A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2023. The lectionary readings are Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12, and Psalm 15.
This week, as we continue to read and hear and see videos and commentary about the Memphis police beating 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, it can sound like that first reading from Micah is directed especially at us– we who live in the United States and either put up with systemic problems, ignore them completely, or throw up our hands in frustration.
But God calls God’s people to account. God says, “I have a controversy with you.” Speak for yourself. Explain yourself. We hear God’s disappointment and almost heartache at having been let down by his people, God’s beloved. In words that return to us again on Good Friday, God asks, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…”
And what are we to say?
But then God seems to make it even more difficult. Saying we’re sorry won’t be enough. Simply offering prayers of penitence or offering works of charity won’t wipe the slate clean. We might contextualize Micah to our day and notice that slogans, protests, or quick fixes aren’t the long-term answers, even though they can get things started. Was the Black Lives Matter movement simply a distraction from a boring spell in Covid? Does a plaque or a prayer around Reparations for slavery follow through in any way for change over time?
For God, anyway, the occasional prayer, vigil, or remembrance service doesn’t quite cut it. “Here is what the Lord requires:” Micah thunders. “. . . to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
In that we live in a world of gerrymandered voting districts and big money politics, we can sometimes wonder how such vacuous leaders end up in power. And while we vote and organize and be persistent, our current situation also means that answers become up close and personal. They will be local, even as we advocate for national and global change.
How do I do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?
In trying to respond to the dismay and sadness this week, after more shootings, violence, and “other news,” the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, issued a pastoral statement. Bishop Curry noted that as Tyre Nichols was being beaten, among the police and the EMT who were present, there was not one person who offered help. Not one Good Samaritan, as Bishop Curry framed it.
In his statement, Bishop Curry goes on to remind us of the Good Samaritan story that Jesus told. How a man is beaten, and people pass him by, ignoring his situation. The priest kept walking. The Levi, the learned man of Jesus’ day, kept moving. But the Samaritan—the one with no power, no social standing, up against all kinds of prejudice himself (as an outsider, as a mixed-race person, as someone who followed another god entirely)—but that Samaritan stopped and helped.
Bishop Curry says, “The fundamental call and vocation of law enforcement officials, and indeed every one of us, is that of the Good Samaritan.” And he goes on to say, “Here is where there is hope: The Good Samaritan in the parable of Jesus was not the last one.”
Bishop Curry points out that those who have moved towards justice in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death are stepped out, spoken out, and offered help– like Good Samaritans. Bishop Curry writes
There are Good Samaritans who are government officials in Memphis who, after assessing what happened, fired the offending officers, charged them with crimes against human life and dignity, and have committed to addressing systemic and cultural issues that created an environment in which this evil was enabled.
There are Good Samaritans doing what is necessary to radically reform the environment and culture of law enforcement—to create an atmosphere in which the dignity and worth of every human being is respected, protected, affirmed, and honored.
There are Good Samaritans in law enforcement, and other first responders, who often work while others sleep, laboring to protect and serve, at times risking their own lives for the neighbor they do not even know.
There are Good Samaritans, people of goodwill and human decency, who are peacefully protesting. There are Good Samaritans who are activists working tirelessly for the realization of communities and countries where there is truly, as the Pledge of Allegiance proclaims, “liberty and justice for all.”
He goes on to say, “While we grieve, we cannot give in or give up. Just throwing up our hands in despair is not an option lest we leave a brother, a sister, a sibling on the side of the road again. No, let more Good Samaritans arise so that Tyre Nichols’ death will not be in vain.” Amen.
Our Gospel reading today is not from the story about the Good Samaritan, but the section of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes.
Some scholars suggest Jesus was laying out the basic standard for admission for any who might follow him. But others suggest that Jesus was preaching in a time during which people really thought the end of the world was coming soon and that such preaching was meant to usher in the Kingdom of God.
But I don’t think Jesus is giving us a formula for bringing in the Kingdom of God. I don’t think he’s laying down criteria for entering the kingdom of God. Instead, I think Jesus is describing the lives of the people he’s teaching and preaching to, and saying that no matter what you’re going through God is there with you. Jesus is reflecting the reality of those around him, blessing them so that they can be a blessing to others.
If Jesus’ words sound crazy, we can look to Paul for a little explanation. Paul tells the Corinthians that “The message about the cross is foolishness to [most of the world] . . ., but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
People thought Jesus was a fool for lots of reasons. Lifting up the poor instead of the rich? Hanging out with sinners instead of the holy-rollers? Talking to women? And not to mention his socio-political theory: how foolish, naïve, inefficient, and idealistic!
Jesus gives us the Beatitudes as a kind of foolishness that has the wisdom of God hidden inside. He offers this list of blessings as invitations, I think, invitations for us to listen and look for God EVERYWHERE, but especially when we’re in a rough spot.
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, . . .
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . .
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
As Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block . . .[many], but to those who are the called, . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
The Church also as a long tradition of a Holy Fool—someone who seems out of their mind, totally bonkers, but serves the role of helping the faithful see deeper truth to their practice and piety.
Early on there were those who sought the silence of the desert of fourth-century Egypt. Their sayings are strange and almost Zen-like and are filled with examples of how they would confuse the sophisticated and side with the ignorant. Later, there was St. Simeon Salos, a sixth-century monk who went into church one Sunday with a handful of nuts. At the beginning of the liturgy, he started throwing them and managed to put out all of the candles. When people tried to catch him, he went up in the pulpit and began throwing nuts at all people. He dressed up in strange clothes, ate sausages in public on Good Friday and did everything he could to question tradition, convention, and propriety.
While we might not be as extreme as some of those Holy Fools, if we follow Jesus in our day, people are probably going to see what we do and what we believe as being foolish. But the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us that the life of faith will always look foolish in the face of worldly ways.
God says we need to be about “justice, kindness, and humility.” What craziness! But what holy wisdom and really, the only way forward for people of faith.
May we risk standing up and speaking out as Good Samaritans, may we be holy fools, and may we know the blessings of God’s indwelling presence so that we can be a blessing for others.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.