Todays readings for: Fourth Sunday After Epiphany Year A 2017 Micah 6:1-8 Psalm 15 1 Cor 1:18-31 Matt 5:1-12
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
It seems to me, reading these passages that there are three big questions raised that all ultimately pertain to the same thing. Two of these questions are quite direct and the third is implied in what Jesus says. So let us begin there.
How can I be ‘blessed’? Now this word blessed is not one that resonates with modern Australians. A few of the other suggested translations are more helpful- some suggest, ‘“Enviable” will you be if….,’ others suggest “Fortunate”, but the one I like best is, “Satisfied” as it carries both the idea of reward but also of completion. One I don’t like is, “Happy”! Happy are they that mourn…” ? I don’t think that conveys what Jesus is saying.
When Jesus, in Matthew, utters these famous statements, called the Beatitudes from the Latin ‘to bless’, it is his raison d’etre. Mark begins with Jesus casting out demons, Luke begins with a challenging manifesto, and Matthew begins with his big concept that permeates the rest of the Gospel, which is the idea of righteousness.
Righteousness is a concept that is not new to the Jewish listener. I think we have more trouble with it because we have rightly condemned ‘self-righteousness’ as a very unlikeable attribute. But this year as we walk through Matthew it is a concept that will underpin the whole gospel.
The Psalmist asks a direct question about righteousness, ‘Lord who may abide in your tabernacle, or who may dwell upon your holy hill?’ And it is answered by a list of behaviours, which spell out righteousness. What is really important to understand here is that this is not about reward, and neither is the set of statements that Jesus makes. This is about intimacy, this is about relationship with God. The question is, who can live in God’s tent with him? Now any of us who have been camping know that sharing a tent, even quite a big one, is an act of intimacy that requires a great deal of grace from all the parties involved. This isn’t a case of, “what do I have to do if I want to get to heaven?”, this is a case of “if I am going to survive in your tent, how do I have to be?” What God requires is righteousness. Just have a look at Psalm 15. It is about what you do, what you say and how you relate to your fellow man. This is what God requires of his life partners, the people that dwell with him in intimacy.
Micah asks the question in a different set of circumstances. This prophetic writing takes the form of a court room drama. God questions his people about what he has done to offend them. “Oh, I know,” says God, “I rescued you. I gave you a land, and this is how you respond to me.” The prosecutor asks the question, “How do we make reparation?” and in a burst of sarcasm suggests an exponentially increasing sacrifice. Then he says, “He 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?” And again the word ‘humbly’ may not be the best translation. Rolf Jacobson an OT scholar suggests that a better translation would be ‘walk intentionally’ with your God.
Now these words from Micah have become much quoted recently, but it seems to me that both as individuals and certainly as nations, and remember that this is directed towards the nation of Israel, we are failing abysmally to do these simple, but extremely difficult things. ‘To do justice’, what does that mean? Does that mean to uphold the law? Well, not always. And surely there are matters of justice that our legal system is either ill equipped to deal with, or perhaps that are impossible to legislate? And what about the personal? What about the minor matters of justice that the psalmist alludes to? Matters of justice in how we treat our friends or neighbours, remembering that certainly according to Jesus, everyone that we come across is our neighbour. And what about ‘loving kindness’? Do we love kindness at a national level? At a global level? Well, the answer to that is clear, I think. We love money, we love power, we love expediency and choose compromise to achieve these things, and increasingly we love a kind of nationalism that disables us from loving kindness. And again, personally, how do we rate? If I reflect on my life, do I see a person who above all else, loves kindness? Am I, are you, walking intentionally with your God?
Jesus, it seems to me is talking about the same things but he frames them in a devise that speaks to us as fragile and wounded people. We need to remember, as we read Matthew’s gospel that the people Jesus is ministering to and talking to are people living under oppression. They are not free, wealthy, first world people like us. And what he is telling them is that if they can maintain their hunger and thirst for righteousness under their conditions they will be satisfied, they will be living in the Kingdom of Heaven, or God’s tent, with God. A scholar, Chris Marshall, says that what Jesus seems to have in mind is that “sense of security or well-being that comes from experiencing God’s companionship in situations of need, together with a deep certainty that God intends, eventually, to bring that need to an end… that God is with you and for you”. Again, this is all about relationship, this is how God relates to us and how we are to relate to each other in God’s embrace.
If righteousness is the touch stone for Matthew, let us examine what Jesus says about it here. “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled”. When Jesus speaks in terms of hunger and thirst he is addressing the most basic human needs, isn’t he? Again, I think we have lost the intensity of meaning. When we are thirsty water comes out of a tap, or a bottle or a water fountain in our immediate vicinity. There is no striving required for this most necessary thing, but thirst in a dusty land with no running water is a different matter. And hunger for those of us who live comfortably in this land of plenty where a third of the food purchased is wasted, has lost its punch as well. Jesus is saying to us that when striving for righteousness is as important to us as the things we need for basic survival, the things we will pour our energy into obtaining, then we will be filled, we will be satisfied with the justice and mercy, the peace, that we work to obtain. This is blessing from the fruit of our effort. This is righteousness that is accorded to us by virtue of how we have treated others and how we have worked for the good of others.
So what does it mean to be a peacemaker? What does it mean to be merciful? Well along with much of the good we have outsourced these things to others. We expect our government to be merciful on our behalf and when they fail to be, some of us are loud in our condemnation. We expect the United Nations to be the arbiters of peace for our world, and yet at the same time we humans elect governments that do not have peace as their priority, neither do they have the good of all, or mercy in their agendas. And we observe the results and take no responsibility. Jesus is not calling on us to divest ourselves of responsibility. He tells us that we must hunger and thirst, we must make these things our priority, like those that ensure our survival.
So how does it look to be people that are fit to dwell in God’s tent?
It seems to me that we have two sets of responsibilities, and the first is on an immediate personal level. In everything we do and say we need to examine ourselves and ask, ‘am I loving justice, am I loving kindness, and I walking intentionally with God?’ And I think it is important for us to acknowledge that many choices we make in our day to day living impact on others who are invisible to us, so the self awareness needs to run deep. And second, we need to take responsibility for what our leaders do and say in our name. At this moment there are many people in the USA who have come face to face with the consequences of their own action or lack of it. Of course, while there are a huge number of people who are apprehensive or even frightened, there are others who are awaiting eagerly the fruits of what they have done. The important thing that we, as a nation, must take from this is that we all of us, do have responsibility. We choose the leaders. And even though elections, to take just one of the structures, only come around every three years there is a great deal that we can do all the time to be the kind of people who can dwell in God’s tent. How we spend every dollar is significant, what we buy or don’t buy, is significant, what we say, or don’t say is significant. We can petition on behalf of others, we can support initiatives that have been put in place to care for the poor, whether they are poor in worldy terms or poor in spirit.
I believe that the place to begin with all of this action is prayer. If we pray for others, both on a small and intimate level but also on a global level our whole attitude will change. Prayer certainly changes things, it changes the one who prays first and foremost. And after we have prayed we must act.
The consequence? Well, we, and the people around us, will be satisfied, we will rejoice and be glad because we will be fit to be in the Kingdom of heaven, in the eternal relationship with each other and with God.