Sermon Seeds: The Vision Beautiful
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year A
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Worship resources for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year A, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, are at Worship Ways
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12 (and all readings for this Sunday)
Reflection on Micah 6:1-8
The Vision Beautiful/Re-imagined Realm/Blessed
Reflection on Matthew 5:1-12:
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 question that defines us
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.
An unexpected journey of surprising turns
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.
Laments and reproaches
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 case…!” 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”?
Living out God’s desires for the world
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” (Brueggeman et al, Texts for Preaching Year A).
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.
Expectations are overturned
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, “…in 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) (Preaching Through the Christian Year A).
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.
The scandal of the Cross
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, Carl R. Holladay writes: 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 instead to “a third option,” and opens our eyes to “raw powerlessness,” as we witness God at work in unexpected places of suffering and loss (Preaching Through the Christian Year A).
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?
Viewing the Beatitudes through the lens of the Cross
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 discover that “…the 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” (Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
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.
Pointing us toward the ultimate “Vision Beautiful”
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 this week 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 sought 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.
The dominion of the heavens
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 serves as the Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts with the Faith INFO (Faith Education, Innovation and Formation) Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, in Cleveland, Ohio.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Sigmund Freud, 20th century
“Impossible.” (after reading the Sermon on the Mount)
William Blake, 19th century
“Mercy is the golden chain by which society is bound together.”
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!”
Henry Miller, 20th century
“If there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 20th century
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
Alice Walker, 21st century
“HELPED are those whose every act is a prayer for peace; on them depends the future of the world.”
Ronnie McBrayer, How Far Is Heaven?: Rediscovering the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now, 21st century
“The Beatitudes are no spiritual ‘to do list’ to be attempted by eager, rule-keeping disciples. It is a spiritual ‘done’ list of the qualities God brings to bear in the people who follow Jesus.”
Reflection on Micah 6:1-8:
by Kathryn Matthews
Perhaps it’s regrettable that we often read the Bible in pieces, just a passage here or there, or even just one verse at a time, because we don’t really hear what’s going on around the writer as he or she struggles to express the word God is giving to the people.
Long ago and far away, in a culture significantly different from our own, and yet, in many ways, very much like it, the prophets spoke such a word to the people. And just like writers and poets in every age, they used literary devices as the tools of their trade.
Gathering in the courtroom
In this week’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Micah creates a scene that suggests a lawsuit in ancient Israel more than seven hundred years before the time of Jesus. In this courtroom, God is the judge and the prosecutor, the people are the accused, and all of creation–even “the enduring foundations of the earth”–are present to hear the case.
We’re not sure exactly what Micah’s role is in this drama; perhaps, ironically, he’s the defense attorney who, in the end, advises his client on what to do to satisfy the court. Or perhaps he’s merely an onlooker who is wise enough to recall the saving acts of God, and to remember the very simple things that God wants in response to all that God has done for the people.
We note here the meaning of Micah’s name, according to Clark M. Williamson and Ronald J. Allen: Mica-el, “who is like God?” (“Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year A,” Preaching the Old Testament).
The setting for this case
Kenyatta R. Gilbert tells us that Israel has fallen to the temptations that come in every age, to every people, with wealth, and she draws on the writing of Juan I. Alfaro to set the stage for God’s “case” against the people: “Israel’s economic boon under the reigns of Uzziah and Jotham secured their political clout in the region, but with the nation’s increased prosperity came ‘a strong current of egotistic materialism’ that coincided with maltreatment of the poor by the ruling elite.”
According to Gilbert, neglect of the poor and a failure to practice justice were offenses against the holiness code: “The political and religious gatekeepers ignored God’s law and are therefore indicted for their wickedness” (“Fourth Sunday after Epiphany” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice Year A).
The people are summoned
And so the people themselves receive a summons: “Hear what the Lord says” and the witnesses–the mountains and the hills–gather round to hear God present the case against the people, for we are told that God has a “controversy” with the people and will contend with them.
Then, strangely enough, instead of listing accusations and describing wrongdoing, God asks a poignant question: “O my people, what have I done to you, how have I wearied you?” Is it any wonder that we think of God as a parent–how many of us have wearily wanted to ask our children the same question? (I raised three children through teenagerhood, and I know some things.)
Remembering God’s deeds
“After all I’ve done for you….” Like a weary parent, God recites something of a history of delivering the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt; of giving them leaders in Moses, Aaron and Miriam; of being with them as they wandered in the wilderness, and finally leading them to the Promised Land. Remember all of these things, God says, so that you will know me as the God who saves, the God who delivers, the God who shows mercy and compassion. The God who is faithful.
Now this speech must have had tremendous impact on its hearers, because, without skipping a beat, we hear the people’s response, in the form of a question, much as ancient worshippers, when they came to worship, would ask questions of the priests and religious officials of the temple.
The people seem to realize that they have failed to be faithful to their covenant with God. Their consciences appear to be awakened, and they acknowledge that they have strayed. So they ask what they should do in order to be close to God once again.
A hint of exasperation
But, if we listen closely, don’t we hear a bit of exasperation in their questions? “What should I do to come before the Lord? Should I bring burnt offerings, young calves, or if that’s not enough, how about thousands of rams, or even ten thousands of rivers of oil? If that’s not enough, shall I even offer up in sacrifice the life of my own child to make up for my sin?”
Robert P. Hoch calls these steps “[f]rom the seemingly possible (burnt offerings, what the law required), to the absurd (thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil), to the unbearable (the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul)” (New Proclamation Year A 2011). As if massive, over-the-top, but empty ritual–or worship without heart and soul–would be a kind of appeasement of an angry God.
The prophet, however, answers the people with the simplest and yet most challenging of answers: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.
Justification as defense
We notice that they don’t ask how they can re-arrange their lives so that they can stop oppressing the poor and learn to share generously with one another. I wouldn’t be surprised if the people are represented as thinking they’re pretty much doing what they should do; they may think of themselves as dedicated in their religious observance and therefore faithful; maybe they just need to do “more of the same.”
But Micah seems to be saying that “observant” is not enough if it only applies to “cultic” things and doesn’t include the heart. Or, for that matter, one’s whole life.
Bring yourselves, not all that stuff
William P. Brown describes the three ideas in the people’s questions as “simply unnecessary baggage. ‘With what shall I come before God in worship?’ ‘Only yourself” is the answer, but a self of a certain character” (Obadiah through Malachi, Westminister Bible Companion).
Ed Thorn says, “God does not want what we own. God wants who we are or, at least, God wants the world to see whose we are” (“Micah 6:1-8” in The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible). I don’t think this means God does not want us to bring our gifts to worship, including our money; I do think it means that sharing our financial gifts should be seen as one way of doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
Does this sound familiar?
Micah’s issue with the people may sound uncomfortably contemporary to us today. In that time of history, in that day, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Looking back a few chapters in Micah’s prophecies, we learn that “the powerful ‘covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away'” (2:2).
More than that: the rich were getting richer because the poor were getting poorer. (No “rising tide lifts all boats” here.) Those with land and power were able to foreclose on the small farmers and take away their small plots of lands. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of a smaller group of people, and a growing number of those who once were able to support themselves adequately were now being driven into poverty.
Pious but not compassionate
However much they were needed, compassion, generosity and mercy were in short supply, but religious observance…well, pious people just went on worshipping like nothing important was happening around them. People went through the right motions, but their hearts were hard and their faces turned away from the suffering of those around them. Their worship, then, was empty.
It would be easy, of course, to read this passage as condemning religious practices, whether we’re talking about the sacrificial system of the ancient temple or the worship we conduct in churches around the world today, more than twenty-seven centuries later.
That, however, would be a mistake, for the prophet knows that God is God and we can do nothing but worship the Source of all life and all goodness. It is clear that a humble walk with God means recognizing just that. And we need to worship together, not always alone, to draw strength from the community for that day-to-day walk with God in a world that does not support it.
Listening to the deniers
In the 8th century B.C.E., when Micah spoke to the Southern Kingdom of Israel, called Judah, great empires surrounded and threatened to engulf the tiny nation. Still, according to Brett Younger, at that time “Israel was in the middle of a revival. The temple was crowded. Giving was over budget for the first time in years, but Micah knew that something was wrong. Israel was arrogant and uncaring” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1).
The people went from day to day, listening to “official” prophets who comforted them and said nothing bad would happen. (You might call them “conquest deniers.”)
The rest of the story
As we know from the rest of the story, however, those nations, Assyria and Babylon, in time took over first the Northern Kingdom and then, later, the Southern Kingdom with its capital, Jerusalem, and its holy temple.
A time of exile and mourning was followed by homecoming and restoration, if only for a while. By the time of Jesus, the people of Israel were once again under the heel of a foreign power, the Roman Empire, and once again they longed for God to deliver them.
Confronting the reality of suffering
All of this, of course, is (literally) ancient history, telling us about the suffering and questions of people long ago and far away. And yet, today, especially today, we listen, too, for a word from God as we read this text, wondering what we need to do to please God, to approach God in worship not only in our church buildings but each day of our lives. We need to know what word of hope we can–we must–take out into a world that’s hungry, and thirsty, and hurting, and full of questions.
Is it possible that we have something in common with the people of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.? Every day, in this land of affluence and abundance, we confront the reality of those who do not have enough to eat, jobs to support themselves and their families, decent housing, quality education.
Struggles in every age
The words “foreclosure” and “unemployment” are painfully familiar, day in and day out, as we listen to conflicting accounts of our economy – on the one hand, an unemployment rate that looks good at first glance, and on the other, stories of people working two and three jobs, unable to pay for their prescriptions or pay off their student loans. In our city, a UCC church is trying to care for people who are homeless (against formidable odds), and housing in the neighborhoods surround my own home struggles to regain its value.
In fact, the history of the 21st century so far is not a happy one, alas, as the gap between rich and poor widens with each new economic report. The most discouraging and even shocking news is that eight men (yes, just eight) hold as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire world–3.6 billion people! The gap between rich and poor continues to grow and even affects life expectancy; see this article in the New York Times: Study Shows Income Gap Between Rich and Poor Keeps Growing, With Deadly Effects.
How are we so very different, all these years later?
So, childhood poverty and childhood hunger persist at distressing levels, even as our cities raise shiny new buildings (sports facilities in particular) and upscale shopping centers, while claiming that we don’t have enough money for schools, and allowing our homeless people (including children) to spend the night in squalor.
Under such circumstances, we have more and more children who are in need of our compassion and mercy and generosity. In that sense, how are we different from those people so long ago and so far away, and is there anything we can do to address this suffering in a meaningful way?
In his reflection on this text, Paul Hooker recalls the idealism of his younger years, with hero-preachers like William Sloane Coffin and MLK Jr., and even Jimmy Carter, at his inauguration, quoting Micah’s stirring but simple “formula”–what a beautiful dream to shape a renewed society! Alas, beautiful words were followed by business as usual in ways that led to “exhausted hopes and dented expectations” (Christian Century 1-22-2014).
Re-orienting our hearts
I’m old enough to remember all of that hope and the disappointment as well, and yet I too return to these words of Micah to let my heart be moved in the right direction again, reoriented and renewed, especially in these days. As Ed Thorn has written in a story drawing on this passage’s themes, “Hope, a dream to cling to, must not be forgotten, whatever the indignities and details of the human condition. The alternative [is] cynicism” (“Micah 6:1-8” in The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible).
It seems that part of being a person of faith is trying to understand just what God wants from us. Many of us follow the rules we were given as a child, or the ones that were explained to us as adult converts when we learned “the rules” of the religion we joined.
And yet, there seems to be a more important moment, or experience, when faith comes to us as something else, as grace, as forgiveness and as a call, but not as rules or expectations. Still, one wonders if we can have a call without expectations. What do the people in your pews think that God expects of them?
Getting back down to basics
The gracious generosity of God has been evident in this season of Epiphany, when we’ve been hearing of God’s invitation and care not only for the people of Israel, not only for the Jews of Jesus’ time, but for “the nations,” for the Gentiles, for all of us today. In our passage from the prophet Micah, we hear that God indeed has something for us to do in response to, and in cooperation with, God’s grace.
More than that, God expects a radical reorientation of our lives (if this sounds familiar, check last week’s Gospel reading), a fundamental commitment to live in covenant faithfulness, and that doesn’t mean fastidious religious observance of ritual even if everyone around us seems to be enthusiastically practicing it. It means getting right down to basics: justice, kindness, humbly walking with our God.
Maybe it’s simple but just not easy
Many people love this passage, just as they (we) love the passage about the two most important commandments about love–the ones that make it all sound so simple and clear, if not easy. We want to strip away all the “extras,” the unnecessary and supposedly empty religious practices, the laws that seem oppressive and excessive, the bothersome rules that only produce guilt.
It’s tempting simply to quote this passage and the Gospel passage that requires us to love God and our neighbor, and then “not sweat the small stuff.” And they’re both so beautiful in their simplicity that it’s tempting to sentimentalize them or worse, to distort them, to make whatever use we want of them.
Living true to the text
One scholar, Andrew Foster Conners, recalls the funeral of a longtime politician whose segregationist policies and beliefs harmed untold numbers of people in our country. This text from Micah was read at the funeral service, and “justice, kindness and obedience [were] defined in a way that is alien to the text–“he stood up for what he believed [even when it was unpopular]’–with no reference to the kind of obedience that God requires” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1.).
It’s actually quite difficult, if we think about it, to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God,” just as it is way too challenging to “love God and our neighbor” the way we should. If it were “simple” and “easy,” so many more of us, I believe, would do so, and if we actually practiced it, just imagine what the world would look like.
A plumb line for our lives
We could use these simple words as a kind of plumb line for our beliefs, practices and ethical rules, to measure how well they align with God’s vision for the world. At its best, organized religion has sincerely tried to translate these simple instructions from God into concrete realities for our complicated, day-to-day lives.
It would be easy to think that simple kindness to the people we meet each day, in our “little” worlds, is enough, when we really need to think about how we affect those beyond our personal encounters, those beyond the people we know and care about. In fact, that’s what justice is about; as Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
What do we mean by these simple words?
Many scholars clarify the meaning of these “simple” words (kindness, justice, walking humbly). Like kindness, justice is not just “fairness” for the people around us, or “treating them right” individually, in our personal interactions (although it includes that, of course).
I don’t share Paul Hooker’s perspective in this case (that is, if I understand it correctly): “The kind of justice that the prophet speaks of is not justice imposed by courts or congresses, but justice that emerges from conversation. Justice, it turns out, is first cousin to reconciliation” (Christian Century 1-22-2014).
The shape of our shared life
While I agree that justice and reconciliation are related and both important, I do believe that the shape and integrity of our public life affects large numbers of people and should not leave us dependent on the goodwill or capricities of personal interactions.
Think of Loving v. Virginia, the Voting Rights Act, Obergefell v. Hodges, and Brown v. Board of Education: through these historic decisions and laws, justice for many people was protected and proclaimed (not “imposed”) by the “courts and congresses.” For a nation that uses God’s name in so many public places and occasions, the simple words of this Micah text are surely the bottom line of a just society.
What does it mean to “walk with God”?
I also appreciate Ed Thorn’s descriptions of the three commands in his beautiful reflection in The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: justice, he says, is “preserving the rights of all in the community”; kindness is “to love in God’s timeless and unconditional way”; and walking humbly with God is “to be aware of one’s need for God who walks as a partner throughout life.”
I’ve included a photograph here that I took while visiting the South Island of New Zealand several years ago with my grandchildren. Whenever I see a path or a set of stone steps that calls to me, I think of this passage and what it means to “walk with God.” I agree that it is both a personal and a communal walk. Perhaps those paths and those steps need to be widened a bit, or we can learn to take our turns. In either case, we need one another, and God’s presence with us as well.
Can we dream, together?
The encouraging thing about this text is its shared vision, its shared expectation. William P. Brown reassures us that walking humbly “is not a lonely path; rather, it is the path of the worshiping community, both past and present.”
We need community to help us find and stay on that path, Brown writes, for “true piety is not a private affair, like a pleasant stroll on the beach with God at one’s side. What God requires is a life of engagement with others in the quest for justice and mercy in a world that clamors for hatred with a vengeance.” We can even approach these words as a blessing, he says, as his congregation often does (Obadiah through Malachi, Westminister Bible Companion).
It would also be much better, of course, if we imagined that, together, for our public life. But Hooker also notes, “The words seem less a sweeping program for national transformation and more a short list of theological virtues for individuals and faith communities. What are faithful people to do in complex and anxious times? You already know, for God has told you. Go back to the basics. It’s not that complicated” (Christian Century 1-22-2014). Do you agree?
More than beautiful, familiar words
What are the really difficult situations in our families, our neighborhoods, our cities and towns, our nation and the world, that would be transformed if these were more than beautiful and familiar words, if we actually practiced them and observed this command of God? How does God express this same expectation of us today, in the United Church of Christ, in the United States of America?
What situations in your congregation need to be addressed with justice, kindness, and humility? What are the small as well as large issues of justice that cry out for our attention? How is God still speaking to us through that cry?
Our Gospel text this week includes another familiar passage loved by many: the Beatitudes, beautifully reflected on by my colleague, the Rev. Susan Blain, in the post above. Also, Patricia Farris draws on the words of Brendan Freeman, a Trappist monk who says the Beatitudes “draw our hearts out of themselves into a new way of understanding our lives…they are deliberately incomplete. They await the inclusion of our lives. Each person fills in the blank space with the details of his or her own life situation” (Christian Century 1-25-2005).
Both challenging and inspiring
I find this both challenging and inspiring. Although Freeman says “each person,” it could apply both to individuals and to communities of faith, and to our larger communities, in a world that grows smaller each day.
As Carol J. Dempsey notes, “Given the scientific fact that all of creation is part of one unified web of life, the practice of justice and love now needs to embrace both human and nonhuman life, and the humble walk with God is a walk of holy reverence and awe across the planet, with people being attuned to and learning from the divine Spirit that pulsates at the heart of all” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1)
Discovering who we are
This connectivity reminds me of the words of Sister Joan Chittister: “In community we work out our connectedness to God, to one another, and to ourselves. It is in community where we find out who we really are. It is life with another that shows my impatience and life with another that demonstrates my possessiveness and life with another that gives notice to my nagging devotion to the self. Life with someone else, in other words, doesn’t show me nearly as much about his or her shortcomings as it does about my own…. In human relationships I learn that theory is no substitute for love. It is easy to talk about the love of God; it is another thing to practice it.”
Hear the blessings
When you read the Matthew text that contains part of the Sermon on the Mount, do you hear blessings on different people in your congregation and in your community? When Jesus climbed that mountain, at this point in his ministry, what do you think he felt when he saw the crowds following him, and why do you think they were following him?
Is that what happens when someone heals others: do they awaken hope and curiosity and longing in great crowds of people? Why do crowds in your community gather, and what do they long for?
Leading us back to prayer
These questions should lead us to prayer, and perhaps back to Paul Hooker’s youthful idealism and hope, and the longing to walk with God through it all. William Sloane Coffin, according to Patricia Farris, provides a good prayer to get us started: “Because we love the world, we pray now, O [God], for grace to quarrel with it….number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those…who alleviated pain by sharing it; and [those] who were always willing to risk something big for something good….” (Christian Century 1-25-2005).
Amen. So may it be.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
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For further reflection:
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 20th century
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister, 20th century
“Life is a long lesson in humility.”
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.”
Henry James, 19th century
“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
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.”
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Act justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Julie Polter, Sojourners, 20th century
“This is the big lie that the world tells us: The world is connected by trade agreements, electronic banking, computer networks, shipping lanes, and the seeking of profit—nothing else. This is the truth of God: Creation is a holy web of relationship, a gift meant for all; it vibrates with the pain of all its parts; its destiny is joy.”
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.”
“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 ten 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?
O God, who may abide
in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly,
and do what is right,
who speak the truth
from their heart,
and do not slander
with their tongue,
who do no evil
to their friends,
nor take up a reproach
against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked
but who honor those
who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath
even to their hurt;
who do not lend money
and do not take a bribe
against the innocent.
Those who do these things
shall never be moved.
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
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.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”