Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – January 29, 2017
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; I Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
The biblical tradition is always counter-cultural in spirit. It agitates the comfortable, whether conservative or progressive, by challenging our lifestyles and assumptions. And, conversely, as the saying goes, it also comforts the agitated, those at the margins of life, those with their backs against the wall, or struggling with debilitating life issues. Today’s scriptures abound in relational and political reversals, and this is good. While few moderate and progressive congregations emphasize the “prosperity gospel,” God’s reward of the faithful with health, wealth, and success in life, we implicitly reap the benefits of a society weighted toward the “haves” rather than the “have-nots” and we also connect, at least implicitly, prosperity and entitlement , and poverty and inferiority – “welfare parents” are screened for drug use and the working poor have to argue for living wages, while the rich and famous’ lifestyle of consumerism, greed, and debauchery is rewarded by tax breaks and corporate welfare. Any spiritual tradition that claims that the “last will be first” or sacrifice is essential to reality will be countercultural in a world in “more” is always better.
Speaking to the elite and powerful of the nation – to the equivalent of chairs of Exxon/Mobile, Citibank, and the President and his cabinet – God expresses his grievances. Beautiful houses of worship, well-crafted liturgies, and gifts to the coffers of religious institutions are commended. But, such signs of our largesse matter only if we take justice seriously. “What does God want from us but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?’ God reminds us that our generosity is problematic – and spiritually destructive – if it is grounded in widening the gap between rich and poor, violent economic and social structures, and a sense of entitlement. Everything comes from God. Our wealth emerges from divine creativity and never fully our own efforts. Power and wealth may depend to a degree on creativity and initiative but it also depends on the efforts of workers, the incomes of consumers, and ecosystems that undergird social order.
Humility is a requirement in an interdependent universe.
Psalm 15 connects a healthy relationship with God with honest and fair economic and interpersonal relationships. Whether in politics, business, or personal life, dishonesty – fake news and exaggerated bloviating – separate us from God and one another. This is obvious in America today, where people operate according to very different sets of facts and dissembling is the norm on social media. Our violation of trust – in the micro and the macro – alienates from our neighbor, but even worse from divine wisdom.
Paul’s words to the Christians at Corinth also have a countercultural tone. The cross is foolishness to politician and prelate alike. To those whose place in the social order depends on wealth and power – on domination – a God who wins through sacrifice is foolishness. A God who suffers is unworthy to be called God. Yet, we preach, Paul says, Christ crucified – the powerless, suffering God, pushed to the margins by human greed and power. To those who want to re-establish America as a “Christian nation,” Paul’s words are foolishness. Paul’s words suggest that although in our time, we should affirm our values as followers of Jesus, our Christian values are not to be used as battering ram stifling dissent, excommunicating diverse voices, dominating the social order or marketplace of ideas. God does not seek dominance, but relationship, and relationship always involves sacrifice, letting go of our agenda and security – our time, talent, and treasure – for a greater good. The sacrificial God – nailed to the Cross – challenges images of a “Second Coming” in which God’s primary work is destructive, and God’s people escape tribulation by supernatural “rapture.” Suffering love is at the heart of fidelity, whether it is God’s or our own, and this is always contrary to the norms of theology, economics, and politics.
The Beatitudes of Jesus are equally countercultural. The blessed ones know their dependence. They know that their morality and spirituality is lived out “one moment at a time” and is tenuous at best. They know the Grace of Interdependence, that receiving and giving, accepting and sacrificing, are at the heart of reality. The blessed ones are not “self-made” nor do they boast of their success or the rightness of their beliefs in tweets and press release. They realize that healthy spirituality – healthy self-affirmation – is a gift of God whose love undergirds their own efforts and achievements. The way of sacrificial love may lead to persecution – or misunderstanding – but it is God’s way, the pathway of unity and justice, of compassionate identification with the suffering of the world.
This week, we ponder an interdependent, humble, compassionate, and sacrificial gospel. The model of the cross – of letting go to transform the world – is countercultural but it is the path of healing for persons, congregations, communities, nations, and the planet.