Preacher: The Reverend Dr. Cathy S. Gilliard
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Over the past few weeks and months, I have had the opportunity to be in our new Bishop’s presence and to hear his vision for the New York Annual Conference. I have appreciated him laying out his agenda and providing us his expectations, the non-negotiables, what is expected and required. I also appreciate his willingness to help us accomplish the expected outcomes.
And you know, almost everything in life has, or ought to have (in my opinion), a set of requirements. As parents, we have expectations of our children, don’t we? We love them, feed, and clothe them, and we expect them to act a certain way; to go to school, to learn, and to be kind and respectful human beings.
There are requirements for the job, don’t you know? If you are expected to arrive at work at 9 o’clock and you show up every day at 10:45 you have not met the requirements of the job.
Spouses ought to be expected to act in a certain way. Here is what I need from you in order to be sustained in this relationship. Even among friends there are certain spoken or unspoken rules of engagement. And the clearer we are about such things, the healthier the relationships tend to be. After all, none of us are mind readers and we don’t have crystal balls but if we are able to develop tools of communications we are more likely to get what we need if the two parties are really serious about journeying together. It allows people the make adjustments (or not); to appropriately order their steps and develop priorities accordingly.
It is no different when it comes to God. What does the Lord require of us at the end of the day? What is our work in the world as a baptized community of faith? How do we know if we are on the right track or not?
“With what shall I come before the Lord?” the prophet asks. “And bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before God with entirely burned offerings, with year old calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Shall I offer my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”1 No. “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God .”2
We use these catch words often, don’t we? Justice, faithful love, humility before God, but all too often the price is higher than we want to embrace. All too often, I think we would rather not hear such words; rather not contend with the implications of them in the here and now.
To do justice requires us to look deeply and honestly at the present systems of our world and to find new alternatives where change is necessary. To do justice is to work for the “weaker”, most disadvantaged people of our society and especially those who cannot work for themselves. Who are they? And what does helping them look like? What is our responsibility? How are we to act on their behalf so that they are treated like human beings; so they get their chance in life, treated like God’s beloved regardless of the God they choose or how they express their loyalty to their God.
Do we know people or know of people who are crying out for justice? It’s easy to tell ourselves that “I have got mine and they need to get theirs. It’s not my problem; sweet Jesus, I have enough problems of my own. Thank you very much. I don’t come here to hear things like this.”
But let’s face it, we didn’t all start out in the same place and some of us have had breaks that other people just never had. They just didn’t. To do justice is to make other people’s burdens our own to the extent we can; their issues our issues, and to work on their behalf as if it was for our own selves – because of course, their burden is our burden.
God requires us to love kindness. It’s almost like “kindness” is a new theme catching the waves out of necessity. It is as if we have had to create a campaign around kindness. When did that happen? Since when has there been a need to be reminded to be kind, civil, benevolent, empathetic, helpful, thoughtful?
The prophet Micah said that we ought to love kindness; that kindness ought to be our way. We ought to err on the side of it and if we dish out enough of it, change will happen – to us if not to the other. We know what kindness is, don’t we? We know when we receive it and we know when we don’t. Compassion, sympathy, gentleness, helpfulness. To love kindness does not always come easily. Perhaps this is because loving tenderly involves knowing confidently that one is loved themselves and is able to take the risk of giving love away.
To walk humbly with God is to know that we are not God. Only God is God. It is to think that we are no better than others; nor less. While circumstances may be different, we are all in this thing together; interconnected; all loved by our Creator. So maybe walking humbly is about paying attention to who we are and who and what is around us, listening carefully to the cries of other human beings as we listen to our own cries, and blending them all together in ways that draw us closer to the Holy.
It is as if Jesus knew the challenge of it all. And I really had to look carefully at these two texts assigned for this week. We turn from Micah’s Old Testament requirements to pursue justice, faithful love, and humility before God to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and the most vulnerable portrait of our humanity:
Blessed are the poor in spirit… Well, my goodness who wants to be poor in spirit? How dare Jesus call that blessed!
Blessed are they who mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be glad, Jesus tells the crowd, for your reward is great in heaven, for that is how they persecuted those before you.
There seems to be hardly any salvific purpose in such things. We kick and scream and say, “Not me, Lord!” It’s not the mark of a happy life, yet Jesus said we are blessed; happy even. We fear this kind of stripping away; these points of vulnerability. We fear it most of all because we know how people are. And we think we know how God is – surely there is nothing of salvific power in this at all.
But what if they really do have their purpose? And don’t get me wrong, I hate it as much as anybody. But what if there is something to be learned from it all? Because how else can we know? How would we know what’s really worth fighting for?
If you have never been poor in spirit; never lost your way somehow. Never been overwhelmed and burdened by life – job worries or illness; financial woes – never overcome with the pressure of looking for a decent place to live or how to take care of your family. If you have never been weighed down with grief over the loss of a loved one, never been poor in spirit – you won’t know fully what it’s like. You may not be able to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is going through it. It might be easy to turn your back and walk away.
If you have never been denied something or received less than you deserved – just because. Never got equal pay; never had doors slam in your face – just because of the way you look or how you spoke or what you believed. You were denied while others were privileged – just because – and you long for righteousness; you hungered for somebody to take a stand on your behalf; to cry aloud and say something. Or perhaps they did and you remember what that was like and now you know what you must do. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.
In those moments of weakness and vulnerability we learn what to do. We learn who we are and what we are made of. We discover what we really believe. We learn about God – I suspect most of us came to God in the first place out of vulnerability. We learn about the church – who is truly welcome; who our real friends are. We learn and that it’s ok to not depend on ourselves all the time. We can let people help us, love us. It’s alright to make a mistake or two because grace is available to recover from it. Somehow we learn that there are people willing to walk with us. It’s not all bad. We learn that it’s ok. And it’s going to be ok.
Blessed are you who are merciful – for you know what mercy is like. You have received it when you deserved something else – and you know how to give it away. Blessed are the pure in heart – not the perfect in heart – but the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Jesus was calling them and us into a present reality not after-while, by-and-by. Not in some distant time but right now. The kingdom of God is now. Right here in the midst of it all.
What will we do? It occurs to me that the time seems ripe, perfect, pregnant with opportunities, but also possibilities for justice, faithful love, and to walk humbly with God and one another.
 Micah 6:6-7
 Micah 6:8