Sunday, February 2
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
The Vision Beautiful
God of Blazing light, through the power of the cross you shattered our darkness, scattering the fears that bind us and setting us free to live as your children. Give us courage and conviction that we may joyfully turn and follow you into new adventures of faithful service, led by the light that shines through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
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:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
All readings for this week
I Corinthians 1:18-31
1. How do you answer the question, "Who is Jesus?"
2. What compels us a person to be a "seeker"? What do you most hunger for?
3. What surprises have you encountered on your spiritual journey?
4. What demands have you encountered "at the door" of religious institutions that may not match God's expectations of you?
5. Who are people around you who, surprisingly, are leading a "blessed" life?
Reflection by Susan Blain
Who is this Jesus, and who are we who follow him, and where is he leading? What kind of life will we have if we follow? And what is the Way along which he leads? The readings for the Season after Epiphany explore these questions.
The journey of the Magi opens the season. Christ is revealed to the whole world, made present symbolically in the persons of these sojourners from the east who seek, recognize, and adore the Holy Child as the anointed of God. It continues with the stories of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan and the call of his disciples. It concludes with the account of his transfiguration before the closest of his disciples. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the revelation of God in Christ is clear: "This is my child, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
The season of Epiphany explores our identities as well: we are those who, like the Magi, seek. John the Baptist poses the question that defines us: "What are you seeking?"
This fourth Sunday after Epiphany introduces Jesus' teaching ministry with the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: 1-12. Our focus is The Vision Beautiful--inspired by the title of the series of blessings laid out here, the Beatitudes. Blessings, beauty, bounty imagined and hoped for--all evoked by such a title. What is the vision beautiful? Life knowing the blessing and the presence of God.
Scripture passages selected for the lectionary each week start with the Gospel text--the story of Jesus--and weave around it other passages from the Hebrew Bible and Epistles which are related in theme or imagery and offer insight into the community's experience of God. In studying the scripture passages which accompany the Gospel this week, we may, like the Magi, be led on an unexpected journey--the way to the "vision beautiful" is marked by a series of surprising turns and reversals leading us ever deeper into God's mystery and call.
Micah 6:1-8 starts out as a sort of parody of a court case, where God accuses the people of Israel of covenant infidelity. God demands of them: "Plead your caseÖ!" Before Israel can do so, however, God interrupts by making the case for divine faithfulness, beginning with a plaintive lament echoed in Good Friday's liturgical "Reproaches": "O my people, what I have I done to you?" God's presence to Israel in liberating from slavery, in sending leaders (including, unexpectedly, Miriam), in turning curses into blessings, are recounted. Verses 6-8 continue the theme of the unexpected: Micah turns a liturgical formula upside down. The prophet expands on a call and response prayer which pilgrims may have used as they approached the Temple to offer sacrifice or worship. Using exaggeration and irony, he turns the pilgrims' question into increasingly antic suggestions about what God requires: Prostration or sacrifice? "Thousands" of cattle or "rivers" of oil? Even one's first born: "the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul"?
After the exaggeration of the pilgrims' questions, God's response is simplicity itself, calling Israel back to covenantal faithfulness. In three concise statements, God outlines the program: "Do justice: To be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world, to correct the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others. Love covenant loyalty: the translation of 'kindness' is disastrously weak. The word hesed means to reorder life into a community of enduring relations of fidelity. Walk humbly with God: to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God" (Walter Brueggemann).
The "vision beautiful" in Micah calls Israel to be with God in the world, living out God's desires for a community of justice and faithful love.
Ancient pilgrims, timeless questions
We continue to seek the "vision beautiful" through Psalm 15, another model of the pilgrims' dialogue on entering the Temple. In this case, too, expectations are overturned. In these liturgies, a pilgrim asks what is required for entering the sanctuary, and the priests, guardians of the Holy, answer from within. As John H. Hayes notes, "Öin antiquity, temples did not operate on the principle 'Everyone welcome, all come'" Instead, access to the sanctuary was governed by family or health status, or purity laws which defined which people and which practices were clean and unclean (see Deut. 23A: 1-8).
One may expect that the response to the pilgrim's inquiry would have to do with these categories of purity. Instead, Psalm 15 reverses expectations and takes an unexpected tack: requirements for entrance have nothing to do with the purity laws. The ten qualifications listed have to do with community life framed in justice, mercy and peace. Access to the Holy requires the shaping of a whole and good community.
Our lectionary path toward Matthew's "vision beautiful" takes a wrenching turn with the Epistle lesson. 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31 puts before us one of the most compelling reversals in Scripture: the contrast between God's wisdom and human foolishness, focused in the Cross. Paul asserts clearly: God's transforming power is shown here, in the death of Christ. The Cross confounds all expectations: those who seek proof in miraculous displays of power are disappointed; those who look for human logic in divine activity are frustrated. Miracles fail, and human logic cannot explain how God's power is at work in human weakness and vulnerability. The Cross points us, according to Fred Craddock, to "Öa third way: transformation--look for God's presence in unexpected places: in suffering, weakness and abandonment rather than in signs, wonders, and reason." Paul doesn't move us along to consider the resurrection as the manifestation of God's power (although he does so later); here he keeps our attention on the scandal of the Cross. What can this mean for the vision beautiful?
A flat reversal
At last we come to Matthew's text concerning the "vision beautiful." After the surprises and reversals we have encountered through its accompanying lections, it is no surprise to hear from Thomas Long that "Öthe Beatitudes turn the world's values upside down. What is true for those who live in the power of the Kingdom of Heaven is a flat reversal of what is considered to be true in the culture at large. The Beatitudes declare that the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers are the ones who are truly blessed. We live in a world, however, that pronounces the benediction over the self-sufficient, the assertive, and the power brokers. The people whom the world would see as pitiful, the mournful, the persecuted, are the very people Jesus claims are truly joyful."
Viewing the Beatitudes through the lens of the Cross, we are invited to seek and find the action of God in the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, the peacemakers. Their lives now, in the present, hold the blessing and transforming power of God, as they live and struggle for justice, peace, and wholeness in their world. Indeed, the theme of all our scripture texts find a kind of fulfillment in this expression of the "vision beautiful"--meeting God through covenant faithfulness; gaining access to the Holy through creation of a whole and just society; encountering God's power in the pain and struggle and "foolishness" of a world suffering for justice and peace.
God with us now, and pointing us to the future
Yet one more unexpected turn: The Beatitudes invite us to play with present and future. God is with us, now, in all of our struggles informing our hope, and God is pointing all of us toward the ultimate "Vision Beautiful" of the future Kingdom of Heaven where God is all in all.
The readings today lead us on a labyrinthian journey toward a vision beautiful with God not only at its center, but God at every turn, upsetting our expectations and challenging us to take another step deeper into the mystery of divine presence dwelling in our world. God is not demanding of us extravagant sacrifice or liturgical purity; God is not to be found in other-worldly miracles or worldly logic. God is calling us to follow Christ, the Beloved, into the world to engage in a lifetime of faithful, creative, courageous, community-building love. The Vision Beautiful? The joy, the surprise, the blessing of such a life in God.
A word of wise caution
One caveat remains in any discussion of the Beatitudes. They can often be sentimentalized or overly "spiritualized," and we may be lulled into thinking that the struggles of the poor and the suffering must be endured until a future promise of God will be fulfilled. One good corrective to this temptation is to read Richard Swanson's translation in Provoking the Gospel of Matthew. The real crisis of a community living under persecution comes through in his translation choices: "Godlike in their happiness, the poor in breath: theirs is the dominion of the heavens. Godlike in their happiness, the mourners: they shall be called as witnesses" (Mt 5: 3-4 ff). The urgent image of "breath" replaces the usual "spirit," and mourners receive not the usual comfort, but the comfort of telling the truth. The other verses are equally stark. The reality of the Cross is manifest in Swanson's "vision beautiful," and a texture of depth and surprise is added to a familiar teaching.
The Reverend Susan Blain is Minister for Worship and Spiritual Formation with Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
For further reflection
Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
"There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth."
Martin Luther, 16th century
"This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified."
Louisa May Alcott, 19th century
"Simple, genuine goodness is the best capital to found the business of this life upon. It lasts when fame and money fail, and is the only riches we can take out of this world with us."
Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century
"Don't go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one."
Victor Hugo, 19th century
"Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just."
Wendell Berry, 20th century
"Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world."
Kurt Vonnegut, 20th century
"For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. 'Blessed are the merciful' in a courtroom? 'Blessed are the peacemakers' in the Pentagon? Give me a break!"
A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/february-2-2014.html.
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The Vision Beautiful
Sunday, February 2