Regular worship services are each Sunday
at 10:30 a.m.
Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 29, 2017
Micah 6:8 may be the most iconic passage in all of scripture. We call ourselves a Micah 6:8 church. Most of us know these words by heart: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The verse that precedes it is almost shocking in its harshness:
"With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God 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?"
The answer to that question is, of course, a resounding No! But our dependence on rivers of oil, and our continued willingness to give our sons and our daughters to the terrors of war, challenge us to consider how far we’ve come.
Micah is called a minor prophet because he wrote a short book, but he is a classic model of the fiery prophets who challenged the rich to do better and called on the people of Israel to be role models for humanity.
We all want to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly but as a year-long book study on Justice a few years back clearly revealed to us, we can disagree on what justice means far easier than we can actually do it. And kindness is a challenge in a climate full of vitriol. Who knows what humility really means?
Then Jesus comes along and gives us his Sermon on the Mount. This greatest prophet and teacher and world transformer begins his most iconic sermon with a declaration of what it means to be happy, what it means to be blessed by God, with words we all know and with which we continue to struggle. What in the world does it all means?
Ronnie McBrayer, in our Quiet Meditation this morning tells us,
“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.”
How many of these qualities do you recognize in yourself?
"Blessed are those with the spirit of the poor.” This has also been translated “poor in spirit” and Luke simplifies it to “blessed are the poor,” which doesn’t seem to simplify it at all from our perspective…”for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and that kingdom of heaven is within you. Do you have a deep feeling of connection with the poor?
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Can we feel happy when we grieve? Do we trust that we will be comforted? When we live within a community of love and support, that is a promise I have seen in action and do believe in. Small communities like ours were the norm in first century Palestine. People knew they could turn to their neighbors. They depended on each other in times of struggle in ways we can only imagine but are learning to practice in this church.
"Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth.” The Greek word for humble and earth come from the same root and fit Jesus’ meaning better than our modern translation of “meek,” which is too weak a word. We may not know exactly what humble means but perhaps that keeps us humble!
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” When we focus the longings of our heart on the goodness of God, the results are the fulfillment of that longing. It is just how life works!
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” What goes round, comes round, to give is to receive, this too is just the way life works!
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” There have been moments in our lives that shine with radiance and joy, moments that take our breath away. We have all been to the mountain top at least once in our lives, haven’t we? Or was it watching the ocean at sunset? Or a hummingbird? We have experienced the vision of God’s presence in our hearts. We are purer in heart than we may realize.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." It is so much easier to struggle and fight, but we are called peacemakers because we follow the Prince of Peace, and because we long to see real healing and community and justice in our world. We are blessed to be a blessing!
It is a hard teaching to hear words such as these in a time of crisis like ours. I imagine the crowds who followed Jesus up the mountain to hear him teach that day were shocked and even disappointed that he didn’t inspire them to revolutionary action. Instead he inspired them to revolutionary being, to living so fully in God’s presence and spirit that the violence and despair that surrounded them could have no effect. He asked them to realize that they were blessed so that they could be a blessing to others. Later he will ask them to love their enemies, to pray for those who despitefully used them, and these were the poor and disenfranchised who knew more about being used than we may ever imagine.
I had dinner with Valerie McEntee on Thursday evening. Most of you know she is our former student intern, then Director of Christian Education and now Director of Chaplaincy with Pathways Hospice in San Francisco as well as a minister with San Francisco Night Ministries. She’ll be preaching at Open Cathedral in San Francisco this afternoon. She asked me if I was using the Lectionary and what I planned to say about the Beatitudes. My response at the time was, “I haven’t a clue!”
She told me that she’s searched many commentaries looking for wisdom on this passage and they all seem addressed to folks like us ~ comfortable, relatively well off, with a roof over our heads. None of the commentaries seem to imagine an audience anything like the homeless and poor who come to Open Cathedral for a bag lunch and a shared service, but that is more likely exactly the kind of audience Jesus was speaking to.
First century Palestine was very much a Third World Country. The Roman Empire occupied the land. The ruling elites and priestly class controlled most of the land and the economy. 2% of the people controlled 90% of the resources. 10% of the people could be called a professional class and served the top 2%. At least 80% were subsistence farmers who worked the land owned by the rich. The bottom 10% were day laborers dependent on others for any work at all. Poverty meant not having enough to eat and dying before your time. The average life expectancy of the bottom 90% was 35 years. These statistics fit too closely our Bay Area homeless population, and with government funding currently in question, things are likely to get worse.
So what does Jesus tell us about times like these? If the kingdom of heaven is within you, if you are called to live out Beloved Community in this wounded world, then your happiness, your blessedness, is dependent on how deeply you depend on the Spirit of compassion and justice that lives within you. You are meant to know you are blessed so that you can be a blessing!
If you are anything like me and many of my colleagues, you may be waking up in the middle of the night anxious and unable to return to sleep. I find myself saying to God, “Okay, you have my attention, what do you want me to pray about?” And always I find myself pondering the dangers to our planet, to our most vulnerable citizens, to all who long to live together in peace, that this time seems to challenge.
Jesus understands my fears and still, he calls me to feel blessed to have the spirit of the poor, to be awake enough to mourn with those who mourn, to be humble enough to know I need help, to be hungry for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be a peacemaker even as so many angry, violent people ask me to react in negative ways.
The internet is awash in angry outrage on all sides of the political spectrum these days. There are plenty of reasons to be afraid, be angry, to lash out. But the wisest voices keep reminding us that real change cannot happen if we respond to vitriol with vitriol. We must be the peace we want to see in our world. We must show mercy to our enemies. We need to be humble and trust the purity of our hearts to guide us.
I am glad to see so many people calling their congress persons that the lines are always busy, to see folks demonstrating at offices and public squares, peacefully showing that we are participating in our democracy. The numbers of those who marched the day after the election were low estimate, 3.3 million and high estimate 4.6 million. And none were violent.
We must follow Jesus’ outrageous declaration of happiness, of blessedness, so that we can truly “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God,” and take back our democracy in the process! May we be blessed to be a blessing! May it be so. Can I get an Amen?