Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
(Apologies for this week — John had one of “those” weeks and must simply re-run his previous Year A comments here. We hope to do better next week!)
“What can I say?”
We’ve all either been caught dead-to-rights in some sort of transgression, or we have been the catcher; there is very little doubt as to our guilt and probably no shortage of evidence against us. (“No, hon, I don’t know how the chips and dip got left in front of the big screen after the game on Saturday.”)
There’s that moment of truth when our only admission is, “What can I say? Guilty as charged.”
That’s pretty much what is going on in the climactic chapter of Micah; God has placed the people of God on trial, as it were, and has laid out all of the evidence. The stirring conclusion even dares them to place God on trial if they would like! “What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (v.3)
As the people of God, we really don’t have much of answer for ourselves. We may have tried all sorts of solutions to please God, or offered any number of excuses for our inaction and unconcern. But, all we really have is: “What can I say?”
That’s when v.8 makes such magnificent sense. “Look, it’s not that hard or complicated: do some justice, love some kindness, and take a walk on the God-side of the street.” No excuses needed.
One of the young men in my church came up to me this week, excited to tell me about his first outdoor “real” camp-out as a Cub Scout. Brought back fond memories of my own experiences, both as a Scout and as a parent. Nothing like getting outdoors in that tent, cooking over the campfire, swatting bugs all night! (Well, okay…I could do without the bugs.) What makes it all work is the camaraderie, the friendship, the relationships with one another and with the great outdoors.
Not unlike the opening line of the psalm text: “Who may abide in the Lord’s tent? Who gets to live on the holy hill?” The words of Micah are echoed in the response; walking justly, doing what is right, speaking the truth…those kind of things. It iskind of like the Cub Scouts, when you think about it!
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The Apostle reminds us of the relative foolishness of our wisdom when compared
to God’s. We can think that we’ve learned all we need to learn and experienced all we need to experience– and then, almost certainly, life intervenes and reminds us that we — ANY of us — can become foolish in an instant and mess up the careful planning and work of a lifetime.
Best to trust the wisdom of God, which seems in itself a foolish choice to some. A man who died on a cross? This is who you want running your life? What was it Jonathan Edwards sang in the 70′s…”He can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine!” (catch the full lyric here)
The call to follow Christ is a call to radical reorientation and re-commitment of our lives. Nowhere is the statement clearer than in vv.30-31: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” Yeah, well take that, Sunshine!
There’s no way I have anything significant or new to add to the vast commentary on “The Beatitudes.” They are classic; read ‘em and enjoy and learn.
What I do often do with a very familiar passage like this one (at least for my own preparation, if not for the hearing of the congregation) is to check out a new translation. I find The Message by Eugene Peterson to be helpful in situations like this. Gives me a “fresh set” of ears, a different cadence by which I might find a glimmer of new understanding.
Here’s just an excerpt of his translation; you can find the whole passage here.
3“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. 4“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. 5“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Less than ten years ago a couple of researchers at Princeton Seminary studied what they called The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teen-agers. Christian Smith and Melinda Denton concluded from their research that 21st century American teenagers of almost all religions (and probably their parents) share a common theological outlook called “Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism,” or MTD for short.
MTD has five basic tenets of belief:
1- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2 – God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3 – The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4 – God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5 – Good people go to heaven when they die
Back in the 1980s, Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral wrote a book on “the Beatitudes,” as Matthew 5:1-12 is commonly known. He called it “The Be-Happy Attitudes,” and in his usual cheery manner proclaimed that if we would all work to develop the attitudes and actions Jesus calls blessed, we would all be happy – or at least happier.
In his commentary “Matthew for Everyone,” Tom Wright begs to differ. He says that the beatitudes “are good news, not good advice.” As much I wish to be happy, I have to agree with Bishop Wright. Jesus did not come to make us happy; Jesus came to set us free.
Because most of us, in one way or another, are infected with MTD, “Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism,” it is difficult for us to hear “good news, not good advice” in our Gospel lesson for today. But it is gospel, it is good news, it is a public proclamation that the Messiah has come.
Our problem is that we are always looking for an answer to some form of the question: “What must I do to be saved?” So, Jesus proclaims a promise – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” – and we hear a command – “Be a Peacemaker!”
Now that’s not so bad; being a peacemaker, or hungering and thirsting after righteousness, are good things and making efforts toward peace and righteousness never hurt anybody. Except, if we think we have to be successful in order to be blessed. That is another thing entirely.
And many of the other beatitudes are, as Schuller hinted, issues of attitude. But here’s the thing, emotions are a hard thing to dial up on command. “Hey you, quit being satisfied with your life! Don’t you know you’re supposed to be poor in spirit?” “Or you, what are you smiling about, that’s no way for a mourner to look!”
As Wright said, the beatitudes are good news, not good advice. The Messiah has come and immediately begins to proclaim that a new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is near. And in this “new kingdom,” things are different; actually so different you might say things are upside down from the way they used to be, totally reversed and backward.
“The meek inherit the earth,” “those who mourn are comforted,” etc. etc. This is not a command to be meek or mournful; it is a promise that in the coming kingdom those who are already meek and mournful, those who work for peace or hunger and thirst for righteousness; those who pure in heart and merciful – these will come into their own and find their faith and constancy rewarded and honored in a world that has come more and more in line with God’s will and God’s way.
The law, when seen as command, or obligation, or requirement – cannot create a new world of justice and peace; it can only keep us sinful human beings in line and out of each other’s way. But the new “law” of Christ, seen as teaching and encouragement and opportunity and most of all promise, becomes a window into the future kingdom.
In Micah, the worshiper asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord,” and then lists an ever escalating level of level of offering and sacrifice. (vs. 6-7) The response that we should “do justice, love kindness and walk humble before the Lord,” (vs.8) is not a new list of requirements, but rather a reminder of what one is like when one is in close and trusting relationship with God.
In the Psalm, we read a list of ten things that qualify one to enter the temple. Is this law or promise, requirement or reminder? It is a reminder to the worshiper of the natural result of being a person of God. One does not strive to achieve all those ethical principles and then one has won the right to admittance to the temple. Rather, these are the behaviors that are a natural result of being in covenant, in love with God.
Thurgood Marshall, in his days as an NAACP lawyer in the 30s and 40s, often told a story in his speeches around the country. He told of two unmarried sisters who lived together all their lives.
Sometime in their fifties they had a falling out and stopped speaking to each other. This went on for years. They divided the house with tape and paint into “yours” and “mine;” even sleeping in the same room with a line painted down the middle.
One night one of them got up to go to the bathroom and fell and broke a hip. She cried out in pain and immediately her sister was at her side, holding her. As they waited for the ambulance, the words, “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you,” and “I love you,” were spoken.
Marshall always ended his speech by saying, “The law can break down walls that divide people; it cannot build bridges that connect them. That is a matter of the spirit.”
Yes, building bridges is a matter of the spirit, a matter of the kingdom, a matter of the Gospel. Jesus came to build a bridge between and heaven and earth, between God and God’s people.
That bridge was built by what Paul calls “the foolishness of the cross.” (1 Cor. 1:18)
We are called to be about the business of building cruciform bridges of love and sacrifice in the world, built with planks of justice and peace and mercy. Amen.