Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

February 2, 2014

Today’s first lesson from the book of Micah features the Lord bringing a court case against God’s own people. Why? This is the beginning of the 6th chapter of Micah, so I thought I’d back up and tell you what happens in the previous 5 chapters that makes God so angry that a case is presented for the mountains and hills to adjudicate. Warning: some of it may sound like current events.

Among God’s chosen people of Israel, the rich have been getting richer (not always by honest or legal means), and the poor have been getting poorer. Big corporate farms have been buying up the family-owned farms, leaving large parts of the population in despair and in debt. In Chap. 2 of Micah, God says, “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds…they covet fields and seize them; houses, and take them away. They oppress the householder and house.” It is the same indictment of economic injustice that has been uttered in every generation, isn’t it? God warns those who mistreat others that they will have to own up to their cruelty and face the consequences.

In spite of their misbehavior, in Ch. 4 of Micah, when push comes to shove and the people of Israel are invaded by a foreign army, they cry to God for help. Does God say, “Serves you right?” or “Now you see how it feels to be oppressed.” No. God promises to take care of them, assuring them that, no matter how disobedient or stubborn they are, they are God’s own people, and God will be with them, always. God also reminds them how they are to live as God’s beloved people. And, despite this extraordinary act of mercy, they people do what they have often done: ignore God.

That’s why God is so worked up in today’s lesson. That’s why God asks, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” Don’t you remember? I brought you up out of slavery from the land of Egypt! I sent you leaders like Moses and Miriam to help you; I stood with you in all your previous struggles. Why do you doubt me now? And then the kicker—God doesn’t demand a penance from the people. They don’t have to walk on their knees till they are bloody, or take a vow of poverty and give away all their belongings. No. “What does the Lord require of you? Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.”

In some ways it sounds like the people of God are getting off really easy, considering the severity of their sins. Until we really consider what God is requiring.

*Do justice. That implies, for starters, that the people know what would be the right and just thing to do in a given situation. And then it demands that they act on it (and not just hope that someone else would). Surely all the evidence so far has not shown that to be something God’s people are especially good at.

*Love mercy. Not fairness. Not revenge. Not finding out who is to blame and punishing them, but granting undeserved clemency. It wouldn’t make a very good reality TV show if no one gets what’s coming to them.

*Walk humbly with your God. In other words, acknowledge that we don’t always understand who God is or what God wants. And then, consider how we interact with the rest of the creation God made and loves—including (but not exclusively) other people. It requires our seeing that at our most capable we are still imperfect.

I don’t know about you, but suddenly what God requires seems so far out of the realm of what I can actually do that I feel weighed down and guilty. I can’t do those things—at least not consistently—and certainly not all at the same time. In Lutheran circles we talk about texts in which God demands something from us humans as Law, and texts that show God’s grace to us as Gospel. This text is clearly Law. It’s a good thing a text so full of Law is followed by Gospel, isn’t it?

Matthew’s Gospel is filled with promises: “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, for you will be filled. Blessed are the pure in heart for you will see God. Blessed are you who are merciful, for you will receive mercy….” Uh oh. Isn’t that just what we just heard in Micah? Be merciful? And didn’t we just say that we aren’t able to do that? Suddenly Jesus’ beautiful Sermon on the Mount is sounding more like Law than Gospel. I mean, it certainly sounds promising for those who strugge with grief, and those who are genuinely trying to live decently and spiritually. But is it Gospel for the rest of us?

What about the people who are arrogant or financially comfortable? What about those who are happy to pay other people to take care of peacemaking and hungering for righteousness so they can just go along doing what they do? What about those who are not reviled or spoken about badly, but are fairly well liked? What about those who are not pure in heart, no matter how hard they try? And what about those who don’t try? Are we not blessed?

This feels more like Law than Gospel to me. If God’s blessing only falls on certain people who meet certain requirements—and especially since I’m not sure I meet those requirements—it doesn’t look like following Jesus is much of an improvement over trying to be justified by the Law. Is there no hope for us?

Whenever I get to a place where I see only two options and neither of them is good, it is helpful for me to remember what I learned from non-violence training sessions. In cases that look like “either-or” it helps to look for a third way, a way that offers “both-and,” a totally new way. Maybe that’s why we usually have 3 Scripture readings every weekend—sometimes a third perspective sheds light on the other two. I certainly found that to be true of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this weekend.

Paul doesn’t discuss whether God prefers those who are humble over those who are proud, nor does he mention favorably those who are mourning or peaceable. He doesn’t say anything about God’s anger toward us if we fail to seek justice or to be kind or to walk humbly with God. In fact, this passage doesn’t speak about OUR conduct at all. Instead, it is a reminder to the congregation in Corinth—and I pass on to you, people of Madison—that the really important thing is not how we live as Christians, but how Christ lived. The key is not our faithfulness or righteousness, but God’s!

God opted to save us from our own inability to love by loving us. God agreed to walk alongside us, even though it meant suffering at the hands of people who never could figure out how to do justice. God chose to align with us, people who seldom choose mercy when we can employ revenge, and to serve us with humility, whether or not we could humble ourselves. It sounds crazy, but Jesus chose to live among us, to embrace us and care for us, not after we proved ourselves worthy, but in the midst of our unwillingness even to try!

This is Gospel! This is Good News! God’s goodness is not reliant on our goodness! In fact, the reverse is true. We are only able to do worthy, admirable things because God’s love is so tremendous that it cannot be contained. It leaks out of heaven and onto creation, including us. God cannot stop blessing us, not because we deserve blessing, but because it is God’s nature to bless; God cannot help it. And we, as little creations crafted in the image of God, cannot escape reflecting tiny bits of God’s exuberant love and blessing. Being people of blessing is a family trait we inherit in baptism.

Are you poor? God bless you. Rich? God bless you. Mericful? God bless you. Hostile? God bless you. Judgmental? God bless you? A peacemaker? God bless you. We are loved without reason or limit. We are blessed with peace beyond human understanding. We are forgiven even when we cannot make peace in our own lives or homes or hearts. We, who would prefer to justify ourselves and our actions over seeking justice for others; we, who would rather be mighty than kind; we, who resist being humble because we want to appear self-sufficient: we are blessed. Jesus loves us. It’s foolish really. We are not a good risk of God’s investment. We will not return anything near the amount of blessing that has been poured out on us and for us.

But this is our hope, and this is the Gospel: God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom. God’s weakness is stronger than our strength. Through our brokenness and inadequacy, we see God more clearly than we can through our solid competence. In our vulnerability, we become most powerful, for then, we see that it is only God who can make us whole. We, who cannot do what God requires of us (or even want to, most of the time), find a welcome in God’s embrace at all times and in all places. Wonderful, wonderful foolishness! Blessed are we.

~Pastor Sue

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