January 29, 2017 4th Sunday of Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Matthew 5:1-12
The scriptures that we read today are two of my favorite in the lectionary. The reason why I like this pairing is because they encapsulate so much of what our Judeo-Christianity is about.
Every scripture has time and cultural context. Micah lived in a time when the country of Judah was doing rather well over all but there was a lot of exploitation in business and temple practices. There were a lot of nouveau-riche people in the economy, mostly in Jerusalem, who were showing off their wealth. And priests of the Temple, when people came to give a sin offering, were taking advantage of this by promoting that it was better to sacrifice twice or more of the standard amount to show true contrition. It was sort of like what we went through in the Renaissance with the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences. You could buy your way out of sin without having to change your heart.
Micah slams that practice so beautifully by naming those rivers of oil, and rams, and calves, and then saying that in the end they are all worthless before the Lord, because all God really wants is for us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Basically that’s it. Oh, He’s not going to turn down those sin offerings. He’s not going to turn down our confessions and our prayers. He will accept and listen to each of them, because our connection to Him is very important. But our only job in this world is to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And if we walk with God then God will walk with us. But we’ve got get on with it and be walking with God!
About three hundred years later along comes Jesus. And one of his intentions was to teach us how to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And today we read the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which very much outlines Jesus’ message of how to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God in chapters 5, 6 & 7.
But Jesus doesn’t start by saying what we should and shouldn’t do. He starts by blessing the crowd. But when we read these blessings we need to a little careful as to how we interpret them. A lot of people read them as cause/effect statements. In other words, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he isn’t saying that you are blessed with the kingdom of heaven because you are poor in spirit or that you are blessed with comfort because you are in mourning.
What Jesus is doing here is pronouncing a blessing on the people who have come to hear him teach. And he is blessing them so that they will think differently about the way the world works. In Jesus’ teaching he is describing how we are to live as God’s people in this world and he’s saying right off the bat that because we are God’s children, no matter what our condition is, that we are blessed.
Even though Jesus starts out his sermon by saying that we are blessed we need to remember that blessings flow two ways.
Many of you have heard me say that one way to start a connection with God is to remember our blessings. I don’t like the phrase count your blessings because I feel like it’s too much of a quantifier of blessings. As if: You have a lot of little blessings they are somehow equal to or better than a few big blessings. I believe that all blessings are important. A blessing that seems like a small blessing now might turn out to be a HUGE blessing down the road. So I like to say instead: remember your blessings and say thank you for them.
But even when we remember our blessings we usually only think about the blessings that we receive, not the blessings that we give. I actually think that they go hand-in-hand with each other because often the blessings that we give become the blessings that we receive later on. What’s the verse 11:1 from Ecclesiastes? Cast your bread on the water and it will come back. I don’t think we should deliberately look for it, but often blessings do come back in another form.
Receiving blessings can sometimes be hard to do. I love doing favors for people, but sometimes it is very hard for me to accept help when it is offered, or ask for help when I need it. Often my initial reaction is to resist. You know the, “Oh, I don’t want to impose on you.” When that happens I often need to remind myself that by accepting or asking for someone’s blessing I am allowing them to give me a blessing – so then we are both blessed. Besides, why should I hog all the fun and be the only person who gives blessings?
Blessings can be found in so many places. We can be blessed by having a house to live in, but we are also blessed by the places that we have access to. If you think about it public parks are also part of our living space. I can go out and enjoy the Sharon Green just as easily as I enjoy my living room. Think of all the beautiful trails we have in this area to walk around in, and all the free knowledge I have access to through our library system.
We are also blessed by the people around us. Yes, sometimes people can be difficult, but for the most part we can learn and grow from them even if we do find it difficult to sometimes love them.
A place that we all have that is a living space, a learning space, and a people space is a church. Our church is a blessing. It’s a place to come and to rest your weary mind. It is a place to be built up spiritually. It is a place to find hope. It is a space to use for everything from a Bible Study, to an AA meeting, to a knitting group. But most importantly it is a place to build, form, and sustain disciples.
A lot of research has been done over the years, both religious and secular, centered on the action of giving and receiving. It has been found that generous givers are typically more spiritually vigorous and happier than those who are not generous. This extends beyond giving money to the church, so that it can continue as both a spiritual entity and as a community place. We give to the church not just because it is the right thing to do and we want to maintain this building, but because in our hearts we believe that what we do here not only uplifts and strengthens ourselves but also is a mission to uplift and strengthen others; both those who our beyond our community doors as well as those in our community.
Think back to Micah. His disgust wasn’t about the offerings – it was about the spirit of the offerings. The fact that all those people thought they could offer lots of stuff to the priests, and that would ensure God’s blessing in return. But actually if they had changed their hearts and walked with God then they could have used all the extra oil, rams, and calves to help their neighbors who were in distress.
Think forward to Jesus, who is telling all of us that we are blessed already. We are blessed even if we don’t feel spiritually worthy; or are mourning a loved one; or are caught up in a struggle to do the right thing; or have no political or social power; or are trying to be charitable; or we just don’t have the ability to ward off the hurt in life; or we try to make peace in a world in conflict.
Think of that – We Are Blessed Already. And the big thing that Jesus is trying to do is to create our lives so that we share our blessings with each other. Whether it is our time, our money, or our expertise; our job is to share our blessings with others.
So I challenge you to accept Jesus and God’s invitation to give and receive generously. Remember and recognize your blessings. Thank God for them. Look for ways that you can give as well. And then thank God for those opportunities in your life. As you receive and give, and give and receive, you will be strengthened as a disciple, you will live with abundant blessings, and your connection with God will multiply and grow.
And we will all be able to rejoice and be glad, for not only will our reward be great in heaven, but also here as we live with our blessings below.