4 Epiphany A—1/29/17
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Pr. Scott Kramer
As you know, after worship this morning we will hold our congregation’s annual meeting for 2017. Likewise, on May 20th, Lutheran congregations from around Western Washington will come together for what we call Synod Assembly. These two gatherings are often described as the church’s annual “business meetings.”
What would you say is the church’s “business?” Some of us might talk about budgets, balance sheets–dollars and cents. Others might point to building maintenance. Still others might speak of grounds upkeep. And certainly, stewardship of resources is not only an opportunity but an unavoidable part of being a brick-and-mortar institution, as churches tend to be.
But how about you? What would you say is the church’s business? The prophet Micah has an answer: God 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.
When you and I think of justice we probably think of fairness, or maybe, being held accountable to human laws. But this is not what Micah is speaking of. When the prophets speak of justice, they mean accountability not to human laws but to God’s law. Specifically, “justice” in the Bible refers to the behavior of a people that protects not the rich and the powerful but the poor and the vulnerable. God 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.
The national legislative priorities of the past week suggest that we as a people—we as a nation–seem to have forgotten the law of God. Or, as Pr. Priscilla put it in no uncertain terms last Sunday, we are now seeing more clearly who we as a people have always been: a nation whose first priority is defending the white and the rich and the male and the straight and the powerful: “If you vote against us in the United Nations, expect to be punished.” “If you don’t pay for our border wall, expect to be punished.” “If you’re a veteran, or a senior, or poor, or immigrant, or refugee, or unemployed, or poor, or in poor health, don’t count on anything more than token help.” If you’re rich, on the other hand, the Dow is over 20,000–let the orgy begin!
Some of you might remember the 1998 romantic comedy film You’ve Got Mail. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are two business rivals who unwittingly develop an online relationship. Eventually, they discover who the other person is after Tom Hanks, representing the more powerful company, forces his smaller rival to close. But he defends his company’s actions this way: He says, The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question… And the answer to the question is…You’re at war. ‘It’s not personal, it’s business. It’s not personal, it’s business.’ Recite that to yourself every time you feel you’re losing your nerve…Fight. Fight to the death!
It’s a perspective at least a little bit at odds with what Jesus teaches: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers. And if you do all this, Jesus implies, the chances are excellent that you will be persecuted. But, blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake!
What exactly is the business of the church? Many people—both church-going and non-church-going–are convinced that gospel values are just not practical in what we call the “real world.” When they hear, “Blessed are the meek,” they hear, “Blessed are the weak”—and who really believes that? When they hear, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” they hear, “But only if they carry a gun.” Because, as Tom Hanks’ character put it, ‘It’s not personal; it’s business.’ “We have to be practical about these things, and if that means that we as a nation need to be the world’s bully, if people get hurt along the way then so be it.” It’s survival of the fittest. The law of the jungle. Looking out for Number One.
But as Micah puts it, the Lord has a controversy with his people…
I just finished a fine book of essays by Pope Francis called The Church of Mercy, a title that picks up on one of Jesus’ Beatitudes: Blessed are the merciful. Back in 2013, Pope Francis addressed world church leaders gathered in Brazil for World Youth Day. Here’s an excerpt of his message: In many places, generally speaking, due to the economic humanism that has been imposed in the world, the culture of exclusion, of rejection, is spreading. There is no place for the elderly or for the unwanted child; there is no time for that poor person in the street. At times, it seems that for some people, human relations are regulated by two modern “dogmas”: efficiency and pragmatism.
What is the business of the church? “Efficiency” and “pragmatism”? St. Paul has a different take in his letter to the church in Corinth: The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?…For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
A life that ends on a cross doesn’t seem very “pragmatic!” Doesn’t seem like an “efficient” way to win people over to the power of God’s love. But friends, the answer to the question “What is the Church’s Business?” has only one answer: the business of the Church is love. Everything we do and say is measured against God’s love for us and for all people and for all creation. We who claim the name of Christ are the flesh-and-blood embodiment of that courageous, dangerous, powerful, foolish love through our lives and actions in the world. We remember that love is the hardest work there is.
Today is Reconciling-in-Christ Sunday, a chance once again to remember the business of the church. We affirm our commitment as a congregation and as individuals to the dignity and safety of the LGBTQ community, and to all people whose regular experience is hatred, discrimination, neglect and persecution. For disciples of Jesus whose business is love, the love of God cannot help but be poured out beyond these walls through our lives because the business of love, toward those we know as well as those we will never meet, is always personal.