Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Today’s first lesson from the book of Micah features God bringing a court case against God’s own people, with all of creation standing by to render the verdict. What’s Gods complaint? The first five chapters of Micah lay out Gods concerns: the rich keep getting richer (not always by honest or legal means), and the poor keep getting poorer. Big corporations are buying up the little 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.” Doesn’t that sound like it could have been written more recently than several thousand years ago? Like maybe 2008? Actually it is the same indictment of economic injustice that has been uttered in every generation. God warns those who mistreat others that they will have to own up to their cruelty and face the consequences, but they continue on, obliviously.
In spite of the fact that they’ve been ignoring God’s appeal to care for and honor the earth and one another, when the people of Israel are invaded by a foreign army, they suddenly remember God, and cry to God for help. It’s that old story about there being no atheists in foxholes. When God is distressed, and calling out to them, the people blithely turned away, but when the people were in distress, they called out to God and—remarkably—God responded with tenderness and compassion.
No matter how disobedient or stubborn the people are, they are still God’s own people, and God promises to be with them, always. But God also takes the opportunity to remind them how they are to live as God’s beloved people. As soon as the danger has passed, however, in spite of God’s extraordinary patience and mercy, the people go back to doing what they have often done: ignoring God and putting themselves above others.
That’s why God is so worked up in today’s lesson. That’s why God wails, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” We hear those plaintive questions on Good Friday, when we recall how abandoned Jesus felt on the cross. It’s as if God is crying out, “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 gave you manna when you were hungry; I stood with you in all your previous struggles. Why do you keep resisting my love?”
At the conclusion of God’s complaint, God suggests how the people might put the situation right. God doesn’t demand they 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.”
At first glance it sounds like the people of God are getting off really easy, considering the severity of their sins. But that’s only until God’s people really try to do what God is requiring.
*Do justice. For starters, this command assumes that that God’s people know what the right and just thing to do in a given situation would be. Furthermore, it isn’t theoretical—God demands that we act justly (and not just think justly while hoping that someone else will act). God calls us to stand up for and with those who are threatened or vulnerable—immigrants, refugees, minorities, the very young and the very old. Doing justice means caring for creation instead of exploiting it. It means taking risks to do what is right, even if what is right is unpleasant or unpopular or inconvenient. Maybe you’ve noticed, as I have, that discerning what is good and right and acting accordingly are not things God’s people are especially good at.
*Love mercy. It sounds great at first. But then we have to consider that with mercy there’s no quid pro quo, no tit for tat. Loving mercy means sometimes we’ll have to forgo fairness. This precludes finding someone to blame and punishing them, and instead valuing clemency and granting forgiveness—especially when it’s not deserved. Loving mercy wouldn’t make very good reality TV, since no one gets what’s coming to them. Not to mention that mercy is uncomfortable both for the recipient and the grantor of it.
*Walk humbly with your God. In other words, we have to acknowledge that we don’t always understand who God is or what God wants. It means knowing we might be wrong, and therefore, erring on the side of grace as often as possible. Walking humbly with God means operating with the awareness that we are no more and no less precious than anyone or anything else in creation.
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 hopelessly weighed down. I can’t do those things—at least not consistently—and certainly not all at the same time. In Lutheran circles we talk about Scripture in which God demands something from us humans as Law, and texts that show God’s grace to us as Gospel, no matter where they come from in the Bible. To me this text is clearly Law. If God wanted to bring a court case against me, I know I’ll never win. I plead guilty as charged.
It’s a good thing a text so full of Law is followed by Gospel, isn’t it?
Matthew’s Gospel lesson today 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 admit that we aren’t able to do that? Suddenly Jesus’ beautiful Sermon on the Mount is sounding more like Law than Gospel to me.
It certainly sounds promising for those who struggle with grief, and for 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 selfish, 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? If God’s blessing is only for certain people who meet certain requirements—especially since I can’t meet those requirements—am I condemned not only by the prophets, but even by Jesus? If so, then there no hope for me.
Whenever I get to a place where I see only two options and neither of them is good, I try remembering what I learned from non-violence training. 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.
In this portion of the letter 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 our provoking God’s anger if we fail to seek justice or to be kind or to walk humbly with God. In fact, this part of his letter doesn’t speak about HUMAN conduct at all. Instead, it is a reminder to the congregation in Corinth—and I pass it on to you, people of Trinity, Madison—that the really pivotal thing is not how we live as Christians, but how Christ lived. The key is not our faithfulness or righteousness, but God’s faithfulness and righteousness!
This is Gospel! This is Good News! God’s goodness is not reliant on our goodness! God cannot stop blessing us, not because we deserve blessing, but because it is God’s nature to bless; God cannot help it. God opted to save us from our own inability to love by loving us. God chose to walk alongside mortals, even though—for Jesus— it meant suffering and dying at the hands of people who never could figure out how to do justice. God chooses to align with us, people who seldom choose mercy when we can employ revenge, and to serve us with humility, whether or not we manage to humble ourselves to serve God or others. 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!
Hear the Good News! Are you poor? God bless you. Rich? God bless you. Merciful? God bless you. Hostile? God bless you. Judgmental? God bless you? A peacemaker? God bless you. We, all of us, on our good days and our bad days, 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 powerful 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, God shines more clearly than through our solid competence. In our vulnerability, we become powerful, for then, we recognize 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 Susan Schneider