Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Responding as God calls

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we have three wonderful passages from scripture.  And I’d like to just take some time to look at each of them in turn for a minute.  We started with the Micah passage - What does the Lord require of you?  But to do justice, to love mercy (or kindness) and to walk humbly with God.  As I will say more than once today, this is not that God is saying to us that God will not accept or love us without us doing these things.  This is not “works righteousness” in which we earn our way into God’s love through our actions.  Rather, God has already chosen us and God is saying that in response to that love, we are to be faithful people.  If we are faithful, we will respond to God’s love for us with trust that we will have enough and therefore there is more than enough to share with others.  When we lack that faith, we will find ourselves in painful chaos, not because God is punishing us but because we find that there are consequences in life for our actions.  Those to whom Micah was speaking had come to believe that the way they expressed faith to God was through rituals and ceremony, rather than through trust, giving and loving others.  Does that sound familiar?  We know that there are people who come to church not to be supported in their work for God and God’s people, but rather to “prove” their faith to God and to others, or because they believe coming to church is what God wants and is seeking from us.  God is challenging that.  Micah tells us that our response to God’s love should be the way we live our every day lives.  And that it is through justice, kindness and a humility that pleases God.  Justice in this case has to do with caring for the poor and oppressed.  The word “mercy” or kindness here “hessed” is actually about love, loyalty and faithfulness.  The word “humbly” is more along the lines of “circumspectly” and really is about putting God first or living in conformity to God’s will in every area of life – ethically especially.  This passage is a rejection of the idea that there is only one thing that Israel can do to make things right between Israel and God.  Israel is being called to right her relationship with God by a complete change of life style to one of caring for others.  And again, what that looks like is sharing – sharing everything with the trust that there will still be enough for us. Sharing our resources, sharing our space, sharing our time and attention and caring. But again, this isn’t about making ourselves worthy.  This is about allowing God to transform our lives into lives of love, lives dedicated to living for God’s will.
The psalm for today, also encourages living lives of love.  And it, too, appears, on first glance, to be a lecture about what you need to do to earn that love.  But instead, it is a description of what your lives will be like, are like, when you live in God’s love.  Those who abide in God’s love will not slander, will not do evil, will speak the truth from their hearts, will honor other people, all of whom are also children of God.  These will be the signs by which you are known to the world as God-fearing people.
And finally we come to the beattitudes.  While some people interpret these as future promises – (those who are suffering now will reap their rewards in heaven), Father Chacour, the archbishop of
Galilee, a Palestinian priest who is also an Israeli citizen, says that in Aramaic, which was the language Jesus spoke, the word “blessed” here is not a passive word.  He says that actually it should be better translated, “get up and do something about it”.  So instead of reading, “Blessed are those who are poor,” we should be reading this passage, “get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry for you will be satisfied.  Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers for you will be children of God.  Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are persecuted for the kingdom of heaven is yours.”  And again, we are confronted by this reading to respond to God’s love with action, to respond to God’s love not by being passive, but by acting with justice, compassion and love towards all we encounter.
My favorite book of all times is Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice.  I read the book probably once a year, and have the A&E five hour movie version of the story that I also probably watch at least once a year.  I’m sure most of you know the story, but for those who don’t – the main character, Lizzie, is an intelligent, cheerful, confident and witty young woman who comes from a family in which manners and education are lacking and whose fortune is entailed away on a cousin.  In other words, while Lizzie (and her older sister) have much to recommend themselves, they come from a family with nothing to recommend itself.  The family members are embarrassing and inappropriate in their actions, as well as being basically poor.  In this context she meets a man of good breeding, education and fortune, Mr. Darcy, who is clearly offended by her circumstances but who none the less falls in love with Lizzie.  She is unaware of his feelings until one day he comes to her and proposes, announcing that while the situation of her family makes the match one he cannot at all rationally desire, his feelings for her none the less leave him no choice but to ask her to marry him.  Because of his situation, he has no doubt at all of her acceptance of his proposal, and because he believes honesty to be important, he does not hesitate to put down everything about her family even as he asks her to marry him.  Even though she is aware of the lacking in her family, she is none the less extremely offended by the way he asks her, besides being convinced that he is a proud, arrogant, selfish person, and she rejects him, also being honest about what she thinks of the way he has proposed, describing it as ungentlemanly.  This is the turning point in the story for both characters.  Lizzie learns soon afterwards that some of her prejudice against Mr. Darcy comes from mis-information which she chose to believe rather than checking it out for accuracy.  But it is more Mr. Darcy’s transformation on which I wish to focus today.  Lizzie’s words, mixed with his love for her, force him to look at himself and to genuinely reflect on his own behavior.  This in turn causes a profound change in his person as he works hard to let go of his arrogance and pride and become a genuinely compassionate, “gentlemanly” man.  His love for Lizzie changes him.
Many, if not most, of our classics focus on the amazing power of love to transform people; to make them into wiser, more compassionate, more present, more holy people, more WHOLE people.  But these aren’t just stories.  This actually happens when we allow God’s love to change us.
John Newton was the captain of a slave ship when slavery was profitable and “popular” among the elite.  But after several years of working as a slave ship captain he went through a conversion experience in which he met God.   After his experience he went to seminary to become a pastor and during his time there he developed a more Christian understanding of the incompatibility of slavery with God’s love.  He came to see it for the evil it is and to condemn it and fight against it.  He became a pastor to other sailors, teaching them about God’s love for all and God’s hatred of slavery or anything that oppresses and hurts God’s people, that leaves some people out, that builds a wall against others.  His song “Amazing Grace” is autobiographical as he talks about the blindness that kept his focus on money and fame rather than on the love that God would have us share.  “I was blind, but now I see” - probably the most famous line in the song, in part because most of us have experiences of enlightenment at one point or another, in which the values we held, the lifestyles we’ve adopted, or the beliefs we have held onto so tightly break in the face of hard but deep truths, in the face of love.  For John Newton, his love of God forced a complete change in his life and he became an advocate for God’s justice for all people.
This is what God’s love for us and our returned love of God does for us.  When we stay open to God’s direction and God’s guidance, if we accept God into our hearts, but also into our minds and our souls, we become transformed people, made for love, made for justice.
All three of today’s passages say the same thing to us.  All three say that we are to respond to God’s love with justice, mercy, and compliance to God’s will.  This is not “works over faith” because you cannot earn your way into God’s heart or God’s love through your actions.  Not at all.  The truth is, there is nothing you can do to improve God’s love for you.  That is good news, that is a joyful thing.  That should boost us up, lift us up.  God is not demanding good from us, or really anything from us.  God loves us first, God calls us first.  Our life with God begins with God’s initiative, with God calling us, claiming us.  But when we accept God’s love into our hearts, when we accept Christ into our being, our actions will reflect that, our lives will reflect that, our very beings will reflect that. Our lives do reflect God by being lives not just of ritual or even “right thinking”, but instead by being lives of justice, of mercy, of humility, of kindness.  We become the image of God by living lives of love.