Fourth Sunday after Epiphany A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The sermon I am preaching this morning is not the sermon I had nearly finished on Friday afternoon. I had a big rant planned for you this morning, but, last night, I decided that it wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth it for me to get upset about what other people say about and how they treat God.
I had a big rant about excuses and our desires to turn God into a happiness dispensing machine that they tap into when they think they need it. God must be kept happy so that God will continue to make them happy. Meanwhile, they don’t actually have to change themselves or their actions. They can keep feeding the machine quarters and hoping God stays appeased enough to ignore them.
But as I continued down that path, and I got angrier and angrier and angrier at everybody else, I couldn’t get back out. It was the most law-filled sermon I’d ever written. It was awful, it was depressing, and worst of all, it was judgemental. My entire argument rested on the fact that I knew better. I understood God better than everyone else. I had God’s ear, and I was not afraid to let everyone know that I had it right. There was not an ounce of grace in that sermon by the time I got to the point that I realized there was no getting out.
And it occurred to me that I was doing exactly what I was arguing against—building my own framework for making God happy without actually confronting any of my own feelings or actions. Generally, I do write sermons that also speak to me and condemn me as much as anyone. But nothing like this.
You see, I read the words of Micah, and I think that those are pretty simple instructions—be just in dealing with other people, be merciful, even to those who don’t deserve it, and always be humble and honest with God. Well I wasn’t very humble. I wasn’t very merciful. Maybe I was a little more just. But I certainly wasn’t honest.
If I’m being honest, I hate reading the Beatitudes. I hate them, because I can’t help but read into them condemnations that aren’t present. It’s like a scorecard.
Maybe I’m poor in spirit, so there’s a point.
I’m not in mourning. I just received a call. No point there.
I’m not always meek. No points.
I feel like I’ve been treated pretty fairly and justly by most people, barring a few emotional exceptions. Maybe a point.
I can be a vindictive man, though I try to show mercy. No points.
I am in no way pure of heart. There is a lot of stain and shame locked up in there. Definitely no points.
I create discord as easily as I make peace. No points.
And, at least, not yet, I don’t feel persecuted. No points.
I read the beatitudes, and I can’t find myself too easily in them. Am I supposed to emulate these qualities? Is this how I make up with God? What if I can’t?
The problem is, by thinking that way, I am repeating the same mistakes that Micah notices in the Israelites. They don’t feel very close to God—or rather, God doesn’t feel very close to them. There’s no question about it—the Israelites screwed up the relationship. They look for their own ways in which to “make it up” to God. But why doesn’t anybody ask God? If I needed a guide to get to God, I would probably start there.
The Beatitudes are often treated like a guide to getting right with God. They are interpreted as guidelines, as models to follow. I don’t think that’s the case. The Beatitudes are not a guide laying out how to connect with God. Instead, they are an explanation for why people connect with God at all.
Read the Beatitudes again:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Only once in the beatitudes are the people doing something—peacemaking. Every other beatitude describes someone in a state in which they need God. Why are the people in these sayings connected to God? Because they have no where else to go. All they have is God, and the simple trust that no matter what else happens to them, God will see them through. With that, I can empathize.
I am my own worst enemy. I will second-guess myself until I’m worried sick about the decisions I’ve made. I have been here in Three Lakes for two weeks, and I’ve already found myself sitting in my office worrying that I’ve said the right things at meetings or on visits. I will beat myself up at night, even after something as silly as announcing the wrong page number, because it makes me feel incompetent.
Much to my surprise, I feel homesick. Not necessarily for a place–I’ve moved 5 times in the last six years–but homesick for people. I miss those to whom I’ve grown close, my friends and colleagues and mentors who have been on this journey with me. Of course, I miss Debbie most of all.
And I harbor some deep flaws of which I am embarrassed, flaws that have at times made me question if God was paying attention when I was formed in the womb and then called me to ministry.
If anyone is persecuting me, it’s me. If anyone is making me poor in spirit, it’s me. If anyone makes me hunger and thirst for righteousness, it’s me. Others have demons on the outside that torture them. I am my own demon. If I had to go through all of this alone, I’d never make it.
The truth is, I need God. I’m not even at a level where I can begin to calculate and work out what I would need to do to make God happy. I’m just hoping God will even talk to me, let me know that I am loved, without looking at my achievements and lack thereof.
Which finally brings me to the good news I should have been hearing right from the beginning. All of those ways in which we try to make God happy? God doesn’t care. God isn’t a heartless scorekeeper marking down merits and demerits while we hope that, in the end, the balance is in our favour. The scales have been replaced with the cross, God’s ultimate attempt at redemption through the simplest, lowliest, most foolish of things.
It’s simple, the cross. Difficult, but simple. Yes, there are things that make God happier than others. That’s true of any and all relationships. But God welcomes us—welcomes me—in our brokenness, a brokenness God knows all too well reflected in the suffering and death on that cross.
There will be time for the rest of the stuff later. Right now, all I can do is trust that God is out here, holding me tightly, reminding me above all else not of duties and obligations and rules, but reminding me above all else that I am loved, and that there is nothing within me or outside of me that will ever change that.
Maybe I can see myself in the beatitudes after all, but not because I want to, or because I’m figured out how. It’s because I have no where else to go but into the arms of God. And I have to trust that before I can even make that choice to start looking, God has already made a choice and will be on the way, bringing near the kingdom of heaven.
So yes, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. But not because you have to. No, actually, yes, do it because you have to, not as a task or a deed, but because you can dare to trust that God will love and embrace you in tears, with all of your demons and misgivings and worries and fears, and you can’t imagine any other way to live in response to that love.
The prelude this morning was a hymn, a beautiful one. If you recognized it, it’s called, “You Are Mine,” and I’ll leave you with its chorus, the Word of God, Word of Life: “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me, I will bring you home; I love you and you are mine.”