Weekly Preaching: February 2, 2020

January 29th, 2020

Not one, not two but three texts this week that might land in anybody’s top ten of preachable, powerful texts! Sometimes I think toward a sermon by hearing music kin to the text, so I’ll start with “Blest Are They,” the great David Haas hymn and chorus. I also like to ponder art, so perhaps spending time gazing at the folly of a crucified God will bring healing to my soul, and hopefully to my sermon, even if I don’t speak on the epistle! Speaking of which, I explicated 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 in my March 4, 2018 blog post, weighing the absurdity of the cross, various portrayals of the crucifixon, St. Francis’s prayer (the real one, not the popular one), and a great reflection from Michael Knowles on the folly of preaching that may be the greatest single word of encouragement written for preachers I have ever read. 

Familiar texts are surprisingly hard to preach on, though, because they are so… familiar. It’s tough to capture the shock and awe that Micah’s first hearers, or Paul’s first readers, or those gathered on a Galilean hillside must have experienced. Maybe naming the surprise that was theirs might help pew-sitters this Sunday.

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Quite oddly for me, I have written a book on both of the following texts (What Does the Lord Require? and The Beatitudes for Today). This doesn't guarantee a good sermon though, does it? Micah 6:1-8 turned out to be more intriguing than I’d imagined. Micah (meaning “Who is like the Lord?”) was from rural Moresheth-Gath. In those tumultuous 8th century days, the rural towns bore the brunt of foolish policy-making in the big city of Jerusalem. Would a rural church pastor dare join in with Micah complaining about policy in urban places?

The question, “What does the Lord require?” needs parsing. The verb, require, is a translation of darash, which is not like a teacher requiring homework or a judge requiring punishment. Darash is the way a child requires its mother’s love, a flower requires sunshine, a lover requires the beloved’s presence. And God darashes three things, which may really be one thing viewed from three perspectives.

1. Do justice, not think about justice or believe in justice or hope for justice. DO justice. And “justice” is our rendering of mishpat, which isn’t fairness or getting what is deserved. Justice, mishpat, is when the poorest are cared for. There’s that statue of justice outside the Supreme Court showing that “justice is blind.” God’s justice isn’t blind at all. God sees, God cares. God isn’t unbiased; God is immensely biased toward us, hoping for the best conceivable outcome for our lives.

2. Love kindness. Kindness seems vapid, although we should be kind, especially in such an unkind era. The Hebrew is hesed, steadfast love, covenant loyalty. Really, it’s about mercy. Pope Francis proclaimed 2016 as “The Year of Mercy” (and he showed mercy to any and everybody), but God knows we still need it in 2020. God is all mercy. We are called to be merciful (as the Beatitudes will show!).

3. Walk humbly. In a cocky world, we are asked to be humble  not humiliated, but humble, which really is nothing other than acknowledging the truth about ourselves: We are weak, vulnerable, in need, dependent upon God, not all that brilliant or strong after all. And we walk, not standing still. You go, you walk for God.

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"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead
Matthew 5:1-12. Jesus, as full of desire for the wholeness and love of people as God speaking through Micah, began his sermon to a bunch of nobodies by blessing them. The Beatitudes aren’t commandments: Go be these ways! Instead, what we see is that God blesses what the world despises. Matthew has “poor in spirit,” but Luke 6’s version has just plain “poor.” Most Americans will want to keep “in spirit,” but it’s both, always. Jesus blessed those who “mourn.” We pity them,  but in God’s heart they are blessed. Jesus admires the “meek.” Put that on your resume and see how swiftly you lose an interview! But with Jesus, meekness is holy. Help your people feel the shockingly counter-cultural feel of all this! There are no conventional maxims or trite soundbytes here.
 
Jesus blessed those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Not those who ARE righteous, just those seeking it, craving it, grabbing what they can and discover then they really want more. Then we see his blessing of the “merciful," and it’s reflexive: They receive mercy. We could spend our lives well just striving for mercy; we’re all desperate for it already. Jesus knows,  and he simultaneously blesses the peacemakers and those who suffer for righteousness... So much in this rich text.
 
What fascinates me is thinking of people whose photo you might attach to each Beatitude. St. Francis? Dorothy Day? Your grandmother? I suspect, though, that Jesus didn’t think of these as eight distinct things. They are, again, really one. The meek can be merciful; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness make peace. And so forth. Stories of holy, courageous, blessed lives always work well in preaching!
The real picture to attach to these Beatitudes is Jesus himself. It’s virtually autobiographical. Jesus was all these things. He’s showing us what it’s like to be close to his heart.
 
So to preach these texts: I think I'll begin by inviting people to imagine what God is like  a mix of that darash-kind-of-God, and Jesus looking with deep care and compassion at people on a hillside above Galilee. That's the kind of God we're talking about. He dreams holy dreams for us. He longs for the happiest, most joyful life for us. He's not a commander so much as he's a yearner, and is willing to show the way by being our best selves so we could see and believe. I might rifle through each thing (do justice, hunger for righteousness, etc.) or pick a couple. Maybe meekness, which is so out of style (and fits walking humbly): Where have I seen this around our church or in the world? And the merciful, or peacemakers: where are these guys needed in a clashing society? Can I find a story where mercy was enacted, and the world changed?
 
What about the church?  Is the church poor, meek (yes?? in this declining culture?), merciful and a doer of justice (not so often)? When has the church looked like Micah 6 or Matthew 5? Can we dream of such a church? This is a church that does justice because it has received mercy, that loves hesed because this is what we hunger and thirst for, and walks humbly because we acknowledge joyfully our meekness.
 
So it's not Go thou and do likewise! but rather painting a beautiful image of what holy living looks like so we'll be attracted, so we'll discover we already have more meekness and mourning than we let on in public... How good of Jesus to bless them and us with such a humble, holy, soaring vision of life with him!
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