How The Kingdom of God is God’s “SMART Goal” (Not Ours)

Preacher: The Rev. Adam Frieberg

Preached on: February 9th, 2014

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany


No recording

Scripture Text:

Matthew 5:13-20



Well, I have a little bit of a confession to make: Heidi originally asked me to preach last week on the Presentation of Christ.  In a perfect world, I probably could have helped her out and done it.  But it was Super Bowl Sunday … and the scripture passages were a little weird … and to tell you the truth, I didn’t understand what the big deal about the Presentation was anyway.  And so I agreed to preach this week.

I should have looked ahead before saying yes.

Super Bowl Sunday and weird scripture?  They have nothing on this weekend.   The Winter Olympics are happening!!  And we have just as weird of scripture.  But more on that a little bit later.

I want to first talk with you about goals.

We’re six weeks into 2014.  Six weeks!  I for one didn’t make resolutions at New Years time … but I know that many of us did.  Maybe it was to workout more.  Maybe it was to eat less.  Maybe it was save more money.  Maybe it was to show more gratitude — or maybe it was to take on a new spiritual discipline or habit.

I’m not sure what your resolutions looked like … if you made them.

This past week, though, I’ve had to ask myself why I didn’t make resolutions.  Why didn’t I set goals to eliminate or add something to my life?

The question raised itself this past week because I had a new coach appear in my life.   Last year — probably around May or so — I joined a spinning class at my gym.  Spinning classes –  in case you haven’t heard of them – are indoor bicycling classes on stationary bikes.  It’s a lot of the workout of riding the bike without a lot of the risk of falling.  (Helpful for balance-challenged people like me)

So normally my spin classes have lots of techno and dance music with some very corny lyrics.  Stuff like: “even though it hurts I can’t slow down, walls are closing in and I hit the ground, just one last time…

…  And my normal instructor is pretty good.   He’ll do little motivational comments just as we’re in the tough sections — stuff like “you’ve done so well; you’re almost there — 30 more seconds until a rest.”  He’s good at sounding hopeful and giving us that extra confidence.

Well, this week, there was a guest spin instructor — apparently someone higher up in the gym’s hierarchy.  This guest instructor was a little more hardcore.  Gone was the helpful instructor who boosted confidence — this guy was more of a “I want your speeds at 90!”  Or “Push it!  Push it!  No excuses … don’t back down!”   His music was a little edgier too — the lyrics were more like “we’re on a highway to nowhere…” (notable when you’re on a stationary bicycle!).

And having such a difference in instructors — having a contrast so I could compare them side-by-side — made me realize that the second instructor expected a lot more from me.

And that brought up the question: were his goals also my goals?

When I first began the spin class last year, my goal was to have fun, make it through the workout, feeling kind of tired at the end.  I thought it was a pretty good goal.   My goal hadn’t really changed — even though I’d accomplished it within the first month of the classes.  My goal was still the same.

This other instructor, though, wanted good form.  He wanted a certain pace.  He wanted a certain level of performance.

Which brings me back to the new year’s resolutions.  If you make goals, do you make SMART goals?

SMART goals are nothing new — they’re popular in corporate America, in the military — pretty much anywhere groups of people meet in teams and have a common project.  The labeling of SMART goals have been around for at least 30 years as far as I can tell.

In order to know if a goal is SMART, it has to be:

Specific – meaning not abstract or vague

Measurable – meaning there’s a clear indicator when the goal was accomplished

Achievable – meaning there’s not just a way to know it’s been done … but that it can be done

Relevant – meaning it’s something that should be done and that it matters

Time-bound – meaning there’s a clear window of time when this will be attempted; a deadline

SMART goals sound like buzz words thrown around leadership seminars and pop psychology books.  And I guess they probably are.  But there’s something very tidy – something very satisfying about being able to look at a goal or at a resolution and to be able to say “yep, this will end well” or “yep, I did it.”

And all of this brings me to the Gospel reading for today.

I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, I heard these words from Jesus and though of them as one of the most unhelpful and unachievable set of directions I’d ever heard.”You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

Uh — thanks Jesus, I guess …  how do I know if I’m salty enough for you or not?  And if I’m not, are you really going to throw me out and trample me under foot?!?

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Again — not really the most helpful.  I very much prefer what happens in the Gospel of John when Jesus says “I am the light of the world”  — it sounds there like he knows what he’s doing.  In this case, he says “you are the light of the world.” “don’t put it under a bushel basket” “let your light shine before others.”

How much light is too much?  What does our light even look like?  Specifics, Jesus, specifics!

And then he gets into some of the more exclusive parts about not messing up:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

So the Old Testament that he was talking about — he’s not giving us a free pass – or an excuse not to follow it.  It also sounds like he’s laying out some pretty strict consequences — break one of the least of the commandments … or teach others to not follow them … and you’ll be called least in the kingdom of heaven.   Well great!  Like that’s within our control or even possible … !   And then he goes into how we need to be better than the priests in order to make it into the kingdom of heaven!  (Heidi, please, no comments …)

Reading these scriptures out of context — and hearing them without also hearing what else Jesus was saying – can lead to some pretty warped interpretations of how we’re supposed to live.

What are these scriptures about?

When Jesus says “if saltiness has lost its taste, how can it be restored?  No it needs to be thrown out” — when Jesus says this — is he saying that there are some ways we can sin that can’t be redeemed?  Is he saying there’s a possibility that one of God’s children could become so bad that God would rather throw out the child than to try to restore it?

And when Jesus is saying “let your light shine so others can see” — is he saying that we have to be happy and cheery all of the time?  Is he saying that we’re never supposed to be sad or angry or afraid?  Always full of bright and shiny sparkles all of the time?  And if we’re not, is Jesus saying that people won’t believe in God because we haven’t given them a bright enough picture in order that they can believe?

There are some ways we can hear Jesus’s words and those words can echo some of our worst inner demons and inner criticisms.  It’s not too difficult to hear in the words Jesus says – exactly what we don’t want to hear.

Without the rest of the story, those words can leave us pretty hollow.

But there’s more to the story.   Earlier in this sermon, Jesus started with the Beatitudes — the blessings.  Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who grieve …   And later in the sermon, he’s going to clear up the specifics about how to follow the law — and how to live in harmony with our brothers and sisters.  At some points in the rest of the sermon he’s going to sound even stricter — especially when talking about divorce, about loving our enemies and about how we relate to money and wealth.   But throughout the rest of the sermon and the rest of the story, Jesus is going to paint a picture of the kingdom of heaven.

That’s what today’s gospel reading is about.  It’s about the kingdom of heaven.

I remember when I as first reading the Sermon on the Mount seriously, I was reading it as a checklist of what needed to happen in order to get into heaven.  That was the goal.  To get to heaven when I die.

And looking back on it, I’m pretty sure it’s a ridiculous checklist. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound.   Here’s what the beginning of the checklist for this goal looked like:

  • be poor in spirit

  • grieve

  • be gentle

  • hunger and thirst for justice

  • be merciful

  • have an undefiled heart

  • work for peace

  • suffer persecution

  • be gossiped about

  • be salty

  • be a light

  • don’t break commandments

  • don’t teach others to break commandments

  • be more religious than the priests

Some of these may sound like good elements of SMART goals — but really none of them are.  They’re often not specific, not time-bound, not measurable.

Which I guess raises the question: how can I have a goal to get to heaven?

Maybe the goal isn’t ours — maybe it’s not a checklist that’s ours to complete.

That’s one of my favorite parts about being a follower of Jesus Christ.  Whenever I get sucked into the trap – into do the idolatry – of thinking I have to do something to get to heaven … I realize that the checklist wasn’t mine to complete.  Jesus already completed it.  It was his SMART goal — he had the specifics – he knew the measure – he could achieve it – it was him that the goal was relevant for – it was his deadline.

And what came out of that goal’s success — what came out was God’s offer of grace.

That’s where the Sermon on the Mount really shines; it’s a lot of lessons about living life … but those lessons make a lot more sense when viewed through the lens of being part of God’s grace.

One of my favorite theologians is Karl Rahner.  And one of the best points Rahner makes is something that’s a little too complex and too wordy for him to say it.  Instead, there’s a poem that captures the theology a lot better — a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…

To believe that the world is charged with the grandeur of God — to believe that there’s a salty, light-filled grace that permeates all of creation — that charges and powers all … and that the light, even if it goes out in the depths of the night, will still be kindled and breathed on by the Holy Ghost – and shine bright in the morning with God’s glory

… to believe that, is, to Rahner, what it means to accept grace.

We don’t need to know about grace — we don’t need to fully understand or comprehend it.  God is already at work, in our very core.

To accept that grace, at a very basic level, we have to accept ourselves.

And it’s not about accepting ourselves as in saying, “yeah, I’m a pretty cool person!”  It’s deeper than that.  It means that we need to acknowledge that we have hurts and we have trials.  We need to realize that as Christians and as human beings – as God’s children – we have responsibilities and we have limits.  We need to realize that through all of it — God is at work around us.  God is at work within us.

As I started thinking about my goals for my spinning class — as you think about goals … or new year’s resolutions.  Or as we get ready for the season of Lent that starts in a little over a month.   As we all re-examine and decide whether our goals are SMART …

I hope you can see the good news already playing out in your life.

At some point — I’m not sure I can identify when — but at some point, my goal changed.  I wasn’t aiming to end my life as a good enough person that God would finally let me into the kingdom of heaven.  That wasn’t a smart goal for me.   Instead, I trust that God will find ways in my life – in the here and now – to let the kingdom break through.  The kingdom of heaven isn’t a goal of mine.  It’s God’s goal.  I’m going to try to figure out SMART goals along the way, though, to let the kingdom shine out of my life.


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