Blessing and Justice

Micah 6:1-8    Matthew 5:1-12

January 30, 2011    4th Sunday after Epiphany

“What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Micah simplifies what it means to be a person of faith, a person who chooses to walk the walk.  There are a whole lot of things that may have been layered over these, over the years, but these are the essence of the Christian “how to” book.  When we let this phrase flow over us, it can awaken our hearts and open us in a powerful way, to what God is really about.  Acting justly can be a part of how we operate in the world.  It can be a part of our “business as usual,” but we have to make it so.  We have to be attentive to our choices each and every moment, until justice is so deeply ingrained that we begin to make these choices without such careful attentiveness..  When I reflected on the thought of what it might mean to “love mercy,” certain people came to mind.  There are people who really do love mercy and it shows in how they relate to everyone else.  There is a softness around their edges, and you can almost see them leading with their heart rather than their head in whatever they do.  Kindness comes first in their lexicon, and judgement is not a part of their vocabulary.  “Walking humbly with God,” now what does that look like?  The image that comes to me is that of a person walking beside God, watching God and taking his or her leads from God; but it is more than this.  It is more than being subservient.  I think that walking humbly with God has to do with knowing that every step we take throughout our lives we are either walking with God or we are not.  When we walk with God, then there is an attempt on our part to embody God’s presence in the world all the while knowing full well that we are not God.  And so there is this balance we strike between the glorious feeling of participating in something beyond ourselves, and yet still being ourselves, being who we truly are.

The reading from Matthew, a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, dovetails with Micah beautifully.  In many ways, the Beatitudes carry Micah’s simple statement further, bringing it into clearer view for us so that we can better understand the expansiveness of God’s justice and mercy and the beauty of walking with the divine.  They also bring home the point that what appears to be true to you or me may not necessarily be true to God’s way of thinking or seeing.  Humility in God’s dictionary is quite different from humility in the human dictionary.  I mean, think about it - God Almighty and humility in the same thought?  Micah helps us to recognize the absurdity of trying to give an appropriate response to God when he runs through the list of offerings we might contemplate - burnt calves? A thousand rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? My firstborn child?  No.  No matter what you might be feeling guilty about, none of these offerings is what God wants from you.  What God wants is much simpler and yet it is all-encompassing; it requires that it be given from the heart; to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

Getting that straight, we can maybe hear Jesus speaking to us from the Mount.  Who is blessed?  Who is acceptable?  Not the ones you might think.  Not the ones society approves of, persay.  God judges differently than we - far differently, as we should have already figured out having heard from Micah.  But now things are really stood on their heads.  Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers - all the people we know are so nice.  But who knew that being nice could actually get you anywhere today?  It seems more often that being nice gets you pushed to the back of the line, and gets your paperwork shuffled to the bottom of the pile, under that of the people who are more forceful and demanding of attention.  “Nice guys finish last,” right?  Isn’t this the prevailing wisdom, at least in some circles?  For quite some time, nice guys have been looked upon with some pity and an attitude of superiority.  It is commonly understood, after all, that you have to be tough to succeed in life.  But, as if sensing this, Jesus deals with more than just the quiet folks who can slip by unnoticed; he also talks about those who are persecuted and reviled and spoken against.  Even those who are pushed down and slandered to such an extreme, are seen and known and beloved of God.  We need to take this in.  We need to slow down long enough to really let it soak in, what Jesus is saying here.  He isn’t promising that life will be a bed of roses now or anytime soon; but he is promising that our suffering is not going unnoticed.  He is promising that good is coming, and that God will make up for all of the difficulties our lives have been filled with, everything difficult that we have faced.  This doesn’t mean that we ought to seek out suffering, as some people through the centuries have interpreted it to mean.  It doesn’t mean that we ought to invent forms of suffering for ourselves so that we can reap a reward in heaven, although many have done this as well.  

When Gary and I were in Ireland, we learned that certain Irish monks used to go and stand in the ice cold water of the sea, balanced on a rock, with their arms out as if on a cross, and stand there for hours, sometimes days, attempting to share in the suffering of Christ.  I am not saying that they shouldn’t have done what they did, and I know that some of them claimed they received amazing visions while they were standing out there in the sea, but I don’t think God is asking anything like this of us.  God is simply asking us to be humble, merciful and just; and we can do all three of these things in the course of a normal day.  We don’t have to go out of our way, even.  We just have to be a bit more thoughtful about the way we live our lives, the interactions we have with others, and the priorities we set for ourselves.

This is the true beauty of the beatitudes, that they affirm and honor ordinary people who strive to live honest, faith-filled lives.  People who live in this way inspire others, not with eloquent words or with amazing acts, but with a life that is integrated through and through with qualities that serve to make the world a better place for all people, not just the wealthy or the powerful.  People who live in this way are following in a long line of folks whose faith inspired them to act from their hearts and not just their heads.  From Mary and her Magnificat talking about throwing the haughty down from their thrones, to Hannah who claimed “the bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength,”to Ghandi and Martin Luther King, jr. who sought peaceful reconciliation against enormous violence; there have been people throughout the ages who have lived in accord with God’s values and the divine truths rather than succumbing to contemporary wisdom.  What living in this way takes is time for reflection.  We can’t race off reacting and responding without thinking first and checking in with our hearts to see what is essential and true in a given circumstance.  We need to be in touch with our hearts, because this is where we hear God most clearly.  This is how God speaks to us, reminding us of who we are and what is required of us..  We are blessed, all of us, by being God’s children, beloved children..  We are made in God’s image, and as such, we need to act in this world in such a way that God’s presence can be felt and known by our actions.  We need to care for others, showing mercy and offering up justice, so that God’s love might be experienced through our love.  It is all that is asked of us - justice, mercy and humility - in the love of God.

God, you love mercy, help us to love mercy too.  Help us to act in merciful ways toward all beings.  God, your ways are just.  Help us to be just in our dealings with one another, with the world and with you.  In all of these things, may we remember that we walk with you, throughout our lives.  May we be comforted by your presence and humbled by your mercy.  Amen.

"If you live the life you love, you will receive shelter and blessings. Sometimes the great famine of blessings in and around us derives from the fact that we are not living the life we love; rather, we are living the life that is expected of us. We have fallen out of rhythm with the secret signature and light of our own nature."   - John O'Donohue