I made a trip to the Holy Land fully expecting to have an emotional response to visiting the biblical sites. Since childhood I have mingled my sense of what is right, holy, and just, through the lens of my love for Jesus of Nazareth. I return with a heavy heart.
The land once known as Palestine is now known as Israel. The United Nations gave about two-thirds of the land to become a homeland for Jews 1948. The borders for the remaining indigenous peoples have not been respected. Israel the state, has bully control over all of life in the land.
In the gospel of Luke, as Jesus made the approach to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday going down the Mount of Olives, Jesus paused and wept over the city. Luke 19:41-42. “As he (Jesus) came near and saw the city (Jerusalem), he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that made for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes!’”
It became clear to me: in the documented treatment of the Palestinians; and the clear parallels to colonial rules through the ages; and the awful and arbitrary ways that the Dakota Access Pipe Line makes it true in our own time; and in the posturing and orders of my own new president; just how easy it is for the dominant culture to abuse the weak and ignore treaties and promises made to others. I am angered over the injustice in Israel, and I am increasingly aware of how easy it is for me to selfishly and carelessly take advantage of others. I return home with a heavy heart.
I have returned to you from the Promised Land with good news. We now know what it takes to please our God, and to grow in right relationship with God. This - answers the riddles of the millennium and solves the deepest of philosophical yearnings.
I am sure that Matthew Eaton and Kathy Lawes would have much preferred to preach here this Sunday, when the scripture texts are really among the most wonderful of all the year. There is an unwritten tradition that says the pastor or senior pastor preaches on the high holy day Sundays, and leaves town when the texts are the most difficult. I swear, I did not schedule my trip based on the Lectionary readings, although there were a lot of preachers in my tour group, including the tour leader.
The history and motivation behind the various passages of scripture are different. We believe that most of the scriptures beyond Genesis and besides the Apocalyptic texts like Daniel and Revelation, are rooted in practical and specific events in the world. The Bible is inspirational writing, and not a science or history book, so the tests of truth-fullness, are best asked about how do these texts inspire us to know, love, and serve God.
As inspiration, it is hard to do better than the passage from the minor prophet Micah, Chapter 6. This glorious text celebrates the entire sense of faithful people serving God while living in this world.
From the introduction of the book, we know that Micah preached from about 720 to 680 BCE. Much of the vocabulary used does not seem appropriate for this era, suggesting that later editors or redactors adapted the text, appropriate for another time. This causes us to reflect more on the transcendent meaning, than get too focused on the specific historical events of the original prophet’s life.
In Chapter 6, God challenges the covenant partner Israel to declare their faithfulness, and live up to their commitments. The structure uses a courtroom setting, with the ancient hills and mountains serving as judges for the mortals, whose lives are comparatively so short.
The eternal question, does God give more honor to the riches of wealth and power of this world? Are the rich and the powerful granted favoritism before the God of Creation? As a people of faith living in a culture where the grave sins and injustices committed by those who live opulent lifestyles are ignored, it is good to remind ourselves - that while we might be dazzled by the riches of this world, God is not now, and never has been interested.
There is no more succinct summary in all of the scriptures than Micah 6:8; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
In a way it seems that if the world would only absorb and treasure this guidance, the kingdom of God would be far more evident in the world today. If the heart of this text became the driving force of the faithful, it may have changed the history of the whole world. In a theme you will hear me repeat again in Lent, Jesus did not come to us in order to change God’s mind about humanity, but Jesus came to change humanity’s understanding of God.
The jewel in the crown that is the gospel of Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount. In what is unmistakably a literary construct, Matthew gathers the teaching of Jesus in the form of a remarkable single sermon that spans Chapters 5 through 7 verse 28. It is the first of five collections of Jesus sayings that carry the largest part of the work of this gospel.
The opening of this sermon are the Beatitudes. The Church of the Beatitudes is on the side of a hill, west of Capernaum which became the base of operations for the public ministry of Jesus. It has a wonderful view from the north end of the Sea of Galilee. The word means blessings, sometimes translated as happiness or joys. Let us focus on the first one, on a day when there is business to do, and a Pot Luck to consume. What in the heck does it mean to be “poor in spirit?”
In Micah, the question was asked, does God want the splendid offering that only the rich can afford? Offerings of food and oil, and the trappings of the rich and powerful? The answer was clearly “No!”
What God wants is for human beings to live with respect for each other, and the planet, and to love God. It seems so simple, except that we live in a world that has ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, made special provision for the rich.
The text does not say that the rich will be damned. The text does not say that the powerful will be beaten. What the text says is that joy comes from those who understand God to be a God of the heart. What is in your heart? What do you do with the gifts that God has given you? How do you honor your relationships in this world?
Joy, happiness, and blessings, come to those who can maintain a posture of confession, knowing that we depend on God’s forgiveness. There is no bank account that can purchase God’s favor.
Yes, we will pass the collection plate today, because we still need to pay the light bill. When we all contribute, according to what gifts we have been given, we can continue to meet, and enjoy the gifts of a professional musician, and listen to the preaching of a trained and educated pastor. But we do not worship the musician, or the pastor, or even the building.
It is the presence of the spirit of God, that draws us together. It is the unique way this church understands how wide the welcome that God presents to creation, that makes this one congregation important, among all of the churches in the area. It is our tradition that allows the wider organized church to support and encourage us, but acknowledges that each congregation, and each opinion of each member of the local church, is of equal importance.
We are children of a loving God, who are informed by a great tradition of knowing, loving and serving that God. It is a blessing not to be taken for granted. It is a joy to be able to take part, and be counted among the faithful. It is near the root of all joy, to respect others - by doing justice, and not favoring the rich and powerful.
It is near the root of all joy, to be committed to acts of kindness, being good to ourselves, our neighbors near and far, and to the very planet we call home. It is at the root of all joy, to walk humbly with our God - poor in spirit, in a posture of confession, and dependent on God’s love and forgiveness.
This is Good News. Amen.
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.