Lenten Study begins Sunday, March 5th at 8:00 am and Wednesday, March 8th at 6:30 pm (following soup supper at 6:00 pm).
Sunday 26 February 2017
On this Sunday, every year, we celebrate the festival known as the Transfiguration of the Lord. It is the day we remember Jesus, up on the mountain with his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, surrounded by a divine cloud, visited by Moses and Elijah, transformed in appearance. This Sunday, though, I’d like to focus on one of our other readings in order to get a better perspective on Jesus’ transfiguration.
When one text in the bible harkens back to another text in the bible, we call that intertextuality. The story of the transfiguration depends on a great amount of intertextuality. One of its intertexts is the story we read today from the book of Exodus And exploring that story from Exodus is going to give us a much better understanding of the transfiguration story, that is partly based upon it.
Exodus, as you may know, recounts the story of Moses leading God’s people, the Hebrews, out of slavery in Egypt and toward their new home in the promised land. This particular part of the story happens after the people have been freed and left Egypt. God has led them to a great mountain, where God’s presence dwells powerfully.
As you may know, Sinai is where God granted the holy law to God’s holy people. We know that Moses went up on the mountain and received the ten commandments. When he came down later, the Israelites were worshipping a golden calf and Moses broke the stone tablets of the law.
If you try to read the account in Exodus, though, it’s a lot more complicated than that. The whole encounter starts in chapter 19. By chapter 20, God is speaking the words of the law. God keeps on talking all the way into chapter 24. Then we get to the bit we read today, which is followed by more instructions from God. Moses doesn’t come down off the mountain to find the golden calf until chapter 32. Over the course of those 12-chapters-worth of commandments, it’s hard to keep track of who is on the mountain, who is off the mountain, or where on the mountain various people are.
At the beginning of our chapter, chapter 24, Moses goes at least part way up the mountain along with Aaron and several elders. We are told that all of these elders saw God, even though just a few verses before it was claimed that they would not be allowed to see God. Then, we are told that Moses and Joshua went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets. Did they just go farther up the mountain? We don’t know. All of the commandments have already been spoken. Did everyone hear them? It’s not clear.
In any case, at this point in the story, we are told that Moses and Joshua go up the mountain to receive the tablets. Presumably the elders stay at some point farther down the mountain. Then we are told again that Moses goes up the mountain, this time with no mention of Joshua. It’s all very confusing.
Clouds begin to cover the mountain. We had been told the same thing at least two times before, but again, clouds cover the mountain. God’s presence, which is usually described as looking like fire, is also on the mountain. Is Joshua up there with him? Maybe. He seems to come back down the mountain with Moses eight chapters later, but he doesn’t do much in the intervening time.
Moses has gone up to get the stone tablets that God has inscribed with the law. But he doesn’t get them right away. He just stays up there in God’s presence for six days and we aren’t told what happens. On the seventh day, a voice comes out of the cloud and calls to Moses. Then we are told for a third time in these very few verses that Moses goes up the mountain.
So, to review our tiny section of chapter 24, Moses goes up the mountain with the elders. They see God, and they have a meal. Then a cloud comes upon the mountain, and Moses goes up the mountain with Joshua and enters the cloud. He waits for six days. On the seventh day, God calls from the cloud and Moses goes up the mountain. He stays there for forty days and forty nights.
The point I’m trying to get across is that this narrative doesn’t make much sense. Everything is jumbled. We could work really hard unravel the complexity of all of the strange details, but really, this section of Exodus just defies understanding.
And perhaps that is understandable. After all, this passage is trying to describe a direct experience of God. It’s no wonder that it’s hard to make sense of. It’s no wonder that everything seems confused and confusing. This is the most important event in the Hebrew Bible. This is when God makes a covenant with God’s people. This is when God grants the law and the instructions that have guided the lives of billions of people. That kind of an experience cannot be explained or contained by a simple narrative. It’s no wonder, when it comes to such an indescribable event, that the biblical writers have a hard time describing it.
A couple of millennia later, Jesus leads some of his disciples up onto a high mountain. “Six days later,” the passage begins, reminiscent of the six days Moses waited. He brings with him his inner circle: Peter, James, and John. It gives bit of the sense of the layering that we got on Mt. Sinai, with the people on the plain, the elders a little higher up, and Moses with his most trusted advisor up a bit farther. Presumably, something similar happens here, with the people and crowds below, the disciples up a little closer, and Jesus and his three closest disciples farther up the mountain. His face begins to shine. It’s not unlike Moses, whose face would shine after he had conferred with God in the tabernacle. His clothes turn dazzlingly white. Moses and Elijah suddenly appear alongside Jesus. Of course, we are not surprised that Moses is there.
The three disciples are a bit dumbstruck. They know that this is the sort of thing that hasn’t happened since the time of Moses. They know the stories of Moses on the mountain, in the presence of God, receiving instructions directly from God. They know that this is no ordinary mountain and that they are having no ordinary experience.
Peter, who is the only one who can manage to speak, suggests that he could build three shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. During the festival of Sukkoth, Jews build little shelters and live in them for a week to remember the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness. So, Peter offering to build these shelters means that he expects another Sinai. He knows that this is some kind of direct experience of God. He expects that God is going to give a new law, just like God gave to Moses on the mountain at Sinai.
While Peter is still talking, all of his suspicions are confirmed. Suddenly a bright cloud appears on the mountain, the glorious presence of God, just like it appeared on Sinai centuries before. And then a booming voice speaks from the cloud, the voice of God, just like it spoke from the cloud on Sinai.
This divine voice has a message about Jesus. “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” In other words, Jesus is the expected Messiah. He can speak directly to God, like Moses did. And he is a new lawgiver, a new Moses. Listen to him. Listen to his instruction, just as the people listened to the instruction of Moses long ago. And of course, this reminds us of the mountain top experience that we have been hearing in the gospel readings for the last month—the Sermon on the Mount—when Jesus takes on the role of lawgiver, just like Moses did centuries before.
Nearly every word of Matthew’s story of the transfiguration harkens back to the story of Moses on the mountain. And the story of the transfiguration is just as confusing as the story of Moses. Things appear and never disappear. But it’s the sort of thing that we should expect of a story about a direct experience of God. Those sorts of experiences never make sense to the rational mind; they can never be explained in mere words.
This story of the Transfiguration, taken on its own, is impressive. It reveals the divine identity of Jesus. It shows him in his glory. But when we read it along side the story of Moses at Sinai, it becomes much more rich. Suddenly the lights and the smoke and the special effects take on a new meaning. Jesus, and the covenant that he represents, is tied intimately to Moses and the covenant that he represents. Jesus is a new thing, but he is also tied to the old. He takes the covenant offered to God’s chosen people, and he expands it. He offers gentiles a chance to become part of God’s family. But he does not abolish Moses or the old covenant. He does not abolish it, he simply expands it, and he offers us the chance to be a part of the special relationship that God has already established with the Jews.
Jesus makes a new covenant. In it, God promises to be our God, to accept us as God’s people, to forgive us, lead us, bless us, listen to us, guide us, change us, redeem us. And we promise to be God’s people, to seek God in our prayers, in our praise, in our searching the scriptures, in our interactions with neighbors, in the way we use our money, in the ways we offer our service, in the choices we make, in the ones we love.
In Jesus, God makes a new covenant with us, a covenant that is founded on the older covenant with Moses. And in it, we find the foundations for the other covenants in our lives. The covenant God has with us informs the sacred covenant between spouse and spouse, the sacred covenant a parent has with a child, the sacred covenant we share within this congregation, the sacred covenant we share with those in our community, the sacred covenant we share with all of God’s children, no matter where they come from, what language they speak, or how they worship.
In the transfiguration, we see and remember the covenant God has with all people. We see and remember the covenant we share with each other. And we are called to live as children of the covenant, who worship God as our God and who seek always to be God’s people, formed by the love God has shared with us, and moved always to share that same love with everyone we meet. Thanks be to God.
Sunday 12 February 2017
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
For a third week, now, we have been reading from the section of Matthew known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is one of the best known and best loved pieces of scripture in the entire bible. Many consider it to be the very heart of the gospel message, the canon within the canon, the text by which all other texts are judged. The text that begins, “Beloved are the poor in spirit,” is itself a text much beloved.
And yet, it is a text that can be very confusing. It confounds many of the assumptions that we have about the bible. It disrupts many of the beliefs we have about the New Testament. It confuses many of the things we think we understand about Jesus.
Though many of us have been taught that Jesus came to free us from the law, to set aside the outdated rules of the Old Testament, the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount declares quite the opposite. In Matthew 5:17, he says, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we read today, Jesus proceeds to go through several of the Old Testament laws and comment on them. “You have heard that it was said,” he begins, and then quotes one of the old laws. And then he follows up with, “But I say to you,” and he gives a new law. If we think that Jesus preaches a new existence free from the old law, then we might expect Jesus to take the old law and soften it up a bit. We might expect Jesus to do away with some of the more archaic aspects of the law.
But to our surprise, Jesus does quite the opposite. For every law that Jesus quotes, he gives a harsher, more restrictive law in its place. The old law said don’t murder. Jesus’s new law says expressing anger is the same as murder. The old law said don’t commit adultery. Jesus’s new law says that looking with a lustful eye is the same as committing adultery. The old law allowed for divorce. Jesus’s new law does not. The old law said that anyone who swears an oath should keep it. Jesus’s new law says that no human should ever presume even to swear an oath. And while the old law only threatened death for those who do not obey, Jesus’s new law threatens the fires of hell.
If we were expecting a law-breaking, carefree Jesus, then we will be very much surprised. Instead, we get a new lawgiver. We get a new Moses. Jesus comes down from the mountain, just as Moses did, and gives a new law, just as Moses did. And the law that Jesus gives is even more difficult to accept than the law of Moses. It is even more strict and unrelenting.
This sermon disrupts the way we usually think about Jesus, but it also disrupts the way many of us think about the bible. This passage from today is the proof that, whatever people may claim about the bible, no one actually reads it literally. Many people claim that the bible is the exact and precise word of God and there is no need for any interpretation because it says just exactly what God means it to say. But this passage is the proof that no one actually believes that. Because, of course, if we did actually believe that, then there wouldn’t be a single Christian in the world walking around with two hands and two eyes. Jesus says very clearly and unambiguously, “If your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.” Surely there is not one Christian in the entire world who has never sinned with their eye—looking on something they don’t have and wanting it for themselves—the sin of covetousness and greed. And yet I have never met any Christian who has plucked out their own eye, as Jesus commands, in order to avoid the fires of hell. And surely there is not one Christian in the whole world who has not sinned with their hand—raising it against another in anger, or taking what belongs to another, or failing to reach it out in service and charity to one in need. And yet I have never met a single Christian who has chopped off their own hand, as Jesus commands, in order to avoid the eternal punishment. We may think we read the bible literally, but none of us actually do.
And perhaps we are not meant to. After all, none of the apostles cut off his own hand that day on the mountain. None of the disciples plucked out her own eye. So what are we supposed to get out of this very strange sermon?
I think some of it has to do with the way we judge others and the way we have a tendency to think of ourselves as somehow qualitatively better than others. After all, we are Christians, aren’t we? We are blessed by God. We do our best to follow God’s laws. Surely that counts for something. Surely that makes us better than the unwashed masses who never have a care for anything that is good or right or just or Godly.
Surely I am better than a murderer, aren’t I? And yet Jesus says that anyone who lashes out it in anger is liable to the same divine punishment as the murderer. And there is not one of us who has never burned with unrighteous anger. Jesus confronts our self-righteousness and declares that not one of us has grounds to claim that we are better than a murderer.
But surely I am better than an adulterer, aren’t I? I have kept my marriage vows. And yet Jesus says that anyone who looks on another with a lustful eye is liable to the same punishment as the adulterer. And, as Jimmy Carter so truthfully pointed out, there is not one of us who has not committed adultery in our heart many times. Jesus confronts our self-righteousness and declares that not one of us has grounds to claim that we are better than an adulterer.
He seems to be saying something similar about divorce. If I get a divorce because I have found someone I think I love more, and if I refrain from physical union until after the divorce is final, that technicality does not excuse me from adultery. That’s the overall message of this section: we can’t think that we have avoided judgment simply because we have found some loophole in the law. We can’t think that we are better than the people around us simply because we have committed less visible sins than they.
Despite any outward appearances to the contrary, we are all sinners. We all carry around our enduring guilts, our secret shames. That is something that every human being has in common. We have all fallen short of the glory of God.
What Jesus’s words do is to hold together two contrary notions at the same time. Jesus’s words challenge us to do better, to strive for lives of perfect holiness. But at exactly the same time, Jesus’s words remind us that whatever level of holiness we may live, it cannot be the ground for boasting. Jesus calls us simultaneously to perfect obedience and to perfect humility, neither letting our obedience puff us up until we lose humility nor letting our humility break us down until we see no point in striving for obedience.
Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. If I strive for holiness, there are several different traps I might fall into. I might be so proud of my holiness that I think I am better than other people. I might hold myself to such an impossibly high standard that I constantly feel incapable and unworthy. I might fixate on a few kinds of holiness so that I miss many other important things I should be doing. I might use the standard of holiness only as a means of judging and condemning other people, while never holding the same standard up to myself. I might be so concerned with doing what is right that I forget about God’s grace, grace for me and for my neighbor. I might put so much pressure on myself and my own abilities to do what is right that I forget that true holiness comes not from working hard, but from allowing God to work in me. Those are ways that striving for Godliness can end up running off the rails.
And humility is just as tricky. If I am striving for humility, I might end up just not trying, just doing nothing because nothing matters. I might end up constantly beating myself down, trying to make myself lower and lower, so that I don’t reach humility, instead I reach humiliation, self-loathing, and crippling depression. I might end up achieving a fair level of humility, until I come across someone who is boastful, and I end up thinking, I am so much more humble than he is. I might hold myself to such a strict standard of humility that I can’t honestly assess my own strengths, and I don’t ever end up using my talents for God. I might put so much pressure on myself to be humble that I forget about God’s grace, grace both for me and for my neighbor. I might put so much responsibility on myself to be humble that I forget that true humility comes not from working hard, but from allowing God to work in me.
It may sound like just more rules, just more regulations, just more law. Why is Jesus making it harder for us? Why is Jesus stacking up more things that we have to do in order to be worthy of God? It may seem like just more law.
But in fact, it is more grace. By making the rules more strict, Jesus is making sure that none of us have the delusion that we can actually follow them all ourselves. We are in need of God’s grace. It’s not just the Class-A sinners that need God’s grace. We all need God’s grace. And there is plenty of God’s grace to go around. That is the first step: to realize that I am not perfect, and I can never make myself perfect, no matter how hard I try. I make mistakes. I am a sinner. I am in need of God’s grace. And God has plenty of grace to go around.
But it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with me recognizing that I am a sinner and asking for God’s grace. The strictness of the rules remind us that there is still a goal. And once I have accepted God’s justifying grace, God’s forgiveness, then I can begin to be open to God’s sanctifying grace, the Spirit’s continuing work in my life to make me holy. I can begin to let the Holy Spirit work within me, once I have accepted God’s grace. And God’s Spirit can help me to have grace with my neighbors, even though they too are sinners. God’s Spirit can help me to have grace with myself, even though I am a sinner. God’s Spirit can begin to work in my life, so that my actions move closer to the mark, so that I more fully embody the life that God wants me to lead, the self that God wants me to be. But I am not making myself acceptable to God. No, God’s grace makes me acceptable, and God’s grace molds me into fuller realization of that perfect goal. I work with God, and I allow God to work in me, but I can never do it on my own in order to please God. God’s grace forgives me, and God’s grace moves me on toward greater holiness, greater humility.
It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t travel in a straight line. There are times when I can really feel in sync with God, when I can really feel that God is working in me, that God is leading me to avoid evil and do good. And there are other times when I stumble and fall into sin. There are other times when I try to take control and end up fouling everything up. There are other times when I stubbornly resist God. There are other times when I simply fumble around, trying desperately to find any sense of God at all.
It takes time. It takes active, patient endurance. It takes acceptance of myself and who I am. Not perfect, but a beloved child a God. A child in need of grace. A child of a God who has plenty of grace to share.
Sunday 5 February 2017
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Salad, silt, sausage, salary, salami, soldier, sauce, saline, saucer, salsa. They all have something in common. They all are derived etymologically from the same word: sal or salt. The Romans used salt to counteract the bitter taste of leaf vegetables, giving us the word salad. Silt looks a lot like salt, and salt can be found in it. Sausage is meat made by salting, and salami is a particularly salty kind of sausage. Roman legionaries were sometimes paid in salt, that is, they received a salary. The one who is paid in salt is a soldier. Saline is, of course, salt water. Sauces and salsas are flavored with salt, and they could well be served in a saucer. All of these seemingly disparate words are in fact cognates in English; they all derive their meaning originally from salt.
When we think of salt today, we think of a bad thing. Salt is something that we try to avoid. Salt leads to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and hearth failure. Foods advertise that they have low sodium, because everyone knows that sodium, salt, is bad for you. It may taste good, but it’s bad for you.
So, when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” what is that supposed to mean? Do Christians cause heart disease and strokes? Are we best avoided because we are bad for people’s health? Are we something that tastes good even if we’re bad for you? Is religion a guilty pleasure?
We live in a world that has ready and easy access to salt. We can buy it by the pound at any grocery store. It’s cheap enough that we can use it as a craft supply and not worry about throwing it out. And salt ends up in abundance in our food, even if we don’t want it there, in all kinds of packaged and processed foods.
Our conception of salt is completely unlike the way that people in Jesus’s time understood salt. For them, salt was a necessity and an unmitigated good. It was also expensive and hard to get your hands on.
Salt is essential to the metabolism of humans and other mammals. Muscles and nerves cannot function without salt. Animals that don’t get enough salt will start eating dirt, rocks, and wood to get it, and will lick the sweat off other animals. Salt-deprived chickens produce fewer and smaller eggs. Calves that are given salt supplements grow twice as quickly as those that aren’t. Salt is one of the five things that humans can taste. Early settlements and civilizations were typically located near salt supplies.
In addition to it’s basic metabolic function, salt is the world’s oldest food preservative. It was used to preserve meat long before the first human writing. Salt has driven trade all over the world. The first Roman colony was built near a salt mine, and the first Roman road was built to transport salt. Caravans cross the Sahara desert to deliver salt. Wars have been fought over salt. At times, salt has been traded at twice the value by weight as gold. Salt has been used as money. Salt can be used to condition water, to make better soaps, and to clean pipes and faucets. And of course, we remember at this time of year that salt can be used to deice roads and sidewalks.
Salt and salt taxes have played a role in major world social movements. Records from 1785 say that ten thousand men were arrested every year in England for smuggling salt in defiance of the salt tax. A few years later, English livestock started to die from lack of salt, and in the face of riots, Parliament was forced to repeal the salt tax. A royal salt tax was one of the main issues of the French Revolution of 1789.
Mahatma Gandhi’s first major act of civil disobedience in British-controlled India was defiance against the salt tax. He led Indians in a 24-day march to Dandi where he made salt from sea water in defiance of the British salt monopoly. This was the beginning of the Satyagraha movement that eventually won Indian independence. Gandhi was jailed for his leadership of the Salt March, along with more than 80,000 other Indians who were jailed in the Salt Satyagraha.
You are the salt of the earth. It doesn’t mean that we are a health risk, and it doesn’t mean that we are tasty. Being salt means being life-giving, having preservative and cleansing qualities, being valuable beyond measure. Being salt of the earth means bring life to the earth.
Jesus goes on to say that if salt loses its saltiness, it becomes worthless. It can’t be used for anything. Now, technically speaking, it is impossible for salt to lose it’s saltiness. Sodium Chloride is a stable element; it can’t lose it’s saltiness. But, Jesus may have been referring to impure forms of salt, if stored improperly, that could lose some of their salt to water.
What is interesting, though is how Jesus refers to salt losing it’s saltiness. He says, if salt is μωρανθῇ, if salt becomes moronic, if it becomes stupid, foolish, or speechless, then how can it be restored? It can’t. It becomes worthless and useless.
Salt may not be able to lose it’s saltiness, but what happens when we lose our saltiness? What happens when our faith becomes foolish or speechless? What happens when we get carried away with things that don’t matter, things that distract us from our true callings? What happens when we argue over petty things? What happens when we fail to open our mouths in witness? What happens when our message fails to address the concerns and happenings of the real world? What happens when we lose the will to engage with what is going on around, or when we lose the courage to speak out against injustice? What happens when we lose our saltiness?
Jesus uses a second metaphor to describe his followers. Not only are they the salt of the earth, they are the light of the world. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, it is put on a lamp stand and provides light to everyone in the room.
Light provides illumination, it provides clarity. Without light, we cannot see. We cannot tell where we are going or what dangers might be in our path. We cannot tell the difference between colors, or appreciate the beauty of the created world. Of all of the senses, sight is perhaps the one we rely upon most. We often equate sight with understanding. In the cartoons, when someone gets an idea or figures something out for the first time, we can tell because a lightbulb switches on next to their head. If I want to say that I understand something, I can simply say, “I see.” It was the same in ancient Greek. The word that means “I know” is actually an ancient form of the word for seeing: it literally means “I have seen.”
And light, like salt, is something that is not good on its own. If light is hidden, it isn’t good for anything. Light is only good if it is put somewhere where it can shine. Light is only good if it illuminates things for people to see. Salt, also, is not any particular good on it’s own. It is only good if it is consumed to facilitate metabolism, or used to preserve or season food, or spread to melt ice. It is only good if it is used.
Being a Christian is not about being good in myself. It is not about focusing on my interior life to the exclusion of everything else. It is not about being satisfied with myself and my learning, or my purity, or my holiness. Learning, purity, and holiness can be good things, but not if they are not shared, not if they are not put to use. Being a Christian is not a solitary venture. Being a Christian is always about our relationship with others, both those inside and those outside the Christian community.
Jesus says that a city on a hill cannot be hid. Its light will reveal it even from far away. The phrase was famously used by President Ronald Reagan, who repeatedly spoke about America as a shining city on a hill. He wasn’t the first to use the phrase in reference to America. John Winthrop first used it in 1630 aboard to ship Arbello to tell the future Massachusetts Bay Colonists that the eyes of the world would be watching them. Their experiment would either show the world an example of Christian charity or it would show the world the colonists’ failure to achieve Christian charity and unity. President John F. Kennedy used it in the days leading up to his inauguration in the same way, to say that the eyes of world would be on America to see if we would succeed or fail at the great tasks ahead of us.
But Reagan used the phrase over and over, and he altered the wording a bit. Jesus spoke of a city on a hill that could not be hid. Reagan spoke of a shining city on a hill. And in doing so, he changed the meaning of the phrase. Winthrop and Kennedy were making the point that the world would be scrutinizing America. Reagan meant that the world was being drawn to America. It wasn’t just that America was being watched, or even that America was an example for the rest of the world. Reagan meant that the world’s peoples were being drawn to join America. For him it was a profound statement of America’s diversity, of our ability to welcome people from all nations, races, and religions. He explicitly said that shining city was indifferent to differences in race, religion, or political leanings.
In his farewell address, Reagan said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
That vision of America as a shining city on a hill is a far cry from how America is presenting itself in the world today. Now we are a nation defined by a border wall, a nation whose ports of entry are closed to those we see as different, those whose nationality, or language, or race, or religion do not conform to a certain mold. We are becoming more and more a nation of exclusion and division.
And it is in this context that we must struggle with what it means to be salt for the earth and light for the world. What is the truth we must speak, the saltiness we cannot afford to lose? What is the light we must shine, the situations we cannot allow to go unseen?
As followers of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to engage with the world around us. We have an obligation to share God’s radical message of love and inclusion. We have an obligation to shine a light on injustice when we encounter it, an obligation to preserve what is good and just and life-giving in our world. We cannot abdicate our responsibility, hide our light under a basket, or allow our salt to become saltless. You are the light of the world, that is, of the whole world, not just part of it. You are the salt of the earth, that is, of the whole earth, not just a small section. We must be brave. We must be bold. We must share the love of God in every way that we can, taking courage from the one who calls us, the one who gives us light and life, Jesus the Christ.
Sunday 29 January 2017
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Whenever we look at a passage from the bible, it’s always a good idea to try to figure out what context the passage is in. The words from Micah are well known: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Chances are that most of us already know that slogan. What does the Lord require of you? But I for one didn’t know much about what the context was. I only knew the one verse: Micah 6:8. We memorized it in Sunday School. We sang it choir anthems. But I had never paid much attention to the verses around it. We just have to go back to beginning of the chapter to find it though, and the context is really quite extraordinary.
The context is a courtroom. In the ancient world, there wasn’t an independent judiciary. Whoever the ruler or official or elder in a particular place was would usually be the one to settle disputes among the people. So the place where justice was done would usually be the court of a king or ruler, not a court set aside just for the law. But if you want to imagine the courtroom of Judge Judy, that will probably do just fine for understanding this passage. This is a civil case with a plaintiff and a defendant.
The Lord God of Israel is involved in this case. Since God is the ruler and king of all, we would probably imagine that God is acting as the judge in this. But if we did, we would be mistaken. God isn’t the judge in this courtroom, God is the plaintiff. And God is bringing a case against his people, Israel. Israel is the defendant.
But then, who is the judge? Who would be competent to stand in judgement over God? God has stepped down from that usual role in order to put a case directly, and so God calls for a replacement judge to settle the matter. Who does God call to be judge? God actually calls a panel of judges. It’s the mountains:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
with Israel he will argue.
So now we know who all the players are. God is the plaintiff. Israel is the defendant. The ancient mountains of the earth have been called to be the judges. What are the proceedings going to be like?
God stands up to make the accusation:
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!”
If it were Judge Judy presiding, no doubt God would be scolded for addressing the defendant directly instead of addressing the court. But considering who this plaintiff is, perhaps a little more latitude is in order. God continues:
“I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.
My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned,
and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him!
Remember everything from the Shittim to Gilgal,
that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the Lord!”
It’s the recounting of God’s mighty acts of salvation and liberation during the exodus of God’s people. God freed them from slavery in Egypt through Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. While the people of Israel were wandering the wilderness, the King of Moab, named Balak, was afraid that they might displace him. So King Balak went to the most powerful prophet in the land, Balaam, and offered him a great sum of money if he would curse the people of Israel for him. Balak took Balaam to three different hills, and on each hill he built seven altars, and on each altar he sacrificed a bull and a ram. But each time he did this, and asked Balaam to curse Israel for him, God appeared to Balaam and told him that he should not curse Israel, that he must bless Israel instead. And so that is what Balaam did. Much to the dismay of King Balak, Balaam would not accept his bribes and gifts. He would not do what the king commanded, because, Balaam said, he could not say anything other than the wishes of God, and God wished to bless Israel, not curse her.
Later, at Shittim, God raised up a new leader to succeed Moses—Joshua—and commissioned him to lead God’s people conquering in the Promised Land. Gilgal was Joshua’s military base during the attack on Jericho. God is reminding Israel that God has, again and again, taken Israel’s side and fought against the other nations on Israel’s behalf. If God has shown Israel this undue favoritism, then how can God’s claim against Israel possibly now be unjustified?
What it is that God is accusing Israel of is not included in the few verses we read today, but the charges take up most of the rest of the Book of Micah. God accuses Israel of worshipping idols and following other gods, but this is not the greatest of God’s grievances. More than anything else, God is upset that the rich and powerful people have been taking advantage of the poor and the weak. Merchants cheat the people by using heavier weights when they are buying and lighter weights when they are selling. Judges take bribes from the wealthy and rule unfairly against the poor. The rich buy up all of the land so that the peasants no longer have power over the means of production, they have to work for the wealthy for wages, and the wealthy collect all the profits even though they aren’t the ones doing the work. These rich people, often simply called “the wicked,” come to the priests and give great sums so that they will be blessed. They are sure that God is on their side, that they are God’s chosen people. But they are going to be in for a big surprise when judgment comes. God is going to lift up the poor and grind the rich into dust. These are the charges God lays against Israel.
The mountains never get a chance to make their ruling. Faced with God’s charges, Israel decides to confess. They have been unjust to the poor. They have allowed the rich to have all of the power and prestige. They are guilty.
So they do what any shrewd defendant would do: they try to make a plea bargain. What do we have to give to God in order to get these charges dropped? That’s how justice usually works for the rich and powerful, right? They never have to go to jail. They can always make a deal. When Wall Street hot-shots knowingly break the law and steal the retirement investments away from hard working people so that the wealthy can make even more money, they don’t go to jail. All they have to do for their illegal and unjust practices is pay a fine. And the fine isn’t even as much money as they had made on their illegal trades.
That’s the kind of deal Israel tries to make with God. What will it take to make all this go away? Just give us a number. If we sacrificed one thousand rams, would that do it? How about a thousand gallons of fine olive oil? No that’s not enough? All right, I will sacrifice my own first born child. Would that appease you? Would that get these silly charges dropped? It’s right there in Micah 6:7. Israel actually offers to perform child sacrifice in order to get God to drop the case.
But God is too stubborn for that. God will not accept any plea bargain for the crimes of the rich against the poor. God is going to have justice. God is going to make sure that everything is set right. God’s attorney lays it out in Micah 6:8. “God has already told you, human, what is good and what the Lord requires from you.” Like Silentó, Micah says, “You already know what it is.” The defendant should already know what the law is. The defendant should already know what the sentence is going to be. They have already been told what the Lord requires. It’s very simple. Three bullet points:
No. 1: Do justice—stop cheating the poor and using the power that you get from your wealth in order to squeeze even more money out of them. You rich don’t need any more, but the poor are starving. Give them back the land and get rid of all that accumulated wealth that you should have been sharing all along.
No. 2: Love kindness—אַהֲבַת חֶסֶד. We’re not just talking about politeness here. It’s the kind of loving-kindness that God has for God’s people. It’s care, compassion, mercy, charity, the kind of love that will not allow someone to be mistreated or degraded or taken advantage of. It is active kindness.
No. 3: Walk humbly with your God—It is the crime of the rich and powerful to be haughty, to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments. To think that all of the things they have gotten in life are on account of their own brains and hard work. God demands an end to that delusion. When I claim to have accomplishments, I put myself in the place of God. I declare myself to be a god. I should remember that all good things come from God alone. Everything that I think I have is not mine, it belongs to God. I am a steward, an agent, a manager for God’s riches, and I had best be sure that I use them the way that God would want them used. Walk humbly with your God. Walk in the way that God walks, and do it in humility, knowing that all good things come, not from us, but from God.
What does the Lord require of us? We already know what it is. We have already heard it before. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.
The office is closed Monday, January 9th. Happy Hands is also cancelled.
January 8th Annual Meeting is cancelled. Worship is still on for 10:00 am.
It’s 5:00 pm on January 7th, and the conditions here in town still seem passable to me. I know for those of you further out, they won’t be. The Annual Meeting tomorrow is cancelled. But I’m still planning to lead worship at 10:00 tomorrow morning. If it’s safe and reasonable for you to come, I’ll see you there. If not, stay home, warm, and safe, and we’ll see you next week.