Rev. Michael Swartz
First Congregational UCC
A Epiphany +4; 1/29/2017
Link to Texts | Bulletin
I’ve told the confirmation class that if we had a thumb and three fingers, as do the Disney cartoon characters, we would probably only have eight commandments and the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, would have only four books. In a society where most folks can read we have lists of all sorts, or can google complex information in a moment – so we can look stuff up. But in the ancient world people memorized more. And teachers used memory keys.
And when you had something you really wanted people to remember you provided the memory key. If it was three – to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God – they could probably remember it. If it was more then it had to be associated with fingers or toes or the stars in the sky. The more important things were the more simply they needed to be said. That may be true even today.
The main theme of Epiphany is where do we see God revealed? And today’s readings from the scripture answer this question. They say, “You can see God, and God’s will, revealed in religious teaching. You can find it in the Bible” It is not secret, it is not too deep, it is not obscure, and it is not given only to the wise or those with special knowledge. It is plain. It is simple to say.
The setting in Micah is that the religious political establishment is acting like doing the right thing would be very hard, difficult to understand, beyond reach. I can almost hear the prophet thunder, “Cut the double talk!” “You know, O human being, what is right: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.”
I think this when I hear the rhetoric of the news
- Mistakes were made.
- That statement is no longer operative.
- What did he know and when did he know it?
- It all depends on what “is” is.
- The director failed to advise about faulty intelligence.
- He has alternative facts.
You know what is right! You know what is true. You are making it more difficult than it really is. You are obfuscating.
To do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. We can know it. It is not that hard. The question is, “Can we, will we do it?”
A favorite seminary professor, Hans Dieter Betz, has made something of a career out of the Sermon on the Mount and thus, the Beatitudes, which are the opening statement of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In a nutshell, Betz sees it as an epitome or summary of the Christian teaching of Matthew’s community. It is the curriculum of the confirmation class for Matthew’s church and was meant to be memorized word for word for all joining the church. Sort of like folks memorize the whole Koran today. This is not beyond our ability by a long shot.
And the opening, the Beatitudes, is something of a parallel to the Ten Commandments of Moses.
- Both on mountaintops.
- Both have a verbal rhythm.
- Both are summary statements that are later elaborated.
In summary they say, “You can know this. You can do this. This is for everyone and not just for some clerical elites.”
What do the Beatitudes mean? Now here is a question. The follow up to “simple to say” is “difficult to do.”
The signature word is sometimes translated “blessed.” Sometimes “happy.” An article I read suggested, “esteemed.” The word in Greek is “macaroni” which is actually related to our words macaroni and Macaroon. Fine flour was used to make little cakes that were offerings to the gods, and these gifts were blessed. And so the word “blessed” was given to items made with finely ground flour. Blessed people were the Hagios – the saints. Blessed athletes were Heroes.
- One point is that simple, humble devout persons are lifted up.
- The second point is that there is a big contrast between what Jesus is saying and what most speech makers of his time might say.
It is sort of lifting up your heroes. If you go to a convention the people on the stage at the opening of the meeting, the folks at the head table at the banquet are celebrities or stars or rich donors. To make the introduction they display the big shots.
Jesus is saying, “These are our big shots.” “This is our pantheon.” “This is our first string.”
When you watch bowl games on New Years Day you see the little descriptive vignettes about the university. They feature their famous graduates. They feature the professors on their faculty who have won the Nobel Prize. This is Jesus’ equivalent of the TV introduction to the university.
It was common to say, “Blessed are the rich.” In fact, in the ancient world, and today too, wealth was seen as a sign that one was blessed by God. They must be doing something right the thinking goes. Well, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor…”
There has been a lot made of how Luke says, “Blessed are the poor” and Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Is Matthew pulling his punches the usual thinking goes? Well, maybe. If this is rhetorical, did Jesus give “the speech” in different ways on different occasions? Did the audience know the material by heart and hang on every word? With squeals? Like an old Rock star singing the hit song that made him famous?
Was his first string a way of pointing fun at the empire and the typical values that were celebrated?
Gerald Kennedy was the Methodist bishop in Los Angeles for over 20 years, a nationally known preacher and he wrote books and a syndicated column; a sophisticated guy. The story is that he met with other religious leaders in Los Angeles on a regular basis for lunch and the Episcopal bishop asked – “can’t you get your ministers to wear clerical collars?” “‘Heck, I can hardly get my preachers to wear shoes!” was Kennedy’s reply.
Signing checks I was making harmless banter with the office administrator at Rock Island Economic Growth. She said something about how Christmas time must be so busy for pastors, etc. And then carried on how her church had such a great Christmas pageant, with huge crowds at the Adler theater, how wonderful it was. I listened politely for a few sentences of bragging and then quipped. “Ours is more the bathrobe drama sort of pageant. Good to give our kids a chance. I remember the year that my daughter Taylor put her foot down and was not gonna be a sheep again. She wanted to be an angel. Don’t all little girls?”
Do we look to the world for our values or do we answer to a higher authority?
Who is more the hero to us – Jesus Christ or Jeff Bezos? St. Peter or Bill Gates? Pope Francis or Mark Zuckerberg? Mahatma Gandhi or Lord Mountbatten?
Most of my really important people are not part of the public arena at all.
- They are poor in spirit – humble.
- They are not very rich.
- They do hunger for righteousness.
- They do try to make peace.
We can see God revealed in the teaching of scripture. God’s teaching points to simple, ethical, just, humble behavior. This is in contrast to a culture of empire that exalts wealth and power.
Our superstars are
- Those who know they need God.
- Those who mourn.
- Those who are humble rather than arrogant and self-grandiose.
- Those who desire to do what God asks.
- Those who are merciful to others.
- Those who are pure in heart.
- Those who work for peace.
- Those persecuted for doing what’s right.
With such a lame bunch, with such losers, it is a wonder we Christians have made it 2000 years.
Amen and amen.