God Challenges Israel -- Micah 6: 1-8
"Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
‘O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’"
What God Requires -- Matt. 5:1-12
"‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 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?"
A beatitude is a statement declaring certain people to be in a privileged, fortunate circumstance. In a religious context it means blessed by God. Beatitudes were commonly used in Jewish and pagan literature. In the Jewish tradition they are found in two settings: wisdom and prophesy.
In the wisdom tradition, the beatitude declares the blessing of those in fortunate circumstances, and declares their present reward and happiness. In the prophets, the people are in dire circumstances, but will be vindicated at the coming of God’s kin-dom. Jesus was both a teacher of wisdom and a social prophet, so it seems fitting that he should use the Beatitudes as a form of blessing on those who embody the principles of the kin-dom.
In both Hebrew and Greek there are two words that in English we translate as “blessed.” The Beatitudes use the Greek word Makarios. This kind of blessing recognizes an existing state of happiness or good fortune. It affirms a quality of spirituality that is already present. It does not bestow a blessing on someone who has done something to deserve it.
To give you an example, if I say (Ginny Shock) is a bless-ed person, I’m not asking for Ginny to be blessed. I’m affirming a quality that already exists in Ginny. So keep this in mind as Jan and I lead you in reading the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12.
Rev. Susan: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them saying:
Left: Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Right: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Left: Blessed are those who mourn,
Right: for they will be comforted.
Left: Blessed are the meek,
Right: for they will inherit the earth.
Left: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Right: for they will be filled.
Left: Blessed are the merciful,
Right: for they will receive mercy.
Left: Blessed are the the pure in heart,
Right: for they shall see God.
Left: Blessed are the peacemakers,
Right: for they shall be called children of God.
Left: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness
Right: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Left: Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute
you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my
Right: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in
the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Imagine - just imagine, living in a world where people are humble. Instead of inflated egos and an over blown sense of self-worth, they have become attuned - through their breath, or spirit, or soul - to God, the source of our being. They realize they are not always in control of their own lives, but are dependent on God, where they now find their own identity and security.
Imagine a world where people have renounced the violent methods of attaining power in the world - where people live among their neighbors in peace, respecting each others rights - a world where people have softened the rigid places within themselves, leaving them more open to God’s grace.
Imagine a world where people are actively doing the will of God - a world where they listen and can distinguish the inner rightness among the different voices they hear running around in their heads - a world where they allow those voices to be heard in society to create equitable systems of justice for all peoples.
Imagine a world where people connect to the deepest source of love within them, and reach out to others who are in need, with compassion and support - a world where God connects us to each other, through our prayers.
Imagine a world where we no longer serve two or more masters - a world where each persons’ heart has one focus, the love of God, which fills our being and radiates out from each of us, allowing us to see God - in everything and everyone.
Imagine a world where people strive to understand the root cause of conflicts, and work daily to reconcile the political, cultural, and religious, as well as the personal conflicts in our lives.
Imagine a world where people stand up for what they know in their hearts is right, regardless of the consequences - where they consider adversity as an incitement to take another step, even if they are out of step with the value system of the society they live in.
Imagine this world I’ve just described - what a wonderful world it would be! We would all be blessed, for we would have created that kin-dom of God that Jesus spoke about so often. That world is the essence of who Jesus was. It’s the vision of God’s world he shared with us.
This world we imagined is a far cry from the one we’re living in today. It’s a far cry from the one Micah was prophesying to. It’s a far cry from the one Jesus was addressing as he led his disciples up that mountain to begin the Sermon on the Mount.
Looking out over the crowd that followed him wherever he went, he saw their brokenness, their pain, their need to be healed and made whole, and I would imagine he was filled with compassion.
So he took his inner circle farther up the mountain and he told them they were blessed, even in their broken lives and world. He explained what it means to be a citizen of God’s new kin-dom - that despite our brokenness and sometimes as a result of it, we can grow into a deeper relationship with God - to truly become God’s people and create this new world.
I read several commentaries on the Beatitudes - offering lots of differing opinions on what Jesus actually meant when he talked about the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And then I came back to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this text from The Message, and it spoke to me - in my language. See how it speaks to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
I thought of a friend years ago who was brought up an atheist. He had never set foot in a church. One day he was practically immobilized by clinical depression. It seemed to come out of nowhere, for no apparent reason. He had to move back home where his mother could take care of him. One day, at the end of his rope, he found himself praying for the first time in his life. He told me he had no where else to turn. I met him later that year on Easter Sunday attending church with a mutual friend.
“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.”
Another friend who was also brought up an atheist, in the span of a few years, lost her parents, her grandmother, her husband and two cats. She later told me that through all of this loss, she had found God and faith.
“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.”
One day in seminary I was sitting on my sagging bed, surrounded by dilapidated furniture and the few possessions I had brought with me, and I realized I had never been happier, or more at peace. I had found myself, my calling, and a new relationship with God - things money can’t buy.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.”
It’s that appetite for God’s kin-dom, working for what is just and fair in our world that can fill you like nothing else.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full’, you find yourselves cared for.”
How often have you gone to care for someone, give them moral support, or a care package, and left feeling you had been given a gift? We often receive more than we give.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world - your mind and heart - put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.”
A walk in nature, meditation, a service project, that connection to the spirit within, helps us to see with new eyes. The world looks different.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”
This made me think of John Kerry, globe trotting from one hot spot to another, trying to broker peace in those conflicted lands with those divided people. Some think it’s a futile attempt, but Jesus doesn’t demand that we always succeed, only that we keep trying.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”
How did Nelson Mandela survive all those years in prison? Obviously his faith carried him through. He had a lot of time to spend with God, and his experience made him stronger. Look at what he accomplished when he got out.
“Not only that - count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when it happens - give a cheer, even! - for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”
What came to mind at first were the number of Christians killed for their faith in the past year. Open Doors puts the number at 2,123 in 2013. Some other Christian organizations report that the number is as high as 8,000. Christians face restrictions or hostility in 111 countries.
But closer to home we all might call ourselves blessed because we’re here, despite the radical atheists in this country who ridicule our faith, and us, in books and the media.
We’re here, trying our best to live as beatitude people, refusing to flee, what the author Stephen Carter calls, “the garden of the church for the wilderness of culture.”
And it is a wilderness out there, just as it was in the time of Jesus, and Micah before him. In the passage Jan read this morning the Israelites have broken their covenant with God, and God sounds frustrated: I’ve been good to you, brought you out of slavery in Egypt. What more can I do?
The Israelites got the message and are trying to figure out how to make amends: will a year old calf do? - how about thousands of rams? - ok, my first born? What will please you God?
Micah comes back with an answer for the ages - for all of us going through complex and anxious times. He tells them to go back to the basics: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God. This is the pathway to peace - the pathway to the kin-dom Jesus talks about. Sounds easy enough, but it’s not.
I took a workshop with Anne Howard, the Executive Director of The Beatitude Society, during which she talked of visiting a cathedral in Scotland where she noticed a black marble line dividing the cathedral She was told at one time early in its history women weren’t allowed to cross over it, to preserve the purity of the sacred space where the mass was celebrated.
This led to a discussion of all the lines we draw and won’t cross over. What are the lines you put up in your lives? What are the lines you need to cross over in order to “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” Micah calls Israel, and all of us, to be with God in the world, living out God’s desires for a community of justice and faithful love. Access to the Holy requires the shaping of a whole and good community.
The Boston Globe reported on Monday that in response to a series of violent killings in Mattapan, the latest being the accidental shooting of the eight year old boy by his 14 year old brother, ministers were calling for community members to work for peace. Sunday at Morning Star Baptist Church Bishop John Borders called the men of the congregation to the altar and made an impassioned plea. “I’m going to ask every one of us to find ... just one man that’s losing it a little bit, a little bit out of control, and befriend him. Some people are going to talk about ... what government ought to be doing, but we have personal responsibility. We have a responsibility as men of God. Jesus won the world with 12 men.”
We have a responsibility too. What lines will we be crossing over this year? How will we become beatitude people?