As I think I’ve shared on this blog before, I find preaching on familiar passages to be a bit of a mixed bag. While people know them better and might be more engaged and interested, it’s also true that they can take on a life of their own. They get removed from context, put in cross stitches and wall prints, and can lose some of their power. This week, we had a couple very familiar passages from Micah and Matthew. While not everyone is as familiar with the reading from 1 Corinthians, it is one of my favorites. And this turned out to be one of those (rare) weeks where I touch on all the readings.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is rather appropriate that the day of our annual meeting, we hear these words from the prophet Micah: And what does the Lord require of you? What does the Lord require of us? What does God want from us, as individuals, as a congregation, as a people at large?
You might be familiar with the final verse of this passage from Micah, because it gets quoted a lot. It’s short and sweet, like any good mission statement: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. What we’re less familiar with is what leads up to this oft-quoted verse.
God is angry with the people. This is not earth-shattering news in the prophetic books. The people have wandered from God’s way for them, and God has chosen the prophet Micah to speak a word that will help bring them back. But the people are also frustrated with God. They claim that they’re doing their best, but really, what does God expect from them? What does God want?
What we read this morning is God’s frustration bubbling over, and God putting the people on trial. God calls on the mountains and the foundations of the earth to bear witness to the Lord’s complaint against the people. “Oh my people,” God cries, “what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”
God lists all the things that God has done for them throughout the generations and searches for a sign that the people are living into who God has called them to be. The people respond with a question of their own, “With what shall I come before the Lord? Shall I come with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn?” In other words: what do you want from us?
And God answers: none of that is what I want. I have shown you time and again what is good: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in my way.
What does the Lord require of us? Jesus offers his own vision of what God is interested in, his own mission statement of sorts in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. This is his inaugural sermon, the very first thing he chooses to teach in the gospel. And he starts with words of blessing. Blessing comes first. Blessing, not terms and conditions. Not judgment. Not even mission. But blessing.
And what blessings they are. This is another set of frequently quoted verses, and because we’re familiar with them, we sometimes miss how very shocking they are. This is a list that shouldn’t make any sense to us. It certainly isn’t how the world works. The world says– those who are wealthy and successful are blessed, those in power are blessed, the famous, the popular, those who seem to “have it all together” are blessed, those who are beautiful or attractive or strong are blessed.
But Jesus flips that upside down. Instead, he says, THESE are the blessed ones –those who don’t have it all together, those who are bullied, dispirited, or fleeing their homes as refugees, those who are grieving, those who hunger and thirst for the common good, those who are merciful and compassionate, those who work for peace and reconciliation, those who have a single-minded devotion to God’s kingdom, those who don’t back down from working for justice, even when they are misunderstood and challenged. Jesus calls THESE people blessed.
In his very first chance to teach the disciples, Jesus lavishes blessing on the people around him on the hillside. People who his world—like ours—didn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber imagines what it would be like if Jesus were standing among us, and what blessings he would give today, writing:
- “Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised…
- Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
- Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion.
- Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
- Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean.
- Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
- Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried.
- Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
- Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
- Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”
- Blessed are those who no one else notices.
- Blessed are the kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables.
- Blessed are the forgotten.
- Blessed are the closeted.
- Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.
- Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.
- Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.
- Blessed are foster kids and special-ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.
- Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.
- Blessed are the burnt-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono case takers.
- Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.”
What does the Lord require of us? God invites us into a worldview, into a world, where these blessings are true. Where we see things from this upside-down perspective. But beyond seeing things that way, we are invited to live these blessings. Jesus starts his ministry by pronouncing blessing, but he doesn’t stop there. His life lives out these blessings. He empowers the meek, he feeds the hungry, he cares for the poor, and he demands justice for the oppressed.
Jesus invites us to live in this vision of God’s community, of communal wholeness. We are called to be hungry and thirsty for God’s justice when we see it is absent. We are called to show compassion instead of only looking out for ourselves. We are called to follow the voice and vision of Jesus above all the other desires of our hearts. We are called to be an active force for peace in the world. We are called to walk humbly with our God.
To the rest of the world, this looks like a completely foolish endeavor. But, as Paul wrote, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
What does the Lord require of us? Foolishness. God asks of us foolishness. God requires of us foolishness, for the sake of the world God loves. Our God is a foolish God. A God who sees people who don’t have it all together—the weak and powerless, the confused and doubting, the mourning and the lonely—people like you and me, and says, these people are blessed. These people are going to be the basis of my kingdom. Our God is a foolish God who came to us, not in power, but in weakness. Who offered love in the face of hate and rejection. Our God is a foolish God who loves us even when, perhaps especially when, we don’t deserve it. Our God is a foolish God who calls us to follow in that way. What does the Lord require of us? Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. Even if it might look foolish. Amen.