February 2, 2014 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Matthew 5:1-12 and Micah 6:1-8
Who is this Jesus, and who are we who follow him, and where is he leading? What kind of life will we have if we follow? And what is the Way along which he leads? The readings for the Season after Epiphany explore these questions.
The journey of the Magi opens the season. Christ is revealed to the whole world, made present symbolically in the persons of these sojourners from the east who seek, recognize, and adore the Holy Child as the anointed of God. It continues with the stories of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and the call of his disciples. It concludes with the account of his transfiguration before the closest of his disciples. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the revelation of God in Christ is clear: "This is my child, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
The season of Epiphany explores our identities as well: we are those who, like the Magi, seek. John the Baptist poses the question that defines us: "What are you seeking?"
This fourth Sunday after Epiphany introduces Jesus’ teaching ministry with the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: 1-12. Our focus is The Vision Beautiful — inspired by the title of the series of blessings laid out here, the Beatitudes. Blessings, beauty, bounty imagined and hoped for — all evoked by such a title. What is the vision beautiful? Life knowing the blessing and the presence of God.
Scripture passages selected for the lectionary each week start with the Gospel text — the story of Jesus – and weave around it other passages from the Hebrew Bible and Epistles which are related in theme or imagery and offer insight into the community’s experience of God. In studying the scripture passages which accompany the Gospel this week, we may, like the Magi, be led on an unexpected journey — the way to the "vision beautiful" is marked by a series of surprising turns and reversals leading us ever deeper into God’s mystery and call.
Micah 6:1-8 starts out as a sort of parody of a court case, where God accuses the people of Israel of covenant infidelity. God demands of them: "Plead your case…!" Before Israel can do so, however, God interrupts by making the case for divine faithfulness, beginning with a plaintive lament echoed in Good Friday’s liturgical "Reproaches": "O my people, what I have I done to you?" God’s presence to Israel in liberating from slavery, in sending leaders (including, unexpectedly, Miriam), in turning curses into blessings, are recounted. Verses 6-8 continue the theme of the unexpected: Micah turns a liturgical formula upside down. The prophet expands on a call and response prayer which pilgrims may have used as they approached the Temple to offer sacrifice or worship. Using exaggeration and irony, he turns the pilgrims’ question into increasingly antic suggestions about what God requires: Prostration or sacrifice? "Thousands" of cattle or "rivers" of oil? Even one’s first born: "the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul"?
After the exaggeration of the pilgrims’ questions, God’s response is simplicity itself, calling Israel back to covenantal faithfulness: in three concise statements, God outlines the program: "Do justice: To be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world, to correct the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others. Love covenant loyalty: the translation of ‘kindness’ is disastrously weak. The word ‘hesed’ means to reorder life into a community of enduring relations of fidelity. Walk humbly with God: to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God" (Brueggeman et al,). You cannot buy God’s approval it is not the rich can sin and afford extravagant sacrifices to redeem themselves. It is the poor who find it easier to do justice and walk humbly. It comes more naturally to the oppressed and those we discriminate against
The "vision beautiful" in Micah calls Israel to be with God in the world, living out God’s desires for a community of justice and faithful love.
At last we come to Matthew’s text concerning the "vision beautiful." After the surprises and reversals we have encountered through its accompanying lections, it is no surprise to discover that "…the Beatitudes turn the world’s values upside down. What is true for those who live in the power of the Kingdom of Heaven is a flat reversal of what is considered to be true in the culture at large. The Beatitudes declare that the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers are the ones who are truly blessed. We live in a world, however, that pronounces the benediction over the self-sufficient, the assertive, and the power brokers. The people whom the world would see as pitiful, the mournful, the persecuted, are the very people Jesus claims are truly joyful" (Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Viewing the Beatitudes through the lens of the Cross, we are invited to seek and find the action of God in the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. Their lives now, in the present, hold the blessing and transforming power of God, as they live and struggle for justice, peace, and wholeness in their world. Indeed, the theme of all our scripture texts find a kind of fulfilment in this expression of the "vision beautiful" — meeting God through covenant faithfulness; gaining access to the Holy through creation of a whole and just society; encountering God’s power in the pain and struggle and "foolishness" of a world suffering for justice and peace.
Yet one more unexpected turn: The Beatitudes invite us to play with present and future. God is with us, now, in all of our struggles informing our hope, and God is pointing all of us toward the ultimate "Vision Beautiful" of the future Kingdom of Heaven where God is all in all.
So to the awards
- The poorest person? The prize is the Kingdom of Heaven. The nominations are a beggar in Calcutta who has no family and money and is from the Dalit untouchable caste or
A British banker who has lost everything going bankrupt owing £1.5m no reputation, his wife has left him taking the kids.
And the winner is…? The public decide
- The biggest mourner? The prize is true comfort. The nominations are a mother with a still born child devoid of hope desolate knowing that her baby has no future. Or a gay person in a concentration camp seeing their friends dying one by one knowing they will be next.
- The Meekest person? The prize is the whole earth. The nominations are this innocent child looking trusting and unwearied by the world or this Alzheimer’s patient who does not even know who they are?
- Who is the most hungry and thirsty? The prize a slap up banquet. When I lived in Uganda I saw real poverty. I am not saying that I had it bad. I only had £10 pm to live on and ate a chapatti and drank a mug of tea each day. I developed ulcers on my legs and a lump on my thyroids. It was on Christmas day a doctor told me I was malnourished and went to A&E on Boxing Day.
- Who do we nominated for the most merciful who has the most to forgive? The prize is mercy and forgiveness. A survivor of the Rwandan genocide having to help some who murdered her family or a parent of a child who was killed by a drunk driver?
- Who has the purest heart? The prize is the impossible, to see God who no one can. Who has no ego and seek out the best in others with passion and no illusions. The nominations are the Dalai Lama as a Buddhist representative or St Francis with the vows of poverty chastity and obedience?
- Who is the best peacemaker? The prize is to be called a child of God one who truly is being God’s likeness. The nominations are Alan Turing who solved the enigma code and invented computers or a Palestinian who is living in awful walled communities trying to mediate between her frustrated family and the Israeli authorities?
- Who is the most persecuted? The prize is the massive Kingdom of Heaven along with the poor. The nominations are a Lesbian being correctly raped in a Ugandan prison or a person who disappeared in Latin America?
- Who has been most falsely accused on account of Jesus? The prize is to rejoice and be glad. The nominations are a Russian sent to a work camp in Siberia for his faith. Mother Teresa in Calcutta caring for the dying and being criticised for it?
The readings this week lead us on a labyrinthian journey toward a vision beautiful with God not only at its centre, but God at every turn, upsetting our expectations and challenging us to take another step deeper into the mystery of divine presence dwelling in our world. God is not demanding of us extravagant sacrifice or liturgical purity; God is not to be sought in other-worldly miracles or worldly logic. God is calling us to follow Christ, the Beloved, into the world to engage in a lifetime of faithful, creative, courageous, community-building love. The Vision Beautiful? The joy, the surprise, the blessing of such a life in God.
One caveat remains in any discussion of the Beatitudes. They can often be sentimentalized or overly "spiritualized," and we may be lulled into thinking that the struggles of the poor and the suffering must be endured until a future promise of God will be fulfilled. One good corrective to this temptation is to read Richard Swanson’s translation in Provoking the Gospel of Matthew. The real crisis of a community living under persecution comes through in his translation choices: "Godlike in their happiness, the poor in breath: theirs is the dominion of the heavens. Godlike in their happiness, the mourners: they shall be called as witnesses" (Mt 5: 3-4 ff). The urgent image of "breath" replaces the usual "spirit," and mourners receive not the usual comfort, but the comfort of telling the truth. The other verses are equally stark. The reality of the Cross is manifest in Swanson’s "vision beautiful," and a texture of depth and surprise is added to a familiar teaching.
Based on work by the Reverend Susan Blain is Minister for Worship and Spiritual Formation with Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
For further reflection:
Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
"There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth."
Martin Luther, 16th century
"This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified."
Louisa May Alcott, 19th century
"Simple, genuine goodness is the best capital to found the business of this life upon. It lasts when fame and money fail, and is the only riches we can take out of this world with us."
Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century
"Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one."
Victor Hugo, 19th century
"Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just."
Wendell Berry, 20th century
"Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world."
Kurt Vonnegut, 20th century
"For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!"
Peace and joy
Minister: Rev Stephen Bentley
Mobile number: 07734 155664
St Paul’s Church
Birmingham B3 1QZ