The Book of Common Worship says that this season of Ordinary (it means "ordered," not common) Time after Epiphany "highlights themes of Christian vocation, discipleship, and community." This year, the gospel readings from Matthew talk about Jesus' teaching and preaching and calling disciples, then it goes into the Sermon on the Mount. Unfortunately, because Easter comes early this year and that backs up the start of Lent, the Sermon on the Mount is cut short. This disruption makes it difficult to get to the greatest themes of the Sermon on the Mount. We open with the Beatitudes, the "Blessed are the . . . " statements, and then we move onto themes of super-righteousness. Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them; we should not only refrain from murder, but also from anger, not only from adultery, but also from lust. The early start to Lent this year interrupts the Sermon on the Mount even before we get to love of enemies, not being showy when praying or fasting, laying up treasures in heaven, refraining from judging others, and the Golden Rule.
When I was preaching back in January on the end of Matthew 4, I laid out an order of events: Jesus calls us first, then teaches us, shows us by example, and finally sends us. That's how things work in this part of Matthew: Jesus calls the fishermen as disciples, then he teaches them in the Sermon on the Mount, then he shows them what ministry looks like as he heals the sick and lame and as he cleanses the unclean and lepers and as he exorcises demons. In chapter 10, he finally sends them into the villages of "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" doing all the same things that Jesus has been doing. It all starts, though, with Jesus' call.
The word vocation comes from the Latin, vocare, to call. We think of the secular meaning for vocation as our job or career: farmers farm, vendors sell, cooks cook, accountants count. We Christians can claim God's calling on our lives for those jobs as well. Whatever we do, we do to the glory of God. The word career is related to the French word for race course; a career is the course of a profession that we follow. This makes me think of Jesus calling the disciples, and then them following. Your vocation is the job that calls to you, and your career is you following that calling.
To say that we are called and leave it at that is incomplete. We are called to do something. This lines up well with our secular, career-related calling, or vocation. We are called to do a particular job. In the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples were also called away from something. They gave up their previous vocation as fishermen; they left their livelihood and security and family. Also, we are called to something in another sense, or in this case to someone. It's kinda built into the word call that the person doing the calling is calling you to themselves. We are called to or toward Jesus. The disciples literally followed Jesus. We also follow Jesus' example and try to make our lives closer to Jesus' life. Additionally, Jesus calls us to himself in still another sense; Jesus calls us into relationship with him.
In addition to being called to do something, being called away from something, being called toward Jesus, and being called into relationship with Jesus--in addition to all that, we are called to be something. We are called to be disciples. Disciples learn. In the Gospel of Matthew, the first thing they do is learn by listening to the Sermon on the Mount. Then they learn by watching Jesus do his ministry of healing and cleansing and casting out demons. This is not one-and-done learning, it is ongoing learning. We learn from Jesus teaching and modeling for the rest of our lives (and Calvin would say we continue to be taught by the Holy Spirit in our inward hearts). That gets at the distinction between being called to do something--to learn--and being called to be something: we are called to be learners.
What does Jesus teach in the Sermon on the Mount? It can seem kind of daunting; like we have to live up to super-righteousness; like we have to check our inner hearts and motivations; like we have to control our emotions. I think that this personal righteousness, though it's a lofty goal, is a misread of the Sermon on the Mount. If you look at all the imperatives and all the visions presented in the Sermon on the Mount, I think you'll see that each one helps us live as a community. Finding a way to not be angry with a sister or brother; not calling each other a fool, taking time to reach out and reconcile. All these have to do with relationships, not personal psychological piety. All of these have to do with preserving and building up the community. When you give alms or pray, don't hog all the attention in the community. Even "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" is an imperative in the plural--the whole community as a community is to lay up treasures for the community in heaven. The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," can't possibly be followed by yourself in the privacy of your own piety, in your own heart. You have to do unto others.
When Jesus shows us ministry by example, some of the healings are about making people whole so that they can serve the community. When Jesus cleanses a leper, this restores someone who was unclean and cast out from the community to a state where they can re-enter the community. When Jesus cures the mute, then that person can talk to other people; communication is an important prerequisite for relationship.
When the disciples had been called and responded and followed; when the disciples had listened and watched and learned, then Jesus sent them to "proclaim the good news, 'The Kingdom of heaven has come near.' and to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons." THAT's a tall order for us. Are we sent to leave this place and go to another place? To some extent, yes, we are sent to people who are not part of our congregation, not part of "us." Looked at another way (in a both/and kind of way), we're already somewhere else. Jesus sent all of us to Pauls Valley, Oklahoma to do ministry. Both: we're here and doing ministry AND we're sent to minister to people who aren't part of us. What does ministry look like? preserving and building up the community. We strive to live a righteous life and check ourselves against anger and lust and egotistical desire for attention. We work with our brothers and sisters at reconciling and repairing and maintaining our relationships within the community. We do real ministry to heal people and remove anything that prevents them from being part of our community.
These are all important parts of the Gospel of Matthew around the Sermon on the Mount. We won't be covering those readings in the lectionary, but you can read them yourselves from about chapter 4 through chapter 10. Hopefully, engagement with these scriptures will empower us to answer the call that Jesus makes to us to become disciples, to learn from him, to be more like him and to do the ministry that he has sent us to do.