Ever since the First Sunday in Advent, our scripture readings have been asking, and Jared and I have been articulating, one question: What is God doing now? Beginning today and continuing every Sunday until the beginning of Lent, they ask a different question: How are we responding now?
Today, Micah asks us that question, directly and harshly: "O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!" Through this prophet God then goes on to make a list â€” a partial list â€” and all God has done for them and then, on the basis of all God has done for us demands a response: "What does the LORD require of you?" and quickly responds with an immediate and, for many, a somewhat nebulous answer: "love justice, do kindness and walk humbly with your God."
As he begins his well-known "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus poses the question differently. He begins, not by making a list of all God has done, but by telling his harassed and skittish hearers how God thinks of them and what God is giving them. They are, Jesus tells them, we are, Jesus tells us, "Blessed;" and God has already given
"the kingdom of heaven" to us. This week, Jesus also leaves the way we respond somewhat nebulous, but in the rest of his sermon in weeks ahead, Jesus will flesh out an appropriate response in great detail.
What is God doing now? How are we responding now?
Here at Saint Peter's, for nearly twenty years now, we have had a simple answer to each of those questions. God, we say, is "nourishing us" â€” that's what God is doing; and our response, admittedly nebulous, is to commit ourselves to "creatively shape life in the city."
What is God doing now? How are we responding now?
I trust you see the pattern here; the shape, the design used over and over again by the prophets in their day and Jesus in his day and us in these "gray and latter days" the poet so aptly described. What is God doing now? How are we responding now? That order and those words are important.
Micah's words provide the greatest clarity. Burnt
offerings, first born calves, thousands of rams and rivers of oil â€” attempts to appease God, to entice God to act are faithless acts because God needs neither appeasing nor enticing; God acts first, and out of love; and our task, our calling in response to God's love is, as we are reading and hearing in our Wednesday study group, is to love like God â€” love justice, do kindness and walk humbly" as God in Christ walked and talked and served humbly. God acts. We respond. It can never be the other way around.
And then there's that little word "now." What is God doing now? How are we responding now?
It's not good enough and it's seldom useful for us to speak about God acting only in the past. To paraphrase an old spiritual, that was not good enough for Micah, not good enough for Jesus and not good enough for me. They spoke about God acting now and, in order for us to be faithful, so must we. That's why the Eucharist and the way we celebrate it for our nourishment is so essential.
For in the Eucharist every event, every act of God for us, is happening to us now. Listen to the
words: through the water. By night and day; across the wilderness; out of exile; into the future. Near to those who suffer. Beside the sinner; among the poor; with us now. From the first Passover in Egypt to the "night before he was betrayed" to the heavenly feast with all the saints, all of that is happening now for us. God acting for us, now, not just in Bible times, not just in the past is crucial for our faith and essential for our faithful response.
This is important as we listen to Jesus speak of "the kingdom of heaven" in Matthew's Gospel because, for too many people, "kingdom of heaven" is what will happen after we die and has little to do with life now. Nothing could be further from the truth. Matthew writes as a pious Jew trying to keep the Second Commandment. Until Gentile Mark and Luke, Matthew won't any word that refers to God lest he take God's name in vain. So Matthew uses "heaven" in pious substitute and still affirms what the others affirm that the kingdom of heaven is among us now and its inclusive ethics are meant to be practice now "on earth as in heaven" as Jesus taught us to pray.
"Creatively shaping life in the city"; "the kingdom
of heaven is yours"; and "love justice, do kindness and walk humbly with your God" may still seem too nebulous, too subtle to be useful to us today. And in the days in which we are now living, "subtle" and "nebulous" are not enough. Today, amidst the deepening fog of threat and innuendo and "alternative fact," we need clarity from God, from God's prophets, from Jesus and from each other. So let's demand that clarity. Let's strive to be less subtle and more blatant; less nebulous and more obvious about how we are responding to God's ongoing acts of love for us; about what the Lord requires of us; about what living as if we are already in "the kingdom of heaven" "on earth as in heaven" demands of us; and about what "creatively shaping life in the city" means for us and our lives and the church and the city and the world we believe God loves and the people, all the people, we believe God loves.
What does the Lord require of us? These days demand clarity. And so it is, I believe, no coincidence that, over these next several weeks, Jesus will provide us that clarity in the teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount. The task God has placed before us, the cost of our
discipleship will, it seems, be very great in the years ahead and we may not feel up to it. And so I believe it is also no coincidence that Saint Paul summons us to daily ministry with words that take our calling and our liabilities with the greatest of seriousness. Paul writes,
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
Unless I miss my guess, we'll have a lot of such boasting to do.