Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12.
Who is this Jesus? Who is he calling us to become? Where is he leading? What kind of life will we have if we follow?
Twelve of us set out on a journey last Monday night. “Living the Questions” intends to help us understand and to claim the progressive stream of our Christian tradition.
That first session was called “Invitation to the Journey,” Next month, February 28, the fourth Monday, our session will be entitled “Taking the Bible Seriously.” It’s not too late to join us.
But most interesting to me was, that by the end of the evening, we weren’t talking so much about the tradition itself anymore. Instead, our focus had shifted to Jesus himself, of whom we know a little or a lot. …And who we think He means for us to be.
We ended with an exercise that asked us quickly, without too much belabored fretting, to name 10 characteristics, things we know or believe or experience about Jesus. Some people listed adjectives. Others listed bible stories or sayings. Or their own spiritual experiences. Or more theological propositions.
Once we had done that, each person was to asked to pare our list down, crossing off consecutively the next least important aspect to us, until we got to just one, at least according to this exercise, most important thing about Jesus.
Does anyone there remember the one characteristic about Jesus that you ended up with? If you do, will you share it– just call it out? (People called out: justice, patience, all-loving, walks on water…)
The season of Epiphany is likewise about who this Jesus. So too, I guess one could say, is the walk of our whole Christian life. We’re trying to know Him better and, in so doing, coming to understand more who we are to be.
Epiphany opened with the Wise Ones’ journey. Jesus being presented to them representatively, Christ is revealed symbolically to the whole world.
Epiphany is also when we remember Jesus’ baptism, and the call of his first disciples. It concludes with the Transfiguration. For those with the faith to see and hear, the revelation of God in Christ is made over and over again.
This season of the church year explores our identities as well: we are those who, like the Magi, are looking for Jesus. John the Baptist asks directly: “What are you seeking?” Today we turn to Jesus’ teaching ministry– with the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes: blessings, beauty, bounty imagined and hoped for — Jesus’ vision beautiful.
For each Sunday, Scripture passages are selected starting with the Gospel text — the story of Jesus. Other passages, from the Hebrew Bible and Epistles, which are related in theme or imagery, are weaved around the Gospel passage, in order to add insight into the community’s experience of God through Jesus.
Psalm 15, that we used for our gathering words, the first chapter of I Corinthians from which our Confession was drawn, or the prophecy from Micah we heard as our first reading, like the Gospel text itself, are full of unexpected twists and surprising reversals. In this sense, Scripture parallels life itself– full of unexpected twists and surprising reversals. A journey leading us ever deeper into God’s mystery and call, if we will follow.
In Psalm 15, a pilgrim asks what’s required for entering the Temple. Remember, beloved, not all churches use “No matter who or where on life’s journey” as their welcoming criterion. But still God’s response is probably not what is expected. Instead of speaking of the worthiness or readiness of the individual, God suggests that really coming into holiness is about making sure that the community’s life is framed in justice, mercy and peace.
Likewise, 1 Corinthians 1, used as inspiration for our confession, is one of the most compelling reversals in all Scripture: the contrast of God’s foolishness and human wisdom, focused on the cross. How God uses that which our world denigrates to confound all that we falsely over-value. The cross confounds all expectations. Never letting us move to the resurrection as the manifestation of God’s power, in this passage, Paul keeps our attention on the scandal of the cross.
~ those who seek proof in miraculous displays of power are disappointed;
~ those who look for human logic in divine activity are frustrated.
~ miracles fail, and human reason cannot explain how God’s power is at work in human weakness and vulnerability.
~ the cross points us to another way: “transformation” — God’s presence in unexpected places, in suffering, weakness and abandonment rather than in signs, wonders, and reason”
The Micah 6 reading continues with this topic of reversals. It starts out a parody of a court case. God accuses the people of covenant infidelity. Before Israel can even lift its voice to answer, to defend itself, God continues, laying out the only real case to be made, the one for God’s decisive presence all along:
~ God’s liberating Israel from slavery,
~ God’s sending leaders (including in unexpected scriptural inclusivity, Miriam, a woman!)
~ God’s grace by which curses are turned into blessings.
The passage closes with the unexpected: the liturgical theme getting turned inside out… expanding on the call and response prayer that pilgrims used as they approached the Temple for prayer and sacrifice, employing exaggeration and irony, Micah blows up the pilgrims’ questions into increasingly antic suggestions of what God requires:
~ prostration or sacrifice?
~ thousands of cattle?
~ rivers of oil?
~ the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
In answer to the Pilgrims’ self-congratulatory show of false devotion, God’s response is simplicity itself, calling Israel back to covenant faithfulness, in three concise commitments:
Walk humbly with God.
Leaders, maybe on a day when we recognize, give thanks for, pledge our suppor to your efforts, these are reminders for you in your leadership among us:
~ You are to be actively engaged in the redistribution of power… in this church and in the world– to correct the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others.
~ You are to love “covenant loyalty:” the translation of ‘hesed’ as ‘kindness’ is disastrously “underfunded.” The Hebrew word points to something much more radical– reordering life as a reflection of God’s faithful commitment to us… into a community of enduring relations of fidelity.
~ Finally, you are to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that ALL life– yours, ours, everywhere in creation– is indeed derived only and always from the reality of God.” The “vision beautiful” in Micah calls Israel to God in the world, living out God’s desires for a community of justice and faithful love.
Which brings us, at last, to Matthew’s text on the “vision beautiful.” After the surprises and reversals we have encountered through its accompanying readings, it is no surprise to discover that “…the Beatitudes turn the world’s values upside down.
One caveat before we enter further into our consideration of the Beatitudes. They are often sentimentalized or overly “spiritualized,” lulling us into thinking that the struggles of the poor and the suffering of the oppressed are to be endured now… until some millennial future when God’s promises will be fulfilled in some action that only God can undertake or accomplish.
We need a powerful corrective to such a reading, another translation that sidesteps this temptation. The real crisis of any community living under persecution must come through in our translation AND in our steps to live out Jesus’ challenge:
Godlike in their happiness are the poor in breath– theirs is the dominion of the heavens.
Godlike in their happiness are the mourners– they shall be called to witnesses.
Leaders and people, urgency must replace our reading or living of some sort of spiritual passivity. The reality of the cross brings depth, mystery, wonder and grace to words watered down in worldly familiarity.
What is true right now for those who live in the power of the Kingdom of Heaven is a flat reversal of what is considered to be true in our culture at large. We live in a world (it’s even often true in the church too) that pronounces benediction over the self-sufficient, the assertive, and the power brokers. The Beatitudes declare that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers are the ones who are truly blessed. The very people whom the world would see as pitiful, to be mourned or persecuted, they are the ones Jesus pronounces, claims are truly joyful.
Beloved, the Beatitudes invite us to seek and find the action of God not in might and power, but in a willingness to be humble and of service. What a message for a Sunday we recognize, bless, empower leaders among us.
The lives of those who are humble in spirit, those who are willing to suffer, who acknowledge their sorrow, who go about making peace… when we live like that, our lives right now will not only hold, but show forth and share the blessing and transforming power of God.
We can live and struggle for justice, peace, and wholeness in our world… starting right here in our church.
Indeed, the theme of all our scripture texts finds a kind of fulfillment in Matthew’s, or is it Jesus’?, expression of the “vision beautiful:”
~meeting God through covenant faithfulness;
~ gaining access to the Holy through the creation of a whole and just society;
~ encountering God’s power in the pain and struggle and “foolishness” of a world suffering for justice and peace.
And I would add, church is where we had better start practicing all this first. That we can stay true when we get in the real test “out there.” And one more unexpected turn: The Beatitudes invite us, enable us to play with time itself– our present and God’s future.
~ God is with us already, now, that all of our struggles may already inform our hope, even as
~ God is also pointing us toward the ultimate “Vision Beautiful,” of our future Kingdom of Heaven where God is all in all.
The readings today lead us on a labyrinth journey toward a vision beautiful with God not only at its center, but God at every turn, upsetting our expectations, and challenging us to take another step deeper into the mystery of divine presence dwelling in our world.
God is not demanding of you extravagant sacrifice or liturgical purity; God is not to be sought in other-worldly miracles or worldly logic.
God is calling you to follow Christ, the Beloved, to engage in a real-world lives of faithful, creative, courageous, community-building love.
The Vision Beautiful– the joy, the surprise, the wonder and blessing that come of such a life walking with God.
As no one can miss after all our stressing in this service on being physical, this is Health and Human Services Sunday, when we are using our bodies to counteract the ill effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. We are remembering the physicality with which God calls us to live real lives that make a difference. The question then is what we can do, how we can move, how our physical presence will make Jesus’ beautiful vision real right here right now and also in the world we’re sent out into? Amen.