numb ourselves, or distract ourselves, or defend ourselves, than take a good, hard look at ourselves. I think for a lot of us, we don’t want to look in the mirror, because we don’t think we’ll like what we see. Just like Phil in the movie, it takes a long time to stop reacting and taking and avoiding, before he ever gets to a place of self-reflection.
Let me suggest that there is something similar going on in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus seems to be inviting some level of self-reflection for those who would follow him. Look again at today’s passage. In the first anecdote that I read, Jesus tells us that before we can go and judge others, we have to look inwardly. Before we can see another’s speck, we have to look at the beam of wood in our own eye. Self-reflect. See ourselves rightly.
Then, in one of the most famous lines in Scripture, often called the Golden Rule, Jesus tells his followers to treat others how you would be treated. Which, of course, requires first a level of seeing ourselves rightly. How do I want to be treated? Is that just me, or is that particular where others might want to be treated in a different way. What would I have someone else do for me? There is a need to look to ourselves before we can look to others. It has to begin with this self-reflection.
Counselors and therapists talk about this process of self-reflection. Sometimes they will suggest that you have to “do your work.” To examine your own assumptions, and biases, and privileges, and family history, and needs and wants and desires, and past relationships and ways that you operate around others. But this is not just post-Freudian, therapy-speak here. Jesus knew this wisdom, too. In fact, one could say that a lot of the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount begins with self-examination. Look back throughout some of the passages we have looked at, and others we have skipped over:
- You have heard it said that you should not murder, but you need to do your work, to discern if there is hatred in your heart.
- You have heard it said that you should not commit adultery, but you need to do your work, to ask if you devalue others or assume that they are your possession.
- You have heard others make commitments and oaths, but you need to do your work, to discern if you are a person of vulnerable honesty, day in and day out.
- There are things that you do to practice the faith, such as almsgiving and fasting and prayer, but you need to do your work to ask why you are doing those things, and whether you do them for God or to be seen by others.
- You say that you worship God and not money, but you need to do your work, and discern how much of your anxiety stems from possessing and protecting money and things.
- And we can go all the way back to the beginning of the Sermon, to the Beatitudes, where Jesus challenges us to examine our hearts and ask “are we living in peace, in humility, in meekness, in righteousness?” All of this is our work of self-reflection, and I would offer that we don’t necessarily do it that well.
But this is not self-reflection just for the sake of reflection. Sometimes, self-examination can paralyze us. It crystalizes us to say “because I grew up like this, or was born this way, or face this struggle, I am helpless. I can’t help but be a victim. Or I can’t help but be a perpetrator. That is my lot in life and all I can do is feel bad about it.” But Jesus doesn’t recommend a paralysis of analysis. Instead, this self-examination leads us to action. He preaches that we do our work, so that we can do our work. Once we see ourselves rightly, it is an opportunity to act out of who we are:
- We examine our motives, so that we can serve others with an unselfish heart.
- We understand our biases, so that we can love others more unconditionally.
- We uncover our privilege, so that we can learn to humble ourselves and lift others up.
- We discover the beam of wood in our own eyes, so that we can look toward others and their specks, to help them to see themselves rightly, to help them have healthier relationships.
- We ask ourselves how we would want to be treated, so that we can treat others in a similar way.
It is a two-part process. Self-examination, which leads to service. Which is how Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount, with a parable about this two-part process. There are some folks who hear this stuff, but think that they are above it. They don’t need to examine their own hearts. They don’t need to do their own work. Those folks are like the guy who builds a house on the edge of a sandy cliff. He has a great view, until the first time it rains. The first good storm, and his house will be upside down at the bottom of the cliff. Other folks, though, hear this stuff and take it to heart. They do their work internally, so that they can do their work externally. They engage in self-examination, so that they can become servants. Those folks are like those who build their house on a solid foundation of rock. They have a house that will stand, throughout the storms of life.
Which is the Good News of this story. Let me offer an admission. When the worship team suggested that we spend several weeks in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, I gritted my teeth a little. Because for a lot of us, the Sermon on the Mount can feel a lot like another set of “oughts.” Another Holy To-Do List. Some of you might have wondered that, throughout the series, and throughout this morning.
“Wait a minute! Preacher, I don’t think you know me at all. I examine myself all the time! I spend a significant part of my waking and sleeping hours, worried about ways that I fall short of who I am supposed to be! Would you like to see my collection of self-reflection? Here is my white guilt. And here is my Calvinist, religious guilt. And over here is my collection of perfectionism…the voices that tell me most of the time that I am doing it wrong!”
And for a lot of us, this is where we need a reminder of anavah. Of seeing ourselves rightly. Self-reflection is not just self-flagellation. Beating ourselves up because we think it makes us feel better. For Jesus, these principles, and this ethic, doesn’t seem to be about knocking us down a few pegs, through some of us might need that. It is about reminding us where we stand. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus references the law and the prophets. These are the Old Testament principles that each one of them had heard since they were born. Mishpat and tzadiquah. Justice and righteousness. Care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor. From the top of this mountain, Jesus tells them “you know all this stuff.” He reminds them that they stand on a tradition and a history of neighbor love and worship of the Holy. He reminds us the same thing. We know this stuff. Now, let’s do it.
Let’s talk about the top of a mountain. You didn’t seriously think that I would preach a five week series about a bunch of people standing on top of a mountain, and not have a mountain story!?! Imagine with me that we had just climbed a mountain. A 14-er maybe. After all of that work we get to the summit, which is often broad and spread out. What is the first thing that we do? Look for the rock. You know the rock I mean. The rock that is just a little taller than the rest of them. The tip top of the summit. It might have the geological marker on it, signifying the summit. Often times you can tell the rock because it is where everyone is standing taking selfies! If you are going to do all of that work, you are going to make sure you make it to the very top!
Let me say all of this another way. Sometimes the Sermon on the Mount feels like a blunt object. It feels like something that we use to beat up ourselves and others. “Be more humble. Be more holy. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But the last words in the passage were not “the crowds heard what he said and slunk home feeling guiltier than ever.” It said that they were amazed. They were empowered. Jesus preached these words to them to remind them where they stood. I don’t think it was an accident that Jesus preached this whole thing from the top of a mountain! Standing on top of the mountain, Jesus reminded them the rock on which they stood. The wisdom that they already had inside of them.
Jesus has called together his disciples. He has gathered a crowd. He has invited all of these people up to the very top of the mountain so that he can remind them of the rock upon which they are already standing. For Jesus, the rock is not something to beat them up with. It is the top rock, the solid rock, the foundational rock, from which they can rightly see themselves and the world. Today, Jesus invites us to join him on the top of that rock. On the foundation that we already know. In order to empowered. Encouraged. Elated. To live the life that God has created for us.