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Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
January 26, 2019 –Third Sunday After the Epiphany
What a rich sea of scripture we wade into today. Micah puts the question to us: “What offering should I bring when I bow down to worship the LORD God Most High?”
Our Psalmist replies that the Lord blesses “those who obey God and do as they should.”
Paul chimes in: “What happened to the ones who think they have all the answers? Didn’t God show that the wisdom of this world is foolish?”
So, my head is almost exploding when I read the Sermon on the Mount. “God blesses those people who are treated badly for doing right. They belong to the kingdom of heaven.”
But it only makes sense that if you are good, then good things will happen to you. Why should I have to even think about, let alone expect, that bad things would happen to people because they did what was right?
Where is the wisdom here? What is the important thing?
It is important for us to know when and where and to whom these things were said to make sense out of them. Micah is prophesying from the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the 8th Century B.C.
Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, is falling to the Assyrians. He sees what is happening there, with the subjugation of the people to foreign rule, the imposition of foreign gods and the exile of their leaders from the land.
The wolf is at the door. The alien armies are at his border. What happened there could happen here. What was it that they did…what else could we do…how can we find our way through without falling into the same pit they did?
He sees all of this and turns to his people in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and he excoriates the sins that he saw committed there, in Israel…because he is also seeing them committed by his own people…here, in Judah.
Her rich use their power to take advantage of the poor. Her leaders judge for a bribe. Her priests teach for a price. Her prophets tell fortunes for money. They have become so rich they can afford to cheat…their neighbors… themselves… and even God.
We live in a place and time that was seen as ‘The New World’ during a century…almost two…by people who crossed an ocean in a small sail-driven ship to settle here. We have always been a light to the nations…in an almost biblical sense.
During protests for freedom everywhere, the one symbol that is seen…in Tiananmen Square…in the closing scene of Planet of the Apes…as Liberty itself. That is our Statue of Liberty.
When we were seen as weak and isolated, we were trying to learn how to do it better…something better for our children. Now that we are the leading nation of the free world…and of the world…we want to believe that half of the people in this country are misguided or dishonest…and the other half thinks that of us.
We are the busiest human beings in the history of the world, but we have sacrificed the time we used to have to think things over. We have come to react rather than respond.
Because of the great wealth we enjoy, we have not felt many dramatic consequences for our dramatic indulgences…so far.
That is the position Judah…the Southern Kingdom is in now. Times are changing. Look. Listen. Reflect on it calmly. What is it that will get us through?
Paul writes to a church he has planted in a great metropolitan center of the Mediterranean. They are bright people who know the world and are open to new ideas.
The Word finds good soil and sprouts in this environment. They agree about the important thing and it transforms their lives.
Then they find that the Word is expressed differently in some lives than others and they begin to quarrel. New ideas seek acceptance. Some are good. Some are not.
Paul writes to plead with them to speak …and listen to one another in love. His argument is simple: We cannot know what God knows…so why quarrel with each other about our differences? Why not listen carefully and speak softly so we be heard carefully and people will speak to us softly?
What is a difference of opinion, after all? During my sophomore year in high school our teacher picked a number of different propositions and wrote them on the board.
Resolved: That such and such is true…or this and that needs to be done. What the issues were is immaterial, as we will see, and I can’t remember them anyway.
Then she arbitrarily assigned us a partner and…even more arbitrarily assigned each team to one side or the other. Speech was a new activity and this was a new teaching tool.
Each team argued their positions passionately, sometimes angrily, and each team was sure they had won the argument, no matter how the style points were assigned.
That was late in the fall, and students from opposing sides argued the side they happened to have been assigned all the way through Christmas break and well into spring.
We were all convinced that the side to which we had been arbitrarily assigned was the truth and the other side was dangerously misinformed.
That’s what people do. That’s how they are. That’s how we still are. It took a nice, long summer vacation to work that out of our system.
Paul would simply have told us we were both wrong…and we were both right. Listen…assuming yourself to be a fool…if you want to learn what your companion has to teach you.
And if you don’t think they have anything to teach…just wait. When the student is ready…the teacher will appear. When you are ready… your teacher will appear.
Watch. Listen. Micah tells us in another passage that nations will beat their spears into plowshares. He points to a sign: that a child will one day be born in the city of Bethlehem.
But today, he only asks God’s chosen people to wait faithfully for what is to come. We might smirk at those who brought civilization to this precipice…their quaint ways of doing things and their incomplete knowledge.
But ages from now, our descendants will look back on us with even more scorn. Why couldn’t they see what they needed to do? How could they have chosen that path.
No one is all-knowing, all-powerful, or all-wise. No one ever will be. Except the one who gives us the essence of his teaching this morning.
The Beatitudes are probably a collection of Jesus’ core teachings and not a stenographic record of what happened one day. They are as counterintuitive…and as deeply true …as either Micah or Paul.
I appreciate the translation we are working with today. It clarifies things a bit…even if it sacrifices a nuance of meaning.
It is easier to understand God blessing those who depend only on God than it is to unpack the idea that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit.
We don’t just put God in first place, but first, second and third as well. We put God above our selves and seek only to do God’s will, not sermon.
And everyone believes in God… or has their god. For some it is money; for others fame; for some the pinnacle of their profession; for others power…superior physical, political, or economic strength.
But Paul has found a God to believe in that is stronger, greater, truer… and more loving…than anything on earth. He comes to understand the great transcendent power in serving the one who was crucified and died and arose from the dead.
But here we are again: having to give up all things to receive all things…with a need to give away everything…or at least spend it well …in order to find the surpassing treasure that Christ sees in you.
I was home from college visiting one of my grandmother’s friends one weekend. She had strife in her family for some reason…or maybe for no reason…and she had remained above it.
I said it must be hard to remain friends with both sides when they could not get along with each other. She gave me a blank look, like I was an idiot, and said with a bit of wonder and sadness in her voice, “If you don’t love everyone, you can’t love anyone.”
Her wonder was because I did not already know that. Her sadness was because I did not know that already. This woman, with maybe a sixth grade education…and she got that because she was so smart and her folks could afford to let her go to school that long…had to show an honors student at the state university what was right there in front of him. “Why wouldn’t you do that?” she wondered. “What else can you do?” she pointed out sadly.
God is love, some say. Maybe we should shorten that a bit and just say that God loves. Fred Rogers, the man from the beautiful day in the neighborhood, said, “Love isn't a perfect state of caring. It's an active noun, like 'struggle.'”
Love shouldn’t be a struggle, we say, but what do we know? Roads should be repaired and upgraded quickly and universally and there should be enough money to pay for them. Everyone should agree with us and thank us for our insight.
But that just isn’t the way the world works. The world works like an iron works: You have to put something into it…and work with what you have…intelligently… lovingly…and be willing to be changed by it all, as God wills it.
Rejoice in your work. Again I say, Rejoice…even at the cost of your life. You are going to spend it on something…just like you are going to believe in some concept of God, higher power, or supreme desired end. Spend it well.
How to do that? We go back to the verses we read from Micah, written almost 3,000 years ago, and here I like the NRSV translation better than the CEV we read today:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day. Amen