Sermon, January 29, 2017
Today’s lectionary selects some headliners of Christianity, some of the most well known, best loved, most recited verses in scripture.
This verse from Micah is a favorite among my Seminary classmates. It’s inscribed in the floor on the third level, and no doubt in countless churches and synagogues as well. It’s so simple, and so straightforward. In many ways, it could be the bumper sticker of being faithful. What does God require? Does God want our sacrifice? What king would be sufficient? Would a sheep, a ram, or all the rams and sheep that we can find suffice? What about or our first born child? No. What God desires is not a specific type of offering, but a specific type of person. One that loves kindness, does justice, and strives to walk humbly with God in this journey of life.
Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount is simple and straightforward. In the book of Matthew, Jesus’ first act is to teach his disciples. He pulls the leaders away from the crowd, and holds class on what does it mean to be a disciple, a leader in God’s kingdom. The beatitudes make clear that it’s not about ‘being’ right or righteous anymore, because no one can ‘be’ the beatitudes. Similarly to Micah, it’s about doing. It’s about being a specific type of person, behaving a certain way in relationship to others. It’s very straightforward - but Let’s dig in;
Blessed are the poor in spirit. I was always confused about what it means to be poor in spirit. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is to have said, blessed are the poor, damned are the wealthy! But Luke was talking to a largely impoverished community. Matthew is speaking to a community in despair. This community is living soon after the destruction of the Temple – they have been stripped of their essence, their belonging to a people whom is in God’s favor. This has always been true because they have lived in the land God provided for them, and they worship God in the temple. But when the Roman’s destroy the Temple a second time, they no longer know who they are… no longer know where to turn for hope or redemption.
Jesus is saying to these people – if you are poor of spirit – if you are empty, drained of your sense of identity, devoid of the arrogance that comes with assuming you know what is right - then you are open to God. Maybe you are able to hear God’s voice better. Yours will be the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn… I can’t imagine someone in grief feeling that they are blessed in doing so. But remember, ancient Israel had a collective mentality. When God was pleased with them, He was pleased with the whole society. When he was displeased, the entire society suffered. This is not necessarily intended for those mourning the loss of loved ones. It’s likely those mourning for the whole society – mourning that society has strayed so far from God’s wishes.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. We had a good discussion in Bible study this week about the meaning of Meek. Do we associate Meek with Humble? In our assertive, individualistic society that rewards success, does meek have a negative connotation? Do we see it as weak, or passive?
We see the word ‘meek’ in Psalm 37 and many of Paul’s letters. There are two essential components for this quality to come into play in the Bible: a conflict in which an individual is unable to control or influence circumstances, and the strength to accept and persevere. Our typical human response in such circumstances include frustration, bitterness, or anger, but God calls for a different response. Meekness is therefore an active and deliberate acceptance of undesirable circumstances that are wisely seen by the individual as only part of a larger picture. The patient and hopeful endurance of undesirable circumstances identifies the person as externally vulnerable and weak but inwardly resilient and strong. Meekness does not identify the weak but more precisely the strong who have been placed in a position of weakness where they persevere without giving up.
We all know people like this – people whose inner strength keeps them going through circumstances unimaginable. This certainly applies to individual circumstances – sickness, suffering and grief – but so often is replicated in larger circumstances beyond an individual’s control.
Years ago, I dated a man who was Filipino – his parents immigrated to Illinois and he was raised here. He asked me to read a book called, When the Elephants Dance, that storied the history of the Phillipines, a small and unaggressive country caught in the crossfire of major Empires like Japan, China and the United States. The Filipino people were pushed around, by one conquering empire and then another… they were killed or drafted for armies, put in concentration camps and used as laborers, and beaten up over and over again. Yet, they accepted these things that were out of their control, and just persevered to survive.
The Jews listening to Matthew were like this; being trampled by forces far beyond their control, by Empires that conquered whole continents. Beaten and exiled by Empires with endless resources and incredible might. Matthew is telling them – God loves those people struggling through situations beyond their control, persevering for mere survival.
Today, I need to ask, how is this story any different from the people of Syria? People caught in the crossfires of a tyrannical government and rebel insurgents, each independently backed by different foreign empires with endless resources and incredible might. 450,000 Syrians have been killed in the war that began in 2011 – a war that is linked to the US invasion of Iraq and Afganistan, which destabilized the region. A war that has injured over a million people and displaced 12 million people – half the pre-war population of the country of Syria. 12 million people are languishing in tents and desperately crossing treacherous seas to find a place where they can survive without being bombed. The definition of meek, in my opinion.
Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. Friends, we have a strange and distorted view of righteousness in the modern day – something resembling individual piety. But righteousness is not about being perfect, it’s about doing the will of God. A righteous person are actively doing the will of God and desiring to see the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. Caring for the widow and orphan, sheltering the immigrant, welcoming the stranger, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Righteousness is not about personal piety, it’s about being in good relationship with others.
Similarly, blessed are the merciful. Mercy is not something you can feel in your heart if you are not giving it away. Being merciful is not about what sympathy we feel but about what acts of mercy we have done, and will do. Mercy means to do acts of compassion and forgiveness when it is in our power to punish or harm. Mercy does not count as mercy if it is not acted upon.
All of these things together create peacemakers, the children of God acting on God’s will.
Today is Health and Human Services Sunday… and this is not the sermon I intended to give… But on Friday, an executive order was signed that banned immigrants from 7 Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days. This order took effect immediately.
There were people who arrived for their flight that were not allowed to board the plane. There were people in the air when this order took effect – so when they landed in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, New York or DC, they were detained and sometimes arrested at the airport. In Chicago, an 18 month old toddler and an infant were detained with their mother by police.
The executive order did not make any exception for legal residents and green-card holders. There were workers who went home for family visits or funerals, who have jobs and families and mortgages here who are being barred from returning. There are international students who attend our great universities that went home for winter break and are now barred from completing their semester. Can you imagine living in a third-world country and saving enough money to send your child to an American University only to have them barred for 90 days of their year of medical school or physics or economics, and flush that $40,000 down the toilet? One article estimated 500,000 legal green card holders could be held in limbo by this executive order.
There were Syrians – Broken men, wailing women and bleeding children, each of them poor in spirit, mourning their dead, and meek but strong in their desire for survival, who have waited 2 years to complete our already strenuous refugee vetting process in order to be let into a country where they can start to rebuild their lives – only to be turned away at the airport.
This passage in Micah, and the Sermon on the Mount, lay out in pretty clear terms what is required of us in following Christ. Doing Justice. Loving Kindness. Walking humbly in the path God has laid out for us. But in case it’s not clear, later in Matthew Jesus tells us that he will call for those who are blessed by the Father to inherit the kingdom –
‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me …. Surely I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’
Late last night, a federal judge ordered a stay on the executive order banning Muslim entry into the country. I don’t know if this ban is unconstitutional – eventually this court case will make that clear – but I am fully convinced that is it Un-Christian. We are turning away the least of these – the meek, mourning refugee when we have the power to be merciful and demonstrate the kingdom of God.