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Psycho and the Beatitudes: The Sermon on the Mount as MacGuffin: Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany:
Matthew 5:13-20

I got thinking about the first time I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. (Yes, that’s how my mind works apparently, after reading the Sermon on the Mount. But please stick with me.)

First I banged on the TV, because the colours weren’t working; it was all black and white. (I eventually caught on.) But then, after that, I thought I’d recorded the wrong program — because I didn’t recognize the horror movie I thought I already knew. Instead playing out in front of me was a caper or crime thriller, about a woman embezzling money from her workplace, and going on the run with it. It’s not till we’re about a third of the way through it that it suddenly takes a 180 degree turn, and becomes something else entirely, with the creepy house, and Norman Bates, and his mother, Norma. Imagine being the first generation of filmgoers in 1960; the only group to experience the movie as the roller coaster it was meant to be; experiencing that sharp turn from crime thriller to what, at the time, was probably the creepiest story ever put to film.

And that’s the connection there, what I’m feeling. In a few different ways we’re in a pivoting time. On Thursday we celebrated The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple; when the church calendar starts to shift from, as the liturgy put it quite poetically, “from the crib to the cross.” In the day’s Gospel story the prophet Simeon holds Jesus in his hands and says “finally I have seen and held the salvation of God,” and, “his parents were amazed at what was said.” And then he follows this up by turning to Mary and saying “a sword is going to pierce your soul.” The mood changes. Quickly. As we pivot from the crib to the cross.

And it happened in our Gospel story this morning. Remind me, next time this comes up, to assign today’s reading to the seminary student, so I can take last week’s “blessed are” passage. As Brent (rightly) pointed out in the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount, “Jesus doesn’t give us law, but love.” But then, like the prophet Simeon in the Temple, or the director Hitchcock in his famous movie, we take a very sharp and serious turn: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets… not one letter, not one stroke will pass from the law until all is accomplished… Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom… Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Most of us, given the choice, will choose, instead, “blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the meek…”

At home I have an 800-page book, part four of a five volume series on the ‘historical Jesus’ by a big Biblical scholar (John P. Meier, who recently died). The volume’s actually called “Law and Love,” and the author, with several degrees and decades of research behind him, opens on page 1 with “now begins the hard part.”* (We’re moving past “blessed are the meek.”) This business of Jesus and the Law… And he goes on, saying “we must remain open to the possibility that not all the pieces of the puzzle fit together…. Jesus and the Law is an enigma that invites further investigation but no easy solution.”** Because we tend to hold onto — and hold highly — those passages of Jesus as rule-breaker, and mercy-dispenser. Jesus the hippie. Jesus of the Comfortable Words. The laughing Jesus that I bet someone here has hanging on their wall at home (or at least knows someone who does — in my case, my aunt and uncle Marilyn and John).

The various Churches of the Anglican Communion made a significant pivot in the latter part of the 20th century when they revised the beloved Book of Common Prayer, or, when that seemed an impossible task, introduced an “Alternative” like our green service book (that became, in most places, the standard). Some of the people shepherding the process, or those reflecting back on it — and I understand that at times it came close to brawls — would express that the old Prayer Book reflected a sense of God as ‘transcendent.’ God was ‘out there.’ And mysterious. So mysterious that we could only speak of God in the arcane language of Shakespeare and Elizabeth. And the idea you get of humanity is what I’ve heard some call a “worm theology.” We are so bad, so low.

But then here comes this new green book. And the experts will say that it presents more of a view of God as “imminent.” God is close by. We are not worshipping a judgemental God, but coming together as a family, a community. And we’re not worms; no, God has “made us worthy to stand before [him].”

[Now, the metaphors are sloppy, and the ideas are imperfect generalizations, though there is some truth to them. The theology in the green book is very ‘high;’ the eucharistic prayers say clearly what the old Prayer Book said in more ambiguous terms.] So there is some tension there, in our own tradition. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have no idea conceiving of God as majestic and transcendent, and imminent and found in the ordinary things of life. And this balancing of tensions was a repeat of what happened several hundred years earlier. The first Prayer Book had people saying “The Body of Christ broken for thee” as you received it. But a few short years later, with people of a more reformed persuasion gaining traction, they changed the words to “Take this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart…” And then years later, under Queen Elizabeth, came the wise move to just put the puzzle pieces together. They may or may not fit together perfectly, but we do our best with them arranged on the table. Because at the end of the day, we’re better off together than apart. And while we’ll all fall along different parts of the spectrum, it’s probably good to have some capacity for reverence and ‘the numinous’, the sacred, and some capacity for finding God in ourselves, our feelings, our simple remembrance. The transcendent, and the imminent.

And this all might be helpful for us to keep in mind as we sit in our discomfort, or disagreement, or tension between grace and requirement, and law and love. We hear these sometimes hard sayings not just as individuals, but as a community. An imperfect community, but a visible community. And a community called to a destiny that is greater than we could ask or imagine. Because of Jesus. There is grace in recognizing that we are not the first people (as individual or as community) to hear and think about, and struggle with these scriptures. Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great modern day thinkers (who, apparently was on Oprah once) says that the Sermon on the Mount is “not a list of requirements, but a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered.”*** The point is not to stress ourselves out about whether or not we are poor in spirit enough, or whether we should be mourning rather than dancing and joyful, or whether or not we’ve followed the letter of the Law. The point — the Good News — is that Jesus brings together heaven and earth. So there will be tension, growing, and labour pains as the Reign of God comes near. You might not always be meek. You might not be the ideal peacemaker. You might not be as righteous as the scribe. But in the community — the community formed around Jesus — you will see and encounter meekness, and peacemaking, and righteousness, bubbling up, as we bring our gifts together. Like salt that subtly gives just the right flavouring. Like yeast that makes the bread rise.

Thinkers like Hauerwas will remind us that we can’t and shouldn’t separate the Sermon on the Mount from the person who preached it. Jesus is the Word Made Flesh, and we might say that the Beatitudes are “The Flesh Made Words.” If anyone did live and exemplify the Sermon, it was Jesus. And it got him killed. But it didn’t finish him.

In movie-speak, to get back to Hitchcock, there’s a thing called a “MacGuffin.” The money that Janet Leigh steals at the beginning of Psycho is a MacGuffin. It’s what gets the story going, in high gear. But oftentimes there’s that shift, that pivot, that takes us past the MacGuffin. The ring in the Lord of the Rings is a MacGuffin. It’s good that they sort out what they need to do with it, but the ring, really, I don’t care about the ring so much as the hobbits, and elves, and orcs, and the trouble they get into. R2-D2 is the MacGuffin in Star Wars, holding Princess Leia’s message to Obi Wan, and containing the plans for the Death Star. But at the end of the day I don’t care about those specifics so much as the relationships between Luke and Leia and Han, and the adventures they have.

So I wonder if we can approach the tensions brought up by the Sermon on the Mount as a sort of MacGuffin. The sermon brings us into the story. But we’re not meant to get stuck on the MacGuffin; it carries us forward, and beyond itself. It animates us (both with a sense of consolation, and a sense of trepidation). It gathers us, so that we can then continue, propelled, into the much larger story. It is the constitution of the community gathered around Jesus. It propels us forward, along our journey with Jesus. And it opens our eyes up to Jesus, who is the one who can and does embody the sermon. And is our only hope of entering more deeply into this enigma.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Volume IV: Law and Love (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 1.
** ibid., 3, 4.
*** Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 61.