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29th January 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
27 January 2017

Readings

Micah 6: 1-8 

Maurice Andrew sees a deliberate pattern of judgment and restoration in the Book of Micah and the section we read this morning is in the nature of a legal dispute of Yahweh against the people. 

The question then is ‘how can they return to being God’s people, will Yahweh be pleased with extravagant worship, sacrifice of thousands of rams, even child sacrifice?

Not so we discover as the conclusion of the passage gives God’s requirement which is a contrast to the excessive religious practice that humanity might imagine as necessary and a good introduction to our Gospel reading. [1]

Matthew 5: 1-12

Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning is what we call the Beatitudes which Warren Carter says concerns God’s favour for certain actions and situations and the reversal of present dismal circumstances.  They declare a promise of God’s future action and reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behaviour that God’s favour is upon them. [2]

Our reading finishes at verse 12 but in verse 13 the audience is told that they are the salt of the earth.  Matthew tells us that this sermon is preached on a mountain away from the crowds so it is intended for Jesus’ disciples and it is those disciples who are salt of the earth, those who will give flavour to the community. 

Sermon

Bill Wallace’s hymn asks, what image shall I use to give a face to God?  Our reading from Micah goes a long way in answering that question by telling us what God requires of us.  In our Gospel reading that image is fleshed out by Jesus in the Beatitudes.  .

He told you O mortal, what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Maurice Andrew suggests the Hebrew translated ‘humbly’ might be better translated as ‘circumspectly.’[3] Not being an Old Testament scholar like Maurice I could not comment on that.  

But perhaps the choice of words depends on the interpreters understanding of humanities image of God and the appropriate response to God. 

According to Collins English Dictionary ‘humble’ means conscious of one’s failings, unpretentious, lowly deferential and servile.  That suits a theology of sin and repentance that gives power to the clergy and the church hierarchy.   On the other hand Collins defines ‘circumspect’ as cautious, prudent, or discreet, which may better reflects a relationship with a God who requires humanity to do justice, and love kindness.  When we take into account the previous verses in our reading that rebut extravagant worship then, as people who have a strong desire to worship, such worship may indeed need to be approached with caution.  Furthermore, when we consider humanity’s seeming reluctance to do justice and love kindness, being prudent and discreet in our relationship with God could well save us from accusations of hypocrisy. 

Rather than two alternative translations the different meanings may well inform each other and we should be both humble and circumspect in our relationship with God.

Certainly we would not consider animal or human sacrifice as worship but perhaps we should ponder the possibility that the meaning of this reading is telling us that worship fulfils a human, rather than divine need.

God does not need our worship but God certainly requires humanity to do justice, and to love kindness.  

But the fact that people have gathered for worship throughout history strongly suggests that worship is an important part of building human community. 

In fact, different worship styles define different communities and strong involvement and enjoyment of worship are often signs of a strong community.  No matter how we might wish it to so, worship is not a method of manipulating God.  Neither is worship a way of appeasing God when we fail to do justice, and to love kindness.  It is important to us however that, in worship, we recognise the times when we have been less than we might hope to be, and acknowledge that we can put the past behind us and begin again. The God we image in Jesus Christ is a resurrection God of new beginnings.  Once again it is people that need the lament and confession along with the words of assurance or absolution. 

Bill Wallace’s hymn asks if God is a God of ransom deals who buys us, heart and mind and this is a question about the theology that humankind was so sinful that only the death of God’s son could redeem us.  Micah’s theology rebuts that bargain. God does not want burnt offerings or the sacrifice of our firstborn.  Likewise in the second part of verse four Wallace rebuts that question by writing ‘or one who waits in hope to give what we ourselves must find’. 

Not only does Micah give us a clear statement of what God expects of humanity but Jesus expounds what that means for his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.  We could in fact head verses 3-12  ‘What does the LORD require of you’:

Walking humbly and circumspectly with our God the poor in spirit are blessed and are recognised as part of the divine realm and those who mourn are comforted.  In such understanding, it is the meek that inherit the earth, not the wealthy and powerful who cover their disregard for ordinary people by lavish pageantry, self-centered excessive worship and alternative facts.     

Certainly those who thirst for righteousness are blessed because they are indeed the people who love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  Those who thirst for righteousness are the pure in heart who regularly meet with God within them and in others. 

All these blessed people are indeed peacemakers, true children of God and for that they are likely to be interred or imprisoned.  Even tied to a post and shot as so many caring and frightened men were when the world wanted to be at war. 

People who want clean rivers and a world still fit for our grandchildren and their grand children are more than likely to be ridiculed and those scientists among them will likely lose their contracts because, in the most powerful nation on earth it is now official, climate change does not exist.

But for those who are still foolish enough to take Micah’s words seriously Jesus has words of encouragement that begin in verse twelve.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Matthew 5:12)

Many black people in the United States fear that the freedoms they gained through the civil rights movement will be lost under the new administration and those who poured so much hate on the Obama administration.  It is timely to remember Martin Luther King, martyred to an Assassin's bullet and all those imprisoned during the civil rights struggles.    Along with many others persecuted Christians John Wycliffe, who was credited with the first English translation of the Bible, was charged with heresy.  He escaped serious consequences by dying of a heart attack.  Nevertheless his attack on the organised church was considered so serious that 44years later his body was dug up and burned.  

But persecution can also be subtle and I am indebted to Martha Spong, cousin of Bishop Spong, who posted an essay on her Facebook page by Camille Dungy, a professor of English Literature.

Professor Dungy described her distress because when her Presbyterian minister prayed for all those who felt excluded or persecuted by the new administration he concluded by saying ‘let us pray for all those who are on the outside of our society looking in’.  Professor Dungy is a woman, and black, her daughter is a friend of the minister’s daughter and she thought that she was part of her church.  What she heard her minister saying was that because she was a woman and black she was outside looking in.  The prayer reminded her that her family was the only black family in the congregation, probably the only black people the members of the congregation knew and the minister had just confirmed that they saw her as on the outside looking in.  Reading the essay made me realise just how lucky I have been that, as long as I can remember, I have always had friends of different ethnicity. 

She has not been back to that church since and her daughter cries on Sunday’s because she misses her friends.   Professor Dungy may well be oversensitive and ministers are always getting into strife over things the words they use were never intended to say.  Nevertheless persecution can be subtle and it is unfortunate that we have to leave verse 13 about being salt of the earth till next week’s exciting episode because this is also an example of how a small number of Jesus’ followers can make a huge impact.  In fact, the small group of people who make an exceptional difference are, like the first disciples, often the people on the outside looking in. 

But when someone, even unwittingly, excludes a professor of literature from a community it quickly becomes obvious that even in this keyboard age, the pen is mightier that the sword. 

George Orwell’s pen continues its work long after his death and his classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four is now back on the best sellers list.  Ironically Orwell wrote that book about the threat of totalitarian communism but now the threat is totalitarian capitalism.  That threat has not only pulled creative thinking from the past but has set the keyboards of the current world’s thinkers into overdrive.

Furthermore the fact that the Rev Martha Spong chose to give Professor Dungy’s essay an extra boost to its global publication testifies that, as Jesus proclaimed, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’  Followers of Jesus and those who thirst for righteousness are more united in this communication age than ever before.

In verse six we read, ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)  In today’s world those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are united and inspired by each other and those connections happen at the speed of light. 

People in power will always try to manipulate truth to retain power and avoid opposition to their policies but the assurance of the beatitudes is that righteousness will prevail. 

The Sermon on the Mount was instruction to the disciples and it was about their involvement, their risk taking and their participation in making sure righteousness prevailed.  The assurances were about overcoming opposition and apathy and reassurance that their actions would not be in vain.  Two thousand years of Christian history bears that out.  Jesus expounded the ideas and principles in the words of Micah and other writers in the Hebrew tradition.  Those ideas framed the mission planning for his disciples on the journey towards becoming the Apostles.  Matthew has recorded those ideas as instructions for all of us who claim to follow Jesus.  Put alongside our reading from Micah they are the basis of any congregation’s mission plan. 

The reading from Micah and the Beatitudes are instructions that keep a balance between worship and our actions in the world. 

For individual Christians they define our actions in the world and our responsibility to not only live the way Jesus calls us to live, but share the mission plan of the Sermon on the Mount with others so it can also be their plan. 

The Beatitudes flesh out our understanding of the God we image in Jesus Christ and our reading from Micah tells us what that God requires of us. 

‘To do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8)



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 580-581.

[2] Warren Carter, Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000),pp.130-131

[3] Maurice Andrew, op.cit.

 

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