A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 30, 2011.
God Challenges Israel
6Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. ¨2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
3 ‘O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! ¨4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, ¨and redeemed you from the house of slavery; ¨and I sent before you Moses, ¨Aaron, and Miriam. ¨5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, ¨what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, ¨that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’
What God Requires
6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, ¨and bow myself before God on high? ¨Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, ¨with calves a year old? ¨7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ¨with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? ¨Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, ¨ the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ ¨8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; ¨ and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, ¨and to walk humbly with your God?
Who Shall Abide in God’s Sanctuary?
A Psalm of David. ¨1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent? ¨Who may dwell on your holy hill?
2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, ¨ and speak the truth from their heart; ¨3 who do not slander with their tongue, ¨ and do no evil to their friends, ¨nor take up a reproach against their neighbours; ¨4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised, ¨but who honour those who fear the Lord; ¨who stand by their oath even to their hurt; ¨5 who do not lend money at interest, ¨and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
5When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Every military operation is defined by one word: mission. The operation is conducted to accomplish the mission. That mission determines where the operation occurs, what forces are engaged, and the weapons and other resources used. Each person in every unit must understand their role in terms of the overall mission, for the mission of every unit is bound to the mission of the entire force. Accomplishing the mission means success. Not doing so is failure. For people in the military, knowing and completing the mission define life, duty, honor, and purpose. The mission is the mandate for a military force.
Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, and Matthew 5:1-12, readings chosen by the lectionary committee for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, help us understand our mission as people of God. We are God’s force in the world. To borrow the famous line spoken by Elwood Blues in The Blues Brothers movie, “We’re on a mission from God.” Like people in the military, you and I live to accomplish a mission. Whatever we consider our mission to be in life becomes our mindset and the driving force for our conduct,
When you think of your divine mission, think Justice, Compassion, and Humility. Religion does not exist to make people more religious. As the prophet Micah has written: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? God isn’t hung up on how many ceremonies we conduct, how much we contribute to religious organizations, or the pomp and circumstance of our pulpit orators and choral ensembles.
Don’t miss the message in the passage from Micah. God has a controversy with God’s people, the people God has claimed by a wonderful redemptive process known and celebrated in their history. It seems that the people have made religious ceremony primary to their interaction with God. They’ve majored on offerings, ceremonies, and annual days. The prophet is God’s lawyer and pleads God’s case against God’s people to the jury of Nature (“the mountains,” “the hills,” “you enduring foundations of the earth”). God has a controversy with God’s people because they’ve focused on religious offerings, sacrifices, and festivals.
Arguing as God’s lawyer, Micah declares that God’s mandate is clear. We may not act like it’s clear. We may act like the mandate is for us to construct and maintain buildings, organizations, and other aspects of religious empires, but God’s light isn’t about all that. God’s light calls us to focus on living with justice, compassion, and humility.
God’s demand that we do justice requires us to focus on what we do and how doing it affects others. Justice means doing what is right, fair, honest, and true. Justice involves selling at a fair price, paying a fair wage, giving an honest report, and speaking the truth. Justice isn’t defined by what’s commercially feasible or even profitable, but by what’s right, fair, honest, and true.
Slavery was commercially feasible and profitable. Child labor was commercially feasible and profitable. Denying healthcare to people who can’t afford it is commercially feasible and profitable for healthcare and insurance companies. Even war-making can be commercially feasible and profitable. All of those things and more can be done in commercially feasible and profitable ways. That doesn’t make them right, fair, honest, and true. Justice isn’t determined by the
size of the Gross National Product. A society that produces goods and services based on methods, practices, and policies that aren’t fair, right, honest, and true can have a huge GNP. Profitability based on injustice is evil to be condemned and mourned, not celebrated.
God’s demand that we love kindness requires that we live in love with people who are weak and vulnerable. Showing kindness deals with how we exercise the power we have in relationship to others with less power, or even no power. The poor, weak, and vulnerable in every society are those without money, protection, strength, influence, and favor. They are women, children, orphans, the elderly, wounded, weak, and strangers. God not only demands that we act kindly towards them, but that we love doing so. Showing kindness toward those who are vulnerable isn’t a moral elective. It’s a divine imperative!
Patricia and I watched the State of the Union address last week. Afterwards, we watched some of the commentary about that address on CNN. Roland Martin said something that has haunted me since he said it. For all that President Obama said during the hour-long, there was hardly anything said about how the United States will treat the poor among us.
How can a nation convene its most influential politicians for more than an hour without the chief politician offering proposals on helping the poor? Why would a leader omit mentioning the poor in such a speech when so many workers are unemployed, so many families are mired in debt due to unemployment, and so many communities are struggling? Why would the staged responses to President Obama’s address by Republican Party and Tea Party leaders leave the poor out? How can a nation love kindness when its leaders will hardly speak about its poor?
The implications of refusing to love kindness enough to even speak about the poor among us and how we will treat them are chilling. We don’t talk about the poor because we don’t love them and because we don’t truly want to treat them with compassion. And we don’t want to treat them with compassion because we prefer that the government spend money helping people with money make more money. President Obama was right to talk about improving education and the economy. But it was wrong to leave out the poor, elderly, weak, and vulnerable out of the State of the Union address. Loving kindness isn’t a political elective. It’s a divine mandate. As followers of God’s light, we should challenge our society and leaders with that mandate. We have no excuse from God for ignoring the poor, weak, and vulnerable.
God’s demand that we walk humbly requires us to remember that we’re mortals. We don’t have the right to exercise God’s prerogatives toward others. Walking humbly with God first requires us to admit that we aren’t God! God calls us to walk with God as creatures, not as equals. We are not God’s equals in power. We are not God’s equals in knowledge. We are not God’s equals in wisdom. We are not God’s equals.
The drama surrounded Job’s experience bears this out. Like so many of us do when life turns sour and we don’t understand, Job was perplexed. Then his buddies showed up. When they finished, Job was ready to demand an explanation from God for his troubles and to accuse God of being unjust and unloving for not providing the explanation. God had Job to know they were not equals. God doesn’t consult with us before being God. God doesn’t need our counsel about how to right, true, fair, and loving. God doesn’t need our input on how to deal with evil. God calls us to walk humbly with God as creatures, to “remember our place.”
Micah 6:1-8 and in Psalm 15 show us that doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God is divinely mandated. Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes show that God’s aim by the Divine Mandate is to produce character in us that has eternal meaning and content.
• Those who live by the Divine Mandate to walk humbly with God are truly “the poor in spirit” who are blessed (happy, fortunate) as having citizenship in “the kingdom of heaven.”
• Walking humbly with God results in that meekness that Jesus said will inherit the earth.
• Living by the Divine Mandate to do justice and love kindness will create a hunger and thirst for righteousness that God will fill, and it causes the kind of mourning about injustice and cruelty that only God’s peace will comfort.
• Remembering God’s righteousness and justice and that we are error-prone and sinful creatures will impel us to be merciful (gracious) towards others because we are beneficiaries of God’s mercies.
• When we will do what is right, fair, honest, and true, when we love kindness, and when we will walk humbly with God, God will purify our purposes. We will then live for God because we will be in fellowship with God.
• We will not pretend to be God in our dealings with others, so we will be one with God in bringing people and systems into shalom, God’s kind of peace based on right relationships, fairness, truthfulness, and honesty.
Jesus said these are the eternal consequences of living by the Divine Mandate. But he was clear about something else. People who live in the light of the Divine Mandate will be persecuted because they are doing justice. They’ll be persecuted for loving kindness and insisting that vulnerable people be treated with kindness. They’ll be persecuted for walking humbly with God and confronting others who pretend to exercise God’s prerogatives. But Jesus says even that persecution is part of the eternal goodness in character that God promises.
None of this happens because we are naturally good people. The Divine Mandate is not achievable in our own power because it is based on the power of Divine Love. Only Divine love can do what is right, fair, honest, and true rather than what is merely self-centered. Only Divine Love can love those who are weak with the tenderness that provides for them and the toughness that protects them. Only Divine Love can make us confront the force within ourselves that constantly claims the right to walk as God’s equals rather than as God’s creatures.
So the Divine Mandate points us to God’s Love that we have seen and heard in Jesus Christ. The Divine Mandate points to the Light that Loves us and Leads us. It points us to the Light that shines in all our dark places, lifts us from every deep hole, and humbles us when pride and self-centeredness take hold. And that Divine Love claims us, calls us, catches us, consecrates us, and commissions us.
Yes, now, we are on a mission from God. Now, we are not mere church goers, choir members, ushers, deacons, trustees, or other religious functionaries. Now, we know our mission. We are doers of justice. We are lovers of kindness. We are walking with God.
We’re on a mission from God. It’s a glorious mission with ups and downs, highs and lows, burdens and bruises, victories and setbacks. Some suffer, struggle through unspeakable hardships, and die on that mission. But we aren’t discouraged. The Light who is Love and the Love who is Light and has lived the Mandate has left us a good word. We will see God! We will inherit the earth! We will be comforted! We will receive mercy! We will be called children of God! We will be filled! We are part of the kingdom of heaven! We’re on a mission from God!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.